Reborn: Susan Sontag early notebooks

I began this year with reading Susan Sontag’s notes of her early life (Age 14-30). 2020 has just started and this already feels like the most influential book I am going to read this year. Primarily because it has made me want to write more, to note down more thoughts, to distil. Susan says writing is creating oneself, not just an aid to memory. I agree – though I think the creation happens because you let the memories build on each other. That is what makes us human: our ability to learn from the past, develop on it, observe and identify patterns.Writing helps to recognise what we like or dislike about something, and therefore discover a voice that is purely personal.

On Keeping a Journal. 

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.

Susan Sontag, Reborn

What is striking about reading a journal is the peek it gives me into another’s mind. It’s fallacy is that it is built with gaps – I do not know what Sontag was thinking when, at 17, she married Philip Reiff because she has not spoken to her journal at the time. And I am aware that the journal is not a pure expression of self as the writer is always conscious of the secret eye that will sometime pass over her words.

It is almost impossible to know someone else, but reading their journal gets your closer. I can see Sontag struggling with her mind, I can see her building opinions, making resolutions, then breaking them on the next page. I see her fall in love with an intensity, and then fall in love again with the same intensity, each time believing this is the greatest love of her life. Each time, she appears in her notes begging and grovelling for love from her much more confident and surefooted lovers. I see her, like me, chase multiple books and movies, trying to find the spark of knowledge. The insatiable quest for other people’s opinions. 

Books and opinions come with a place of surety. All the tribulations, doubts and hesitance that has gone in the making of those opinions are swept away under a carpet. I cannot write a conviction, I am forever limited by the awareness of my ignorance – the confidence of another puzzles me, and therefore to find the hesitations and doubts in this journal are re-assuring.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves

Susan Sontag ,Reborn

Towards the end of this first part, one can see Sontag finding her own voice. She becomes aware of her X, the bad faith, the pretence to please others. She recognises how she is leaking when she talks. Even in some of her unrelated pieces like her thoughts on cities as a negation of space, an opposite of the country, I can recognise her independent thinking which will become stunning by the time her famous essays are written.

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