Greater Expectations


Christine Smallwood reviews Susan Sontag's journals in Bookforum:

THE TITLE OF THE SECOND VOLUME of Susan Sontag’s private writings is taken from an entry dated May 22, 1965, when Sontag was thirty-two years old. “Novel about thinking—” it begins. “An artist thinking about his work.” In the margins, she adds, “A spiritual project—but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh).”

It’s a strange and spooky phrase, the richest image in the diary’s five hundred pages. There’s something sad about this emblem of captivity, the spirit being put under reins. There’s also something enabling and empowering—the inanimate being directed, gaining strength, driving forward. Being harnessed to flesh means being flexible enough to move.

The animating force at the heart of everything Sontag wrote—the cultivation of aesthetic and intellectual experience—is not properly speaking an idea; it’s a stance, or an attitude. It is itself a way of moving. There is no magnum opus or theoretical treatise that we can point to as Sontag’s distinct contribution, no “takeaway” we can pierce under glass. So it may not be very surprising that since her death eight years ago, the many provocations of her thinking have drifted out of view to make room for the more obvious fact of her celebrity. Besides, she’s a woman; we make good icons.

As a personality, Sontag just keeps giving—the famous marriage, the semi-closeted sexuality, the reenacted dodging from sniper fire—and so we have been treated to many biographies in miniature, memoirs and readings of her reinventions, her snobbishness, her grandeur, her condescension, her streak. But to focus on the persona instead of the work is to miss the point. They go together. Sontag knew very well that thinking is the person bent into form, the consciousness harnessed to flesh. To hate or love someone’s writing is to hate or love that person’s soul. There is no great life apart from great work. In my mind, that means what matters about Sontag is already in her criticism and her fiction. Her private writings do not expose personal secrets that explain her work; the opposite is true. We need her work to understand her notebooks.