As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

Gorgeous glimpse into the scattered, philosophical, whimsical thoughts of Sontag during the years between 1964 and 1980. She writes surprisingly little about her chemotherapy and recovery from breast cancer, and a lot about her complicated relationship with her mother, apparently a drunk who withheld love from her daughter. My favorite bits are cobbled together below, but what struck me was her wrestling with not being genius, with her going all in on her love affairs, her struggle with not wanting to be alone but recognizing the value and productivity of solitude. Another thread that keeps popping up in various places for me is the idea of removing oneself from what is going on in order to create something new (consume less of what others produce). To some extent, I identify with her “settling” for her average intelligence, although SS was far beyond me.

I’m not ambitious because I’m complacent. I knew that I wasn’t smart enough to be Schopenhauer or Nietzche or Wittgenstein or Sartre or Simone Weil. I aimed to be in their company, as a disciple; to work on their level. I have a good mind, even a powerful one. But I’m not a genius. I’ve always known that. My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate. I know my mind has gone a step forward by virtue of being alone the last 2 1/2 years, don’t have to package and dilute my responses because I share them with another person. I’ve got this thing – my mind. It gets bigger, its appetite is insatiable.

These minutes, writing this in the lobby of the Ambassador – at a table spread with a white cloth, by the open doors on a fine Saturday morning, having just finished a big breakfast (two boiled eggs, etc.) and alone, alone (David upstairs, still sleeping) – watching the other people in the lobby, on the terrace, passing on the street – have been the first moments since the beginning of the summer in which I’ve had some sense of well-being.

I would be myself
1. If I would understand less of what others mean
2. If I would consume less of what others produce
3. I would smile less; eliminate the superlatives, the unnecessary adverbs and adjectives from my speech
Because of #2 I am not fully present in many experiences: more armored, I can absorb more. More open, I would be filled by one or two things, I would confront them more deeply.

Another mini-thought. When I had this idea this morning in bed, I was so delighted at having a new thought- it’s been so damned long! I’ve been sure this year that my mind was shot to hell, and I was becoming just as stupid as everyone else – I wanted to do something to express my pleasure. So I spoke out loud, rather self-consciously: “Well, what do you know. An idea!” Or something like that. And the sound of my voice in this room with nobody but me here profoundly depressed me.
I never talk out loud to myself… I find it very painful. Then I really know I’m alone.
Maybe that’s why I write – in a journal. That feels “right.” I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here- but the knowledge isn’t painful, on the contrary I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down. I can’t talk to myself, but I can write to myself. (But is that because I do think it possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals and feel even closer to me?)

It is not natural to speak well, eloquently, in an interesting articulate way. People living in groups, families, communes say little – have few verbal means. Eloquence – thinking in words – is a byproduct of solitude, deracination, heightened painful individuality. In groups, it’s more natural to sing, to dance, to pray: given, rather than invented (individual) speech.

Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer, I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short circuit the despair. By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.

…Changes in the body, changes in language, changes in the sense of time. What does it mean for time to go faster, for it to seem to pass more slowly? Jasper’s observation that the reason time seems to go faster as we get older is that we think in larger units. At forty, it’s as easy to say “in five years” or “five years ago” as it was to say “in five months” or “five months ago” when one was fourteen. Brodsky said that there were two subjects: time and language.

The next ten years must be the best, strongest, boldest

To feel the pressures of consciousness, to be informed, to understand anything, one must be alone. Being with people, being alone – like breathing in and breathing out, systole and diastole. As long as I’m so afraid of being alone, I’ll never be real. I’m in hiding from myself.