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).’

Sontag won a scholarship to the University of Chicago: under the unusual dispensation there, a qualified student could enter after the sophomore year of high school; precocious philosophical peers like Allan Bloom (born 1930) and Richard Rorty (born 1931) were educated on the same programme. ‘I’ll really know what to do in Chicago when I get there,’ Sontag writes after recounting more adventures in the bars of San Francisco and Sausalito. ‘I’ll begin right by going out and grabbing at experience, not waiting for it to come to me … I have always been full of lust – as I am now – but I have always been placing conceptual obstacles in my own path … the incipient guilt I have always felt about my lesbianism.’

Chicago seems to have been just what she had hoped for: not only new tracts of library to explore, but personalities who could put flesh on her schematic sense of ‘the life of the mind’. Kenneth Burke was her English teacher. The strenuous life of study was here, and something beyond mere study. Two unnerving short entries appear, one following the other:

11/21/49
Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center). Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me – to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.

12/2/49
Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning? – I am engaged to Philip Rieff.

Susan Sontag married Rieff the following year.

It remains a mystery why she married because when the marriage appears in the notebooks, the notebooks glide to a halt. Two years go missing. When the diaries resume, it is in a mood of settled frustration with the misalliance. In an entry written after her split with Rieff, she confesses: ‘I did desire Philip tremendously during the first year.’ Otherwise the portrait is not kind. After she became famous, Sontag would compare herself to Dorothea in Middlemarch, held back by Casaubon. At the time, she wrote: ‘I have been cast in the role of husband killer à la Dorothea Brooke Casaubon.’

As the diaries proceed, Sontag and Rieff turn up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they dine with his new colleagues from Brandeis. Sontag has given birth to a son, David. She studies for masters’ degrees in literature and philosophy at Harvard. Herbert Marcuse boards in their house. The tone is one of new maturity in a high-toned world, but there are also floods of tears, feelings of imprisonment, the need to die or leave.

There isn’t much room for the complex, human Philip Rieff. He was famous in his prime first for his intellectual biography Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, later for The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In a note to Reborn, however, David Rieff declares that his mother essentially co-wrote Freud: The Mind of the Moralist but that it ‘appeared under PR’s sole authorship after their separation and subsequent divorce’. The significance of the claim has to do with our understanding of Sontag’s career, inclinations and depth. Her critics often point out that she never produced a long or systematic intellectual work. Peculiarly for an interpreter of so many other minds, she never tackled a major thinker. The closest she came to writing about a grand system-builder was a short early review of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and this was a mistake she might not have made had she known him then as the architect of French Structuralism rather than the eccentric bellettrist of Tristes Tropiques. There is no Kant, no Nietzsche, no Marx in Sontag – yet, suddenly, here is Freud, the grand interpreter, and liberator of sex from its veils.

One begins to understand, reading these diaries, the rigour with which Sontag expunged from her own work a canon of maîtres penseurs she knew by second nature. Her formal education was not something a woman, a Jew, a product of the state education system without money, family or connections could have won so easily in previous generations. It was the high humanist education that chosen children have long received, starting with Parmenides and ending with Wittgenstein, neatly bundling theology and myth with social science, plopping knowledge into fresh hands like a snow globe. It was easy for Sontag. She emancipated herself from the university in order to continue a rebel line. In her own writing, she chose to address only ‘minor’ literature, even something like a minority literature: European, usually German or French; sometimes Jewish and in flight from the Nazis, sometimes inward-looking or mad; Modernist yet lesser-known, often because failed, or thwarted, or unproductive, or fragmentary in literary remains – Barthes, Benjamin, Artaud, Pavese, Canetti, Leiris, Walser, Cioran.

