Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963
When reading fictionalized journals, one never experiences the sense of the guilt that results from a real intrusion into someone’s private thoughts and personal life. The fictive writer simply does not exist. When the journal being read belongs to someone who has had a very real public persona, the reader will always experience a few uncomfortable moments. In reading Susan Sontag’s journals, this feeling is amplified tenfold. Firstly, these are the journals of a young woman who eventually became a famous writer and intellectual—the journals start when Sontag is only fourteen years of age. Secondly, the fact that her son, editor and author David Rieff, edited the journals for publication and glimpsed his mother’s private garden is a bit daunting.
From the outset, the thorny question of the dual son-editor role that David Rieff plays should be addressed. Any editor would have chosen to trim down the journals, which span sixteen years of Sontag’s life. This period, and the resulting length of the journals, would be excessive for any publication, and Rieff plans to issue two other tomes covering the rest of her personal writing. In choosing to publish the journals in the first place, the decision to “censure” some of its parts seems questionable. Censure is a term Rieff clearly rejects, citing “the literary dangers and moral hazards of such an enterprise.” But, how could he not let his own emotions act as filters to his mother’s journals’ contents? Rieff sometimes selects “a few representative entries,” while other times he omits complete sections intentionally (as with Sontag’s notes about her trip to Italy) and includes thoughts that had been redacted in the original journals by Sontag herself. Inexplicably for someone so prolific in her journal-keeping, there is a notable absence of notebooks for the years 1951-1952, the years Sontag was first married.
Sontag’s journals were clearly not meant for an audience, contrary to some journals of other famous authors. In his (often moving) introduction, Rieff recognizes that his “decision [to publish] certainly violates [his mother’s] privacy.” The notebooks consist of Sontag’s private thoughts and experiences, and also of random lists, facts, and information. They were most certainly kept by the author to remind herself of some of these pieces of information: films seen, books read, or to be read. It could be argued that the fact that she abbreviates some of her lovers’ names meant she was concerned about possible readers (or snoops) and she also codes some words/ideas with an “X” which Reiff does not (cannot?) interpret.
Sontag’s journals provide some fascinating insight into the author’s development from late adolescence into adulthood, and provide rare glimpses into very private aspects of her life: her homosexuality, her divorce, and various other life experiences. Her “feelings” and personal insights, which we normally associate with a personal journal, are only a minor element in the journals, but probably what most readers will seek the most in her private writings. Although much of the material starts off with a date and the editor provides some guidance in deciphering the entries (possible locations, for example), one only gets the sense, but for brief moments, that we are “along for the ride” with Sontag. As all who have attempted to write journals know, the writing is often sporadic, linked to decisive moments in life and/or strong emotions. For Sontag, as they are for most people, these notable periods were the beginnings of her studies in university and of her writing, her homosexual adventures, the birth and raising of her son, and some of her travels. These snapshots show a different side of Sontag, one that does not always match her public persona. She questions her reactions to love and carnal pleasures, motherhood, marriage, and filial relationships, among other things.
Usually, the publication of journals or correspondence takes place many years after a person’s passing. Sontag passed on in 2004 and this publication allows us to discover another side of her, since the journals were the vehicle for, as she called it, her “sense of selfhood.”