Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963
By Susan Sontag
Edited by David Rieff
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 318 pp., $24)
It is somehow appropriate that the voice of deep and anguished ambivalence that you hear at the beginning of Susan Sontag's early journals and notebooks does not belong to Susan Sontag. Self-doubt, after all, was not a quality you generally associated with her. From the moment she burst onto the literary scene nearly fifty years ago, with the publication of the essays subsequently collected as Against Interpretation--a cultural-critical Athena, armored with a vast erudition, bristling with epigrams--Sontag exhibited a preternatural self-assurance in matters of art and culture, an unwavering belief in her own judgments and tastes that, as these early private papers now make clear, she possessed already in her early teens. (The first of a projected three volumes of Sontag's journals, this one takes her to the age of thirty; fully one-third of it is a record of her teenaged years.)
The embarrassment with which Reborn begins belongs, rather, to her son, the writer David Rieff, who edited his mother's journals. In a moving preface, Rieff describes how he uneasily consented to publish this "raw" and "unvarnished" sampling of Sontag's adolescent effusions about life and early perceptions about art. Throughout his short introduction he shows a marked queasiness about "the literary dangers and moral hazards of such an enterprise. " The anxiety stems from two sources, of which the first was ethical and, so to speak, generic: although his mother, in one of her final illnesses, was anxious for him to know where the journals were kept, there was no indication that Sontag would have wanted the contents of these papers to be made public. "The diaries," Rieff notes, "were written solely for herself ... She had never permitted a line from them to be published, nor, unlike some diarists, did she read from them to friends."
Rieff's second scruple, more personal and more revealing, suggests the reason for the first:
To say that these diaries are self-revelatory is a drastic
understatement. ... One of the principal dilemmas in all this
has been that, at least in her later life, my mother was not
in any way a self-revealing person. In particular, she avoided
to the extent that she could, without denying it, any discus-
sion of her own homosexuality or any acknowledgment of her
Sex and ambition are, of course, the reason that many people read the private journals of public figures--all the more so in the case of deceased celebrities who went to some trouble to maintain the high polish of their public personae. In Sontag's case, the inevitable interest in the raw passions corresponding to "homosexuality" and "ambition" is bound to be strong, because Sontag's persona seemed designed to quash interest in precisely those two things. On the one hand, there was the famous reticence about her lesbianism, despite the fact that it was, as she awkwardly admitted late in life, an "open secret." On the other, there was the cool Artemis-like glamour (that silver streak), the sense she projected of being a high priestess of high culture--a sense heightened by her penchant for gnomic utterances: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art"; "New York: all sensuality is converted to sexuality"; and so on. All of this conferred upon her an aura of intellectual invulnerability, of an authority that, rather than having been earned, or having evolved, she somehow had always possessed complete.
It is unlikely that the strangely scattered document that has resulted from Rieff's editing will satisfy readers motivated by prurience. (This volume has a jittery, disjointed feel, and it is not clear whether this is how the journals were written or if the published version of them was shaped to accord with Sontag's trademarked aphoristic style.) What's fascinating--and, in the end, deeply revealing--is that the journal reveals an adolescent and, later, a young woman, in whom "ambition"--in this case, an overpowering yearning to be surrounded by and immersed in literature and culture--vastly outweighed, and seems ultimately to have overpowered, "sexuality." That disproportion explains a great deal about the strange career--its achievements and its failures--of a writer who, as her son wrenchingly writes, "was as uncomfortable with her body as she was serene about her mind." Or for whom, as she herself puts it in the last entry of this journal, "intellectual wanting" was the equal of "sexual wanting."
The erotic element about which David Rieff worries in his preface is, indeed, the least memorable part of Sontag's private writings, at least in this first volume. There is, to be sure, a good deal of emoting, particularly in the early entries, which are dominated by the usual sorts of adolescent anxieties. "How easy it would be to convince myself of the plausibility of my parents' life!" she writes in 1947, at the age of fourteen, already showing the impatience with the petit-bourgeois assimilated Jewish-American background into which she was born, and at which she would never look back--the impatience that would later drive her to Berkeley, then to the University of Chicago, and then to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. "I am in love with being in love!" she writes the next year, in one of the many girlish effusions about her already precocious erotic life that are sprinkled through the journals. (She understood that she was a lesbian very early on, and started having serious affairs as a teenager.)
