15-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Explosive Elasticity of the Self
“All that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my ‘self’ — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body.”
By Maria Popova
“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote as he contemplated identity and the paradox of the self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Leo Tolstoy distilled the eternal quest in his diary as he wrestled with moral development and the search for selfhood — a search that begins as soon as we become conscious, reaches a crescendo in the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood, and continues until our last neuron ceases to fire. We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.
A century after Whitman and Tolstoy, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) — another towering intellect of uncommon insight into the human spirit — examined the perennial preoccupation of consciousness in a cometic passage from the diary of her youth, posthumously published as Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of meditations, which also gave us the young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something.
In a journal entry from late February 1948, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Sontag writes:
I must not think of the solar system — of innumerable galaxies spanned by countless light years — of infinities of space — I must not look up at the sky for longer than a moment — I must not think of death, of forever — I must not do all those things so that I will not know these horrible moments when my mind seems a tangible thing — more than my mind — my whole spirit — all that animates me and is the original and responsive desire that constitutes my “self” — all this takes on a definite shape and size — far too large to be contained by the structure I call my body — All this pulls and pushes — years and strains (I feel it now) until I must clench my fists — I rise — who can keep still — every muscle is on a rack — striving to build itself into an immensity — I want to scream — my stomach feels compressed — my legs, feet, toes stretching until they hurt.
Complement this particular passage of the intensely insightful and rewarding Reborn with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being, the power of music, the conscience of words, art as a form of spirituality, and her spectacular Letter to Borges.
Published March 4, 2019