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- Françoise Gilot
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Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag's posthumously published journals, offered new, albeit cryptic insights into the genesis of her heavy-going artistic personality. That first journal included fascinating scenes of Sontag's early immersion in 1940s lesbian bars, but when she marries scholar Philip Rieff, the text of Reborn abruptly cuts off personal reflection and buries itself in lists and tormented justifications. This second volume, with the awkward but appropriate title As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, is much more direct in its treatment of her life. These are her heady years, the years when she became a famous intellectual of the 1960s, the writer of "Notes on Camp" and a dozen other influential essays.
The book begins provocatively: "The right hand=the hand that is aggressive, the hand that masturbates. Therefore, to prefer the left hand!...To romanticize it, to sentimentalize it!" Throughout most of this journal, Sontag bemoans her own neediness as a lover: "Self respect. It would make me lovable. And it's the secret of good sex," she writes. Her failed love affair with playwright María Irene Fornés and a later lover called Carlotta, a duchess and former heroin addict, take up a good deal of space here, and they are not so much Proustian as they are the expectedly tortured musings of a closeted lesbian of the 1960s who is in psychoanalysis. The surprise in this second journal is how much Sontag's mother meant to her, and how she agonized over this relationship. In all other books and articles on Sontag up to this point, Sontag's mother has always been minimized as unimportant, a trite woman whom Sontag sought to distance herself from, but this journal describes her as a deeply negative force who determined much of her daughter's later behavior.
Since Sontag's death in 2004, there has been a flurry of small books and articles about her, everyone weighing in and, in most cases, taking some kind of revenge on her. Many of the male writers of her time have written rather blunt catalogues of her utterances at various parties through the years, as if each glimpse of her was both a terror and a (grudging) privilege. But the most interesting post-mortem by far, and the most deadly, has been Sigrid Nunez's slender 2011 memoir, Sempre Susan, where she describes living with Sontag's son David Rieff and Sontag herself in the late seventies. Nunez's book strives to be fair, up to a point, but she layers her narrative with cumulative insults and insensitivities from Sontag and then lets loose on her by the end with a mini-avalanche of described bad behavior. Sempre Susan leaves you with the residue of Nunez's quiet anger and disappointment. Thankfully, these two Sontag journals (with a third on the way) bring us inside her head and provide some context for the arrogant way she sometimes acted in public. Underneath her gruffness, she was often scared and self-loathing, but she worked through these issues for her magisterial writing, and even resorted to a reliable amphetamine, Dexamyl, while working on her best essays of the '60s and '70s.
Only really dedicated Sontag-philes will be interested in the pages on her lovers and her mother, but there is much else of interest here, especially a dismaying little snatch of dialogue between symbiotic writers Paul and Jane Bowles where they discuss their respective lovers in the most insulting of terms. Throughout the journal, Sontag is attracted and repelled by homosexuality, in herself and in her friends. Writing about Greta Garbo, she says that as a girl she wanted to be her, and then she wanted to bed her: "The sequence of my homosexuality?" she wonders. She also wonders if only W. H. Auden was able to "transcend" his homosexuality through his "spirituality." She seems tickled but slightly horrified when her film critic friend Elliott Stein, in the mid-1960s, explains that a beautiful naked boy is more beautiful when plastic clips are attached to his skin. And by the time she gets to the late seventies, she's repulsed by the newly hyper-masculine gay male culture and its ties to S/M, even though her own lesbian love crises seem forever tied to emotional masochism. But as with so many subjects, she circles homosexuality until she hits it directly on the head as "a kind of maximalism."
Sontag's supposed lack of humor, in life and in her work, became legendary, but there's a surprising amount of dark humor in this second journal; she's able to refer to her speaking engagements for her book Illness as Metaphor as "my cancer minstrel show," and she's amusingly bewildered by the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. She knew exactly what her problems were as a writer; there is no criticism you can make of Sontag that she doesn't make herself. She calls her writing "too architectural, too discursive," and calls out her 1960s trip to Hanoi as "a piece of political theatre."
Sontag was so deeply involved in and responsive to Samuel Beckett and other literary modernists that she internalized their last-stop-on-this-train despair until she could not write fiction with any ease or fluency, and in this journal, she knows it. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh exposes her vulnerabilities, but it also shows the liveliness of her critical mind at work. She demolishes the bourgeois concept of "common sense," and she is capable, sometimes, of a first-class aphorism like "A miracle is just an accident, with fancy trappings." Sontag wonders, at one point, if she is keeping this journal so that someone who loves her can read it later and understand her better. She was thinking of one person, a lover, but she also shyly had her eye on us, her posthumous lovers, her readers, and for us this book is a feast, a confession, a pledge, a scourge, and, at its best, an example.