Sontag wouldn’t even utter the names of many of those she had as forefathers. Kant was the grandee of the aesthetic of sexless distance she so resented. Yet his name almost never comes up in her early books. ‘Many expected references are absent in Benjamin’s work – he didn’t like to read what everybody was reading,’ Sontag wrote in her most gorgeous pen-portrait, the essay on Walter Benjamin called ‘Under the Sign of Saturn’: she might as well have said it of herself. For Benjamin, this was just part of the charm of his collector’s passion for oddities, a result of his eccentric alternation of lassitude with enthusiasm. One sensed the possessive, collecting instinct in Sontag too. But we can now see that for Sontag the elision of her masters was also rebellion, disinhibition, self-fashioning.

One of the things revealed by the diaries is that Sontag’s ‘interpretation’ project, which began as early as 1956, was twinned with another intellectual project: an unmasking of marriage. In an entry written shortly after New Year 1957, when Sontag was 24, she writes:

Ongoing projects:
‘Notes on Marriage’
‘Notes on Interpretation’

Among the ideas noted in that entry is at least one that would make it into ‘Against Interpretation’ seven years later. Unpublished and unfamiliar, though, are her epigrammatic notes on marriage, which shade into personal regret. ‘Marriage is a sort of tacit hunting in couples’; ‘It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings’; ‘Marriage is based on the principle of inertia’; ‘The leakage of talk in marriage. (My marriage, anyway)’; ‘I can remember what it was like not to be married … but I can’t feel like I was then. The sense of not being free has never left me these six years.’

Interpretation, for Sontag, not only in her twenties but also when she was writing ‘Against Interpretation’ in her thirties, involved a substitutive relation to reality, and a substitutive, therefore deadening, encounter with works of art. ‘Always the presumption of meaning,’ she wrote in her diary. The word ‘erotics’ has also to be read literally. Instead of a dissembling relation Sontag wanted immediate truth to erupt, against tradition and a stifling morality. ‘Against Interpretation’, the famous statement of her mature starting place, was also against her marriage, against Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (its chapter on ‘The Tactics of Interpretation’ foreshadows her essay), against her earlier, apprenticed, scholastic self.

The practical means to break her marital chains came in the form of a scholarship to Oxford. Her voyage to Europe ended her association with The Mind of the Moralist as well as her marriage. She studied in Oxford for a short time (sitting in on a seminar by the ordinary language philosopher J.L. Austin) and then jumped to Paris. There, she found her old friend Harriet Sohmers, her hipster Virgil from Berkeley. Their romantic relationship resumed, and takes up many notebook pages.

Only a small quantity of Paris gossip makes it into the diaries. Beauvoir speaks at the Sorbonne; Sontag is unfavourably impressed with her high-pitched voice. Sontag visits Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky in their hotel on rue Gît-le-Coeur; years later she will berate herself for namedropping the connection (‘how many times did I talk about Allen Ginsberg last year?’). Sontag goes to her first Paris party, at the home of the philosopher Jean Wahl, ‘in the disgusting company of Allan Bloom.’ (This comic distaste, not unlike the young Hannah Arendt’s dislike for Bloom’s master, Leo Strauss, has an extra dimension, in that Bloom would stay a closeted gay man for 30 more years, and Sontag a partly closeted lesbian.) Photographs from Harriet’s collection show Harriet and Susan around this time. Harriet, the object of so much aching ardour, is mousy and banal; Sontag is robust, beautiful and dark.

Things unravelled when Sontag needed and desired Harriet more than Harriet desired her. As recounted in the diaries, the two began to have the sorts of fight that lovers have in exotic locales. Sontag lets her guard down and enjoys an almond drink; Harriet attacks her for having an ‘unrefined sensibility’. This is not an accusation most people got to level at Susan Sontag. As Harriet continues baiting her, it pulls from Sontag the funniest cri de coeur in these notebooks: ‘An aristocracy of sensibility as well as an aristocracy of intellect. Don’t like at all, at all being treated as a plebeian!’

