Here’s an entry you won’t find in any of the journals and notebooks of Susan Sontag:
10/3/65: Finally saw The Sound of Music. Delightful. Afterwards, went north, walked the leaf-strewn bluffs above the Hudson near Croton. Returned in evening to watch football game on TV. Listened to Mantovani’s Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies, then, after washing hair, made a feeble attempt at finishing The Carpetbaggers. Got sleepy. Brunch with Rod McKuen set for Saturday. So handsome.
Perhaps in another universe another Susan Sontag might have put such words to paper, but not here, not on this planet, where the author of As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (and much else) spent an often tumultuous three score and 11 years before dying of leukemia in 2004.
Our Susan Sontag, of course, would never have found the Julie Andrews musical to her liking. But a Godard film? Yummy-nums. She was a hard-core big-city girl, largely indifferent to nature and weather. Sports were of no interest, same with television; in fact, in As Consciousness, “football games” are singled out as a major “dislike.” Music-wise, she was a Wagnerian who could admit a fondness for the Supremes, the Beatles and Patti Smith. But Mantovani? Tchaikovsky? Forget it. Pornography was no anathema but it had to be the arty, European kind, Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille, de Sade, not Harold Robbins.
As for poets, she inclined to the heaviest of the heavies (Joseph Brodsky was a close friend and confidant). And while she had numerous male consorts – marrying, in fact, at 17, a man 11 years her senior, birthing her only child at 19 – her most passionate attachments were to women, her last great love being Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz. Oh yes: She hated washing her hair. And taking showers.
Susan Sontag was, in short, interesting. Possessed of, in her words, “a fabulous, cosmic, voyaging mind” too fine to be violated by a banality, the life and career were the very model of the major public intellectual. But one of the effects of reading this, the second of three volumes of journals edited by her son, writer David Rieff, is that it leaves one hankering for a goofier, less analytical and more spontaneous, even (yes!) banal Sontag.
Instead, the journals and notebooks – the first volume, Reborn, published in 2008, spanned Sontag’s 14th and 30th birthdays – are a testament to what she calls her “Protestant-Jewish demand for unremitting seriousness.” Indeed, in tone and content, they’re very much of a piece with what Sontag was producing for public consumption at that time, including the famous essay collections Against Interpretation and Under the Sign of Saturn, the groundbreaking study On Photography and various forays into fictioneering and filmmaking.
So there are lists (of books to read, films seen and to see, topics to be researched, itineraries, records played and to be bought), outlines for projects, quotations, aphorisms (hers and others), observations extended and brief, odd formulae (“Utopia = death”; “The quotation < > the trip”) and unintentionally funny (I think) rhetorical questions: “Do I resent not being a genius?”
Unsurprisingly, the volume is festooned with references to famous friends and acquaintances including the aforementioned Brodsky, William Burroughs, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Peter Brook, as well as Joyce Carol Oates, Roland Barthes and Jasper Johns. (My one big wish for the book is that Rieff had included a dramatis personae at its start.) But for all their plenitude, there aren’t as many as you might expect (or wish for) and rarely are these friends presented as much more than grist for Sontag’s mill of ideas. (“I’ve got this thing – my mind. It gets bigger, its appetite is insatiable,” she writes in 1966. Another time she speaks of encouraging “pedagogic relationships … to create a company of peers for myself.”)
This impersonality – the sense of being at once present and at a remove – also is evident in Sontag’s representations of her personal/romantic life. If there was a bête noire in Sontag’s realm, it has to have been her mother, the widowed Mildred, who by most accounts was beautiful (like her daughter), difficult (ditto), frequently absent and not especially loving. Sontag rails at Mommy Undearest again and again in these pages (1964: “She hid her happiness, challenged me to make her happy – if I could” ) but as with her accounts of her pals, Mildred is felt more as idea and fearful force field than fully fleshed human being. “I was my mother’s iron lung. I was my mother’s mother.”
Romantically, Sontag seems to have loved hard, intensely and often, with great physical gusto but, finally, little happiness. By far the most painful pages in As Consciousness is Harnessed are the 30 or 40 Sontag devotes to her obsessive love for one Carlotta del Pezzo, an aristocratic Italian with a taste for heroin. While the relationship, dating to 1970, appears to have lasted no more than 10 months, its ups and downs drive Sontag to the breaking point and to her journals, where she engages in lengthy, fiercely worded bouts of self-punishment. (“God help me – help me – to stop loving her if she doesn’t love me any more.”) As with Mildred, Carlotta is a vividly rendered source of pain and recrimination, but as an individuated woman? Not so much.
Concomitant with this penchant for self-punishment is a fancy for self-improvement. The journals are littered with admonitions and exhortations, my favourite being STOP HECTORING, from May, 1978, tucked between an observation about the Italian Futurists and a jot about Elias Canetti.
Yet for all its bulk and range, the book is not terribly revealing. Diagnosed, for instance, with stage-four breast cancer in 1974, Sontag spent the next three years receiving chemotherapy and radiation – a major diaristic moment if there was one. But there’s nary a reference to it here even as the disease and its treatment were generating one of her finest extended essays, 1978’s Illness as Metaphor. Indeed, Sontag seems not to have been an unreconstructed devotee of the journal form; while the entries for, say, 1965 clock in at more than 100 pages, the ones from 1968, 1969 and 1979 are, respectively, only 19, two and 21 pages in extent.
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is not going to result in any major re-evaluation of Sontag, up or down, nor is anyone likely to claim that the journals, for all their Sapphic frankness, represent the benchmark by which Sontag must be measured from here on. It’s the work she wrote and saw published while she was alive that continues to count most.
James Adams is an arts writer with The Globe and Mail.