Susan Sontag’s Secret Diaries Show She Wasn’t Always Such a Shrew

Long before she was America’s intellectual ice queen, sometimes-lover of photographer Annie Liebowitz and what Camille Paglia once described as the “sanctimonious moralist of the old-guard literary world”, activist, writer and philosopher Susan Sontag was a cute little baby dyke running around The Castro.

Sontag, who gleefully rejected any inquiries into her private life, much to the anger of gay and women’s rights activists, has left behind her most intimate thoughts in a collection of diaries that go back to 1947, when Sontag was 14. The first of these never-before-published diaries are being released by Hamish Hamilton Press this month in Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1964. The Literary Review has an advance copy and says:

As [Sontag] later observed, she used her writing to try out new selves, and to construct her formidable persona. ‘In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person. I create myself.’ She started with a bold credo: ‘I believe a) that there is no personal God or life after death b) that the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself i.e. honesty c) that the only difference between human beings is intelligence.’ She would remain true to these rigorous assertions for the rest of her life.

Sontag wanted far more than her middle-class upbringing in Arizona and California could offer. ‘I want to write – I WANT TO LIVE IN AN INTELLECTUAL ATMOSPHERE,’ she declared at sixteen. Her sexuality was a key element in her literary ambition. ‘I feel that I have lesbian tendencies,’ she noted in 1948, and by May 1949, at Berkeley, she had had her first, ecstatic sexual experience with a woman, Harriet Sohmers. In the aftermath, she decided against a career in academe, and embraced absolute sexual and intellectual freedom. ‘I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere, and find it, too. I AM REBORN.’

It’s fascinating to imagine a young Sontag developing her character, “Susan Sontag”. As she states in ‘Notes on Camp‘, everything is in quotation marks. It’s as if she is simultaneously creating the flamboyant persona of a drag queen, but using it to mask herself in the same way closeted gays wear a “straight persona” to hide from the word. Like the Angel in Angels in America, she’s both fabulous and dull at once.

But not always. After arriving in the Bay Area:

Sontag threw herself into the homosexual subculture of San Francisco, earnestly listing names of gay clubs and dictionaries of gay slang alongside books to buy and classical music to hear. But as she prepared to leave for the University of Chicago, a male friend warned her against the lesbian life: ‘Your only chance of being normal is to call a halt right now. No more women, no more bars.’ His advice may have alarmed her. By November of her freshman year, she had become the research assistant of a charismatic young professor, Philip Rieff. By December, they were engaged, and on 3 January 1950 she married him ‘with full consciousness + fear of will toward self-destructiveness’.

The next year they moved to Boston, where Rieff had a job teaching at Brandeis University, and she quickly had a baby. There are no journals from 1951 and 1952 in the archive; Sontag was depressed, suffering from constant migraines, despairing of her future. ‘Whoever invented marriage is an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution COMMITTED to the dulling of feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition. The best it aims for is the creation of strong mutual dependencies.’ She began writing lists of instructions for herself – don’t gossip, don’t brag, don’t complain, bathe regularly, write more, eat less. She and her husband quarrelled all the time, and she drily noted that ‘in marriage, I have suffered a certain loss of personality’.

You have to wonder what Sontag would think of the gay marriage battles going on today. Though she died in 2004, she spent the last years of her life with Annie Liebowitz, never living together, but able to see each other from their respective apartment windows.