Magazine article The Spectator

The Misery of an Intellectual

Magazine article The Spectator

The Misery of an Intellectual

Article excerpt

REBORN: SUSAN SONTAG, EARLY DIARIES, 1947-1964 edited by David Rieff Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp. 318, ISBN 9780241144312 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

SWIMMING IN THE SEA OF DEATH: A SON'S MEMOIR by David Rieff Granta, £12.99, pp. 179, ISBN 978847080516 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, was one of the late20th century's famous public intellectuals.

A stupendously wellread novelist, essayist and critic, strikingly good looking with her white badgerlock, she was engage, pronouncing on many subjects, from Chinese dissidents to the meaning of disease.

She appeared unassailably self-confident, so it is sad, but a bit of a relief, to learn from this first volume of her journal, begun when she was 14, that Sontag was precocious but also deeply depressed. I can't recall reading a more melancholy book. She was wracked with negative certainties about herself as a thinker, writer, adult, and, her son, David Rieff, says, 'even for eros'.

She began keeping her journals when she was 12. They were for herself alone, and Rieff, also a prolific author, who read all 100 volumes after her death, feels guilty that he is intruding into his mother's privacy. But he observes that because the journals lie in a university collection in California, if he didn't publish them now someone else would.

The published journal begins in 1947. The next year, when she is 15, Sontag lists most of the anxieties that would torment her entire life: saying the wrong thing, rehearsing what to say the next day, hatred of her family, and (her own) lying. Can she hurt her mother more, she wonders, 'How can I help me, make me cruel?' Years later, she writes that 'I wasn't my mother's child - I was her subject (subject, companion, friend, consort), I sacrificed my childhood - my honesty - to please her'. Sontag's agony and rage at being the cheated child endure to the end of this journal. This would be adolescent angst in many other teenagers, but with Sontag, as we can see from this journal and her son's memoir, the unhappiness was lifelong and overwhelming.

Always this misery intertwined with what she calls 'X', presenting herself as she would like to be seen, rather than as a gifted, often unhappy, woman endlessly seeking love and understanding. This leads to a thunderous admission when she is in her late twenties: 'X is why I am a habitual liar. My lies are what I think the other person wants to hear.' Almost the last words in this journal, in 1963, are 'fear of being left alone, no comfort, warmth, reassurance, cold world, nothing to do, loss, loss, loss, life is a holding operation, my insides are hollow'.

When she is 15 she writes, 'I feel I have lesbian tendencies'. Then she adds, 'how reluctantly I write this', expressing a shame she felt for years. Then follows the endless search for sexual happiness, the good orgasm, always spoiled, at least up to 1964, by the knowledge, not the suspicion, that her two lesbian lovers don't like her. This is not paranoia, although there is quite a lot of that here, too; she sneaks looks at the journals of these women and sees what they think of her. But instead of running away or throwing them out she clings, hopes, and despairs.

The reason I'm not good in bed [she writes in 1962] is that I don't see myself as someone who can satisfy another person sexually - I don't see myself as free. …

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