Saturday, December 13, 2008

Private Writing

In Becoming Susan Sontag, her review of Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag, Deborah Eisenberg distinguishes between a diary and a journal. Eisenberg actually uses the title's designations of "journals" and "notebooks" when talking about the contents of the book, but comments

Rieff [Sontag's son David, who edited the volume] refers to these documents—which were written in notebooks—not as "journals" but as "diaries," and although the words are etymologically identical, "diary" seems the more apposite choice, suggesting, as it does, something more intimate than "journal"—a little book with a lock.The diaries contain (among plenty of other sorts of things) passages that concern Sontag's—largely anguished—love affairs with several women, her abrupt and painful seven-year marriage to the scholar and cultural critic Philip Rieff, and, inevitably, their son. The experience of reading the diaries, even for a disinterested party, is intense as well as anxiously voyeuristic; small wonder that the tone of Rieff's introduction is sometimes that of someone who has been on hand to witness a terrain-altering meteorological event. But even from the earliest, less intimate entries, we feel that we've broken the lock on the little book. The young author's assiduous excavations into, and evaluations of, the characteristics, capacities, and potentialities that she finds to be hers put us in almost claustrophobically close proximity to her. It is as though we were watching from behind a screen while someone whose life is clearly to be determined by her appearance tries on clothing in front of a mirror.

A diary, Eisenberg seems to be saying, is confessional, focused on the personal rather than intellectual reflections or observations of the world. She notes that Sontag's notebooks contains lists of books to e read and agenda for study, and that

We see rudiments of ideas which years later expand into essays, and we see aspects of the author—and the author's view of herself—that there certainly would be no other way to see. Though descriptions of the outside world do turn up, Sontag's forceful attention is largely reflexive. In fact, it's surprising, especially in view of her eventual activism and global ruminations, how little notice she takes in these diaries of international events.

Despite the very personal nature of these notebooks/journals/diaries, Eisenberg remarks "now and again Sontag seems to sense someone peeking over her shoulder. Perhaps it's herself. Certainly the entries concerning the event of her marriage are so tightly sealed that one would think the author hardly wanted herself to learn of it." Rieff chose to publish them because he understood that his mother wanted him to. "...I tend to believe that, left to my own devices, I would have waited a long time before publishing them, or perhaps never published them at all. There have even been times when I've thought that I would burn them. But that was pure fantasy...."

Do most people who keep journals (or diaries) reflect on why they do so? I tend to think that they do, though I realize that some people might actually not. My mother once told me how horrified she was to discover my grandmother's diaries, after her death. (My mother was her executor-- but also told me, when she herself was dying, that she had hated her mother: something I hadn't realized) My grandmother, it seemed, had written regularly, every day without fail, about all the events, large and trivial, in her life. My mother told me that she and her sister glanced at the first page of one of them, saw what they were, and burned them all without reading them. My mother said she would have been shamed by reading them, and I could tell by the way she spoke of it that she thought my grandmother had been wrong to leave them for her daughters to find. I've wondered since then why grandmother not only wrote in those diaries, but kept them. Did they represent her life to her? Did they contain an interior consciousness that would have surprised her sons and daughters (who all thought she was a shallow, stubborn, prudish woman)? Did they set out a truth she wished to assert that was perceived by no one else? Or was it simply a habit established in childhood and never broken?

Here is Sontag in 1957, on what a journal is for:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one's private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read H.'s journal about me—that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn't like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant and humiliated. We rarely do know what people think of us (or, rather, think they think of us).... Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal. Will H. ever read this?

Of course Sontag was still a young woman when she characterized her journal as "a vehicle for my sense of selfhood." Discovering who one might be and bringing that self to life is one of the most important pieces of business that young women concern themselves with. I wonder if Sontag's notion of what her journal was for changed as she changed and matured... Certainly, it has changed for me (more than once) over the years.

I wonder, though, if Sontag had been born fifty years later if instead of keeping notebooks/journals/diaries she would have kept a blog instead. Is private writing in a journal or diary one of those practices that will, in the future, have been associated mainly with 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century Euro-American culture?

In any case, Eisenberg's review has whet my appetite for reading Sontag's Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I spent the first half of 2008 'captivated' by Sontag's essays and the biographies. My kernel of interest was research for a screenplay centered around photography, but I got pulled into her whole big world of thought.

These ideas about the diaries/journals - they're sort of the flip side of what she tried to capture about photography - that so separate outsider looking in (yet deeply inside/insider) art.

"Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed."

Gonna have to dive into the diaries in '09.

-Carrie Devall