Sontag’s Diaries 1964-1980 – Last Load

Once again, all quote marks, paragraph breaks, bullet points, italics, etc. are hers. I’ve removed the editor’s annotational brackets. Separate entries are denoted by asterisks.

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Since Biblical times, to be connected with people sexually is a way of knowing them. In our century–for the first time–it is valued primarily as a way of knowing oneself. That’s too much of a burden for the sexual act to carry.

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If no story narrative seems that important or necessary. The only material that seems to have any character of inevitability is the writer’s own consciousness.

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Story Irene told me about being robbed + raped four years ago. In her building: as she was returning home about 1 a.m. getting into the elevator, a black man forced it open. She screamed. “If you scream again, I’ll kill you.” Took her to the eighth (top) floor, then halfway up stairs leading to the roof. Then blindfolded her.

I asked, “Did you get excited sexually?” She said yes– then said I was the first person she’d ever told that story to who’d asked her that. “But it’s such an obvious question,” I said.

The next day (today) I called her. “I was saying how stupid your friends are,” I said, “but I was thinking now that it was because your told me it happened four years ago–+ you obviously were OK, not traumatized, talked about it so cooly– that it was easy to ask that.

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Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.

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Sex is getting a bad reputation. The 1960s–seemed like energy, joy, freedom from stuffy taboos, adventure. Now seems to many people more trouble than it’s worth. A disappointment. Sex a sublimation of the desire to work. Sexual drive took them, into a wall…Make homosexual “world” abandoned the gentle / bitchy homosexual (the “fairy,” “fag,” “fruit”–compulsively attending to his sexual needs)–+gave itself over to lechery, vice, and sexual manias.

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Dec. 31, 1999. I would like to be there. It will be one of the great kitsch moments of world history.

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Conversation with Enzensberger (lunch in Chinatown): Darwin as an alternative to Hegel. Hegelianism assumes the biological + the historical are two different processes. But maybe the historical proceeds naturally. An evolution, but one that can’t be predicted. (What was attractive about Hegelianism was its notion of the irony of history.) Nobody has thought about Darwin implications for 50 years in Germany, E. says. Survival of the fittest is mistrusted as survival of the strongest.

Excerpts from Sontag’s Diaries — Load Two

Once again, all quote marks, paragraph breaks, bullet points, italics, etc. are hers. I’ve removed the editor’s annotational brackets. Separate entries are denoted by asterisks.

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Could I never have thought I was seen by anyone else before in my whole life? No, I didn’t. But how could I have been so resigned? When did I give up hoping anyone would see me? It must’ve been terribly early…And shortly after I must have started hiding, making sure they couldn’t see me. (The nail-biting started at camp, the asthma the next winter.) Always (?) this feeling of being “too much” for them– a creature from another planet–so I would try to scale myself down to size, so that I could be apprehend-able by (lovable by) them. With the unwavering resolution to sacrifice nothing I “really” was in the process. That scaling down, that mashing, was just a question of my being clever and “perceptive” enough. To see what they wanted. To see what they could bear. Trying not to give them less than I might (without bad results) nor more (and overload their capacities, frighten them, make them feel stupid, alienate them, make them hate me for making them feel stupid. But how could I have known or decided that I was “more” than they– all centered on my fabulous, cosmic voyaging mind? Even if it were true that potentially I had such a mind (but how could I have?) how would I have known? And how did I dare stake out such a claim for myself? With no support or stimulation or help from anyone? It seems like madness–that claim, and the steps I took to be worthy of it. (The Nobel Prize fantasy, the search for the appropriate vessel for my ambition.) And all the while searching for reconciliation with the others–to be loved, to be taken care of. But certainly I was acting in bad faith. (Wisely, I suppose.) If they didn’t come across, I always had my ambition, my mind, my secret being, my knowledge of my destiny to sustain me. So I was hedging my bets. If they came across, well + good. (But I certainly wasn’t going to give up the most important thing, my mind, to get their love.) And if they didn’t come across, “tant pis”. I’d survive. I mustn’t underestimate, though, what I did give up– while faithfully guarding my “real” self as I understood it. I gave up, first of all, my sexuality. I gave up my ability to understand myself as an “ordinary” person; I gave up most of the ordinary range of access to myself, to my feelings. I gave up my self-confidence, my self-esteem in personal relations–particularly with me. I gave up being at home in my body. Only a few kinds of relations were left–ones I specialized in particularly. Desexualized pedagogic friendship. I renounced trying to be attractive. I renounced the right to be “bad” or frail as everyone is “bad” or “frail” from time to time. Not that I wasn’t, just like everyone else! But I hated myself for it much more than people do– castigated myself, dropped my self-esteem an inch lower. Wasn’t I supposed to be “better” than other people? That being so, then what was good enough for them could hardly be a proper standard for me. At the same time that I also thought I didn’t, in some respects, yet come up to their standard. Hence, many things. My pattern of violent impulsive intimacy with people — followed by phasing out. All that unsatisfied need for contact which builds up + builds– + then bursts out upon a new person who comes into my life and seems to “see” me at all in a new or generous way. I seduce myself with my hope, my farseeing of what’s rich in that person — + gloss over the limits that are equally discernible. And then, quickly, I can see only limits. And then comes the evasions, + the guilt, + the struggle to roll back the frontiers of the relation– to withdraw some of the promise of intimacy — without breaking off entirely. (When, often, rightly or wrongly, that’s what I really want to do.) […] My universe, then, in radical contrast with Eva’s, is underpopulated. I don’t experience the world as invading me, menacing me, assaulting me. The primal anxiety is absence, indifference, “the lunar landscape.” From which I can infer a lot about my first five years. Obviously neither my mother nor Rosie were out to get me, to break my spirit, to give me a bad opinion of myself. Nobody made fun of me or made me feel stupid or ugly or clumsy. They made me feel that the world was mechanical, usually polite (though sometimes incomprehensibly irascible), and incredibly obtuse and stupid people who, I must have thought, couldn’t be that stupid if they wouldn’t be so lazy or distracted or undermotivated. They could be intelligent, they could see, if they tried. But nobody wanted to try. They seemed to sluggish, so inert– and so predictable in most of their responses. […]So instead, I had the company of the immortal dead– the “great people” (the Novel prize winners) of whom I would some day be one. My ambition: not to be the best among them, but only to be one of them, to be in the company of peers and comrades. [*n.b.: !!!]

