sábado, 25 de janeiro de 2014

Young Sontag: Intellectual in Training By Richard Eder



Young Sontag: Intellectual in Training

By Richard Eder


Books of The Times

REBORN
Journals and Notebooks - 1947-1963
By Susan Sontag,
Edited by David Rieff., 318 pages.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.



It’s not quite a “please don’t read,” but David Rieff comes close in the doleful preface to “Reborn,” the first volume of notebooks by his mother, Susan Sontag, who died in 2004. He refuses to use the classically unprovable “she would have wanted it” to explain his decision to publish them. Alive, she would never have let them appear, he tells us; in fact she might have burned them.
All but visibly wincing, he states that he would rather have left them unpublished. They are raw and unvarnished and perhaps that is a virtue; still, they contain “much that I would have preferred not to know and not to have others know.” Reading her entries, he writes, he felt like the Greek theatergoer who watched Medea about to kill her children, and shouted, “Don’t do it!”
So why does he do it? His answer, in this oddest of editor’s notes — written with touching laconic power — is that Sontag had left her papers without restrictions to the University of California, Los Angeles. If he did not do the job, thus at least keeping some control, someone else would.
A reason to publish, perhaps. Is it a reason to read? In many ways these scrappy entries justify Mr. Rieff’s doubts. It is not because the material is raw, with its accounts of lesbian sex invariably ending in wretchedness, but because the writing is.
For Sontag, to write was as necessary as to breathe, but it was always a labored breathing. She was not spontaneous in her expression; her intellectual ferocity was dressed and belted before it was allowed out. Here the writing is in a dawn disarray. Only very rarely does it manage the prickly splinter of insight — right headed, wrong headed — we associate with her work.
More serious, perhaps, these bits of diary mostly lack what can give value even to the most private and personal examples of the form: inner vision of an outside world. Virtually the only outside we get here, even in Sontag’s accounts of her marriage and two extended affairs, is in the way it affects her feelings. We are not looking through her eyes; we are looking at her eyes, mainly inflamed.
Take her marriage at 17 to Philip Rieff, an academic for whom she did research. There is virtually nothing about him, or about their life together until it falls apart. Instead there are epigrams about the universal oppressiveness of marriage: “It is an institution committed to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition.”
This set of notebooks (two later volumes are planned) begins in 1947, when she was 14, and runs through 1963, well before the writing that would make her justly famous. They are raggedly kept; some years are skipped or missing, others get no more than a couple of pages.
They are in no way a systematic record, and rarely do they give us much idea of what she was about at any particular time. Mr. Rieff provides very few nuts and bolts, perhaps reflecting his gingerly attitude towards the whole project. This contributes to the feeling that we are getting, at best, not herself and others but emotions about herself and others. “I am not myself with people,” she writes, adding “but am I myself when alone?”
What is most heavily touched on in these early 15 years is Sontag’s exploration of her sexuality. She is briefly ecstatic with her initiation into lesbian sex and the prospect of limitless, commitment-free affairs. No messy love stuff: thus, the “reborn” of the title.
Then despair sets in. A long sadomasochistic subjugation to a woman in Paris, identified only as H, and a subsequent relationship with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes, stormy though less chilling, help her to decide that, on the contrary, sex without love is worthless.
Restless discovery and change: just what a private notebook is for. But these published miseries, endlessly described and feeding interminable doubts about her self-worth, are more than anyone but a psychoanalyst could want to know. At this stage of her life Sontag, as the French say, did not just fit badly inside her skin — she fit badly inside her liver and tonsils as well; everywhere, perhaps, but inside her brain.
Because it is a welcome relief, though too rare, when she rises from her innards to play with a few gleefully aerial ideas. The Marquis de Sade reverses Immanuel Kant in advocating that people be treated not as ends but only as means. The writer goes through four stages: the “nut” (motivated by a generating obsession), then the moron (flailing away without regard to corrective good sense), then the stylist and finally the critic. (The first two are at work here; the others will show up later.)
There is a startling phrase about Kafka, a writer she discovered at 20. “Kafka has that magic of actuality in even the most dislocated phrase that no other modern has, a kind of shiver and grinding blue ache in your teeth.” Has the utter human naturalness of his estranging visions ever been so well conveyed?
At one point Sontag writes: “I live my life as a spectacle for myself, for my own edification. I live my life but I don’t live in it.” There is something of this in the journals: self-absorption and self-absence at the same time. “What remains is pain and ambition,” Mr. Rieff writes.

www.nytimes.com
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