Susan Sontag isn't mentioned in the Collier's Encyclopedia--a row of which fills the lower shelf of a bookshelf that lines a wall in the room where I sleep. Then again, Collier's, which went defunct in the late 90s (I believe), contains few references for women--mostly photographs and stories of men--so it's no wonder there is no entry for Susan Sontag in the book marked "SAN San Francisco STU Stutgart."
The copyright for the Collier's series is 1960. The second wave of feminism had not yet come; America was flagrantly misogynistic and had not yet been rent by Vietnam, the women's movement or the Black Power movement, and Sontag herself had yet to produce her seminal work: Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), and her monographs, On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1977). Her journals are yet another prize many readers may not know so well.
I am reading As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980, edited by David Rieff, (Sontag's son and editor)--the title is taken from a segment in these journals.
It's been a while since I read Sontag, and I am awed once again by the range of her curiosity and interests and the intensity of her self-scrutiny. She explored even Buddhism and meditation, on which she muses in entries on August 5, 1966, for example. This is the second of three collections of her journals, and they are composed of fragments, ideas tossed into the void, the facebook of her imagination.
In his loving introduction, Rieff relays that his mother had spoken of writing her autobiography and that the idea went unfulfilled, although he goes on to suggest that her journals may have filled that void. I would tend to agree.
This compilation of the great scholar's threads of thought on politics, war, literature, photography, art, happiness, music, her relationships, other writers--most notably, Joseph Brodsky--her engagement with the problems of philosophy, morality, society and even her own contradictions makes this fascinating autobiographical reading, and more--a moving examination of history from the arc of a remarkable woman's life. On March 15, 1980, (at 47), Sontag wrote..."The function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history." For her, this was certainly true.
What strikes me above all as I read Sontag's journals is how much she was--as a woman, Jew and intellectual--the product of a unique time, place and culture now gone that will never come again. The very notion of an intellectual has changed radically since the last century. Since technology took hold, sometime in the 90s--intelligence, which Sontag called "taste in ideas" in her essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" has been measured less by how well one thinks than by how fast one can do it. It's a virtually inarguable fact that our "taste in ideas" has gone downhill along with our taste in general and that simultaneously the world is now run by nerds. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, we have a greater need than ever for intellectuals in the marketplace--individuals unafraid to explore and divine who we are, where we are and where we are going and who are also capable of sharing their ideas without prejudice or insularity in the realm of technology.