Much of the material about the diarist's sentimental life constitutes a fairly typical Bildungsgeschichte, the record of a young person's initiation into the mysteries of adulthood. The only real surprise here is that, intriguingly for a woman of her class, culture (provincial: she grew up in Arizona), and era (she was born in 1933), Sontag did not express a great deal of anguish about homosexuality itself. The pain that she records in these pages is the pain that comes with any love affair--this journal chronicles two major lesbian relationships--but the insights are no more illuminating, finally, than the confidences to be found in any number of such documents, straight or gay. ("Lesson: not to surrender one's heart when it's not wanted.") This is true, too, I think, of the more explicit ruminations about sex itself, which are both infrequent and wholly conventional. ("Fucking vs. being fucked. The deeper experience--more gone--is being fucked.")
What you do want--what would, perhaps, be illuminating about Sontag's hitherto hidden emotional life--you don't get, at least in the text that has been published. There is almost no comment whatsoever on a notorious enigma of Sontag's early biography: her engagement, at the age of sixteen, to the sociologist Philip Rieff after a ten-day acquaintance--a decision about which this journal's near-total silence may, in the end, be more eloquent than words. As for the aftermath of that bizarre decision, there is much here about a bad marriage that, pace Tolstoy, seems to have been a lot like many other bad marriages, although Sontag can bring to her account of its collapse the same crisp intelligence that would make her criticism so satisfying. "Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor," she wrote in 1956, after nine years with Rieff. "It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies." She left Rieff in 1957.
So the sex is not that good. That leaves the ambition. That Sontag--the critic who emerged in the early 1960s as a Wildean champion of style wherever it could be found (camp, Godard, theater, "happenings," science fiction movies, pornography), only to evolve, as a literary critic, in her middle and later years, into a tireless champion of a great number of (often neglected or overlooked) male European novelists--was completely omnivorous and always hungry for something new was something you understood from the work itself. What the early journals reveal, and what ends up being far more moving than the material that is ostensibly about her emotional life, is the intensity and the scope of a remarkable intellectual ambition that was present from the start: the astonishing avidity for culture, for aesthetic stimulation, that more than anything mark Sontag as a writer and a public figure. (Members of a certain generation of writers can invariably recall the play, or opera, or ballet, or opening, or reading at which they first saw Sontag: she seemed to be everywhere. ) At the age of fifteen she already had an unwavering conviction of what she wanted to do and where she needed to be: "I want to write--I want to live in an intellectual atmosphere.... I want to live in a cultural center." And then, later: "I intend to do everything."
Much of Reborn--and, according to Rieff's occasional interpolated commentaries, a great deal more of the original documents--consists simply of lists of, well, "everything": books that the voracious Sontag was determined to read, movies she had to see, poets and playwrights she had to know. An entry from 1948, when she was fifteen, looks like this:
poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heine, Pushkin,
Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire
plays of Synge, O'Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman
In an italicized note to this passage, Rieff indicates that the list goes on for another five pages in the original.
As the years pass and the journal continues, this particular passion, at least, never abates. What strikes you is how you encounter less and less the kind of emotions most people confide to their diaries--tenderness, vulnerability, and so on. A list that is genuinely affecting, because it gives a rare glimpse of that kind of awkward vulnerability, is the one that the young woman drew up before her first trip to Paris in 1957, which reveals how nervously the already deeply francophile writer studied for her transatlantic debut:
cafe creme--white coffee after dinner
cafe au lait--breakfast coffee
une fine (brandy)
un Pernod (as many Pernods as colas in the U.S.)
But the outsized cultural avidity, the literary ambition to which these pages bear witness, seems eventually to have occluded the more tender feelings. (Not the least of these was the maternal. It cannot have been easy for Rieff to come across lines such as these: "I hardly ever dream of David, and don't think of him much. He has made few inroads on my fantasy-life." Most editors are not called upon for, and do not demonstrate, such probity.)
Indeed, there is a strange, sometimes even shocking froideur in evidence here about subjects that most of us find hot: it is startling to grasp the extent to which Sontag brought to her own life the chilly assessing gaze that made her such a brilliant critic, such an expert looker. There is a remarkable passage toward the end of the book--she is in her late twenties--in which she considers that "sex as a cognitive act would be, practically, a helpful attitude for me to have, to keep my eyes open, my head up--where the point is not to show sexual excitement as long as you can. (No pelvic spasms, no hard breathing, no words, etc.)" "Practical" and "helpful" do not, for most of us, belong to the linguistic register that we bring to our understanding of a roll in the hay. And later on Sontag again returns to this wish "to make sex cognitive"--and "to correct the imbalance now."
But it is not at all clear that the balancing act was a great success. This journal reveals a person for whom, however much she saw herself as a sensualist, the cognitive and the analytical invariably dominated the erotic and the affective. ("Emotionally, I wanted to stay," Sontag wrote of her decision to leave home and family in Los Angeles for Berkeley. "Intellectually, I wanted to leave." She left.) The inevitable triumph of the head over the heart in these pages defies, I think, a description of his mother that Rieff gives in his preface. In speaking of Sontag's extraordinary literary ambition, he compares her to Balzac's Lucien de Rubempre, the hero of Lost Illusions, the talented youth who comes from the provinces to find literary fame in Paris: a comparison that concludes with his summary explanation of Sontag as a "nineteenth-century consciousness." It is a judgment, you suspect, with which Sontag, with her insatiable avidity for experience and her penchant for the Continental novel as model of the highest form of literary activity, would have concurred.
And yet when you survey her career with an eye as coolly dispassionate as the one she trained on so many objects, it becomes obvious that, temperamentally, she belonged to another century entirely. Her failure to understand just which century it was accounts for the sense you often get, taking the work as a whole, of aspirations that were at odds with her temperament and her talent; and it explains a great deal about both the strengths and the weaknesses of her work, and also the strange fascination that she exerted.
This uneasy and riven quality, the impression of an identity not quite resolved, animates and often troubles so much about her writing, and also her public activity: the criticism, the fiction, and the politics.
If you looked closely enough, this quality was there from the start, in the breathtakingly authoritative critical pieces with which she made her reputation in the early 1960s, but--as would often happen with this remarkable personality--the sheer force and stylishness of her utterances overwhelmed whatever doubts there might have been. The essays in Against Interpretation (1961) and in Styles of Radical Will (1966) may champion, famously, the need not for "a hermeneutics but an erotics of Art," but what is so striking is that there is not anything very erotic about these essays; they are, in fact, all hermeneutics. In the criticism, as in the journals, the eros is all from the neck up.
The heat, if anything, tended to be in the objects of Sontag's interest. The early forays into cultural criticism often derive their power precisely from the tension between the iciness of Sontag's Olympian gaze and the unexpectedly funky, roiling, popular objects at which she levels it: porn, movies, sci-fi, camp. There was a deep pleasure, a thrill even, in seeing how she used a formidably broad and deep learning, and the traditional tools of formal literary analysis, to turn cultural sows' ears into critical silk purses. In demonstrating the deeper cultural significance of phenomena that nobody else had thought to take seriously ("camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture ... camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica"), she anticipated by a generation the belated adolescence of the American academy--all those Comp Lit and Cultural Studies dissertations, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, on Madonna and Boy George. This willingness to see the value in material disdained by "high" culture--something for which Pauline Kael would later become famous, after Sontag's position shifted--was an important and satisfying part of Sontag's rhetorical persona, and went a long way toward giving her the iconoclastic allure that would cling to her for the rest of her life, however conservative her tastes were to become.
And yet this astoundingly gifted interpreter, so naturally skilled at peeling away trivial-seeming exteriors to reveal deeper cultural meanings--or at teasing out the underlying significance of surface features to which you might not have given much attention ("people run beautifully in Godard movies")--fought mightily to affect an "aesthetic" disdain for content. Again and again, the essays themselves give the lie to her agenda of devaluing interpretation: even as she appears to swoon over "the untranslatable, sensuous immediacy" of, say, Last Year in Marienbad, you can't help noticing that there is not a single sensuous surface that she does not try to translate into something abstract and rarefied, that is not subject to the flashing scalpel of her critical intellect. While this championing of form and especially "style" at the expense of content and "meaning" is, of course, hardly original--it is re-heated Wilde--what is so striking is the insistence that it be true: the writer's desperate need to believe the rhetorical claim that her own writing subverts.
There is, if anything, an odd quality of protesting too much to these gestures, to the booming opening salvos against contemporary intellectual culture's "hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability," and of interpretation as "the revenge of the intellect upon art." As you make your way through these exercises in interpretative finesse, with their flourishes of epigrammatic bravura ("the greatest artists attain a sublime neutrality"), you wonder who is taking revenge on whom, exactly. Here again you feel the presence of an underlying conflict: Sontag the natural analyst against Sontag the struggling sensualist. I do not doubt that she genuinely wished to experience works of art purely with the senses and the emotions, but the author of these celebrated essays is quite plainly the grown-up version of the young girl who, at fifteen, declared her preference for "virtuosity ... technique, organization ... the cruelly realistic comment (Huxley, Rochefoucauld), the mocking caricature." Technique, virtuosity, raillery, cruelty even: all this, capped by the reference to Rochefoucauld, reminds you that, whatever her Balzacian yearnings, Sontag's young tastes were far more in line with French classicism than with Romantic passion.
If the criticism is marked by a struggle between Sontag the analyst and Sontag the aspiring sensualist, the fiction is marked by a struggle between Sontag the critic and Sontag the aspiring novelist. Everything that makes her an extraordinary critic--the extreme analytical self-consciousness, the way in which she cannot help but train the cool and assessing eye on every available object, the thirst for learning all the relevant and arcane details, the inability to resist any opportunity to interpret and to explain--makes her an inept novelist. There is a jarring contrast between the thrilling vividness of her critical writing and the almost total inertness of her fiction. With a curious unwillingness to acknowledge her actual strengths and her actual limitations, she clung stubbornly to a view of herself as essentially a writer of novels and stories, from her claim in the preface to Against Interpretation that her critical essays were largely ancillary to her fiction, helping her to "radically change" her "conception of [her] task as a novelist," to her pronouncement, in a speech she gave on accepting a prize in Germany in 2003, that "I am a storyteller."
But if her fiction demonstrates anything--from the strained exercise in francophilia that was The Benefactor in 1963, replete with the kind of archness and striving for effect that so often result when critics aspire to fiction ("he always spoke across the unbesiegeable moat of his own chastity") to The Volcano Lover, in 1992, and In America, in 2000--it was that Sontag did not possess the novelist's basic impulse, which is the urge to tell a story. In all of her novels, the critic's analytical and self-examining eye dominates, explaining too much, getting in the way. In both The Volcano Lover, a kind of intellectual recasting of That Hamilton Woman, and In America, a highly self-referential fictionalization of the career of the nineteenth-century Polish actress Helen Modjeska, Sontag herself, in the form of a disembodied narrator's voice, hovers intrusively over the story that she claims to want to tell, commenting on the action, distracting your attention from the story by reminding us that this is a Susan Sontag production. "Appalled by the lethal upsurge of nationalist and tribal feelings in my own time," the narrator of In America says, apropos of some ruminations about her Polish characters' national history, "I'd spent a good part of three years in besieged Sarajevo." There is no aesthetic reason, nothing in the form or the narrative, for the reader to have this information. Sontag just can't get out of the way. You suspect that this arch carrying on was meant to be justified as a playful, even chicly post-modern device, but Sontag was too solemn and self-serious a writer to get away with such tricks, and the intrusions come off as merely pretentious.
The way that Sontag's fiction keeps stumbling over Sontag herself reminds you of the extent to which she is really a critic--criticism being an enterprise in which the presence of the writer is one that you want and need. But the Sontag that the author of the later fiction seems to think we want is not even Sontag the great critic: it is just "Sontag," the celebrated public figure. Already in The Volcano Lover, but particularly in the unbearably labored and self-conscious In America, the authorial interventions feel not only self-referential but also self-congratulatory. Even the true believers who felt that In America deserved its acclaim must have stumbled over passages such as the following one, in which, as the novel opens, the hovering Sontag-narrator explains how she manages to understand the conversation of the Polish characters she mysteriously finds herself observing at the beginning of her tale:
But I, with my command only of Romance languages (I dabble
in German, know the names of twenty kinds of fish in Japanese,
have soaked up a splash of Bosnian, and understand barely a
word of the language of the country in which this room is to be
found), I, as I've said, somehow did manage to understand most
of what they were saying.
The command "only" of Romance languages; the pompous advertisement for what we understand to be her sophisticated appreciation of sushi and sashimi--stuff like this, and there is a lot of it, makes you wish that Sontag had hoped for herself what, as the narrator of In America, she "hoped" for her protagonist: that "she hadn't been made less of an artist by high-mindedness. Or by self-regard."
Such vanities abound in Sontag's fiction, and suggest that, all her superb literary acumen notwithstanding, she was, as a writer, astoundingly un-self-aware. Her apparent conviction, derived from her early immersion in nineteenth-century European literature, that to be a significant literary figure you had to be a novelist, paradoxically blinded her to what already made her a significant literary figure. There is a passage in Regarding the Pain of Others, a slender critical work published in 2003, in which, making a case about the special rhetorical quality of photography, she observes that "photographs [are] both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality--a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense." But of course literature does possess a genre that strives to be both objective and personal, an accurate record and a subjective testimony, a representation and an interpretation at the same time, and it is the genre at which Sontag truly excelled: the genre of criticism. That she could write such a passage--that it never occurred to her to think of her own metier when thinking about what literature could do--is more wrenching than anything she ever wrote in her fiction.
