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Susan Sontag. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980.

Susan Sontag. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012. 544 pp. Cloth: $30.00.

In the mid-1960s--newly returned from abroad, freshly divorced, an inaugural contributor to the New York Review of Books, and still in her thirties--Susan Sontag was chic and brilliantly supercilious: a reluctant American of acquired European taste and sensibility, powerfully charming at will. The second volume of her Journals & Notebooks--edited by her son, David Rieff--spans about a decade and a half of Sontag's fame, travel, intense work, illness, and recovery (1964-1980). As they begin, the success of her "Notes on 'Camp'" and the other seminal essays collected in Against Interpretation have freed Sontag to enjoy her renown as cultural critic, both at home in New York and on working sojourns in France, Morocco, Sweden, etc. But the reflections on style, the marginalia on art, the lists of novels and films, all generously accumulated here, eclipse autobiography, amounting instead to "waste books" affectionately modeled on those of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The great European modernists, the exiles--whose seriousness she first tasted as a child in California, at tea with Thomas Mann--are present throughout, giving the impression of a universal project to which Sontag's favored contemporary writers all managed somehow to contribute. In spite of this private bounty, the wallpaper of Sontag's inner life is, at times, painfully impersonal. Though she possessed, or was possessed by, the "ancient compulsion to populate the world with 'culture' and information," the avid cultivation of her taste was borne of a dire need "to fill myself up." As Rieff notes, unhappiness haunted these years. There were frustrated novels, abandoned screenplays, and three years of cancer treatment yielding no journal notes, though the episode brought about the monumental Illness as Metaphor. By 1980, when Sontag had both become a fellow at NYU's Institute for the Humanities and fully dropped her communist sympathies under the influence of Joseph Brodsky, the notebooks show as little biographical punctuation as ever. To read the personal papers of a writer is to glance into the psychic effects of unseen--that is, compositional--choices, but also to encounter, in a more diffuse way, the "spiritual project" that guided the pen. In Sontag's case, her self-directed injunction--to actively contain and transmit what was worth knowing--is punctuation enough.
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Author:Kerner, Amy
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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