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Susan Sontag on Why Lists Appeal to Us, Plus Her Listed Likes and Dislikes

How lists confer value and guarantee existence.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Eco famously proclaimed. Whether or not he was right about origin, the list is very much a currency of culture, today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles and innumerable numerical headlines. But what is it, exactly, that makes lists appeal to us so?

The recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and has already given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated insights on love and art. In a characteristically self-reflexive entry from August 9, 1967, 34-year-old Sontag considers the allure of lists:

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

Nearly a decade later, on February 21, 1977, Sontag constructs an unusual list of her likes and dislikes, on the one hand unordered like a stream-of-consciousness meditation and on the other bearing the cyclical repetition and cadence of poetry:

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long-haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, ups, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, Wagon-Lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, pen knives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: Television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

Things I like: drums, carnations, socks, raw peas, chewing on sugar cane, bridges, Dürer, escalators, hot weather, sturgeon, tall people, deserts, white walls, horses, electric typewriters, cherries, wicker / rattan furniture, sitting cross-legged, stripes, large windows, fresh dill, reading aloud, going to bookstores, under-furnished rooms, dancing, Ariadne auf Naxos.

UPDATE: Reader Lynore Avery illustrates Sontag’s favorite things, reminiscent of Lisa Congdon’s illustrations of Gertrude Stein’s objects:

Complement this with Nabokov’s stream-of-consciousness rant on things he hates. And if you still haven’t treated yourself to As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, do yourself a favor.

BP

Susan Sontag’s Radical Vision for Remixing Education

A new order of knowledge for cultivating lifelong learning.

“Our whole theory of education,” Henry Miller famously lamented, “is based on the absurd notion that we must learn to swim on land before tackling the water.” With its factory schooling model, its biologically unsound schedules, and its failure to account for different types of intelligence, the modern education system leaves much to be desired in terms of encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and hands-on learning.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, which gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love and art — comes a somewhat radical but in many ways brilliantly sensible vision for education. Writing 40 years ago, in a diary entry from January of 1973, Sontag inverts the traditional sequence of schooling, envisioning for education what Stefan Sagmeister has done for work with his model of time-shifted retirement via distributed sabbaticals, and above all seconding Miller’s insistence on learning by doing.

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

Sontag writes:

Why not eliminate schooling between age 12-16? It’s biologically + psychologically too turbulent a time to be cooped up inside, made to sit all the time. During these years, kids would live communally — doing some work, anyway being physically active, in the countryside; learning about sex — free of their parents. Those four ‘missing’ years of school could be added on, at a much later age. At, say, age 50-54 everyone would have to go back to school. (One could get a deferment for a few years, in special cases, if one was in a special work or creative project that couldn’t be broken off.) In this 50-54 schooling, have strong pressure to learn a new job or profession — plus liberal arts stuff, general science (ecology, biology), and language skills.

This simple change in the age specificity of schooling would a) reduce adolescent discontent, anomie, boredom, neurosis; b) radically modify the almost inevitable process by which people at 50 are psychologically and intellectually ossified — have become increasingly conservative, politically — and retrograde in their tastes (Neil Simon plays, etc.)

There would no longer be one huge generation gap (war), between the young and the not young — but 5 or 6 generation gaps, each much less severe.

After all, since most people from now on are going to live to be 70, 75, 80, why should all their schooling be bunched together in the first 1/3 or 1/4 of their lives — so that it’s downhill all the way  

Early schooling — age 6-12 — would be intensive language skills, basic science, civics, the arts.  

Back to school at 16: liberal arts for two years
Age 18-21: job training through apprenticeship, not schooling

Complement with Sister Corita Kent’s 10 rules for students and teachers and Bertrand Russell’s 10 commandments of education.

BP

Susan Sontag on Art: Illustrated Diary Excerpts

“Art is a form of consciousness.”

Earlier this year, I asked artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s meditations on love, based on my collected highlights from the second volume of Sontag’s published diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library). Today, we’re thrilled to release our second collaboration, this time highlighting Sontag’s reflections on art — adding to history’s most timeless definitions — which I culled from more than 1,000 pages of diary entries from both the same volume and the one preceding it, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library). Enjoy.

The artwork is available on Etsy as an 11×14″ print on heavy cotton rag paper with razored edges in a limited edition of 300, signed and numbered, bearing a hand-stamped inscription on the back. We’re donating a portion of the proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

The excerpts:

All aesthetic judgment is really cultural evaluation. (9/3/1956)

All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation. (9/10/1964)

Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth! (9/10/1964)

Art is a form of consciousness (11/1/1964)

Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit) (11/25/1964)

Could get a new art movement every month just by reading Scientific American. (3/26/1965)

Art is the production of mental events in / as a concrete sensuous form (12/4/1979)

Why has there been no new international style in 50 years? Because the new ideas, the new needs are not yet clear. (Hence, we content ourselves with variations + refinements on Art Deco and, for refreshment + fusions, parodistic — ‘pop’ — revivals of older styles.) (8/8/1975)

The only interesting ideas are heresies (6/30/1975)

Both volumes of Sontag’s diaries are unspeakably excellent. Sample them with her thoughts on writing, censorship, boredom, aphorisms, and freedom, her beliefs at age 14 vs. 24, her 10 rules for raising a child, and her list of “rules and duties for being 24.”

See more of Wendy’s magnificent work on her site (designed by the inimitable Kelli Anderson), find her prints on Etsy and 20×200, and follow her on Twitter.

BP

Susan Sontag’s List of Beliefs at Age 14 vs. Age 24

“The only difference between human beings is intelligence.”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us her views on life, death, art and freedom and her list of “rules + duties for being 24” and her 10 rules for raising a child.

In an entry dated November 23, 1947, 14-year-old Susan lists her core beliefs, many of which — including her cult of the intellect, her pursuit of freedom, and her views on government — remained strikingly consistent, if not exponentially engrained, over the course of her life.

I believe:

(a) That there is no personal god or life after death

(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty

(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy

(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life [Entries ‘f’ and ‘g’ are missing.]

(h) I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state (besides ‘g’) should be a strong centralized one with government control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age[d]. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

Then, a decade later, in 1957, she revisits the subject, shifting away from a certain absolutism and towards a more balanced, even romantic ethos:

What do I believe?

In the private life
In holding up culture
In music, Shakespeare, old buildings

What do I enjoy?

Music
Being in love
Children
Sleeping
Meat

My faults

Never on time
Lying, talking too much
Laziness
No volition for refusal

Reborn was followed by the excellent As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, which gave us Sontag’s views on love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms

BP

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