Reborn: Susan Sontag, Early Diaries, 1947-1964, edited by David Rieff
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, by David Rieff
Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, was one of the late- 20th century’s famous public intellectuals. A stupendously well-read novelist, essayist and critic, strikingly good looking with her white badger-lock, she was engagé, pronouncing on many subjects, from Chinese dissidents to the meaning of disease.
She appeared unassailably self-confident, so it is sad, but a bit of a relief, to learn from this first volume of her journal, begun when she was 14, that Sontag was precocious but also deeply depressed. I can’t recall reading a more melancholy book. She was wracked with negative certainties about herself as a thinker, writer, adult, and, her son, David Rieff, says, ‘even for eros’.
She began keeping her journals when she was 12. They were for herself alone, and Rieff, also a prolific author, who read all 100 volumes after her death, feels guilty that he is intruding into his mother’s privacy. But he observes that because the journals lie in a university collection in California, if he didn’t publish them now someone else would.
The published journal begins in 1947. The next year, when she is 15, Sontag lists most of the anxieties that would torment her entire life: saying the wrong thing, rehearsing what to say the next day, hatred of her family, and (her own) lying. Can she hurt her mother more, she wonders, ‘How can I help me, make me cruel?’ Years later, she writes that ‘I wasn’t my mother’s child — I was her subject (subject, companion, friend, consort), I sacrificed my childhood — my honesty — to please her’. Sontag’s agony and rage at being the cheated child endure to the end of this journal. This would be adolescent angst in many other teenagers, but with Sontag, as we can see from this journal and her son’s memoir, the unhappiness was lifelong and overwhelming.
Always this misery intertwined with what she calls ‘X’, presenting herself as she would like to be seen, rather than as a gifted, often unhappy, woman endlessly seeking love and understanding. This leads to a thunderous admission when she is in her late twenties: ‘X is why I am a habitual liar. My lies are what I think the other person wants to hear.’ Almost the last words in this journal, in 1963, are ‘fear of being left alone, no comfort, warmth, reassurance, cold world, nothing to do, loss, loss, loss, life is a holding operation, my insides are hollow’.
When she is 15 she writes, ‘I feel I have lesbian tendencies’. Then she adds, ‘how reluctantly I write this’, expressing a shame she felt for years. Then follows the endless search for sexual happiness, the good orgasm, always spoiled, at least up to 1964, by the knowledge, not the suspicion, that her two lesbian lovers don’t like her. This is not paranoia, although there is quite a lot of that here, too; she sneaks looks at the journals of these women and sees what they think of her. But instead of running away or throwing them out she clings, hopes, and despairs.
The reason I’m not good in bed [she writes in 1962] is that I don’t see myself as someone who can satisfy another person sexually — I don’t see myself as free. I see myself as ‘someone who tries.’ I try to please, but of course I never succeed. I invite my own unhappiness because it’s evidence that I’m trying; I feel I am masquerading, pretending.
Ultimately, Sontag considers, ‘sex as a cognitive act would be, practically, a helpful attitude for me to have, to keep my eyes open, my head up’. Useless. When this journal ends, in 1964, Sontag is 31 and in lovelorn agony.
I didn’t notice any fun in all this, ever. Always there is ‘X’, the inability to reveal her real self to others, and no wonder: her stepfather says she reads too much to catch a husband, her mother submerges her, and her lovers heap scorn on her.
Aged 17 and already a brilliant student at the University of Chicago, and an experienced lesbian, she writes this single sentence: ‘Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning? — I am engaged to Philip Rieff.’ Her much older husband, not mentioned before, barely appears again, and they are divorced seven years later, although they had long since parted. Once they are apart, she writes of her contempt for Philip and hatred of marriage generally, although in one of her throwaway lines she says that at first their sexual life was intense. She becomes pregnant, without saying so in this journal, and some years later David appears in the narrative. It is only when she writes of sexual disaster and of her affection for David that Sontag uses simple language. Their bond was plainly close, though in her case far from exclusive, and it is this closeness which hovers over Swimming in a Sea of Death.
Then there is the reading. From the age of 15, she reads Gide, Rilke and Mann and starts listing her must-read authors — Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Galsworthy, Dante, Tasso, Pushkin, Synge, Shaw — more than 100 names in five pages. But in either 1961 or 1967 — her writing is unclear — she confesses:
Some years ago I realised that reading makes me sick, that I was like an alcoholic who nevertheless experiences a bad hangover after each binge And I couldn’t keep away from the stuff.
David Rieff’s sincere and honest memoir of his mother’s months of dying of cancer, which had ravaged her for decades is, I’m afraid, a book that could have been written of many dyings. Sontag feared ‘extinction’, searched relentlessly for cures and doctors, endured pain, feared being alone, and required constant expressions of hope from her entourage. As Rieff says, she regretted ‘not having known how to be happier in the present, where by her own admission [by now he had read her journals] her private life was a source of sorrow and frustration’. I feel David Rieff is right to say that his mother had been ‘humiliated posthumously by being “memorialised” in those carnival images of celebrity death taken by Annie Leibovitz’.
In his introduction to the journal, Rieff says that his mother longed to become ‘a person of significance’. This seems to mean of significance to a few others — her mother, lovers, a few friends, in New York, Oxford, Paris, Athens or Florence. But it was only after her death, her son writes, that ‘I was overwhelmed by the sense of how often and how profoundly she had been unhappy’.