The relationship ended. Paris cloyed, or money ran out. Sontag, confirmed in her sexuality, solid in her thought, moved to Manhattan, got her son, David, after a custody battle with Rieff (who she feared would make her lesbian relationships public), and started over again, now as a ‘New York-type intellectual’. The New York intellectuals already in place instantly mistook her for one of them. Sontag took an editorial post on Commentary, the Jewish liberal magazine, but Partisan Review was still the pre-eminent intellectual journal in the United States, the one she had been reading since she was a teenager. Its editors, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, no longer worked in tandem as they had in the old days; Phillips alone discovered Sontag and took her up as a representative and promising young writer. He memorably misassigned her to the journal’s theatre column, the post that had been held by an unknown Mary McCarthy in the late 1930s. In the diaries Sontag zaps McCarthy’s ‘low-fashion red+blue print suit’ and ‘clubwoman gossip’. An old story has it that when McCarthy met Sontag she sized her up with the cutting, ‘Oh, you’re the imitation me.’

The Mary McCarthy replay shows with what respect editors were thinking of Sontag, but also how sclerotic these famous journals had become. Nearly thirty years had elapsed since Partisan Review started as a Communist arts magazine. The great founding editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen, was going mad. The saga of the New York intellectuals was entering its third generation, each cohort smaller than the one before, and of the new generation only two figures stand out: Sontag and Philip Roth. Sontag was in some ways a misfit. In others she was the individual who had turned up destined to complete, or, from her detractors’ perspective, kill off the New York intellectuals’ project.

‘Notes on “Camp”’ was the essay in Partisan Review that made the difference. I’d guess it is the reason the diaries collected in Reborn, as David Rieff has split them up, end in late 1963, though no Rubicon is crossed at this point, and the book gives no explanation. Sontag had already published her first novel, The Benefactor; she had, therefore, already emerged as a ‘writer’. But ‘Notes on “Camp’’’ represented a reconfiguration of New York intellectual aesthetics, and a changing of the guard. It went back and modified Clement Greenberg’s ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ of 1939, the essay on which attitudes of three decades had been based. It made its way into Time magazine as an event in the life of the country. But it now seems one of those short works, wonderful to read, mysterious yet suave, timelessly renowned, whose reasons for fame in its historical context have nonetheless been lost.

The argument of ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ had been that Modernist art, even in apolitical instances, served a necessary political function by creating ‘movement’ in societies that would otherwise stagnate. Only high culture could do this; indeed only the part of high culture that was progressive, experimental and ahead of its time could form the ‘avant-garde’ that did it. Kitsch, a different kind of highly technical object (one of Norman Rockwell’s cute and realistic illustrations, one of Tin Pan Alley’s homogenised, hummable songs), reproduced the world and viewers’ emotions so cleanly and realistically on its own surface that it spoke to audiences without stimulating any thought, change or perturbation. Kitsch wasn’t evil, but it was useless and could be apolitical in ways that became dangerous, by lulling audiences for the benefit of Fascism, or – at least in Greenberg’s 1930s socialist view – for the survival of soulless capitalism.

Sontag’s ‘Notes on ‘Camp’’’ pushed the centre of value and ‘movement’ into the excluded realm. ‘Camp’ would be found within the sphere of waste and mimicry and ersatz culture. Some pieces of kitsch – false, cheesy, mindless – could provide a superior thrill. It was the triumph of delectation against the grain. Only a certain kind of person could feel it. Only a certain kind of kitsch object could give rise to it. Such objects Sontag called ‘camp’, which she also used as the name of this mode of appreciation. She didn’t claim to be making anything new, only to be bringing to majority attention a practice that belonged to a special group. Some ‘camp’ objects might be familiar cultural symptoms viewed with estrangement or irony – so as to make all cultural norms appear square and absurd. Other camp objects were so emotionally unhinged (‘camp’ melodramas, operas) that by fully appreciating their outrageous qualities, and not censoring their ridiculousness, one could point to the naturalness of other powerful passions that society would not allow or acknowledge.