The contrast between the pointed effectiveness and verbal elan of Sontag's critical writing and the bloated grandiosities of Sontag's fiction makes it that much more regrettable that, as time passed, the criticism itself seemed to metamorphose, to change direction and tone. It was a shift that profoundly altered both what she wrote and how she could be read.
Like Wilde, whose arguments and aphoristic dazzle she appropriated, Sontag achieved considerable fame and authority early on by rebelling against staid, academic, old-fashioned intellectual culture. And like Wilde, she paradoxically used the tools provided by a formidable traditional education (he as a classicist, she as a student of philosophy and a precocious autodidact) to reject the academy, instead carving out a career for herself as a popular literary figure--a move that surely accounts for the cult-like status that she, like Wilde, enjoyed: both were intellectuals who made good, who achieved glamour in the great world. And yet, once she had made her name with those extraordinarily cunning and excitingly fresh validations of popular American culture, Sontag went on to spend the rest of her career as a tireless cheerleader for the canon, for what she referred to, with telling frequency, as "greatness"--a quality that, strikingly, she seemed increasingly to find only in the works of middle-aged, white, European men.
This is most apparent in the later essays, such as those collected in 2001 in Where The Stress Falls, pieces written in the years after the last of her significant works of cultural criticism, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors--texts in which Sontag brilliantly brings a calm philological eye to reveal the cultural anxieties and prejudices that lay beneath the overwrought diction of pop epidemiology and professional medicine. The problem with Where the Stress Falls is, in fact, that there is not a whole lot of stress in evidence. There is a played-out feel about the book, whose serious critical reflections are increasingly rambling and diffuse, and whose many incidental pieces seem, more than anything, like advertisements for Sontag's status as a cultural icon: answers to French questionnaires about the role of intellectuals, for example, and self-flattering ruminations on being translated. ("You might say I'm obsessed with translations. I think I'm just obsessed with language.")
This exhaustion is more marked in the posthumous collection--Sontag died in 2004--called At the Same Time, which includes the now-notorious speech in which she seems to have plagiarized her observations about hypertext: the ultimate mark of creative exhaustion. But a critical tendency does emerge. The vast majority of these late and ostensibly critical pieces are encomia to (and sometimes eulogies for) a long list of European (preferably Mittel) men: Victor Serge, W.G. Sebald, Robert Walser, Danilo Kis, Joseph Brodsky, Witold Gombrowicz, Adam Zagajewski. These essays are curiously shorter and more desultory than the early pieces; there is a restless quality even to the project of praise, which Sontag very early on saw as her specialty. ("I don't, ultimately, care for handing out grades to works of art," she wrote in a later preface to Against Interpretation. "I wrote as an enthusiast and a partisan.") Walser, for whom she professes to want to perform her signal service and thereby "bring [him] to the attention of a public that has not yet discovered him," gets a scant two pages, which end with the kind of banal encomium, a blurb really, that you expect from the harried reviewers in the dailies: "a truly wonderful writer."
Compare all this to the forty-two densely packed pages of her thrillingly brilliant dissection of Godard in 1968, for whose reputation she set out to perform a similar service. In that instance Sontag was providing a rigorous and wholly original way of thinking about the complex work of a major young contemporary artist; it was an essay that felt like part of something vital that was happening in the arts. In the Walser piece, by contrast, you get a whiff of Lemon Pledge: she's dusting off a forgotten tchotchke and putting it back on the very high shelf from which it had fallen. The style, too, is diminished, wearied. The surgical gleam and "aphoristic glitter"--Sontag's admiring description of Glenway Wescott's style in The Pilgrim Hawk--of the strong youthful pieces comes more and more to be replaced here by expressions of anxious concern for the safety of High Culture. "Is literary greatness still possible?" she frets in the slim essay on Sebald.
All this suggests, in the end, a certain melancholy fulfillment of a prophecy that Sontag made in her journals when she was in her early twenties. Not long before her twenty-fourth birthday, she wondered to herself which of two roads she might take, and the question suggests that she understood more, then, about the divided nature of both her gifts and her ambitions--the struggle, not least, between genuine innovation and intelligent adulation--than some of her later pronouncements, and projects, might indicate. The answer, too, was prescient. "To philosophize, or to be a culture-conserver?," she wondered in October, 1956. "I had never thought of being anything other than the latter."
