Mar 11, 2014
Norman Birnbaum on Susan Sontag
Posted on Mar 6, 2009
Two characters are etched in acid, her female lovers H. and I. From what she says about them, it was their natural medium. Still, the point is not that they were brutal, capricious, disloyal and incapable of love. It is Susan’s desperate need for warmth and reciprocity, her exceedingly painful struggle toward sexual self-expression. I have chosen the last word deliberately, rather than using satisfaction or pleasure. Her sexual misadventures were integral to her major journey, and that was toward re-creating herself.
The journals, read in a linear way, are a story of continuing self-reproach. Susan was, apparently, convinced that she gossiped too much, was excessively dependent on the approval of others who, upon reflection, themselves counted for little in her life, and was insufficiently loyal to true friends. She thought of her marriage as a prison and spent much time wondering if she had the capacity to escape. In her years in Cambridge, Erik Erikson’s idea of the search for “identity” dominated the sort of academic big talk which finally, decades later, seems much smaller. Susan, clearly, had an identity she wished to cast off. She wanted to live generously and largely and, above all, on the frontier of culture and experience, where intellect and sensibility were one.
One way to read these texts (there are several possibilities, evidence for the book’s fascination and value) is to eschew linearity. Consider the sort of aesthetics (and ethics) Susan espoused in the much-cited essay “Against Interpretation,” published in Partisan Review in 1963, the final year of the journal entries in the present volume. “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.”
What we see (and hear and feel) in the journals and notebooks is not Susan becoming a writer, but Susan as already one—setting down her own inner appropriation of a disordered world, her unceasing attempt to achieve sovereignty over herself. In the end, my disturbance gave way to admiration, encouraged by recognition. The form of the book is a collage. Truly read, it is very much an account of a life becoming whole.
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