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One of the things I felt pleased my mother was an erotic admiration. She played at flirting with me, turning me on; I played at being turned on (+ was turned on by her, too). Thereby, I pleased her — and I somehow triumphed over the boyfriends in the background who claimed her time, if not her deep feeling (as she repeatedly told me). She was “feminine: with me; I played the shy adoring boy with her. I was delicate; the boyfriends were gross. I also played at being in love with her (as when I copied things from Little Lord Fauntleroy, which I read when I was 8 or 9, like calling her “Darling.”)

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But I’ve experience my strength (my mind, my eyes, my intellectual passions) as condemning me to perpetual isolation, separation from others. I must become “weak” to get close to them (so they’ll let me get close to them). Or I must pump them up, fill them with substance, make them “stronger.” [In the margin:] Either way, closing the gap. My long series of pedagogic relationships– not to perpetuate the master-pupil relationship but to create a company of peers for myself.

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Of course, maybe we wouldn’t have so much subjectivity if the “outer” were better designed to register the interior life. Maybe subjectivity as we experience it (all the pressure, the force, the energy, the passion of it) is precisely the result of this “confinement” inside our being. (Like the pressure build up when a gas is heated up inside a sealed metal container.)

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Poor me. But I’ve rather cleverly found a back door to some of those things by becoming cose to a series of men who admire and imitate “feminine” things. I accept that in them. (They– not women, not my mother– validate it.) Therefore, I can accept it in myself. And so in the last decade I have gradually been adding more “feminine” things, tastes, + activities in my life. I can love “art nouveau” (all curves, opalescent glass, insane flowers). I can enjoy flowers. I love to dance. I love beautiful clothes. I want to (well, in my head I do, though in fact I don’t!) go to and give parties. I want a beautiful apartment with stunning furniture. I [enjoy] wearing bright colors.

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Glamor requires a space between the person and an image (title) that preceeds the person. “This is X the– Jasper the painter. Carlotta the duchess. Warren the movie star.”

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Instead of insisting that all people be schooled during “childhood,” why not issue an Educard to every person at birth entitling the person to a minimum of five years of schooling, to be cashed in (used) whenever the person elects– with dividends, perhaps, if one defers some schooling to the “adult” years.

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Every time a woman is raped (and murdered) in a big city, that’s a lynching. Women’s Lib. How the metaphor illuminates. What is sexual (i.e. “private” according to male-dominated society) becomes a political (i.e. public / social) crime– rooted in the public, ideological subjection of women.

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At least death by, say, drugs is self-driven, individual, as opposed to death by nuclear holocaust.

