Wake Up, Little Susie

Photo: Bob Peterson/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Susan Sontag started keeping a journal at the age of 12; her first entry concerned the rotting corpse of a dog. Over the course of her life she remained such a devoted self-documenter that, when she died, she left nearly 100 full notebooks filed neatly in a closet. It was unclear whether she wanted them published. (She whispered to her son, cryptically, dramatically, during her final illness: “You know where the diaries are.”) “In the journal,” she wrote in her own, “I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.” With the publication of Reborn—selections from the entries Sontag wrote between the ages of 14 and 30—we can now track the agonizing process of that self-creation: the first steps in her journey from a suburban California loner to America’s reigning public intellectual.

The story is simple, swift, and mostly sad. Sontag was a precocious, restless teenager, a Euro-culture junkie with guilty homosexual urges who managed to live several lifetimes before she was old enough to legally drink. At age 16 she left home for college at UC Berkeley. Later that year she was (as she puts it) “reborn,” after having epiphanic sex with a woman she refers to only as “H.” She marked the occasion with a series of ecstatic life resolutions:

“I know what I want to do with my life … I want to sleep with many people— I want to live and hate to die—I will not teach, or get a master’s … I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge! … I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly … everything matters! … I am alive … I am beautiful … what else is there?”

This is moving on several levels: as a burst of happiness in a happiness-starved life; as a brief lifting of the weight of sexual guilt; and as a radical life program that would inevitably be betrayed. (She taught plenty of classes, got two master’s degrees, and became a high priestess of knowledge-worship.) Life, for Sontag, turned out to be about much more than simply being alive and beautiful.

After a semester at Berkeley, Sontag transferred to the University of Chicago, where, at just 17, she married a sociology instructor named Philip Rieff. They had a son. The marriage dissolved. She moved, alone, to Oxford, then to Paris, where—in a sad circularity—she fell into another love affair with “H.” This time it ended in a painful anti-epiphany, after which Sontag had to be re-reborn. As the relationship goes sour, you can see her, in the journals, begin to berate herself toward a new persona: “My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists.” “Weakness is a contagion, strong people rightly shun the weak.” “Through the mask of my behavior, I do not protect my raw genuine self—I overcome it.”

By her late twenties, Sontag was basically already middle-aged: back in New York, divorced, scaling various intellectual hierarchies, and learning to inhabit the bulletproof exoskeleton we’d eventually come to revere as her public persona. (The book ends one year before she published what is probably still her most famous essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ”)

The most thrilling stretch of Reborn is its beginning, where we get a sustained look at a heretofore entirely mythical creature: the teenage Susan Sontag. As a grown-up, Sontag was so relentlessly, categorically adult that the very notion of a “teenage Sontag” (I imagine her eating sno-cones, lip-synching into a hairbrush, giggling) threatens to tear open some kind of existential wormhole, like a “male Gloria Steinem.” And yet here she is, at 15, a steaming vat of molten adolescence—possibly the most eloquently self-dramatizing teen of all time. She stays up all night reading André Gide (“Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion,” she writes, “that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to!”), uses the word aye unironically, and nearly wears the needle off her turntable playing Mozart records. She compiles epic lists for self-improvement: books to read, difficult vocabulary, central beliefs (“the only difference between human beings is intelligence”). She strains mightily against the philistinism of middle-class life with her mother and stepfather: “Wasted the evening with Nat. He gave me a driving lesson and then I accompanied him and pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie.” When she gets to Berkeley she reads poetry aloud and walks around with friends speaking “brilliantly” (her description) about “everything from Bach cantatas to Mann’s Faustus to pragmatism to hyperbolic functions to the Cal Labor School to Einstein’s theory of curved space.”

Just when you’re ready to snap, however, and stuff Teenage Sontag into the nearest empty locker, you realize you can’t: She is, against all odds, a deeply lovable character. Her comically oversize ambition grew out of an equally oversize pain. Her father died when she was 5. As a lonesome genius, she felt the usual agonies of precocious teenhood with superhuman intensity. She grew up self-conscious, self-critical, and ashamed of her sexuality. Her pretension, in other words, was protective. If some researcher ever wants to study the connection between insecurity and intellectualism, Sontag’s journals would be a very good place to start.

As a psychic collage, Reborn is far more fascinating than the sum of its parts: lists of errands, scraps of dialogue, notes on the breakup of a marriage. An essential tension animates almost every page. Sontag’s theoretical mind always wants to be totalizing—to sum up, distill, command. But journal entries are, like the lives they document, provisional, incomplete, ragged. The resulting clash—with its canceled insights, non sequiturs, and self-critical marginalia—often reads like a brilliant pomo bildungsroman: A Portrait of the Theorist As a Young Woman. Take, for example, Sontag’s futile attempt, at the age of 23, to sort out her love life: “For each person there is a very limited range of types of people he [this ‘he’ is crossed out in the notebook but no other pronoun is put in its place] could fall in love with in this way. For instance, I could never fall in love with someone who was—what?” The indeterminacy of the pronoun, the sentence’s final sudden petering out right on the brink of wisdom strike me as more lively, mysterious, and profound than most of Sontag’s published work. This is typical of Reborn: Her journals are composed of a series of beautiful absences that suggest more than her public presences ever could.

Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963
By Susan Sontag.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

Wake Up, Little Susie