Anyway, what had "greatness" come to mean for Sontag? It was, for a start, almost exclusively identified with Europe. In his preface Rieff acknowledges that for his mother "American literature was a suburb of the great literatures of Europe," and he is right: Sontag devoted none of her remarkable interpretative energies to significant American writers, either of an earlier time or of her own. The most effusive of her literary encomia, indeed, often come at the expense of the Anglo-American tradition. "When has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to recording 'the real?,'" she asks in her piece on Sebald, the last in the string of German novelists whom she exalted, an adulation that started with Thomas Mann and her life-altering reading of The Magic Mountain as a teenager. (In Reborn Sontag records her meeting with Mann when she was fourteen and he seventy-two, and both were living in Los Angeles; rather typically, she expresses disappointment that the flesh and blood person failed to live up to the books.) And, as the list of writers whom Sontag does choose to exalt in collections such as Where the Stress Falls also suggests, "greatness" seems to be largely the property of men, and is most likely to be achieved through the writing of novels. And so, in the end, Sontag became a genuine traditionalist--not only a conserver but also, at least in matters of culture, a conservative.
This desire to be associated with "greatness" of a kind that is, when all is said and done, exceedingly old-fashioned, brings you back to the Sontag of the early journals--to the "ambition," to the starry-eyed lover of books who reminds Rieff of Lucien de Rubempre. Lucien's real name is the comically plebeian Chardon, or "thistle": he has to shake the family tree a bit before the name that he eventually adopts, with its glamorous aristocratic "de," falls out. The desire not merely for self-transformation, but for a kind of validation that only an association with the highest echelons of culture can bring, is one to which Reborn bears ample witness. As his name change indicates, Lucien's aspirations were social as well as artistic; whereas Sontag, to her great credit, was purely intellectual and cultural in her ambitions. "I want to live in an intellectual atmosphere, I want to live in a cultural center," she had written. Her desire, twice articulated in these pages, to be "reborn" itself testifies to a the fervor of her belief that it was necessary to abandon where she came from in order to get where she wanted to be--an impetus that may well never have found an end point, and that itself may have seemed to her a mark of "greatness."
But the obsession with "greatness" also has other implications. There is, you realize, something odd about the list of qualities that Sontag associated with literary greatness: it is a list of things that Sontag was not. The sense you get here of a profoundly divided identity is, for Rieff, entirely consonant with his mother's taste for transformation, the lifelong effort to "remake herself": anticipating the questions about self-knowledge and identity that such efforts inevitably raise about people, he suggests that what in other people could be seen as a discomfort, a kind of covering up, was in Sontag's case exemplary. He casts her strenuous "jettisoning" of her middle-class, American, Jewish roots ("her social and ethnic context," as he puts it) as a heroic nineteenth-century, and even somewhat Nietzschean, affair--the achievement of a titanic "will." He cites Fitzgerald on second acts in American lives, nicely suggesting that Sontag's increasing dissociation from things American was the most American thing about her.
But it is difficult not to ascribe this pervasive irresolution and this desperate desire for transformation also to another factor, to the other of the two strands that unspool in Reborn--not to ambition, but to sexuality. In this case, the instability had a marked effect on Sontag's engagement with politics. I am referring to the issue of Sontag's homosexuality, which she discussed forthrightly enough in her private musings, but about which she remained curiously reticent even when such reticence was no longer expected of important left-wing intellectuals--indeed, when to come out of the closet would have been an affirmation of a certain kind of cultural bona fides. It is a measure of the intimidating power of Sontag's mystique that comparatively little has been made over the years of the refusal by Sontag, the most public of public intellectuals, to engage--in her speeches and her essays--with the pressing issues raised particularly by the AIDS crisis and the political and cultural controversies that it generated throughout the 1980s and 1990s. (It says something that when Sontag did write about homosexuality, it was a fiction: the now-famous short story "The Way We Live Now," first published in The New Yorker in November, 1986. It is a story about men, about male homosexuals and their experience: a suggestive displacement.)
If anything, the notion that she might have connected the dots between her sexual nature and her public utterances on power and justice tended to be cast as a vulgar parochialization, a crass infringement upon her citizenship in the wider republic of letters. Rieff writes that his mother "avoided to the extent that she could, without denying it, any discussion of her own homosexuality." Much depends on that "without denying it." Sontag's passivity in this regard may have been the only feeble thing about her; she was, after all, no stranger to controversy. She herself was almost touchingly forthright about her ambiguity, in remarks she made late in life to the editor of OUT magazine:
I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the "open
secret." I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually,
I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but
I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my
detriment. Maybe I could have given comfort to some people
if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more,
but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless
somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or
shake things up.
