As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

By SUSAN SONTAG; Edited by DAVID RIEFF

The period during which the mostly fragmentary material collected in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh was written was also the period during which Susan Sontag published the major nonfiction works on which her reputation largely rests: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor (1978), and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980). By 1980, when this selection (the second of three projected volumes) concludes, Sontag’s position in American literary and intellectual life was unassailable.

Her journals and notebooks, though, do not read like the chronicle of a triumph. They are characterized more by unfulfilled ambition and relentless self-questioning than by a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; Sontag seems far more aware of her faults and limitations than of her strengths and virtues. The predominant American critic of the second half of the century was also a merciless self-critic. “My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate,” complains the writer who has already, by this point, published such brilliant essays as “Notes on ‘Camp'” and “On Style.” “And my character, my sensibility is ultimately too conventional…. I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough.”

In fact, the journals provide plenty of contrary evidence: Sontag was first rate, obsessed, and at times a little bit mad. And if she did not sufficiently appreciate what she had already done, she did have tremendously high aspirations and hopes for her future work. Indeed, despite the occasional moments in which she worries that she is losing her edge (“Have I done all the living I’m going to do? A spectator now, calming down. Going to bed with the New York Times“) the reader of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh senses throughout the determination with which Sontag continued to hold on to the belief that her best work was ahead of her. That belief is a double-edged sword for any writer or artist: it forbids both complacency and contentment, and if the former is the death of the creative spirit, some degree of the latter is surely necessary if one is to be happy in one’s life. In his introduction, David Rieff describes Sontag as being largely fulfilled but not happy. It seems safe to assume that this verdict is supported by his personal knowledge of her — Rieff is Sontag’s son — and not by what is found in these pages: the journals give little evidence, on the whole, of either deep happiness or sustained fulfillment.

Then again, it is always dangerous to assume that the contents of a writer’s diaries, journals, and notebooks accurately reflect or express what was happening in the author’s life or mind at the time of composition. Such sources may enable, or project, a certain intimacy: one gets to listen in on a writer’s conversation with herself. For that reason, too, such documents may be (but are not guaranteed to be) more honest than works intended for publication, works in which an author may be more conscious of cultivating a certain image. But it is not unheard of to want to massage one’s own self-image — indeed, it is only human; and besides, nearly any writer will be aware of the possibility that the writings might end up in the hands of others, regardless of one’s intentions:

Maybe that’s why I write — in a journal. That feels “right.” I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here — but the knowledge isn’t painful, on the contrary I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down. (Hence, my worry this past year — I felt myself terribly weakened by the fact that I couldn’t write in the journal, didn’t want to, was blocked, or whatever.) I can’t talk to myself, but I can write to myself.

(But is that because I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals — + feel even closer to me?)

Moreover, Sontag did not regard her notebooks and journals as sites for confession, let alone communication with others. She saw them in utilitarian terms: they were a tool to help her make progress in the two simultaneous and connected projects that engaged her during these years, her writing and her development of herself as a person. From this perspective it seems only natural that she would focus less on attained satisfactions and completed achievements than on perceived inadequacies and areas for possible future improvement.

Even having granted this, though, it is striking how much conscious self-shaping one finds in this volume. If many around her perceived Sontag as having more or less arrived by this point in her life, Sontag herself clearly regarded “Susan Sontag” as a continuing work in progress, and it is impossible to ignore the considerable tension between Sontag’s desire to be more authentic, more genuinely herself, and the demanding, sometimes utopian self-directed commands she frequently issues. “I would be more myself [if] I would smile less,” she advises herself at one point, suggesting as well that she should “eliminate the superlatives, the unnecessary adverbs + adjectives from my speech.” In the midst of her ill-fated love affair with Carlotta del Pezzo, she gives herself the following stern lecture:

I must appear to be strong — which means that I really must be strong. I must not offer her my suffering, my longing for her, as a proof of my love. I must not even tell her so often that I love her. I must not try to persuade her, with words,  that it will be good for her to be with me. (This awakens her fear of dependence.) I must not ask her to reassure me, to tell me she loves me. I must not ask her when she is coming to New York, only [say] that I hope she will come.

