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A Girl’s Guide to Becoming an Intellectual: Susan Sontag’s Journals

By posted at 4:50 am on February 10, 2009 3

There’s an abundance of literature that tells teenage girls, as well as some of us older ones too, “how to.” Within, she discovers what makes guys tick, how to tame unruly skin, and lessons on looking good. Image, image everywhere, and this no doubt is practiced and perfected within her Facebook profile, and among her expanding, seeming limitless network of friends. Today’s young sophisticate learns quickly that appearances matter. But her mind still receives the short shrift. It’s not cool to stand her ground in battles of the intellect, and it’s brainy, not to mention isolating, to read too many books. And let’s say she already eschews such magazines and dating guides as callow or shallow, to where does our intellectual debutante turn for advice?

coverLucky for her, the first installment of Susan Sontag’s journals, composed during her teens and twenties, were recently collected and published in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-63. Sontag, one of the leading public intellectuals of the last fifty years, left a paper trail of her formative years that is as personal as it is articulate, learned, and hungry for experience. Deborah Eisenberg swoons over Sontag’s lucid insight in her New York Review of Books review: “It must always be fascinating to observe a child going about unwrapping the package that is herself… And how much more fascinating it is when the child is able to chronicle the process and the contents themselves are fascinating!” And later: “There’s no time for jokes or for alienated slacker bemusement. Everything must be read, everything!” Judging from the frequency of exclamation marks, Eisenberg, too, appears moved by the personal revelations and the urgency of Sontag’s entries. (Take note, dear girls, Deborah Eisenberg is a writer to add to your reading list – we’ll get to the list-making soon.)

With Sontag as the lodestar, the young, aspiring intellectual won’t be led astray. No, not every girl will be endowed with such a capacity for insight and analysis, nor will she necessarily share Sontag’s unremitting energy, seriousness, or articulate thought. But she may feel reassured that by following Sontag’s steps she’s on the right path and that, in her awareness of beauty and image, she already has conquered one step, as Sontag reflects: “physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.”

To follow closely in Sontag’s footsteps, the young intellect must first exhibit precocity. She should read and read more (it would help to have read Gide, Mann, and Rilke by age 15), and compile lengthy reading lists that include Dante, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Synge, and O’Neill. She should compulsively make other lists, too, of words, music, and slang – of anything that interests her, really – and establish a set of beliefs.

And then: go off to college at 16 – if not at first to a prestigious academic institution, then transfer to one on scholarship. Become a research assistant to a dazzling young professor, and within ten days, get engaged, then marry him (if you marry at all). Have one child while you’re still very young, but make sure to have a nanny, too. Live in Paris, live in New York, or in a major cultural center at least. Travel to Europe frequently. Go to the theater, go to the opera, go to see films, sometimes two or three times a day. Cultivate an insatiable appetite, for culture, for aesthetics, for luxury, for life, and also for women. But even in living, remember to remain disinvolved and sometimes keep to yourself. Again, read as if your life depended on it, as if you’re addicted, and, eventually, write. Be serious, be confident, be brave, and, above all, be true to yourself.

What’s more important than reliving Sontag’s life is remaining faithful to the essence of her message. As Sontag discovers in her semesters at Berkeley – “God, living is enormous!” Remember, its expanses are wide, and it is often the scope of imagination that circumscribes. You should move these journals to the top of your reading queue. But until you have the chance to do so, I’ve distilled Sontag’s observations and reflections to seven guiding tenets:

1. Read voraciously: “Some years ago I realized that reading made me sick, that I was like an alcoholic who nevertheless experiences a hangover after each binge… And I couldn’t keep away from the stuff.”

2. Live voraciously (not vicariously), too: “A thought occurred to me today – so obvious, so always obvious! It was absurd to suddenly comprehend it for the first time – I felt rather giddy, a little hysterical: – There is nothing, nothing that stops me from doing anything except myself…” And also: “The really important thing is not to reject anything…,” and, “I want to err on the side of violence and excess, rather than to underfill my moments.”

3. Be confident, ambitious, and cultivate your ego: “Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity.” And: “With a little ego-building – such as the fait accompli this journal provides – I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said.”

4. Keep a journal of your own: “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather – in many cases – offers an alternative to it.” But keep in mind: “One of the main (social) functions of a journal is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest in the journal.”

5. All the world’s a stage: “Through the mask of my behavior, I do not protect my raw, genuine self – I overcome it.” “…I live my life as a spectacle for myself, for my own edification.” And, quoting Stendhal: “Create an effect, then leave quickly.”

6. Make time for good sex: “The orgasm focuses. I lust to write. The coming of the orgasm is not salvation, but, more, the birth of ego. Yet the only kind of writer [I] could be is the kind who exposes himself… To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself…” (c.f. #3)

7. Betray others but always be true to yourself: “I have always betrayed people to each other. No wonder I’ve been so high-minded and scrupulous about how I use the word ‘friend’!” and “It’s better to hurt people than not be whole.” Most of all: “Love the truth above wanting to be good.”





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3 Responses to “A Girl’s Guide to Becoming an Intellectual: Susan Sontag’s Journals”

  1. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 10:50 am on February 10, 2009

    For a little taste of the truth of #7 I recommend "Desperately Seeking Susan" at the LRB:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n06/cast01_.html

    This also puts me in list making mood; If I was going to add a few to the mind and spirit making books for girls list, I'd add

    How I Grew, Mary McCarthy
    The Plath Journals (fascinating, yes–but also horrifically tedious and oppressive: her obsession with good housewifeliness–cooking, filling Ted's slippers with chocolate easter eggs while he's sleeping–becomes sort of gothic)
    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's letters
    A Narrative of the Life of Charlotte Charke (an odd C18th autobiography, and the first by an actress)

    Great post!

  2. Sonya
    at 2:01 pm on February 11, 2009

    Ditto–these pull-quotes are compelling. Your distillation is almost too good, in the sense of making one feel she's already read the journals and knows SS intimately! Thanks–it's in the library queue.

    Another fascinating self-building female artist I think of is the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Her letter to Rilke and Pasternak, and a biography called "The Captive Lion," are absorbing.

  3. Vanessa
    at 3:17 pm on May 13, 2009

    This is an excellent post. And I heard about Susan Sontag a while back, and now after reading this, I just want to read her!

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