The passage is, in its way, wholly typical. Apart from the characteristic tension between the mind ("intellectually, I know why") and heart, the awkwardness of which is reflected by the stiffness and the circuitousness of the language ("I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there"), the statement represents yet another triumph of that ferocious intellect at the expense of the realm of feelings. Note the reflexively disdainful dismissal of any possibility that she might have spoken publicly about issues relating to homosexuality as a merely sentimental gesture, a treacly project of "giving comfort."
The issue is worth exploring because of the way in which it reveals how Sontag the political figure made the same revealing choices that Sontag the literary figure did. As we know, Sontag was not above giving comfort to groups that she saw as oppressed, and she did not disdain making large and dramatic public gestures meant to validate the rights, and the humanity, of certain minorities. About the citizens of Bosnia, that province of Mitteleuropa that became one of her intellectual homelands, about Europe and its political outrages, Sontag did not cease to speak, with her usual crispness and a smart, outraged passion. All this was deeply admirable--but finally there was something familiar about the way in which she championed the foreign over the domestic, the idealized identity rather than the core identity. Intellectually I wanted to go. As we know, she went; and to be sure, there is a kind of touching grandeur to the famous folie of her producing Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo under siege, which, whatever else it may have achieved, certainly gave comfort.
I want to emphasize that my point is not to correct Sontag politically; nor do I want to denigrate the significant positive effects of Sontag's political arguments and activities. Everyone, after all, is self-interpreting and self-inventing--writers and artists more than most. Sontag was a true cosmopolitan, and that is an achievement not only of morality but also of imagination. But cosmopolitanism, too, is a set of choices, and Sontag's choices in this realm so strikingly resemble her choices in the realm of literature and culture that one must wonder whether for her being itself was not, in Peguy's famous formulation, "elsewhere." At a certain point you have to ask why there was this unquenchable need to comfort, this limitless sympathy, for Bosnians, but not for lesbians.
In the end, it was Sontag herself who gave us the most useful metaphor for understanding her--for making sense of the willed restlessness, the seemingly irresoluble tensions and contradictions that hover over her life and work and politics: paradoxes to which the early private writings already bear striking witness. The key is to be found in The Volcano Lover, a work whose ambivalent seesawing between two crucial centuries, between two irreconcilable world-views, tells us more than anything else she wrote about the uneasy divisions in Sontag herself.
The novel is an unusual take on a famous story: the love affair between Emma Hamilton and Admiral Nelson. It is told primarily through the eyes of Emma's cuckolded husband, Sir William Hamilton, the great collector of classical antiquities who, as British envoy to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in Naples, had the pick of the splendid works that emerged from the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which helped to create the great craving for all things classical (and neo-classical) that marked the end of the eighteenth century. A good deal of the book is devoted to brilliant ruminations on the nature and the psychology of collecting, a passion apparently shared by the Sontag-like narrator who, like the narrator of In America, hovers obtrusively over the opening of the novel. "I'm seeing," this disembodied voice says, during a visit to what seems to be a flea market,
I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left. What's discar-
ded. What's no longer cherished. What had to be sacrificed.
What someone thought might interest someone else ... there
may be something valuable, there. Not valuable, exactly. But
something I would want. Want to rescue. Something that
speaks to me. To my longings.
As we have seen, a taste for "checking on what's in the world," to say nothing of aesthetic rescue missions, constituted a significant part of Sontag's critical project. If anything, Hamilton's own characterization of the point of his activities--"To surround oneself with enchanting and stimulating objects, a superfluity of objects, to ensure that the sense will never be unoccupied, nor the faculty of imagination left unexercised"--reminds you even more strongly of the author of this book, with her frenetic desire to be aesthetically stimulated, occupied, exercised. Of course this novel was the closest to a real literary success that her fiction ever achieved.
The metaphor of the collector is the perfect one for Sontag. Her impressive sympathy for Hamilton, with his great hunger for inanimate objects, explains so much about her--the unbelievable avidity, the impossibility of satiety, the need to possess it all, to know "everything." And it provides, too, another explanation for her incessant promotion, toward the end of her career, of "greatness": like all good collectors, she wanted you to know how precious her objects were, how much they were worth. Small wonder that some of her greatest aesthetic enthusiasms were inspired by collectors--William Hamilton; Walter Benjamin, in his library and in the arcades; Godard, with his "hypertrophy of appetite for culture (though often more avid for cultural debris than for museum-consecrated achievements); they proceed by voraciously scavenging in culture, proclaiming that nothing is alien to their art." It would be hard to think of a better description of Sontag herself.
