Still Superior

Mark Greif

  • Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-64 by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
    Hamish Hamilton, 318 pp, £16.99, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 241 14431 2

One of the most appealing things about Susan Sontag was that she didn’t ask to be liked. Other postwar American writers who cut the same sort of public figure pleaded with you to love their outsized faults, embrace their dumb enthusiasms, and cast in your lot with theirs through recounted divorces, nervous breakdowns, lusts. Sontag’s persona was not personal. It was superior. Sontag made you acknowledge that she was more intelligent than you. That cost little enough. She then compelled you to admit that she felt more than you did. Her inner life was richer, even if she didn’t fully disclose it. She responded to art more vividly and completely. Not only her sense, but her sensibility, was grander.

This was offensive, naturally. It undid the contract to which critics of the arts generally submit in the hope of winning the goodwill of their audience. The reader is allowed to say: ‘Yes, all the criticisms that the critic lodges are true, and valuable, but I still know how to enjoy the work.’ Sontag’s essays returned: ‘No, you don’t.’ Her ambition was expressed in a peculiar way in her best-known line, from the early essay ‘Against Interpretation’: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’ Anyone who thought this meant throwing analytic intelligence out with the hermeneutic bathwater was disabused. Philistinism or superiority, for her, lay in the quality of mind manifested in one’s sensuous reaction. If you couldn’t think – think well, think quickly, think like Sontag – then you didn’t feel.

One comes with mixed feelings to the personal journals that Sontag kept diligently but did not publish in her lifetime. They carry a danger of ‘humanising’ her. Making her human might undermine the insulting but exhilarating game that made her work effective. To play with or against Sontag, simply by reading her essays, was to apprehend that if you felt strongly enough, if you felt intimations of grace, called yourself one of art’s elect, then she would let you in on certain secrets: whom to read, how to gaze, what else there was to learn. Those who couldn’t feel it, those who lost the game, or didn’t see much worth winning, called her a phony and a fraud.

Her failings are on display in these diaries. She had trouble feeling, sometimes, and being winning and graceful in daily life. She was, as we already knew, a snob. She forgot to brush her teeth and bathe. She loved people who did not love her back. She saw a defective quality in herself, which she called ‘X’, a mixture of glad-handing, pushiness and obsequiousness. (‘America is a very X-y country.’) She saw a lazy, shiftless personality, too, which she called ‘Sue’. (‘The one that doesn’t like to bathe or swim and can’t dance.’) Too many of these human flaws might have induced in us the reactions most corrosive to her project: condescension or pity. In fact, the revelations don’t betray her. The notebooks are compact and distant, yet oddly warm because sincere. They are raw enough to be real, and composed enough to ward off the possibility of identification. We are not Susan Sontag; she is still superior. She is never unserious, ignorant or corrupt.

The notebooks reveal two things it’s helpful to know. One is how she got her education. She took it from the best universities in the world, through scholarships and grants, somewhat contradicting her image of a bohemian autodidact. The other is why an odd, partly disowned, seemingly extraneous but electrifying language of sex serpentines through so many of her essays. It really was because of sex.

Sontag was 16 when she discovered gay San Francisco, the experience that gives this volume of her diary its title. She was born in January 1933, the daughter of Jack and Mildred Rosenblatt of Manhattan, traders of furs in China. Her father died in Tianjin when she was five. The widowed Mildred took Susan from her grandparents and moved with her to Tuscon: the dry air and sand of Arizona would help Susan’s asthma. A decorated war hero named Nathan Sontag gave Susan her German surname when he married her mother in 1945, but his air force exploits did not thrill her as much as Les Misérables, which she had read before she was nine. She also read Jack London’s Martin Eden, a book about a self-taught writer which she later suspected had given her inspiration for her future life. A schoolteacher called Mr Starkie, recognising an unusual capacity in the girl, lent her The Sorrows of Young Werther. She started keeping a diary when she was 12. She collected Classic Comics. The family moved to Southern California, and she grew more desperate to get away. ‘I believe … that the only difference between human beings is intelligence,’ she wrote at 14 in the credo that forms the earliest entry in these notebooks. The comparisons seem to have applied first to the parents she refers to as ‘Nat’ and ‘Mildred’. Yet they don’t much figure in the diaries, not even in entries devoted to her anger and resentment and passion. I didn’t realise that she had a sister Judith until the tenth year of the notebooks. There had been no mention of her.

The University of California, Berkeley was a first escape. Sontag was 15, wanted to move further away, and had to fight her mother to get that far north of Los Angeles. Her desires and capabilities were not usual, perhaps, for a teenage girl in a repressive era, and she was impressively ‘lucid’ (a favourite word) about them – all of them. ‘I feel that I have lesbian tendencies.’ This was shortly before the move to Berkeley. ‘I am very young, and perhaps the disturbing aspect of my sexual ambitions will be outgrown – frankly, I don’t care.’ By April, taking college courses, she has, in the spirit of scientific experiment, kissed a boy: ‘I wanted so much to feel a physical attraction for him and prove, at least, that I am bisexual … Nothing but humiliation and degradation at the thought of physical relations with a man.’ Sontag read and reread Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a book she loved for many years, both for its Modernism and its lesbianism. At the campus book exchange, she finally met an arty girl, Harriet Sohmers, several years older than her and superior in one area of knowledge that Sontag craved.

She fell in with Harriet and her friends; they took her immediately to the city, and knew just where to go. ‘The four of us went to a bar called Mona’s. Most of the people there were lesbian couples … the singer was a very tall and beautiful blonde in a strapless evening gown … H – smilingly – had to tell me she was a man.’ The drag chanteuse matched ‘a man of medium height – dark Italian face – who, at this point, a little more observant, I know to be a woman’. The city seems to her to be full of bars, where people freely lead a life she knows only from books: ‘We went down to the Paper Doll then and sat around … there were several attractive women who served the drinks – all in men’s clothes, as at Mona’s.’ When they left:

The ride to Sausalito is over the Golden Gate Bridge, and while A and H were sitting next to me and necking, I watched the bay and felt warm and alive … I had never truly comprehended that it was possible to live through your body and not make any of these hideous dichotomies after all!

That same night in Sausalito, the bayside artists’ enclave to the north of San Francisco, she and Harriet went ‘in to sleep on a narrow cot in the back of the Tin Angel’. ‘It was so beautiful when H began making love to me … Everything that was so tight, that hurt so in the pit of my stomach, was vanquished in the straining against her, the weight of her body on top of mine, the caress of her mouth and her hands.’ Now she is able to rebuke society from personal experience. Bisexuality, not heterosexuality, is the truth of the individual: it is ‘an honest rejection of the – yes – perversion which limits sexual experience.’ Her incessant reading lists start to jostle with lexicons of gay slang. ‘Homosexual = gay … Heterosexual = jam (West Coast), straight (East).’

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