Such moments help to correct the all-too-common and all-too-clichéd image of Sontag as an aloof if not icy intellectual. That picture of her is supported by some of the entries, but she just as often comes across as vulnerable, uncertain, and entirely human. “Let me go on being naked,” she writes after the collapse of another affair. “Let it hurt. But let me survive.” Particularly wounding, it appears, was her relationship with her mother. Sometimes she is wry and amusing on the topic. Writing of how her mother shaped her tastes, she observes, “If she liked it, I can’t like it. That includes everything from men to perfume, attractive furniture, stylish clothes, make-up, fancy or ornate things, soft lines, curves, flowers, colors, going to the beauty parlor, and having vacations in the sun!” (In the margin, she adds: “Thank God my mother didn’t like children, food, movies, books, and learning!”)

Other entries, though, paint a picture of a disturbing and damaging psychodrama:

I’m afraid of my mother — afraid of her harshness, her coldness…. My ultimate project: to keep her afloat, alive. My means: flattery, unlimited statements of how much I admire and adore her, and repeated rituals of denigration of my own worth. (I confess, to her reproaches, that I am cold + heartless + selfish. We weep together over how bad I am, then she smiles + hugs + kisses me + I go to bed. I’ve gotten what I wanted. I also feel unclean, unsatisfied, debauched.)

If, as it appears, Sontag internalized some of the coldness and hostility her mother directed toward her, we do sometimes find her resisting it. “Au fond,” she writes, “I do like myself. I always have. (My strongest purchase on health?) It’s just that I don’t think other people will like me. And I “understand” their point of view. But — if I were other people — I’d like me a lot.” Here, self-criticism gets transformed into self-congratulation, with a concomitant implied criticism of others: I’d be smart enough to like me if I met me — too bad for others if they are too stupid to do so. This sort of self-regard, which many who met Sontag commented on, is not infrequent in these pages:

Always the frustrating sense of the disparity between my energies, my ambitions, and those of other people. The others setting such low goals for themselves, so easily tired, so lacking in vitality.

Reflections on her relationships with her mother and her various romantic partners occupy a great deal of space in this volume. (As Rieff notes, considerably less attention is given to what may have been the central event of Sontag’s life during the latter part of this period, her first of three bouts with cancer.) But literary, intellectual, and political matters also make their way in. There are lists of books and movies she had experienced or felt that she needed to experience, of places she thought she should visit, of her likes and dislikes, of qualities that turned her on. And there are notes for projected book and film projects, some of which would be completed, others abandoned.

Particularly interesting are the entries documenting her trip to North Vietnam in 1968. (Her “official” account of this trip was published in 1968 as Trip to Hanoi; a version of it was included in Styles of Radical Will.) The entries included in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh manifest a profound internal struggle: part of her wanted to be able to accept and endorse the pro-Communist sentiments of her tour guides, while another, more skeptical and individualistic part was deeply resistant and to some degree even repulsed by the apparent rigidity and sterility of life in North Vietnam. “I long for the three-dimensional adult world in which I live,” she writes, “even as I go about my (their) business in this two-dimensional world of the fairy-tale to which I am paying a visit.” She continues:

It’s monochromatic here. Everything is on the same level. All the words belong to the same vocabulary: struggle, bombing, friend, aggressor, imperialist, victory, comrade, the French colonialists, the puppet troops. I resist the flattening of our language, but soon I realize that I must use it (with moderation) if I’m to say anything that’s useful to them…. I long for someone to be indiscreet here. To talk about his “personal” or “private” feelings. To be carried away by feeling.

The section on the Vietnam trip is more cohesive than the rest, reading almost like an essay rather than as a series of disconnected fragments, and includes a number of interesting observations. (“When Viet children play ‘capture the pilot,’ the tallest must be the American.”) Much of the rest of the book is, by comparison, a bit thin, both in descriptive detail and in context. Since Sontag was writing only for herself; she did not bother to set her notes and jottings within a framing narrative that would make clear, at each point, what was happening in her life. There are times, though, when one regrets the editor’s decision not to give the reader some assistance of this sort. (It would be nice to have an index, too.) In the end what speaks most loudly in these pages is not the narrative of Sontag’s biographical doings but rather the power of her will, the force of her unremitting desire to make herself into the sort of person she admired — even when this desire was in conflict with her own inner nature, when what she actually longed for was in opposition to what she thought the person she ought to be would desire. “What I want: energy, energy, energy,” she writes in 1970. And then: “Stop wanting nobility, serenity, wisdom — you idiot!”

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