Sontag the essayist was more confident than Sontag the fiction writer. She had inspirations about how to tell a story that made up for some of the things she couldn’t do in fiction—such as realistic dialogue—but her humility toward the Novel arose from the fear that her prose lacked the amplitude and lyricism that her literary ambitions called for. Her discipline and her capacity for labor were remarkable, almost an accusation, and yet it was touching to hear her say that she read aloud to herself pages of “The Volcano Lover” (1992) and crossed out words and phrases, trying for the right tone, hoping to increase the velocity of her sentences, struggling to make her prose sound effortless—like Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights,” she’d say. Her need to prove herself as a novelist turned her against the essay form for a while and put her in a rage with her own best achievements. After “In America” (1999) received a National Book Award, she felt vindicated and went back to writing essays; “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003) is an example of her brilliance at a kind of moral inquiry that was neither academic nor merely belletristic. For Sontag, prose was not a vehicle for expressing what she thought; it was itself a form of thinking, and, perhaps more exactingly, of feeling as well.
“I don’t know what my real feelings are,” she wrote in 1960. “That’s why I’m so interested in moral philosophy, which tells me (or at least turns me toward) what my feelings ought to be. Why worry about analyzing the crude ore, I reason, if you know how to produce the refined metal directly?” She had assumed that only the academic life could give space to her love of books. An underlying story of “Reborn” concerns her disengagement from that creed. When a Harvard professor asked her what she thought of the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart’s seminar, Sontag recounts, “I was condescendingly, politely negative: the attitude I know he takes.” In “Reborn,” whether she is teaching at the City College of New York or at Sarah Lawrence—and missing, yet again, one of her classes—it is clear that, as fond of her students as she could be, she doesn’t want them in her head. Her way of putting forward an argument did retain an aggressiveness learned in the graduate seminar, when she declined to defer to the guys. But she wanted to be a writer, and would do almost anything to make that happen, which is why it is moving to find in her notebooks a degree of self-doubt and self-criticism not usually associated with Susan Sontag: “The mind is a whore.”
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Hmmm, in chaos of moving, I did not get around to changing the address for my New Yorker subscription, and now I've missed several issues (though should be back on track around now). Belatedly, here's Darryl Pinckney on Susan Sontag's journals: