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Rereading as Rebirth: Young Susan Sontag on Personal Growth, the Pleasures of Revisiting Beloved Books, and Her Rereading List

“Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

Recently, in writing about astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer when asked what books “every intelligent person on the planet should read,” I lamented in a semi-aside the complete lack of female voices among his selections and the general lack of female cultural icons’ public reading lists in our culture, noting that Susan Sontag is arguably the only exception, as her published diaries are essentially one lifelong reading list. But in addition to being perhaps the twentieth century’s most voracious reader, often spending eight to ten hours a day reading by her own estimate, Sontag was also a great advocate and practitioner of another infinitely rewarding yet increasingly lost art: rereading.

“Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows,” resolves 15-year-old Sontag in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — that spectacular collection of diary entries, which also gave us young Sontag on art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something. A week after her indignation at the “sickening waste” of that day, on which she had “pretended to enjoy a Technicolor blood-and-thunder movie,” Sontag — who had a penchant for worthy resolutions — turns to the journals of André Gide for redemption and extols the rewards of rereading.

Susan Sontag
Photograph: New York Times Co. archive / Getty Images; courtesy of HBO Documentary Films / Regarding Susan Sontag

In an entry from September of 1948, she writes:

I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it —

I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times — Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to! Thus I do not think: “How marvelously lucid this is!” — but: “Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

For, I am not only reading this book, but creating it myself, and this unique and enormous experience has purged my mind of much of the confusion and sterility that has clogged it all these horrible months.

A few months later, she once again waxes rapturous about rereading:

I was very moved by the Goethe, although I think I’m far from understanding it — the [Christopher] Marlowe [play Doctor Faustus] is just about mine though — for I’ve put a good deal of time into it, re-reading it several times, and declaiming many of the passages aloud again and again. Faustus’ final soliloquy I have read aloud a dozen times in the past week. It is incomparable…

Somewhere, in an earlier notebook, I confessed a disappointment with the Mann [Doctor] Faustus … This was a uniquely undisguised evidence of the quality of my critical sensibility! The work is a great and satisfying one, which I’ll have to read many times before I can possess it…

I’m re-reading pieces of things that have always been important to me, and am amazed at my evaluations.

After remarking that she is also rereading Dante “with undiminished pleasure” and T.S. Eliot, “of course,” Sontag adds a note of enthusiastic praise for the virtues of reading out loud:

It is so good to read aloud.

In a testament to one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic“The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading…'” — here are a few of Sontag’s favorite rereads, as recorded in her journal:

In addition to her rereading, Reborn offers a magnificent record of Sontag’s voracious reading, as does the second installment of her published diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 — an altogether superb volume brimming with such gems as Sontag on love, sex, and her radical vision for remixing education.

Complement with Andy Miller on the slippery question of what makes a great book, then revisit Sontag on why lists appeal to us.

BP

Susan Sontag on Sex

“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.

BP

Susan Sontag’s Bulletpointed Bodily Self-Portrait

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.

BP

The Quartet of Creativity: 28-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Four People a Great Writer Must Be

“A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2.”

The most recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 — which was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — gave us the author’s collected insights on writing.

But the journals of Sontag’s younger self, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), offer another fine addition to the collected wisdom of history’s greatest authors.

Writer Susan Sontag shown Jan. 11, 1964. (AP Photo)

In an entry dated December 3, 1961, twenty-eight-year-old Sontag itemizes:

The writer must be four people:

  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence*.

A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

(* A bit of a redundancy between 3 and 4, since Sontag once observed, “Intelligence … is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”)

Pair this list with Ezra Pound on the 6 types of writers — even though Sontag famously listed Pound among her dislikes.

Reborn — which has given us Sontag’s insights on art, marriage, and life, as well as her 10 rules for raising a child, her duties for being 24, and her list of beliefs at ages 14 vs. 24 — is full of such wonderful meditations, at once irreverent and profound.

BP

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