Susan Sontag's diaries reveal her private pain

By Rebecca Wallersteiner, June 1, 2012
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As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Diaries 1964-1980), by Susan Sontag (Ed: David Rieff), Hamish Hamilton, £18.99. Dreaming in French, by Alice Kaplan, University of Chicago Press, £17

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, the second of three volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals, edited by her son, David Rieff, begins where the first ended — in the mid 1960s. It follows Sontag’s early participation in New York’s vibrant artistic and intellectual world leading to her becoming an intellectual force and cultural critic with the publication of Against Interpretation in 1966, reinforced 11 years later by her stylish essay, On Photography.

The journals document her growing political awareness and opposition to the Vietnam War, involving an activist trip to Hanoi, up to her battle with breast cancer in the 1970s, which inspired her to write Illness with Metaphor (1978), and directing films in Sweden.

Sontag seems addicted to writing lists — of films she has seen, or would like to see, and of her extensive reading, including Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud. But there is plenty of deeper, psychological revelation. While, outwardly, she appeared formidably confident, her entries here show her to be riddled with doubt, anxiety and a fear of showing weakness.

She tended to turn to her diary at times of tension, stress and romantic loss. When this volume begins, she is grieving for the break-up of her passionate, four-year love affair with Cuban playwright Maria Irene Fornes, her emotions in a turbulent mess.

Despite possessing one of the most brilliant and sharpest minds of her generation, Susan Sontag often struggled to cope. In her late teens at Chicago University, she married her professor, Philip Rieff, father of David, but by 1964 she had left him to pursue mainly lesbian relationships. These often intense accounts of the inner life of a passionate, highly cultured intellectual woman are riveting.

Since the Second World War, Paris has been a magnet for American students seeking culture, sophistication and drama. Alice Kaplan’s elegantly written Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis tells the story of three gifted women, from very different backgrounds and generations, who came to Paris for a year and were forever changed. Kennedy, Sontag and Davis — a Catholic debutante, Jewish intellectual and an African-American revolutionary, from the East Coast, the West Coast and the South, reflect the extraordinary diversity of America.

Kaplan, whose book, French Lesson, detailed her own year abroad, follows the above youthful trio to Paris, observing their intellectual development and amorous adventures.

All three became icons of their time but in Paris they were young, unknown, learning a new language in an unfamiliar city, with their futures uncertain.

Sontag came to Paris from Oxford aged 24, escaping the break-up of her marriage. Freed from responsibilities, she expanded her mental and sexual frontiers. French literature provided her with a model for the life she wished to lead and influenced her later writings.

Davis, from a professional family in Alabama found herself the only black student in her year abroad. In Paris, she became increasingly politically active, making connections between the Algerian struggle for independence and the American civil-rights movement.

While the future Jackie Kennedy and Onassis carried her love of French culture to The White House and beyond, the Jewish member of Kaplan’s trio would, in 2004 after a long illness, return to Paris forever. Susan Sontag chose to be buried in Montparnasse.

Rebecca Wallersteiner is a freelance writer

    Last updated: 3:31pm, June 1 2012