‘I must give up writing essays,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1980. “I have become the bearer of certainties that I don’t possess – am not near possessing.” It’s one of the last entries in this second selection of Sontag’s journals, and the parting shot in an act of serial assessment that amounts to a kind of assassination. Susan Sontag represents nothing if not intellectual confidence, and yet here she is, writing at the height of her reputation as a critic and expressing uncertainty, bafflement even. Readers who have always found her work precious or joyless can now support their scepticism with words from the horse’s mouth.
In an essay on Roland Barthes, Sontag praised the journal form as “that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness”. Elsewhere, she wrote that in its “rawness”, the journal allows us to “encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works”. The writer of the journal exists, she wrote in yet another essay, “solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being”.
And so it proves here. The Sontag who emerges from these pages is not the Sontag we know from her essays or novels or television appearances. Strident in public, in her journal she portrays herself as fearful and shrinking. We meet Sontag the damaged daughter and Sontag the devoted mother. “What a burden for him,” she writes of her son David Rieff, “all that admiration.”
The burden hasn’t lightened since her death – Rieff has done an unflinching, if under-informative job as editor of these journals, producing an ad hoc autobiography in which youthful hope gives way to midlife gloom. This new selection, a successor to Reborn, takes Sontag up to her late forties, by which point she had made many illustrious friends (Godard, Barthes, Brodsky, Jasper Johns) and published several path-breaking books (Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness As Metaphor) without ever shaking off a sense that what might have been would never come to pass.
“I intend to do everything”, Sontag wrote in 1949. But intending to do everything can become an eternal goal. Throughout her journals, between the strong opinions (“Rothko – soft Mondrians”) and abstruse pronouncements (“The Russians didn’t have an 18th century”), she makes all kinds of lists. (A list of things she likes includes Bach, Venice, Maple sugar candy, aphorisms and tequila.) There are lists of books she has read or reread or wants to, but her speciality is a highbrow counterpart to the Post-it on the fridge: “Compare German romanticism (Holderlin, Novalis, Schelling) w Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Chateaubriand!” “Write a book about the body – but not a schizophrenic book. Is that possible?”
For Sontag, putting things off became a way of perpetuating dreams. “To think,” she wrote in 1949, “that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers!” And whether she was talking sex or prose, within her fingers is where the sensuous potentiality stayed. She quotes Beckett to the effect that to be an artist is to fail – but does this include failing to be an artist? It is now possible to see a kind of wistful envy in Sontag’s claim, in an essay, that Barthes “was not curious enough to let his reading interfere with his writing”. Too much reading made her writing self-conscious.
When Sontag does allow her writing to interfere with her reading, she is disappointed with the result. At two points in 1965, she complains about the “thinness” of her prose. Again and again, this note is sounded: “My work is too austere”; “I have more than enough intelligence, learning, vision. The object is character, boldness”; “I want to fight my resignation – but I have only the tools of resignation to fight with.” Barthes’s later writing, she claimed, “took on the freedoms and the risks of the notebook”. But Sontag’s risks were mostly confined to her notebook. It is the only place where her passions take anything other than stringently discursive form.
Just as one “criticises in others what one recognises and despises in oneself”, so Sontag most coveted what she didn’t possess and had little hope of attaining. In 1975, she confessed that it was the prose of non-Jewish writers such as Elizabeth Hardwick and Wilfrid Sheed that “turns me on these days. No ideas, but what music.” As a girl, she read Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood and declared: “That is the way I want to write – rich and rhythmic.” But this wasn’t just a matter of someone failing to meet her impossibly high standards; her essays could be forceful without ever being especially artful.
Sontag doubted whether a writer’s journal could illuminate that writer’s books, but in her case, it does, though not always flatteringly. The journal is where Sontag showed the intentions and instincts that never made it into her work; it was where she played out possibilities for herself as a freer, looser writer.
In a note written in 1964, she made a series of reflections about Marxist criticism and then decided: “(Use this as introduction to Lukács essay.)” But when she came to write the essay, she settled instead for the kind of opening – learned and assertive, bracing and bland – that she preferred: “The Hungarian philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács is the senior figure living today within the borders of the Communist world who speaks a Marxism that it is possible for intelligent Marxists to take seriously.” At one point, she dismisses the title I, etcetera as “too cerebral” for a book of stories – and then uses it anyway.
At such moments, Sontag appears to be cultivating imperiousness, and in the long term, she abandoned her dreams of being a bold, rhythmical essayist, in favour of being a sort of high-culture publicist. It was a role she had always enjoyed. “Needless to say,” she wrote in the Lukács essay, “knowledge of him here is long overdue.” “So far,” she wrote in 1963, “Levi-Strauss is hardly known in this country.”
Sontag was at her best when writing on subjects (camp, photography, Godard) that, through being either elusive or well covered, forced her to be distinctive – but she increasingly devoted her attention to forgotten figures, exercises in recovery which required little of her, and damned her to write prose that was either pallid or self-important. The afterlife of Macade de Assis “has not brought his work the recognition it deserves”. Glenway Wescott’s novel The Pilgrim Hawk is “still neglected”. Her essay on Robert Walser is presented “to a public that has yet to discover him”. An essay on Leonid Tsypkin’s novel Summer in Baden-Baden begins with the reflection that “it seems unlikely that there are still masterpieces in major, intently patrolled languages waiting to be discovered” – and then pulls one out of the hat. The problem with being ahead of the curve is that people catch up with you eventually. You want them to. But then what happens?
“‘What is it?’ before ‘Is it any good?’” Sontag wrote in 1964, by way of establishing her critical priorities, but here as elsewhere, it was a stance she admired because she was so temperamentally ill-suited to adopting it. Sontag was concerned not just with asking “Is it any good?” but “How good?” She was a “genius” fanatic who loved nothing more than a world-historical superlative. It was rare for her to look a subject dead in the eye and hit on that mixture of explanation and evocation needed if criticism is to retain its urgency long after its subject has lost our attention, or become famous all over the world.