This was a queer aesthetic, in other words, before such things were named. ‘Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.’ ‘Notes on “Camp”’ was dedicated to Oscar Wilde and quotations from him were interspersed throughout the text. Her final entry on a list of camp items was ‘stag movies seen without lust’. Who watches stag movies without lust? Gay men. (Women don’t really exist in the essay.) ‘Who is the bearer of this taste?’ she asked outright. ‘Mainly homosexuals.’ And she made the analogy between homosexual identity and another identity she possessed, though you wouldn’t know it either from her writings: ‘Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture … they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.’

Sontag managed to make it such that though you knew homosexuality was involved in all this, it was impossible to believe that Susan Sontag was gay. This had something to do with her exclusive focus on gay men, but much more to do with her characteristic enunciation of reservations bordering on contempt. ‘I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.’ ‘To name a sensibility,’ she declared, ‘to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.’

Critical distance, yes – but ‘revulsion’? It was a fair caution to take, perhaps, considering the social penalties that might be incurred by an unknown defender of homosexual ‘sensibility’ who became too explicit. In real life, after all, Sontag was afraid that the wrong disclosures could lose her custody of her son. But she kept up the odd tone about gay and bisexual men in her later work. On the bisexual Paul Goodman, in an obituary essay of 1972, she wrote:

I admired his courage, which showed itself in so many ways – one of the most admirable being his honesty about his homosexuality in Five Years, for which he was much criticised by his straight friends in the New York intellectual world; that was six years ago, before the advent of Gay Liberation made coming out of the closet chic. I liked it when he talked about himself and when he mingled his own sad sexual desires with his desire for the polity.

This business about ‘coming out of the closet’ being ‘chic’ risks sounding dismissive – more so in the context of the obituary as a whole, which is more rivalrous and insulting of Goodman than she would be in writing about any minor, dead European. And were Goodman’s ‘sad sexual desires’ sad because they couldn’t be fulfilled satisfactorily and freely, or because such desires were terrible to have? Her published work did not exult in gay culture as she exulted in it in her diaries: at best, it offered a covert nod of recognition, with downcast eyes of resignation; at worst, a tinge of the war of all against all in intellectual life, an absence of fellow-feeling.

Still, this sidelight on ‘Notes on “Camp”’ might risk misunderstanding the payoff of the essay. Sontag came across as an Angry Young Woman. She had a good bit of the ‘Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones’ spirit that would strengthen in her later 1960s writings on ‘the new sensibility’. But she was trying to reinvigorate Modernist vanguardism, a minority elite, within a new province, because the old Modernism had become too much the possession of middlebrows and philistines. Many people saw her complex argument as simply moving intelligent attention from ‘high’ down to ‘low’. Really, she was reinvigorating the prerogatives and specialness of the ‘high’ – not just a space for a queer sensibility, but new life for the sensibility of superiority.

In 1982, Hilton Kramer started a conservative pro-Modernist journal with the deferential title the New Criterion. Kramer was an art critic from the third-generation New York intellectual milieu; he had been writing exhibition reviews for Commentary in the years before Sontag showed up. At the New Criterion, he singled out ‘Notes on “Camp’” as having been intellect’s signal to the 1960s that all decent walls could come tumbling down. Sontag helped to destroy the old Modernism he sought to revive and defend. (This was a Modernism whose institutionalisation by the ‘middle’ of culture and capitalist enterprise, Kramer applauded; he could make peace with Philip Morris underwriting exhibitions of Picasso and Manet, but not Andy Warhol painting Campbell’s soup.) ‘In contrast to the sensibility of high culture, which she found to be “basically moralistic”,’ Kramer wrote, ‘Miss Sontag upheld camp sensibility as “wholly aesthetic”’:

This important essay can now be seen to have … severed the link between high culture and high seriousness that had been a fundamental tenet of the Modernist ethos. It released high culture from its obligation to be entirely serious, to insist on difficult standards, to sustain an attitude of unassailable rectitude.

He also recalled the degree to which the camp ethos was, apparently, gay: ‘We are thus reminded that the origin of camp is to be found in the subculture of homosexuality. Camp humour derives, in its essence, from the homosexual’s recognition that his condition represents a kind of joke on nature, a denial of its imperatives.’

