Susan Sontag: holding herself to account

Angela McRobbie
22 January 2009

The publication of selections from Susan Sontag's private journals and notebooks from the years 1947-64 opens her early inner life to a public readership. The fact that the volume is edited by her son, David Rieff, hints at the complexities surrounding the decision to publish this intimate and revealing work. Indeed, Rieff's introduction confesses his misgivings in this respect, before reflecting that - since Sontag had sold her papers to the University of California (UCLA) in 2002, two years before her death - he remains the person most likely to honour Sontag's identity and do justice to the process of editing. 

Angela McRobbie is professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London. She is author of British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry (Routledge, 1998), In the Culture Society (Routledge, 1999), and The Uses of Cultural Studies (Sage, 2005). She has also written extensively on young women and popular culture and about making a living in the new cultural economy.

Angela McRobbie's most recent book is The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (Sage, November 2008). Her next is Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industry (2009)

Also by Angela McRobbie in openDemocracy:

"'Everyone is Creative': artists as new economy pioneers?" (29 August 2001)

"Pierre Bourdieu: from the study to the street" (20 February 2002)

"Tony Blair and the Marxists" (26 March 2003)

"While Susan Sontag lay dying" (10 October 2008)It must indeed have put him in a difficult as well as rare position: a son confronting the inner thoughts of his mother as a teenage girl (aged just 14 when the journals begin) embarking on her own sentimental and sexual education with a combination of exuberant naivety, avid self-monitoring and unbridled intellectual appetite. The would-be over-protective observer wants to shout to her to look out, to warn her of the dangers of entrusting her heart to unresponsive lovers; and, somehow, traces of this filial anxiety do accompany the text.

At the same time, Rieff's editorial presence is understated, academic, respectful; thus allowing his mother her full due. Sontag - until so recently seen by the world as high-minded, an advocate of seriousness at all times (surely admirable traits) - erupts through these pages. She is revealed as throwing herself into romance and sexual entanglements in ways that animate and give form to the intellectual activities which she embraces with equal passion and energy.

The juxtaposition of her reading-lists, her must-dos (à la Bridget Jones) in the field of self-improvement, and her comments on and judgments of novels, operas, art exhibitions, concerts, beside self-flagellation on her lack of sexual technique - all this makes the book not just rich and delightful but also a piece of art work in its own right.

It is also a literary revelation. Susan Sontag is best known for her brilliant essays on life, death, illness and suffering, on photography, on film, on modern fiction, and on popular culture. Her early fiction attempted to forge a high modern voice (whereas most spectacular modernists availed themselves of the mud, the vulgar and the vernacular), and was too overwrought and ice-cold in its intellectual snobbishness; her late fiction veered in the opposite direction. In this light, the diaries become the fiction she never wrote.

On the skin

But the revelations are more than literary. The young Sontag gets down and dirty: puzzling about how with one lover she acts femme, with the next butch, in the process providing a funny and moving account of lesbian subcultures in the early 1950s, from California to New York and Paris. Her determination to create an intellectual life for herself - she left her suburban home as soon as she could and got to Berkeley at 15 - makes her appear somehow oblivious to any such thing as an impediment, never mind the kind of social or historical "block" which others like her might be expected to encounter. She appears to experience throughout the years of these journals no obstacle based on her sex or her sexual identity.

She begins by noting her lesbian tendencies, and finds little excitement on dates with boys or men. Then she meets a woman called H in a bookstore who introduces her to the gay scene in San Francisco and who also instructs her on lovemaking. It is in this space of teenage desire, constant intrigue, and (on the part of her lovers at least) a great deal of duplicity, that she feels herself to be "reborn". She is in effect swept off her feet. The relationship with H carries on throughout the period of the diaries; though it is interrupted by a period of four or five years when Sontag opts out of the gay scene, becomes engaged to a lecturer just a few weeks after meeting him, then marries him and has her son, David.

Almost immediately after her marriage she comments on her "will towards self-destruction". The roles of young wife and mother seem to present real  obstacles to the continuation of her earlier pursuit of freedom, interrupting even her diary-keeping. She does not associate such constraints on herself in terms of pre-feminist womanhood, but she is evidently depressed, and eventually launches herself away from her family via a scholarship; this takes her initially to Oxford (unsurprisingly, not her cup of tea) and in the end to Paris (where H is already established as the "first flower of American bohemianism"). From this point on the diary again becomes animated.

During the marriage the sparser diary notes offer a series of intense reflections on what this kind of institutionalised intimacy does to sexual desire and passion. Sontag writes ferociously about the corrosion of feeling. She finds little comfort in security, in domestic routine or even in the glamorous intellectual company she keeps in these years. She jots down notes which might become an essay on marriage or a short story, but mostly what this reveals is her need for sexual freedom and the enjoyment of sleeping with women.

Throughout the relationship with H she is tormented both by the lover's coldness and cruelty, and by H's apparent preference for her former lover Irene. Inside the gay scene there is a good deal of swapping of lovers, and Sontag finds herself frequently distressed, weeping with jealousy and subject to tirades - first by H and later by Irene - for being a poor lover, and for not having mastered the techniques of good sex. She is eventually abandoned by H, whose diary Sontag reads, to find herself written about disparagingly by a person who seems neither to have loved nor much liked her. Sontag then forms a partnership with the mysterious Irene, who - despite Sontag's beauty and intellect - is equally indifferent or perhaps unimpressed. Nonetheless these entanglements provide Sontag with the drama and intensity she craves ("5 whiskeys and great sex at dawn"); and they reveal to Sontag her own "dangerous streak of tenderness", her romantic longings even when she admires "ruthlessness and arrogance".

In the world

Most of all Sontag's diaries portray a huge appetite for learning, for culture, and for the "life of the mind". She returns to New York from Paris, gains custody of her son, resumes life as a young mother -  and remains insatiable. She is able regularly to cram in three films a day, as well as caring for her young son before heading out for another round of opera and the late-night bars.

For all this, it is important to avoid getting carried away by the romance of this pursuit of freedom, entangled as it is with Susan Sontag's intellectual magnificence. Her youthfulness and precociousness should also not be exaggerated. A flight from the narrowness of suburban family life was after all a defining feature of "beatnik" life, and in this respect Sontag was far from alone. But her new freedom offered no guarantees: for many years, Sontag was criticised by both feminists and by gay and lesbian activists for not coming out in public, and for rarely connecting herself wholeheartedly with the women's movement. In some ways her diaries are the answer to these complaints. And if love is always already a soap-opera, this reticence demonstrates her desire to avoid the spotlight while still alive. 

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