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I feel inauthentic at a party: Protestant-Jewish demand for unremitting “seriousness.” Going to a party is a “low” activity– the authentic self is compromised, fragmented– one plays “roles.” One isn’t fully present, beyond role-playing. One doesn’t (can’t) tell the full truth, which means one is lying, even if one doesn’t literally tell lies. Carlotta has no share in this type of consciousness (typically Puritan). The convivium has its value, and standards of presence appropriate to itself. The fulfilling of these standards means one is “civilized.” There is no guilt attached to the situation of being at a party as such for her, as there is for me. Rather, perhaps, some guilt attaches to unsociability, being uncompanionable. The lies, or partial truth-telling, that sociability requires are part of civiltà. No inner demand for complete authenticity in Catholic culture. Mine is second-class, truncated Puritanism. Parties depress me (I feel demeaned) while I don’t usually feel depressed, corrupted, or demeaned if I go to a bad movie or play. As long as I am a spectator, a voyeur (however much response I may have had inside) I haven’t essentially violated or demeaned myself. I draw the line between paricipation and voyeurism. The only parties I go to where I feel clear (and usually not depressed) are those in which I behave like a spectator– the party becomes a movie– and I discuss it with the person I came with or the one person I already know who is there; and regard meeting new people as an intrusion on my essential activity.

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[…]I somewhere take my unsociability as evidence of my “seriousness,” a quality which I take as necessary to my existence as a moral being.

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Carlotta– Southern European, Catholic culture– uses the convivium (parties, dinners, etc.) to tune out. Protestant-Jewish culture uses work. One is allowed to tune out on the full authentic private self in work– in the fulfillment of the routines of a vocation, a profession, a job– because work itself is a moral imperative: satisfying the requirements of the discipline of the self and the necessity to relate communally to others. Work is experienced as discipline– the background of which is ascesis– even though it also gives pleasure. […] The party and other forms of convivium are, of course, not at all ascetic– on the contrary. The depersonalization is hedonistic, non-utilitarian, not moralized.

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Carlotta never asks herself if she has behaved “authentically,” […] She experiences her problem not as knowing what she really feels, but of living with– and not being torn to pieces by– the (contradictory) feelings she has.

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The difficulty of contacting my anger (when it’s aimed at people I love) is that it directly contradicts my notion of how to deserve love:– being good. No problem, of course, in getting angry with people I don’t know, with people I don’t know well, with people I don’t love very much.

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Joe: Two kinds of people– those who are interested in self-transformation and those who are not. Both require the same amount of energy– it takes as much energy to remain the same as to change. I agree with the first– and I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. But the second: I wish I could believe in something so optimistic. It seems to me to require much more energy to change.

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[SS must have shown this entry to someone as, below it in another hand and underlines, is written:] Please don’t be afraid!

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The “Art Nouveau” appeal of smoking: manufacture your own pneuma, spirit. “I’m alive.” “I’m decorative.”

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Women don’t die for each other. There is no “sororal” death as there is a fraternal death

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(The evening at Lizzy’s (Elizabeth Hardwick] house last week in NY. Mary M[cCarthy], Kevin M[cCarthy], Barbara E[pstein], Mme Stravinsky + Craft, Arthur Schlesinger + [his wife] Alexandra Emmet also there.)

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How depressed I am by both of them– at moments. I feel real hatred for them– because I understand them both so well, because they represent the two poles of my own temperament (longings, temptations). I could be “Flaubert” or “S.W.”; I am neither of course– because one side corrects, inhibits, compromises the other. “Flaubert”: ambition; egotism; detachment; contempt for others; enslavement to work; pride; stubbornness; ruthlessness; lucidity; voyeurism; morbidity; sensuality; dishonesty. “S.W.”: ambition; egotism; neurosis; refusal of the body; hunger for purity; naïveté; awkwardness; asexuality; desire for sanctity; honesty.

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“I am not a feminist,” she [Simone Weil] said. Of course not. She never accepted the fact that she was a woman. Hence, her making herself ugly (she wasn’t), her way of dressing, her incapacity to have any sexual life, her being dirty, unkempt, the disorder of any room she occupied, etc.

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Problematic essays from the 1960s for me–now– are “One Culture + The New Sensibility” and “On Style.” […] Not that I have changed my point of view. Objective conditions have changed.

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But, in the early 1970s, when the abuse is quite different– abuse of ideas of liberation. Now, Ideas which came out of specific situations are junior high school norms … What status do those ideas have?

