Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963. David Rieff, ed. (FSG, 2008)
It's hard to imagine Susan Sontag as a young girl, as someone other than the daunting woman with the stern, brooding pose we’re familiar with from her dust-jacket photographs. Maralyn Lois Polak’s conception of Sontag as goddess Athena seems right: a woman bursting into the world full-grown and, as the myth goes, armed to the teeth. Reborn, the first of three volumes of Sontag’s journals planned by her son David Rieff, covers Sontag’s formal education and early writing. We follow her to Berkeley for a semester in 1949, then on to the University of Chicago (where she met and married Philip Rieff in 1950), and finally to various graduate programs at the University of Connecticut, Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. The book ends with the publication of her first novel The Benefactor in 1963, the year before her Partisan Review essay “Notes on Camp” would make her famous.
Many of the journal entries confirm the notion that Sontag always had an adult brain, even when it was trapped inside a child’s body. At fourteen, in an earnest list she entitled “I Believe,” she concluded that there is no “personal god” and that “the only difference between human beings is intelligence.” Later, she jots down: “Deciding about god. Palm Springs.” Surely many teenagers write such things in their diaries, but Sontag’s proclamations seem binding, settled in the same way that she would later resolve contentious intellectual arguments in a single sentence. Pronouncements build as she ages, so that by her late twenties, she confidently asserts such likely Sontagisms as “there is an elect, an elite” and that “weakness is a contagion, strong people rightly shun the weak.”
In the preface, Rieff makes much of the idea of rebirth, of Sontag's childhood and adolescence as the backdrop for a willful recreation that yielded his mother. Sontag writes in several entries that she feels “reborn,” both when, at sixteen, she discovers sensual stirrings for other women and at epiphanic moments of intellectual discovery. Adolescence therefore was simply to be endured, a time she used to plan her escape from the deserts of Arizona and California to the cosmopolitan world she would soon inhabit in New York. Whereas most New Yorkers go to the desert to die, Sontag took the opposite route, traveling east to be born.
It is a familiar and popular American story, a tale we want to be true. It’s how Jimmy Gatz became Jay Gatsby, or how Lionel Trilling became Lionel Trilling. Before Susan Sontag was Susan Sontag, she was someone else. She was Sue. And then Sue died somewhere between Tucson and New York. What’s so compelling about these early journals, however, is not that they conform to this familiar story—the sloughing off of one personality for another—but that they confirm what we also know: that we can never build a singular or ideal self. And that the past is always a part of the present.
And so Sontag’s memories of childhood offer a guide to her early adulthood. Midway through the collection we get a charming list of Sontag’s early memories, which paints young Sue as equal parts oddball outlier and all-American gal. She links together such memories as: “The North Hollywood High School pennant on the wall of my room,” “Sitting on Gramp’s bed Sunday morning…” and “Peter Haidu putting his hand on my thigh under the water (age fourteen).” Like so many of us, she remembers being “No good at algebra.” Yet other memories are wonderfully off-kilter, as when she lists as formative: “Putting my hand in dog shit under the bushes. (Summer in L.I.),” or “Being caught at the Pickwick Bookstore for stealing Doctor Faustus.”
The journals dispel the myth that Sontag possessed unquestioned self-confidence, which her writing exudes, and which famously repelled many of her contemporaries. We see the other Susan Sontag, not a former personality shed in youth, but a personality contemporary and often at war with the woman, the image, the idea, that she so desperately wants to be. She confesses being unsure of her tastes, convinced that she is provincial or square, and even afraid to tell her friends if she liked a movie or not. We imagine her digging pen to paper when she writes: “Remember, my ignorance is not [underlined twice in the journal] charming.” She writes: “You are not a good person,” and reminds herself to repeat the sentiment twenty times a day.
Reading Sontag’s constant self-flagellation threatens to become onerous, but its sheer mass and needling exactitude generates sympathy. It could not have been easy to live with such expectations. She writes list after list highlighting her bad habits, a menagerie of follies from uncleanliness to laziness to lying. These lists culminate in the most startling and incisive appraisal in the book: “The ‘real me,’ the lifeless one. The one I flee, partly, in being with other people. The slug. The one that sleeps and when awake is continually hungry. The one that doesn’t like to bathe or swim and can’t dance. The one that goes to the movies. The one that bites her nails. Call her Sue.” Sue is from Tucson, and she likes going to the movies and to sleep late on Saturdays.
It is both as Susan and Sue that Sontag confronts the major issues of her early adult life: a failed marriage, several exuberant but wrenching sexual relationships with women, and the raising of her son. Sontag’s writing in these areas is fascinating and Rieff deftly arranges the journal entries, mixing the banal and the illuminating to inject the proceedings with a unique feeling of mystery and drama. The diaries offer interesting trivia: about the books Sontag wanted to buy, or the bars she went to in Berkeley. And they offer the glow of the literati as well. We see Sontag snooping through her lovers’ diaries, meeting Allen Ginsberg, and confessing to spending a loathsome evening with Allan Bloom.
But it's the question of self that finally dominates, and makes sifting through these entries especially worthwhile. In a rare moment of humor, Sontag muses how she might respond to the incredulous questioning of her great-grandchildren that she once had feelings. “Yeh. It was a disease I acquired in my early adolescence. But I got over it.” Sontag’s own words shatter the romantic ideas of rebirth. Humans are not butterflies, but always caterpillars. Just as adolescence and “having feelings” cannot be gotten over, neither can a person ever really be born again.
Crouch is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker's Book Bench blog and lives in New York.