The Secret of a Feeling, On Loving Permissively with Susan Sontag


9/23/64 New York

Inspiratory emphasis

Inhale > lower (flatten diaphragm) > suppress sensation — pelvic, i.e. sexual

Therefore secret of a feeling is learning to breathe out

Right after reading Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, I was met with an army of questions: am I looking at my thoughts, words and actions in a way that merits a deeper consciousness? How do I make use of what I see, hear and feel to contribute to a sensibility that not only benefits myself?

Most of the questions were existential, possibly aftereffects of having been immersed in Sontag’s mind 500+ pages deep for over a week. After reading the first compilation of her journals and notebooks in Reborn, I knew I had to read the rest.

I’ve always been fascinated with the lives of writers and artists, at times more than their actual work, and this book is no exception — an intimate portrayal of Sontag.

Reading her journals at first was like a stumbling upon every film aficionado + literary lover’s dream: scattered throughout are lists of films and titles of books, in full abundance.


Movies seen since Aug. 11 (1964)

The Crowd (King Vidor) – Cinemathéque
Bande à Part (Jean-Luc Godard) – Gaumont Rive Gauche
Une Femme est une Femme (Godard) – Cina
La Grande Muraille (Japanese?) – Normandie
Maciste Contre Le Cyclope (Italian?) – Coné Gobelins
[The French director Georges] Franju’s first feature, The Keepers [La Tête contre les murs] about insane asylum – horrible, stupid, vicious director
Parallel to Les Yeux sans visage [Franju’s next film]



I’ve read this summer: [Arnold Bennett,] The Old Wives’ Tale; {Thomas Hardy} The Mayor of Casterbridge; Gerhardi, Resurrection; Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine; Sheridan la Fanu, Carmilla; [Guy] de Maupassant, The Horla; [Jane Austen] Pride and Prejudice; H.-H. Ewers, L’apprenti Sorcier; Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men; Gérard Genette, Figures; [Giorgio] de Chirico, Hebdomeros; [Diderot], Rameau’s Nephew, La Religieuse

Along with books she’s read or wants to read, Sontag also had an intricate way of linking literature and art with political theories. In an entry dated back in 1964:

Marxism a position vis-a-vis culture

–[Theodor] Adorno, Philosophy of New Music
[Arnold] Schoenberg = progress
[Igor] Stravinsky = fascism (whom A. identifies with just one period, the neo-classical)

[In the margin:] NB parallels [between] Stravinsky + [Pablo] Picasso — raiding the past [in their] different styles — no commitment to progress

–[Georg] Lukács
[Thomas] Mann= realism = sense of history = Marxism
[Franz] Kafka = allegory = dehistoricization = fascism

Her lists are tireless, repositories of information for every voracious reader. Naturally, her journals also depict her political growth as an American woman in a time when much of governments around the world were dealing with communism and burgeoning U.S. imperialism.

In the spring of 1965, she was part of an American delegation to Vietnam to learn about the struggles of the Vietnamese people. She kept copious notes about the trip, although much of her observations were less on the revolution and more on the culture of movement-making.

The first few days it seemed quite hopeless. There was a barrier that seemed impossible to cross.

More than hopeless. An ordeal. Of course, I was not sorry I had come. It was a duty — a political act, a piece of political theatre.

We had a role: we were American friends of the Vietnamese struggle. A corporate identity. The trip to Hanoi was a kind reward, a form of patronage.


While she didn’t state her political position clearly, she was astute on her observations and keenly aware of her privilege as a Westerner. In her writing, there is a sense that she’s trying to understand what these movements meant for her politically.

7/28/66 Paris

–America founded on genocide

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do without actually being a part of mentioned movements and engaged in doing the work.

And just as much as she filled her previous journals in Reborn, Sontag wrote and mused about love, longing and loss. In the first compilation, I learned about her previous lovers, endless rumination on what she could have done or said, what she shouldn’t have done or said.

While much of what she wrote in her journals are just way over my head, it is these moments that humanized her, made her relatable. She wrote  down what most would not even acknowledge within themselves.

I cannot persuade her with words to love me, to trust me, to be with me. It must be done with actions.

I must not ask her to ask me to wait for her, to be patient, to have hope. I must simply show that I am, in fact, doing these things — without anxiety, without too much suffering.


How can you detach yourself from Sontag with these lines? More than what she devoured in literature and politics, more than her own observations about her own process of writing, she dealt with her emotions in the most honest and vulnerable way: “J’ai besoin de beaucoup de tendresse” [I need a great deal of tenderness].

Towards the end of the week, I knew that there was a method to her madness. The lists, the constant self-reflections, meditations on political theories and realities all pointed to a queer woman’s quest for self-preservation, a struggle of mind and heart.

Can I love non-possessively, permissively — without withdrawing myself, setting up my own defenses and strategic retreats, on the one hand, or reducing the amount and intensity of my love, on the other?

* * *

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag  David Rieff
April 10, 2012
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (544 pages)

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

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