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Sontag's Diaries

The Times Magazine this Sunday comes in two parts: a gruesome report of what Katrina has done to the children of the Gulf Coast, and a "New York Issue." The latter features excerpts from diaries that Susan Sontag kept between 1958 and 1967. The following comes from the last cited entry.

My image of myself since age 3 or 4 - the genius schmuck. I allow one to pay off the other. Develop relationships to satisfy principally one side or the other.

Sartre (cf. "Les Mots") the only other person I know of who had this "certainty" of genius. Living already a posthumous life, even as a childhood. (The childhood of a famous man.) A kind of suicide - with the "work of genius you know you'll do when adult your tombstone. The most glorious tombstone possible.

Sartre was very ugly - and knew it. So he didn't have to develop "the schmuck" to pay off the others for being "the genius." Nature had taken care of the problem for him. He didn't have to invent a cause of failure or rejection by others. As I did, by making myself 'stupid' in personal relations. (For 'stupid,' also read 'blind.')

Although one might just as well say that Sartre, as a European, did not feel the demotic pull to ordinary-ness that always seems to have needled Sontag, the line about the posthumous life, about the most glorious tombstone, is brilliant, if also slightly mistaken. I should think that the "certainty" is more widespread than Sontag thought. It might not be a certainty of genius, exactly, and perhaps "certainty" is not the word that I need. But to live as though what one wrote were certain to survive - even though one can't be certain of any such thing - the resolution to live "as if" is the key to all intellectual life. And by "intellectual life" I simply mean participation in some of the strands of thought that have come down to us from the past and that will continue to worked wherever life is stable.

In an earlier entry, Sontag confesses to a "morbid" appreciation of beauty. This may have been the cause, or it may have been a side effect, of a brilliant sense of surface. Surface is all that we get to see, but what we think about when we look at something is often something that we can't see, such as the thing's function. This obliquity prevents us from seeing other possibilities - a good thing most of the time, because who needs the distraction? But in order to invent or to understand, we have to strip away our half-conscious associations and deal directly with the elements at hand. And to begin, we have to see them. Sontag had very gifted eyes, and she saw things with a poet's rigor. Her writing is accordingly astringent. It forces us to squint and frown until we see what she sees - or until we give up, in which case she makes us feel the chill of her contempt.

Sontag had the good luck to be an aggressively self-centered beauty at a certain moment in time, one in which it was not intellectually acceptable to be "pleasant." She quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "To smile at opponents and friends alike is to abase one's commitments to the status of mere opinions, and all intellectuals, whether of the Right or Left, to their common bourgeois condition." Ah, the contempt of the bourgeois for the bourgeois! It runs through Sontag's prose like a strong electrical current - to question it is to make fatal contact with it.

The entries show what one might have guessed, that Sontag was a great bluffer.

I write to define myself - an act of self-creation - part of process of becoming - in a dialogue with myself, with writes I admire living and dead, with ideal readers.

But of course! Why else go to the trouble of writing? But how insincere and dishonest it can seem to more workmanlike minds. In the intellectual life - as in no other walk - the only way to grasp something new is to pretend that you can grasp it.

The entries published in the Magazine have been selected to compose an informal essay "On Self." What distinguishes the intellectual from the scholar and scientist, and from the artist as well, is that the intellectual's self, his or her person and character, is part of the equation. To a greater or lesser degree, the intellectual's way of life speaks of his work. How she lives, what kind of parent he is: these must accord with the published thought. Intellectuals don't, as a class, find it any easier to live up to their ideals than other people do, but they are never allowed to forget this. The pressure for intellectuals to live proper lives is bifocal. in one sense, they see themselves as social vanguards, understanding their society better than other types of professional. Very much against this smugness is the shame of knowing that their lives, like that of the people to whom they feel superior, are unspeakably privileged vis-à-vis the lives of the world's poor and disenfranchised. In her diaries, we find Sontag engaged in an unremitting attempt, sometimes breezy, sometimes miserable, to bring her life up to snuff. She may have been the smartest girl in the room, but success at this central task was elusive.


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