The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

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Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts–like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

Nothing is the same after reading Susan Sontag. Her diaries and journals to be exact, as I have yet to read any of her books or essays. It all makes sense now — Teju Cole’s ephemeral praise of the writer, Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) inspiring tributes.

There are a number of affinities that I feel like I share with Sontag — desolation around marriage/relationships (well, mine is evolving, but you get the point), living in simultaneous awe and bewilderment in the Bay Area, embarking on a slightly self-effacing trip to Puerto Rico. In two distant entries, I felt a trickle of bemusement as she wrote about meeting Filipino poet José Garcia Villa (known then as the “Pope of Greenwich”), a fondness as she wrote about reading Bataan and Corregidor.

I have profound devotion to a few writers (Baldwin, Moraga) and poets (Finney, Finney) and this may be premature, but Sontag is getting to that list. She affirms what I love most about writers: the multiple ways their work transcend time and space and reach readers like me.

I got a used copy of  Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 at Green Apple Books and the rest is history.

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I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except in that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand…I intend to do everything…to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?

To speak with a kind of self-assuredness and a confidence with which to measure life’s experiences is no small feat, specially for a young Sontag coming into herself. The act of measuring experiences based on their ability to yield pleasure or pain does reek of a bourgeois and privileged background, but an occupation worthy of Socrates’s overarching message.

At the same time, much of her journals revolved on an ongoing project called Notes on Marriage where she wrote her own reflections on marriage, presumably gleaned from her own experience with (ex-husband) Philip Rieff.

8/12/56
In marriage, every desire becomes a decision.

9/4/56
Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.

Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them-that is, to end the marriage. So, after the year, one stops “making up” after quarrels–one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.

1/16/57
On marriage: That’s all there is. There isn’t any more. The quarrels + the tenderness, endlessly reduplicated. Only the quarrels have a greater density, diluting the capacity for tenderness.

2/18/58
Marriage is a sort of tacit hunting in couples. The world all in couples, each couple in its own little house, watching its own little interests + stewing in its own little privacy — it’s the most repulsive thing in the world. One’s got to get rid of the exclusiveness of married love.

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Sontag was married at 17 years old in the 50’s, after meeting Rieff at the University of Chicago. They had a son, David, who was born two years later but after eight years of marriage, they separated. The beauty of what she wrote in her journals about Philip and her marriage is that they are relatable, that she was someone thrust in love’s woes.

Her journals evolve around the pleasures and pain of being in love, of needing and separating, themes that are all too familiar with how we feel about ourselves. There were many times that I read her entries before bed, and woke up to the essence of her writing in the morning.

I don’t know what being queer meant around that time, but she was discerning in her emotions when it came to her female lovers (with H., with Irene). Even more weighty is how she viewed her writing —

12/24/59
My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.

It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me — I feel — a license.

8/13/61
To write you have to allow yourself to be the person you don’t want to be (of all the people you are)

Writing is a beautiful act. It is making something that will give pleasure to others later.

1962
I write to define myself — as an act of self-defense — part of [the] process of becoming — In dialogue with myself, with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers…

The book ends in 1963, with a second collection of her notebooks and journals from 1964 to 1980. Keep a keen eye out for a review of that one, coming your way soon. In the meantime, here’s more timeless advice from someone I’ll grow to love as I age:

3/23/63
Love the truth above wanting to be good.

Ask: does this person bring out something good in me? Not: Is this person, beautiful, good, valuable?

5 thoughts on “The Sagacity of Susan Sontag: On Love, Queerness & Writing

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