Of course the challenge of pinning responsibility for such a vast cultural change on someone as sharp and serious, and also as self-aggrandising, as Sontag was that she was well ahead of Kramer in attacking it and, to some degree, in taking credit for it. From Sontag’s perspective, it was precisely the transfer of camp away from an elite perspective – which, for her, could very well be gay, or simply serious and superior – to a middling, lax, commercial-capitalist world, that had caused the ‘postmodern’ loss of intelligent standards in the realm of the arts, as in society generally. She became a scourge of the 1960s sensibility once it spread. Writing eight years before Kramer’s charges:

Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today … The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established.

Even Nazi art could be rehabilitated by those who, defending only the always seemingly embattled right to their own amusement, drew on a ‘sensibility of camp … unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness’. Yet, characteristically, Sontag’s quarry in this 1974 essay was not just aesthetics but real sex – if eros led to theory for her, theory led back to eros. In a short, virtuoso cadenza at the end of the essay, she wrote that Nazi-themed sadomasochistic sexuality had newly come into vogue, most visibly ‘among male homosexuals’. ‘Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime that persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on?’ And her answer – for someone whom we now know thought so much early on about the significance of sex, its capacity to reveal the truth of the self, its meaning-making function – was curious, a further step in the dialectic not yet visible in Reborn. Sex could go wrong, she suggested, as

a logical extension of an affluent society’s tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theatre, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental.

We all know that sex is too often made the crux of intellectual biography. It is a failing of our times. Sontag knew this too. In her essay on ‘The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer’ she asked, ‘Why do we read a writer’s journals?’, and answered:

Because of the insatiable modern preoccupation with psychology, the latest and most powerful legacy of the Christian tradition of introspection, opened up by Paul and Augustine … The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering. It is this that we look for in a writer’s diary.

Sontag’s diaries must be understood as those of a person who looked into diaries herself for ‘the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love’, and the suffering that attended both – and who wrote what she wanted to read. With other writers, we press to make the link between lust and art, but Sontag understands that sex is at the root of her writing, and wrote it into her work. In this, as in other things, she is a paradigmatic late modern soul. It has worried me that other reviews of her diaries have not made Sontag’s sense of sex central to their sense of her. Are they insensible, or am I lewd? Is there something so embarrassing to Sontag’s memory in quoting the following?

The coming of the orgasm has changed my life. I am liberated, but that’s not the way to say it …

Sexuality is the paradigm …

  The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not the salvation but, more, the birth of my ego. I cannot write until I find my ego.

This may sound more like Wilhelm Reich than the Susan Sontag we know. But after a while sex comes to seem the normal interest of the diaries, and not at all extraneous to her growth as a thinker. She was an intellectual, so she thinks and generalises about her sex life. ‘I subordinate sex to sentiment’; ‘I fear the impersonalness of sex’; ‘American idea of sex’; ‘I have to make sex cognitive’; ‘Sex as a cognitive act would be …’ begin some of the observations recorded in a single entry of 5 March 1962. ‘My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality,’ she recorded on another occasion. ‘I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.’ She wrote the way she did, it sometimes seemed to Sontag, because she was lesbian. On other occasions she saw that there was a complex band of feeling that ran through all her desires. The last entry in the book reads:

The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy.

  Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting.

Her sexuality had outlaw qualities, and odd old-fashioned qualities. It helped thrust her, via her essays, into the jumble of 1960s and 1970s liberation, even as she never availed herself in published writings of the new freedoms of homosexuality that those decades won. If we could sit down with Sontag and ask her about it, she might well say that the incessant din of 1960s sex was something of a mistake, another Modernist liberatory inheritance which turned into schlock and mystification (as camp had done) once it was touched with the grubbiness of the mass mind. But she could hardly disown her own sexual discoveries. All this makes the frank sexual focus of Sontag’s diaries significant, historical. Sex was a spring that fed her writing, and something that, when these diaries end in 1963, she still could not entirely see around.