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Book Review

Norman Birnbaum on Susan Sontag

Norman Birnbaum
Contributor
Norman Birnbaum (born 1926) is a New Yorker educated at Williams College and Harvard. He has taught sociology at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, the University of Strasbourg and Amherst…
Norman Birnbaum

The journals and notebooks of the late Susan Sontag are in the collection of her papers at UCLA. She left no instructions as to whether or how these should be published, placed no restrictions upon their use. Her son, David Rieff, says in the introduction of “Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963” that he did not wish to leave the task to others. He notes that “as a reader and a writer my mother loved diaries and letters—the more intimate the better. So perhaps Susan Sontag the writer would have approved of what I have done.” He has undertaken to edit all of the material she left behind in this form, and this is the first volume. I suppose that she left these accounts of a great deal of personal agony to teach us a lesson, or lessons — not least, of honesty with oneself.

I knew Susan, having met her first with her former husband, the late Philip Rieff, at Harvard in 1957. We saw one another intermittently over the years and for a while we were together on the editorial board of Partisan Review. I also knew — sometimes for better and sometimes for worse — a good many of the persons mentioned in the text, nearly all of them, alas, now gone. David Rieff studied for a year at Amherst College when I taught there, and we are friends. Briefly, I think of myself as part of Susan’s extended family.

book cover

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

By Susan Sontag

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages

Buy the book

Usually, I am prompt in returning reviews. Doing this one, however, has been quite drawn out. I attribute that to the immediacy, the shock, of reading Susan’s confrontation with herself. I was reminded of my own early inner distress, my drive to enter a larger world, my doubts about my talents, my even more profound but unacknowledged doubts about my capacities for relationships.

Working in fits and starts, I put the book down for days and weeks, picked it up again to read another 30 or so of its 300-plus pages, then reverted again to numbed flight. Finally, I read it all again. It was much clearer the second time. Far from blocking her development as a writer, the intensity of her pain may well have moved her forward. She seemed to be living out Nietzsche’s claim: Only out of chaos comes a dancing star.

The first entry comes from Susan’s 14th year, the last from her 30th. She went from high school in Los Angeles to the University of California at Berkeley, to the University of Chicago, and then to graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard and teaching at New York’s City College, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia. At 17, she suddenly married Philip Rieff, an instructor in sociology at Chicago. They lived together in Cambridge (he taught at Brandeis) with their son, born when she was 19. She broke away, spent some time at Oxford and then moved to Paris, decidedly more to her liking. She returned to New York, and gradually freed herself from the constraints of academic life to establish herself as a writer. For a time she was an editor at Commentary, but the book casts little light on the New York intellectuals, just as it is minimalist (perhaps sub-minimalist) in its depiction of the academy.

The text’s fragmented contents alternate continuously between accounts of the seeming trivia of daily life and direct expressions of the despair of her soul. In between, she noted books read, concerts heard, films seen — and persons encountered. There are condensed bits of aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics, short takes on theology and longer ones on ecclesiology. Dreams are recounted, ailments chronicled. Well before Twittering, Susan had mastered the art of collecting the detritus of the day.

Amidst constant inner turmoil, she attracted and kept friends. The references to her mother, sister, stepfather and their conventional Jewish-American milieu are telling. She found them unsupportive because they were uncurious about her wish to move on and away. Political and social commentary (the period spans the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies, the Cold War, the civil rights movement and the beginnings of the social protest of the ’60s) is conspicuous by its absence.

Direct and sustained description and analysis of any kind are no less conspicuously missing. Much of the world takes form in the text only as a slowly unwinding montage; places and décor succeed one another as if her attention were elsewhere. New York and Paris occasion brief ruminations on the nature of the city, London is left out. There is a reference to architecture on Cambridge’s Brattle Street, but nothing on Harvard Square or the Yard. Somehow, she conveys that American and European spaces are different — but not how.

Persons, too, make brief and frequently spectral appearances. We are left to guess why the rest of the world thought some of them colorful—and, often, what they might have meant to Susan. That is not, to be sure, true of all of them. We do have more than a passing impression of her mother — as distant and uncomprehending. Her husband does not come off particularly well, although in his defense it can be said that he never claimed to be a saint and was dubious about that comforting and vague, if positive, term mensch. (The evidence of the journals suggests that Susan was right to claim a considerable part in the writing of his book, “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.”) Her concern and love for her son are unfeignedly evident. She did leave him with his father when she went to Oxford and Paris in 1957, but she reclaimed him afterward and won a custody battle in the courts, of which the journals contain traces. There are, undoubtedly, lessons in domesticity in her life for other women—but she is at no pains to draw these. 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.

book cover

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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