Friday, March 27, 2009

Susan Sontag

Just finished Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals 1947 to 1963 and the overwhelming impression is that she was a monstrous intellectual prig. But I should temper this criticiam with the fact that she was just 16 when she started writing them.

I have long admired Sontag as a feminist who was far removed from the ankle biting of Andrea Dworkin, as a Jew who saw flaws in the US policy in the Middle-East, and as an intellectual who was not afraid to say things that were unpopular even with her allies in the NYRB. She was the only prominent US intellectual to suggest that 9/11 may have been the pigeons coming home to roost. In the New Yorker shortly after the atrocity she stated that "The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy." Good on ye girl.

But her journals are something else. The first impression is how precocious she was. When I was reading science fiction and Frank O'Connor she was reading the journals of Gide and Kirkegaard. She was also wonderfully scornful of cerain writers - I felt a sympathetic twinge when she dismissed Henry James out of hand. She also dismissed people in her life - if you weren't contributing to her intellectual development you were let go. Her sole motive for marrying seemed to be that her putative husband offered interesting research options.

The journals were disappointing in that there were endless lists of books bought and films seen but very little of her opinions about most of them. The lists were impressive in their intellectual heft but we rarely get to hear of how they affected her.

Her achilles heel was her sexuality. Alongside the extreme intellectual precociousness is an unhappy besotted lesbian who was plainly embroiled in a number of abusive relationships. We never get to hear how she went from married hetero-sexual academic to tortured lesbian. In her public life Sontag never discussed her sexual orientation, but in her journals she sang the praises of lesbian adventure. Although evidence suggest she actually had a penchant for monogamy - she ended her days living with the photographer Annie Leibbovitz.