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Norman Birnbaum on Susan Sontag

Posted on Mar 6, 2009
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By Norman Birnbaum

(Page 2)

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.


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Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963


By Susan Sontag


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages


Buy the book


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.     

Norman Birnbaum is University Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center, and his most recent book is “After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century.” He is writing a memoir.


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By J, March 7, 2009 at 1:25 pm Link to this comment
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One way to follow the text in a non-linear fashion is via Susan Sontag’s twitter feed:

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By Mel Roseman, March 6, 2009 at 9:44 pm Link to this comment
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Mr. Birnbaum became friends with Susan after she entered college.  He therefore didn’t know that she moved from Tucson AZ to North Hollywood, California (suburban Los Angeles)  before entering high school.  Susan graduated from North Hollywood High School and published a reminiscence of that part of her life as “Pilgrimage,” in the December 21, 1987 issue of the New Yorker.
- Mel Roseman

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By NYCartist, March 6, 2009 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment

I have many questions after reading this review:
Did Susan Sontag participate in putting her papers together for giving to UCLA?  Was this done after her death? 

How would a review be different if it was written by a woman? 
I read everything that does psychological interpretation to an artist’s work/writing with suspicion.  (My screen name is what I am, an artist.)

Children have points of view about their parent(s).  It colors their perceptions, as well as their writing of history.

The diary entries in question were by a very young woman.  It is not clear if she intended them to be read.  Yes, she did not destroy them.  Illness is a busy time.

I appreciate how hard it was for Norman Birnbaum to write about a friend.  The writing by Sontag was done when she was so young.  Many more questions than answers, but this review is more comfortable to me than what I read on the Guardian website when the Sontag papers were published.

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