Our Great Man
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963
By Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 318 pages, $25.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Jan Clausen
I plead the goal of self-edification, and the goad of a sharp conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to the phenomenon…and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.
—Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964.
I begin with my rationale for a review in note format. What Sontag called “a form of jottings” seems appropriate for responding to a text that, because of its fragmentary structure and improvised air, invites an unusual degree of reader involvement. I scribble in the spaces offered by its latticework.
The phenomenon to which I am strongly drawn, and by which I am strongly offended, is not the appearance of Reborn, which I find wholly delicious. It is, rather, Susan Sontag’s phenomenal success as a female public intellectual for the American Century. (“What do I believe?…in holding up culture,” she writes in a phrase reproduced on Reborn’s elegant jacket. Beautiful caryatid!) I am mesmerized by Sontag’s exercise of her leonine intelligence, and provoked to censorious envy by her canny leveraging of cultural capital—by her managing to be, as literary critic Terry Castle has written, in a hilarious and touching personal essay recalling their asymmetrical friendship, “our very own Great Man” (“Desperately Seeking Susan,” London Review of Books, March 17, 2005).
Impossible to read Reborn, the first volume of private writing from Sontag’s teens and twenties (two further volumes are promised), without reference to one’s notions of the public figure. The thrilling oracular voice of the early essays: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (from “Against Interpretation,” 1966). Her post-9/11 New Yorker piece, with its salutary rebuke to patriotic narcissism (soon tempered by approval for the Afghanistan invasion). In between, the many famous photographs that helped create her persona long before the glam head shot became a standard book-marketing tool. (On the front of Reborn, young Sontag’s pale triangular face, framed by a cowl-like headdress, stands out against a stark black background, the huge soulful eyes peering sideways at the viewer; on the back jacket flap, the same image, differently cropped, reveals her tensely holding a thin cigarette between bone-white fingers.)
And yet, to approach Reborn as grist for the mill of an amateur curiosity about the person behind the militantly anticonfessional books Sontag published during her lifetime is a risky enterprise, as the writer herself hints in a notebook entry composed in 1957: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.” Let us leave it to her biographers to judge the accuracy with which this “vehicle” portrays the young author’s motives and circumstances.
I prefer to read Reborn as a wonderful accidental novel.
The most enthralling, aesthetically rich, provocative lesbian novel in many a year.
The novel’s plot is that of a female bildungsroman, driven—feverishly—by its protagonist’s lust for selfhood: emotional, intellectual, artistic, erotic.
We follow young Susan on her perilous Voyage Out. She escapes her clingy mother and middlebrow Los Angeles home for the cosmopolitan thrills of intellectual debate—first at the University of California/Berkeley, then at the University of Chicago—leavened by excursions to gay bars. On fire with the revelations of her first lesbian affairs, she scrawls on one journal cover, “I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK.” But she soon slips and falls—a near-fatal error—into the numbing roles of faculty wife (to sociologist Philip Rieff) and semidutiful mother (to David Rieff, who, in a vertiginous twist that bestows upon Reborn its piquantly oedipal secondary plot, will one day edit these very notebooks for posthumous publication!). Susan musters the womanish fortitude to endure the nuclear family for a number of years before pulling off her second great escape, this time to England, on a fellowship, alone. Thence to Paris, where she resumes a physically intense but lacerating affair with “H.,” the lover she’d met at Berkeley nearly a decade before. “[I]t was so good to be home, as it were—to have women, instead of men, interested in me…” The year is 1958, Susan not quite 25 years old; although H.’s remoteness devastates her, the euphoria of “home” suffuses the final third of Reborn. Susan settles in New York and falls in love with “Irene” (the playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who had also been H’s lover).
Resolution, such as it is, comes not in the form of romance, but through Susan’s grasp of the link between eros and logos: “Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting.”
A novel about a lovesick, girl-struck, girl intellectual—particularly an autobiographical novel by “our very own Great Man” in training—will fascinate almost anyone who is now or has ever been a lovesick, girl-struck, girl intellectual. But even readers who don’t connect on such a personal level can appreciate the fully rounded way in which Reborn develops Susan’s character. Our heroine comes alive with the urgency and surprise we admire in the classics of humanistic fiction that Sontag the avant-garde novelist gruffly disdained. She’s many-sided, full of strengths and flaws and plausible contradictions: the woman who exults in “the coming of the orgasm” and the woman who searches for “[t]he reason I’m not good in bed (haven’t ‘caught on’ sexually).” The woman who sees herself as beautifully damned, like the queer decadents in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), and the one who reminds herself to “take a bath every day” and “think about why I bite my nails in the movies.” The woman who fills her notebooks with sibylline abstractions (“The world is a unique object—it is in this sense that it has no boundary”) and she who compiles a list of childhood memories: “Sharing a room with Mother the first two years in Tucson. (Nat [her stepfather] recommended it.) Reading Ida Tarbell on the Duponts. Finding a Kosher restaurant for Grandma.” The reader (this reader) tracks Susan’s perilous progress as eagerly as ever she trailed Jane Eyre, or the biomythographical Audre Lorde of Zami (1982).