As it proceeds, The Volcano Lover moves away from the eighteenth century, from the cool acquisitive gaze of the Enlightenment, to the "romance" and the passions of the century that followed. (The book's coy subtitle is "A Romance. ") In the novel, the romance and the passions are represented by two threads, one "personal" and one "political," that become intertwined. The first is the adulterous love of Nelson and Emma (who abandons, you might say, the love of the old for the love of the new--the elderly Hamilton for the war hero Nelson), and the second are the violent revolutions with which the eighteenth century ended--in particular, the brief republican revolution in Naples in 1799, which resulted in the short-lived overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy (to which Nelson, on orders from London, gave military support, as Hamilton gave diplomatic support, while Emma, for her part, was the bosom friend of the Queen, Maria Carolina, sister of Marie-Antoinette). With Nelson's aid, the republic was soon overthrown and the repressive monarchy was re-established.
What is so moving about the novel lies, as sometimes happens in Sontag's writing, between the lines. For everything about Hamilton is wonderful: the evocation of what it is like to live a life given to intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, the rich sense that Sontag gives of what it is like to "discover what is beautiful and to share that with others," an activity that Hamilton passionately defends as "also a worthy employment for a life." But the poignant fact is that, for all this, Hamilton is not meant to be the hero of the book. This role, it turns out, is given to a person who comes late on the scene: another historical figure, Eleanora Fonseca Pimentel, a Neapolitan aristocrat and poet who sided with the republican rebels and was executed by the restored Bourbons as the exhausted century ended, in August 1799. The book ends with Pimentel's thoughts at the moment of her death--reflections that comprise a stunning rejection of the character, and indeed the values, that Sontag has so feelingly evoked throughout the book. "Did he ever have an original thought," Fonseca Pimentel furiously wonders,
or subject himself to the discipline of writing a poem, or discover
or invent something useful to humanity, or burn with zeal for
anything except his own pleasures and the privileges annexed
to his station. He knew enough to appreciate what the pictur-
esque natives had left in the way of art and ruins, lying about
And the novel's last lines make a final overt allusion to Sontag herself, one that suggests that she saw her political engagement as an expression of this "romantic" side:
Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the
best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how
complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including
the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not
care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought
they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.
Anyone who has considered Sontag's career will find that "damn them all" profoundly affecting. For it expresses, yet again, her desire to forsake who she was in favor of a romantic dream. However inadvertently, The Volcano Lover makes it clear that Sontag's was, essentially, the eighteenth-century sensibility that she so brilliantly evoked in the character of Hamilton, whom she ends by damning. An aesthete and an accumulator of experience, she nonetheless yearned all her life--because she was so taught by the kind of novels that she ingested but could not, in the end, ever write--to inhabit the century to which her son touchingly assigns her, the nineteenth, with its grand passions and its Romantic energies. Emotionally, she thought she was the one; intellectually, she was the other. This confusion helps to account for so much about her life and her work: the strange analytical coldness about normal human passions--that desire to make sex "cognitive"--and the remarkably hot passion for the stimulation of books, theater, films; the initial embrace of the importance of the daringly new, the avant garde, the louche and outre, followed by the retreat into the conventional (the historical novel!), the canonical, the established, the "great"; the wobbly relationship between the criticism, which was her calling, and the fiction, which was not.
Sontag's lifelong struggle to find a place between these various poles--extremities nicely summed up, in The Volcano Lovers, during an amusing encounter between Hamilton and Goethe, as "beauty" and "transformation"--gives her a certain novelistic allure of her own. But here again the character whom she calls to mind is a decidedly pre-Romantic figure. In one of the shortest literary essays that she ever wrote, Sontag ruminated on a favorite novel, and her description of its hero suggests a strong affinity between the critic and the character:
With Don Quixote, a hero of excess, the problem is not so much
that the books are bad; it is the sheer quantity of his reading.
Reading has not merely deformed his imagination; it has kid-
napped it. He thinks the world is the inside of a book.... Bookish-
ness makes him, in contrast to Emma Bovary, beyond compro-
mise or corruption. It makes him mad; it makes him profound,
heroic, genuinely noble.
Thanks to her son's nervous but rewarding decision, Sontag herself has finally achieved a kind of resolution. For she has made the translation that, you sometimes feel, she had always yearned for and so long awaited. Now others must do the interpreting; she herself, beyond compromise and corruption, no madder than most and more noble, too, has become the text. Infinitely interpretable, she has at last ended up on the inside of a book.
Daniel Mendelsohn's translations, with commentary, of Cavafy's Collected Poems and Unfinished Poems, have just been published by Knopf. He teaches at Bard College.
By Daniel Mendelsohn