Reviews — From the December 2009 issue

¡Una Lesbiana Enamorada!

The reverse bowdlerization of Susan Sontag

( 2 of 5 )

Sontag’s career continued apace, of course. She wrote and wrote well, but her call for an “erotics of art” dwindled into darkness, surviving only in repudiated texts and jottings in the journals she kept all her life, in a row on a shelf in a closet. These contain diary entries, notes-to-self, shopping lists, cris de coeur, and other stuff writers need to charge their batteries. After her death, the administrators of Sontag’s estate decided that she intended these intimate jottings to be published posthumously. I seriously doubt this. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, has written at length about her conviction that she would survive her affliction. Yet Reborn is in print, the first of three volumes. Rieff himself is the editor, and he has exercised this Victorian perquisite to abandon all scholarly apparatus and cut enormous sections of Sontag’s text to fashion what amounts to a gay chick-lit memoir with a few big words.

Everything of historical or intellectual interest has been suppressed, compressed, or jumbled. Reading through the residue of tatters and scraps, as if through the Dead Sea Scrolls, I remembered an afternoon in La Sarraute’s class when she discovered a misprint in our edition of Tropismes. Sarraute went pale, marked the misprint violently, and announced (in English, to be sure we understood): “If one cares about one’s texts, one mustn’t die, ever!” Now Sontag is dead, and her son should have known better than to fool with his mother’s text—although I could not help but imagine how I might do if given as clean a shot as this at my mom. Not well, I fear.

Consider Rieff’s strategic elisions. Throughout her career, Sontag, who was a woman of words, made lists of words that interested her. Rieff cites one example. In 1957, Sontag made two lists of childhood events: one from memory; the other in chronological order. Laid side by side they constitute a Nabokovian meditation on reverie and chronology. Casually spliced into one list, as they are here, without annotation, they mean nothing. In 1961, Sontag kept a list of all the movies she saw that year in the order she saw them, sometimes three movies a day and never with a break of more than four days. We get a paltry sample. Denied access to these words, vignettes, and movies in their proper times and places, we are denied an armature of understanding. (A ballpark sum of the accumulated hours Sontag spent watching movies in 1961 would tell us more than half this book does.)

Consider this even more egregious lie of omission from 1957. During the last days of her marriage to Philip Rieff (whom she married in Chicago at seventeen and followed east to Cambridge), Sontag began keeping an account of her mundane activities à la Robbe-Grillet. She noted where she found stamps, what she ate for dinner, what time she went to bed, et cetera. I was enjoying this nouvelle vague excursion when it was stopped, suddenly, with a cut. Why? Does Rieff have a problem with Robbe-Grillet? In her actual journals, we learn from a note, Sontag’s minimalist narrative continues to recount her train ride to New York, her first night in New York, her voyage to London, and her trip with a friend through Italy. We also learn that, once at Oxford, Sontag kept notes in her journal on her philosophy class with J. L. Austin, the great philosopher of ordinary language.

The notes on Austin’s class have been cut, too, and we are favored with a filial redesign of Sontag’s emotional life. Her stark narrative of soup and stamps in Cambridge reads like a suicide note for her marriage. Having climbed on some trains myself, my best guess is that once Sontag found herself a seat on the train, Philip Rieff disappeared from her consciousness, and she noted this in her journal. (And if the editor doesn’t want us guessing, he should print the text.) The censored entries almost certainly trace a bridge of tiny, jotted milestones that mark Sontag’s journey from one life to another, so we want to know what she noticed, however trivial. We want to know what she wrote because she wrote it. We want the notes from her class with Austin because Sontag rarely faced off with intellects of Austin’s caliber. If Sontag’s observations were less than profound, we would think no less of her.

writes fiction and cultural criticism, and lives in Las Vegas. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “It’s Morning in Nevada,” appeared in the November 2006 issue.

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