Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

30 JULY, 2013

Susan Sontag on Sex

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“If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”

“Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be… It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should,” Alain de Botton wrote in his fantastic meditation on how to think more (meaning better) about sex. Indeed, for all its promise of pleasure, sex has invariably been a source of great frustration and anxiety even to some of history’s most brilliant and enlightened minds. Take, for instance, Susan Sontag: From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library), which came in as one of 2012′s best books on psychology and philosophy and which is now out in paperback, comes this remarkably, relatably human contemplation of the psychological turmoil of sex, a snippet of which you might recall from Sontag’s illustrated insights on love.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

In an entry from November 1, 1961, shortly before her twenty-ninth birthday, Sontag muses:

As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough.

It’s just this attitude I don’t have about sex. I don’t tolerate error, failure—therefore I’m anxious from the start, and therefore I’m more likely to fail. Because I don’t have the confidence that some of the time (without my forcing anything) it will be good.

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me — sometimes, almost, as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more than me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

I would like to feel that way about sex, too. As if “nature” or “life” used me. And I trust that, and let myself be used.

An attitude of surrender to oneself, to life. Prayer. Let it be, whatever it will be. I give myself to it.

Prayer: peace and voluptuousness.

In this, no room for shame and anxiety as to how the little old self rates in the light of some objective standard of performance.

One must be devout about sex. Then, one won’t dare to be anxious. Anxiety will never be revealed for what it is — spiritual meanness, pettiness, small-mindedness.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is sublime in its entirety and has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

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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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