Three years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me tThree years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me than a massive literary reputation, I was dazzled by her penetrating, often brutal self-dissection of her own personality and intellect. I even dared think I recognized a sensibility shockingly similar to my own. Fast-forward through several years and the journals, a compilation of her earliest, are here, and yes, my suspicions have been borne out. Not that I'd at all equate our intellectual abilities, but I recognize (and in a sense, sympathize over) the slavish desire of creating and shaping an entire identity out of intellectual engagement and a systematic and largely self-imposed exposure to art and the humanities, a desire always at war with the cravings for intense personal experiences.
The "reborn" of the title hints at one of the main underlying themes of these journals: the self-creation Sontag undertakes from being the precocious teenager who graduated high school at 15 and had studied at both Berkeley and University of Chicago before she was 20, to the woman on the brink of superstardom as a public intellectual by her early 20's. These journals document a stunning amount of stuff and happenings--exploring and embracing her lesbianism, a whirlwind marriage and motherhood, divorce, escape to European bohemia, and, of course, the steady evolution of her intellectual abilities and persona. Inevitably, this leads to some uneveness in tone and content, with drastic oscillations between cool academic analysis and rather hysterically-pitched recounting of personal drama (she seems to have modeled her romantic yearnings on the European art films she adored or, as she records a friend of hers commenting, on the characters of Nightwood). But frankly, that's how my, and probably all our journals of those years read too, no?
And so that long wait for the next volume to be released...
"My reading is a hoarding, accumulating, storing up for the future, filling the hole of the present. Sex and eating are entirely different motions--pleasure for themselves, for the present--not serving the past + the future. I ask nothing, not even memory, of them."
Here is where I discovered my model, my ideal: I too aspire to be able to discuss and analyze so deftly literature, cinema, music, theater, philosophyHere is where I discovered my model, my ideal: I too aspire to be able to discuss and analyze so deftly literature, cinema, music, theater, philosophy, theory and society, and their countless and inevitable intersections. The celebrated "Notes on Camp" and the title essay are the standouts, but everything--even the comparatively weak theater reviews--are worth reading.
"My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in 'everything.'"
There is not another book in all of literature that I hold as dear as this one; I never expect to find another that gives me half as much pleasure. ItThere is not another book in all of literature that I hold as dear as this one; I never expect to find another that gives me half as much pleasure. It would be impossible to count how many times I've read it over the years (it has to be dozens and dozens by now), and it remains a locale of constant pilgrimage, as I still return to it at least once a year. I'm always a bit nervous whenever I take it up again that my education of postmodern "isms" will have made me suddenly immune to its charms (and if that day ever does come, it will honestly make me seriously reconsider a possible future in higher education). Thankfully, from the very first pages, where poor, bereft little Nat Blake arrives at Plumfield and is taken in with open arms by "jolly Mrs. Jo" and ushered into her and her husband's experimental school for boys, it never fails to win me over as quickly and completely as the warm hospitality does the sensitive little homeless boy.
At this point I know all the tales—because that's all the book is, really—by heart, and as each chapter presents itself I can't help but smile with pleasure and recognition at the story I know is about to unfold. This time around it particularly struck me how much the stories have become an integral part of me—they're as much my memories as if I had actually experienced them "in the flesh," and if I'm honest I probably treasure them more than I do many many of the "legitimate" memories of my past. And every time I revisit it is striking how much it tells me about who I've become and who I am today—it's easy to comprehend now why the lonely little boy I was was so receptive to its vision of a utopian child society where shy and bookish boys have a place just as legitimate as the others; I can understand my complete identification with the character of Nat, because, that was me at that age.
Needless to say, I can't help but chuckle now over Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer's asides to each other about Nat behind closed doors--whether intentionally or not (and I'd probably lean towards the latter), Alcott was implying an awful lot when writing that Mr. Bhaer considered Nat "his 'daughter,'" finding him "as docile and affectionate as a girl." Inevitably, I can't help but wonder if some facets of my own personality are rooted in this initial identification with Nat, if my attraction now to extroverted boys has some basis in Nat's relationship with the exuberant Tommy Bangs; it's kind of odd observing now how the symbiotic Nat/Dan relationship play out through the book, as it so eerily parallels a friendship I had in high school (and my own intense emotional attachment to it).
Stepping outside myself for a moment, I will make clear that I don't at all make any great claims for this book—it's no undiscovered masterpiece, or even comes within striking distance of such a characterization. It takes the basic formula of Little Women and, for better or worse, amplifies it in some ways, particularly the moralizing stance it often takes. After the first several chapters where Nat is introduced into Plumfield (serving as a narrative device to introduce the reader to its many characters and establishes the locale), the rest of the book is more or less a ramshackle collection of mostly unrelated anecdotes with a genial "don't kids say/do the darndest things?" tone, with Jo assuming Marmee's place in locating a moral or truth in every turn of events.
And that's not at all a knock at all towards Alcott or her literary abilities—as I wrote in my review of Little Women, which I read for the first time last year, reading Alcott's work does make me ponder over the loss of what I called "the unsentimental Postmodern dumping of didactic literature." For my money, the "Damon and Pythias" chapter of the book is about as stellar an example of mixing a moral lesson with suspense as I've ever encountered—even though I know exactly how it all turns out, I still read it with my heart at the back of my throat.
What can I say? I love this book completely, unreservedly, and perhaps a bit too nonjudgmentally. So it goes. I will continue to treasure the "Illustrated Junior Library" edition I have always had and read, and with each read its corners grow ever more worn, as much from love as from use. If I am remembering correctly I found this book in an abandoned house on a piece of property my family bought when I was a child, lending my discovery of it a bit of an aura of fate; I had also failed to notice until this time around that this is the 1984 reprint edition, making us exactly the same age. I'm not exactly sure what I think about the idea of fate, but if there is such a thing, then yes, this qualifies just as much as anything possibly could. I'm already looking forward to my next rereading. ...more