Reborn: Journals & Notebooks of Susan Sontag

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947 – 1963, Susan Sontag – I completed the first in a series of three journal publications of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks this month. Her son, David Rieff, edited them, and I I think he did an heartbreakingly honest job of it.  I’ve read a couple of essays by Rieff and I actually wanted Reborn as much for his skills as for Sontag’s.

What I found the most fascinating about her journals is the very deliberate way Sontag went about creating herself – intellectually, physically, emotionally – I often assume intellectuals just are, that they are born with some innate understanding of Descartes or Derrida, that they naturally want to spend an afternoon reading “The Cherry Tree” instead of watching a movie, but from her long lists of “to be read” to the concertos she listened to with intent, Sontag proves that while natural ability is certainly some of the equation, it’s certainly not all of it. I’ve lately found myself interested in the construction of the self…why people identify with certain things – the things people say in order to illustrate the kind of people they want to be…I can’t stand it when my lawn isn’t perfectly mowed, or I won’t eat it if it isn’t locally grown or I only read 18th century fiction…what is it, inside of us, pointing us in these directions? What is it, outside of us? Reading Sontag’s journal offered a lot of interesting insight into the creation of an intellectual. Certainly there are one hundred ways to deconstruct her journal…you can read it from a feminist perspective, or study her views on motherhood, or her homosexuality, but for me by far the most interesting was the way her journals served as a way for her to talk through the kind of person she wants to be. I’ll leave you with some quotes from the journals and a two-thumbs up recommendation to read this book if you are interested in Sontag, Rieff or the reading of journals in general.

I know now a little of my capacity…I know what I want to do with my life, all of this being so simple, but so difficult for me in the past to know. I want to sleep with many people – I want to live and hate to die – I will notteach, or get a master’s degree after i get my B.A…I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge!

In marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality – at first the loss was pleasant, easy; now it aches and stirs up my general disposition to be malcontented with a new fierceness.

(On parenting David) – 1. Be consistent. 2. Don’t speak about him to others in his presence (don’t make him self-conscious.) 3. Don’t praise him for something I wouldn’t always accept as good. 4. Don’t repriment him harshly for something he’s been allowed to do. 5. Daily routine: eating, homework, bath, teeth, room, story, bed 6. Don’t allow him to monopolize me when I am with other people 7 Always speak well of his pop. 8. Don’t discourage childish fantasies. 9. Make him aware there is a grown-up world that’s none of his business. 10. Don’t assume that what I don’t like to do (bath, hairwash) he won’t like either.

Important to become less interesting. To talk less, repeat more, save thinking for writing.

To write, you have to allow yourself to be the person you don’t want to be (of all the people you are)

This book really left me hoping Rieff will someday write a memoir about his relationship with his mother (this, and his writing that I have read). I doubt he will – he doesn’t seem indulgent in that way, but I for one would be quite interested.

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7 Responses to Reborn: Journals & Notebooks of Susan Sontag

  1. litlove says:

    Oh I just have to read these, and I completely agree that your question about where the inner compass directs us is quite fascinating.

    And I’ve been reading an extremely interesting book on success that quotes the 10,000 rule, which says that to master any skill requires roughly 10,000 hours of practice. Genius is only a tiny part of the equation. Hence Sontag’s concerted efforts to educate herself.

  2. Karen says:

    The quotes you have included here have definitely given me a taste for this book – will have to seek it out.

  3. Emily Barton says:

    And yet another book to read…

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    The journals sound very interesting, and I think I would enjoy reading them for the same reason you mention — to watch her creating herself. I haven’t read much Sontag, but I should.

  5. kimhaasdesign says:

    This definitely needs to go on my never-ending to-be-read list. But I still haven’t finished the journals of Joyce Carol Oates and I don’t think I could read journals by two such intense writers at the same time.

  6. Courtney says:

    Litlove – I really think you’ll enjoy her diaries, especially her thoughts/comments on motherhood…
    Karen – I love adding to other’s reading lists…
    Emily – payback, payback, payback…
    Dorothy – I really need to tackle her essays next…
    Kim – God, Oates is a tough one. Definitely give yourself six months in between the two!

  7. Gabo says:

    Thanks for this. I was looking for some comments from blog world. I am a big fan of Sontag’s and was turned off by some amazon remarks about them being published against her wishes…

    But it seems necessary to read, given how obsessed I am with her. Your insights are also wonderful! What is it inside us that directs us to be intellectual! A sense of suffering, a longing. But now I need to read these, though given I am in India at the moment, will have to wait. All in good time.

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