Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

16 JULY, 2013

Susan Sontag’s Bulletpointed Bodily Self-Portrait

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Low blood pressure, loves sleep but grinds teeth, craves pure sugar but dislikes desserts.

After Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playfully lewd self-portrait, Italo Calvino’s poetic CV, and the 7-word autobiographies of cultural icons, here comes a fine piece of self-assessment by Susan Sontag.

From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) — which was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and which has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her meditation on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated insights on love and art — comes this bodily self-portrait from a diary entry dated August 20, 1964, when Sontag was thirty-one. Though it appears under the heading “Body type,” it also touches on psychological tendencies, bespeaking the inextricable link between mind and matter.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

  • Tall
  • Low blood pressure
  • Need lots of sleep
  • Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts — not a high enough concentration)
  • Intolerance for liquor
  • Heavy smoking
  • Tendency to anemia
  • Heavy protein craving
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Very good stomach — no heartburn, constipation, etc.
  • Negligible menstrual cramps
  • Easily tired by standing
  • Like heights
  • Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
  • Nailbiting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Nearsighted, astigmatism
  • Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
  • Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)

It was in the very same diary entry that Sontag also made her memorable remark about criticism and reflected that “words have their own firmness,” one of her essential insights on writing.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is the sequel to the equally indispensable Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, which gave us Sontag’s wisdom on life, death, art and freedom, her list of “rules + duties for being 24″, her 10 rules for raising a child, and her beliefs at age 14 vs. 24.

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28 JUNE, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 21 Essential Reads on Education

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Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Isaac Asimov, Kio Stark, and more.

After previously requested reading lists like famous writers’ collected advice on writing, the best books of 2012, and history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, here is another omnibus of popular demand: 21 great reads on education from the Brain Pickings archives, to commemorate the birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778), whose reverberating wisdom shaped modern thinking on education.

Complement with the Book Pickings education archive.

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18 JUNE, 2013

Barthes’s Likes and Dislikes, Illustrated

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Champagne over strawberries, Glenn Gould over Vivaldi, romantic music over fidelity, and no telephoning.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Susan Sontag’s meditation on why lists appeal to us, which included her quirky stream-of-consciousness lists of personal likes and dislikes. One reader — Australian illustrator and graphic designer Lynore Avery — was moved to draw some of Sontag’s favorite things, while another pointed out that French literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes had written a similar list of likes and dislikes, which probably inspired Sontag’s. This, in fact, makes perfect sense: Sontag mentions Barthes frequently in her later journals, always with admiring and aspirational remarks like this one jotted down on a November afternoon in 1977, the year Barthes’s original list was published in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (public library):

Imagine having such a mind as Barthes has — that always works …

On March 26, 1980, she notes with forlorn dryness:

Barthes died.

It is the only death of a public intellectual she notes in this diary. Several days later, Sontag dedicates an entire journal entry to him:

People called him a critic, for want of a better label; and I myself said he was “the greatest critic to have emerged anywhere …” But he deserves the more glorious name of writer.  

His body of work is an immense, complex, extremely discreet effort at self-description.  

Eventually he became a real writer. But he couldn’t purge himself of his ideas.

Such a celebrator was Sontag of Barthes’s legacy that in 1983 she edited an anthology of his selected writings and penned the introduction to it. It comes as no surprise that it included Barthes’s own list of likes and dislikes, originally titled J’aime, je n’aime pas (I like, I don’t like).

So, the only natural thing to do was ask Lynore to bring the same illustration magic to Barthes’s lists — which she kindly did:

I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a “nose” make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.

I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos, Burgundian branles and Renaissance dances, the organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.

Like previous Brain Pickings Artist Series collaborations, both of these gems are available as prints in Lynore’s Society6 shop — enjoy. Find more of her wonderful work on Behance.

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