As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh – Susan Sontag

Kevin Breathnach
Posted June 18, 2012 in Print

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In his preface to this, the second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, David Rieff ventures to describe what is to follow as ‘the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write’. In doing so, he renews his mother’s own misguided insistence that she was a novelist first and foremost. If this is a novel, moreover, it is an experimental, aphoristic and not entirely successful one, composed of lists, fragments, half-thoughts and quickly abandoned sub-plots.

But it isn’t a novel. Instead, it is the rather sad diary of one of the finest public intellectuals in recent history, a figure who will be remembered not for the few uneven novels she wrote, but for the great multitude of first-rate criticism to her name. If it sometimes seems as if Sontag wrote introductions to every book published east of Essen, such erudition was not lightly-won. As late as 1980, we find her making long lists of books to read, films to see and words ‘to thicken my active vocabulary’ with. One 1964 entry reads: ‘After 25 hours of work (dexamyl) I think I’ve sorted things out.’ It came at the cost of her happiness, too. She overthought everything, was often alone and remained deeply insecure when in love.

Why does a writer keep a diary like this? As an exercise in private reflection, says conventional wisdom. ‘One doesn’t write [letters] to others anymore; one writes to oneself,’ notes Sontag, who was nevertheless careful to keep her diaries dated, titled, revised and filed in order. One doesn’t write to oneself, in other words; one writes to posterity. A book like this is probably of little use, then, to anyone who isn’t a biographer. Its seeds all blossomed elsewhere. If you’re looking for a decent reading list, though, you could do worse than those contained in this volume.

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