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[P]olitical mistake of the New Left (ca. 1967) was to think you could invent gestures (styles, clothes, habits) that would really divide people. Like: long hair, Navajo jewelry, health food, dope, bell-bottomed trousers.

Jameson on “the feels”

This comparison is a little Core College Class 101 but it’s what I thought of when I read “Reification & Utopia” for the first time!

“[Under the commodity,] our readerly business…is to transform the transparent flow of language as much as possible into material images and objects we can consume…More subtle and more interesting is the way in which, since naturalism, the best-seller has tended to produce a quasi-material “feeling tone” which floats above the narrative but is only intermittently realized by it: the sense of destiny in family novels, for instance…can be seen as so many commodities towards whose consumption the narratives are little more than means” (“Reification & Utopia,” p. 133).

Jameson’s critique of instrumentalization of art in capitalist societies also makes a great critique of the internet phenomenon, “the feels.” In capitalist societies we read to get to the end of the story. For example, in a detective novel (his example) the commodity is the reader’s thrill at discovering the crime’s perpetrator. In internet stories and videos that give us the feels, the feels are the commodity: a payoff with vibes (“feeling tone”).

We don’t have a name for this genre yet. “Clickbait” emerged in– what– 2010? So “the feels” as a genre is still emergent.

Incidentally, I decided to read this essay based on its citation in Enstad’s Ladies of Leisure, which is about women’s libidinal investment in clothes and movies and how that effected labor movements in the early 20th century. But now I’m reading Jameson’s essay for its symmetry with the Sontag quote I transcribed in my last entry. How do art movements gain use value? (This is one element of Jameson’s critique of instrumentality in the Frankfurt school.) And what parity that has with the development of self care!– caring for the body, like art, with purpose where none belongs.

Notes to self on self care

One didn’t–until the late 19th century–ask for art to justify itself, to manifest its meaning. That was like asking art to be useful, practical–one knows why one performs them: they’re useful, necessary, obligatory–and activities which were free, voluntary, gratuitous. If practicing an art belongs in the second type of activity, and that is what draws us to the arts, then it would seem a kind of mistake to be restless and demoralized because we were subsequently unable to justify that activity, because that activity failed to justify itself as belonging to the first type of activity. We would be in the situation of doubting the value (worth) of our activity–work–because of the very quality that drew us to it in the first place: its gratuitousness.

-Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh

Self care works the same way– why are we trying to make something unproductive productive? Where does this impulse come from? What is its effect? The point of “self care” is that it’s gratuitous: “just taking some time for myself”– like we’re stealing hours of labor. But when we attach the label “self care,” we make the routine do work. Interesting parallel between the politicization of art in the 19th century and the politicization of caring for the (implicitly: female) body.

Is this at all different from Foucault? Can’t tell if this is a new thought or if Sontag’s diaries just reinvigorated an old idea.

N.B.: Kant defines art as “finality without end”– but that hasn’t been the case since the Romantics politicized art.

Povinelli’s “Thick Life” in Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure


“A year and a half later, Oppenheim published “Peg O’ the Movies” in The Ladies World, a cheap magazine largely read by the working class. A different set of market conventions shaped this story, and the narrative elements of “Peg O’ the Movies” bear only slight resemblance to those in “Bread and Roses” [which Oppenheim also wrote]. While both pieces focused on heroic young working women, in “Peg O’ the Movies” Oppenheim portrayed no women strikers, no poignant political pleas. Oppenheim, a supporter and chronicler or the women’s strikes, only celebrated them in texts destined for middle-class audiences, while he wrote stories of adventure, fame, and romance for working-class women themselves.” (21)

[I]t was often as workers that working-class people claimed access to the political process, either through union representation or through the vote. As Judith Butler has argued, the dominant understanding of political action is that it requires a coherent and fixed understanding of identity already in place. That is, many assume that people must first fully identify with the category “worker” before they will engage in political action around working conditions.[…]

Elizabeth Spellman has argued that the phrase “as women” has both enabled and undermined feminism’s goal of emancipation. Feminism has seemed to require simply that a woman identify as a woman. But Spellman argues that when feminism, lacking a race or class critique, asked a diversity of women to think or act “as women,” it unwittingly replaced the cultural norm of “man” (white and middle class) with a norm of white middle-class woman. Women of color, working-class, or otherwise “different” women became the deviation from that norm. Thus, feminism replicated the oppression that women experienced in the dominant culture. (3-4)

From Enstad, Nan. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Also– I’m finally putting it together that Povinelli’s critique of “thick life” is an anthropologist’s reiteration of Butler’s critique of identity in the political process.