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An Institution Committed to the Dulling of the Feelings: Susan Sontag on Marriage

“Marriage is based on the principle of inertia.”

“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all,” wrote Charles Darwin as he weighed the pros and cons of marriage before committing himself to the love of his life, with whom he had ten children.

Earlier this month, artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrated Susan Sontag’s meditations on love, culled from the author’s journals between 1964 and 1980 — a stirring blend of cynical disillusionment and romantic idealism. To get there, Sontag had passed through a turbulent youth of crashing against the walls of her sexual identity and eventually marrying Philip Rieff at the tender age of seventeen after a ten-day courtship. In the first installment of her published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), edited by Susan and Philip’s son David Rieff, a 23-year-old Sontag shares this grim antidote to Darwin’s optimistic take on spousal union as she grapples with the dissolution of her own marriage to Philip — a kind of painful separateness bespeaking the opposite of the limbic revision that happens between two souls connected in a healthy, loving relationship.

On August 12, 1956, she writes:

In marriage, every desire becomes a decision

She revisits the subject on September 4:

Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong, mutual dependencies.  

Quarrels eventually become pointless, unless one is always prepared to act on them — that is, to end the marriage. So, after the first year, one stops ‘making up’ after quarrels — one just relapses into angry silence, which passes into ordinary silence, and then one resumes again.

Then, in an entry dated November 18, 1956, Sontag puts down the outline for an intended essay on marriage:

A Project — Notes on Marriage

Marriage is based on the principle of inertia.  

Unloving proximity.  

Marriage is all private — no public — behavior.  

The glass wall that separates one couple from another.  

Friendship in marriage. The smooth skin of the other.  

[Protestant theologian Paul] Tillich: the marriage vow is idolatric (places one moment above all others, gives that moment [the] right to determine all the future ones). Monogamy, too. He spoke disparagingly of the “extreme monogamy” of the Jews.  

Rilke thought the only way to keep love in marriage was by perpetual acts of separation-return.

The leakage of talk in marriage.
(My marriage, anyway.)

Sontag and Philip separated shortly thereafter and permanently divorced in 1958. She never completed the “Notes on Marriage” essay, though many of the ideas teased out in Reborn were eventually fully explored in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays.

Also from Sontag’s diaries, her thoughts on censorship and aphorisms, and her synthesized advice on writing.

Published August 17, 2012




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