On a formal level, this novel operates through the modernist devices of asymmetry, disproportion, fragmentation, and juxtaposition; through incorporation of found materials and the workings of chance. Some ordinary scenes are treated exhaustively, down to the time of day at which a sandwich was consumed, while Susan’s 1951 marriage to Philip Rieff is announced in a single line—“I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness”—followed by a jump cut to 1953. (An editor’s note explains that notebooks may have been lost, or possibly weren’t kept during this key period.) Lists are ubiquitous, compulsive in their detail: books to buy and films seen, together with their casts and directors. But side by side with the driest of notations comes a poignant passage like this 1957 entry: “I can remember what it was like not to be married—what I did—, but I can’t feel like I was then. The sense of not being free has never left me these six years. The dream of a few weeks ago: a horse came up behind me as I was going down a short flight of stairs—into a swimming pool, it seemed—and placed its two front legs on me, one over each shoulder. I screamed and tried to free myself from the weight, then awoke.” Or this playful verse about reading The Iliad to four-year-old David: “Plump downy face / Slack with wonder. / I declaim. / Horror follows horror. / Poor Patroclus. / See you later, Ajax the greater!” Then there’s the mordant humor (almost certainly unintended) of an entry from a trip with Irene: “I spent an hour this evening (when she was down at the port) masturbating + studying my cunt with a mirror. I told her when she came back. ‘Did you discover anything?’ she said. ‘No,’ I answered.”
Our imagination sparks in the gaps between points of narrative, but also in the gaps between forms. How strange that life contains, cheek by jowl, the practical world of lists and clock-watching; the dream world, all dark and passionate, reeking of Thanatos; the world of mythic texts.
The reader’s interaction with the story is shadowed by the fraught interaction between David Rieff and Susan Sontag. Inside Reborn’s hall of mirrors, the fragile son morphs into the empowered editor of a brilliant but messy manuscript by a fledgling author young enough to be his own child. In his preface, Rieff details his doubts as to the wisdom of publishing the notebooks, explaining that he tackled the editorial job in preference to letting someone else take it over. (Sontag had sold the notebooks, along with other papers, to a university collection under terms that made eventual publication a virtual certainty.) “Caveat lector,” he instructs, while assuring us that he has censored nothing.
“Mother was never angry with me, only hurt. (Thank God, I don’t do this to David),” Sontag writes. The theme of motherhood’s pitfalls permeates Reborn, alongside the complications of sexual love. The writer “adores” her child, but worries that his nanny may have usurped her place in his affections (this is the same nanny who once cared for Susan!—the theme of class privilege permeates Reborn). Susan and Philip Rieff wage a custody battle; after winning it, she writes, “Maybe I should give David up.” The book’s emotional structure heaps triangles on triangles.
Reading Reborn as fiction runs up against the problem that the book really concludes, beyond its final page, with our knowledge of its subject’s fabulous afterlife. Reader, she married herself, and became our Great Man, and so lived happily ever after in the stacks.
Mighty Sontag bestrode an intellectual world that no longer exists in the age of Facebook and Twitter (and perhaps didn’t really exist when she was living it, either—outside her imagined community of European high culture). I have been braced and inspired by the daring of her insistence on her right to “intellectual ecstasy.” At the same time, I can see that the celebrity she achieved by capturing something of that ecstasy in words had a great deal to do with her circumspect management of her identities as queer woman and Jew. (Management, I say, not denial: Sontag wielded a powerful modern version of the “open secret” as performed by the likes of Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein). This celebrity was also underwritten by her intense Eurocentrism—a flaw more serious than any momentary lapse in the cultivation of “diverse” culture heroes, for it signals a limited grasp of the actual world and the culture(s) that merit upholding.
Is it even remotely possible that my casting of Reborn as a stunning lesbian novel might have gratified Sontag, who dodged sexual labels and hated the fact that critics preferred her essays to her fiction?
It certainly won’t mollify those arbiters of taste who at all costs must have the “Great Man” version of Sontag. Thus Richard Eder, in a New York Times review, holding his nose at the personal stench of the text: “In many ways these scrappy entries justify Mr. Rieff’s doubts [about the propriety of publishing the journals]. It is not because the material is raw, with its accounts of lesbian sex invariably ending in wretchedness, but because the writing is.” Reiff himself, though long-suffering and loyal, does his own damage in a preface that highlights “pain” along with “ambition,” priming us to expect a narrative I did not find at all: the story of an unfulfilled woman “as uncomfortable with her body as she was serene about her mind.”
In place of a neurotics we need an erotics of Sontag.
Jan Clausen is the author of the memoir Apples and Oranges (1999), the novels Sinking, Stealing (1985) and The Prosperine Papers (1989), and many volumes of poetry. She teaches at the New School and NYU, and in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program.