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Sontag: In Context

ArtsEmerson Email-Editor Luke Jones shares his thoughts on Sontag’s diaries and what they reveal about America’s greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century. 

In a way, it still feels too soon to say that we understand Susan Sontag’s legacy. Not only is it because we are still trying to understand our times in the context of her era, the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s when she rose to prominence, it may be because of our tendency toward idol worship. Or because we view anyone that is a part of a rich literary or philosophic tradition as a static figure, immutable and unapproachable as a human being, only a vantage point through which we can view and assess ideas. Sontag foresaw all of this, in a way. She defined her own era as one which was “too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie.”1

It’s therefore not surprising when we view her journals that we come across a brilliance that seems to stand precariously on the ledge of sanity. Were her thoughts not substantiated by the rovings of her deep and insatiable curiosity, they would have toppled. Of Albert Camus’ journals she writes:

The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will…The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.2

This of course is deeply evocative of her own journals. In them, we see someone not yet created, but in the throes of a painful self-creation. There is an overconfidence in her younger self that is endearing and results in unintended silliness, for example, “E, F and I interrogated God this evening at six.” 3 Perhaps Sontag did interrogate God. If she did so, she did throughout her life, and with a sense that her questions were being lost. She wrote:

The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois…The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self—these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live.4

If anything, Sontag took comfort in her literary and film criticisms—that she could be a part of a larger conversation that had its own greatness and would not bend to the fickle voices that surrounded her. This is where her mature self can be found. This is the fulfillment of her earlier self seen in the journals, which was still struggling to understand, let alone acknowledge, its own limits. These two parts seen together give us a richer understanding of who Susan Sontag is and help us begin to understand her legacy.

1. “Simone Weil,” The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963

2. “The Ideal Husband,” The New York Review of Books, September 26, 1963

3. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

4. From “Simone Weil,” The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963

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