The Sargasso Manuscript: Some Observations on Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

Susan Sontag.  As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.  Edited by David Rieff.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.


David Rieff has played the last of Susan Sontag’s jokes upon the reader: to remain austerely cool, distant, and unsympathetic toward us even in “journals and notebooks.”  The barbed wire of fragments and ellipses scattered on each page temps the reader to consider giving up by around page 49.  No index, no chronology, no glossary of notable players.  (Not even a photo section.)

There is no royal (scholarly apparatus) road into the second volume of Sontag’s diaries.  The reader must either dart from page to page, looking for his own signposts (perhaps big names like Poe, Rimbaud, Shapiro, Weil, Warhol), or surrender.  I press on, considering these fugitive notes as they are, tangled and semi-coherent in their deliberately un-contextualized state, doldrums before and after working days.

A few of the — to me — more interesting of Sontag’s subjects and entries:

1964: Camp notes; Lukacs; Mersey beat; breast feeding; movies.

The greater world of capitalist elections (Johnson and Goldwater), Malcolm X and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, even Vietnam does not press hard enough to leave its marks here.

1965: Looking for a novel’s plot; Jasper Johns; the erotic; style; new sensibility (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Cage, McLuhan); dexamyl; Bataille; photography; Valery; Blanchot; Renoir; Polanski; Bert I. Gordon; LSD; boring art; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; Blood Feast; Monster from the Green Hell; German romanticism; Richard Goodwin.

1966:  “My intellectual formation: . . . Franco-Jewish Cageian?” (166); Joyce; Burroughs; Jasper Johns; Large Glass; Grotowski; “Remember The Tingler!” (194); “The Horla” (201); “6085 copies of Against Interpretation have been sold / 1915 copies of the first printing are left” (202).

1967: Psychological vampirism (228); “the grand switch from ‘Kant’ to ‘Mrs. D.H. Lawrence'” (232): ” . . . it’s in writing that I (most) experience my autonomy. . . ” (237).

1968: Trip to Hanoi; “Viets’ humanity is not at issue; ours is” (252); Melville; Gorki; Tolstoy; Agatha Christie.

Regarding the 1968 journal and notebook material composed during the solidarity mission to North Vietnam, our editor, Sontag’s son David Rieff, says: ” . . . I have chosen to reproduce only a few representative samples [of notebook from Sontag’s trip to North Vietnam] . . . while quoting in its entirety the one more investigative, skeptical, and analytical entry that I have been able to find.”  Rieff is commendably comfortable with the sexual and psychological notations that Sontag (whom he refers to throughout as S.S.) jots in her diary, but not the political.

1969: “The double experience of 1968 — The French May, the Czechoslovak August” (259).

1970: “meta-self-criticism” (290); “Mannerist art: dwarfs, dreams, giants, Siamese twins, mirrors, magic machines” (296); “Not true, but helpful”; “A convention of mutants (Marvel Comics)” (309); “Fantasia — perfect example of fascist aesthetics” (310).

1971: “Durkheim on altruistic suicide” (316).

1972: Jodorowsky; H.P. Lovecraft; China Is Near; L’Eclisse;  ” . . . relationship between fascism and ‘the fantastic'” (341).

1973: “A steady progression since Psycho in habituating audiences to endure sadistic assaults without flinching. . . .  My position leads to censorship, if it leans to any public action at all.  But I can’t face up to that.  I can’t be for censorship” (emphasis in original, 351-2); Trip to China and Vietnam; The Magic Mountain.

1974: “A spy in the house of life” (374).

1975: “Jack London’s story ‘To Build a Fire’ — read aloud to Lenin on his deathbed”; “My role: the intellectual as adversary. . . .” (379); “In the early 1960s . . . when the focus of political activity was (rightly) against the government + the war — the role of political adversary was right, indeed inevitable, if one had a conscience” (379); “I want to write a Moby-Dick of thought.  Melville is right: one needs a great subject” (384); “Writing as hygienic”; “I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer.  I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed” (397).

1976: Huysmans; J.G. Ballard; “Read Gass essays when writing disease essay” (410).

1977: Brodsky; illness as metaphor; “Problem of writing a novel now: No story seems that important to tell” (416); “Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books“; “I read too much — as an escape from writing” (418); “Disneyland + Nuremberg rallies are 2 diff[erent] types of kitsch” (423).

A crudely undifferentiated lumping-together of things Sontag finds ridiculous, distasteful, and offensive: “Disneyland and Nuremberg rallies” may charitably be called a coffee-house paradox, particularly inapposite.

“One can never be alone enough to write” (426); “Russian constructivism of the 20s: good . . . and yet.  Industrial narcissism” (437); “Both Marx + Freud were wrong.  The one who was right was Malthus” (441).

“My political positions: all adversary.  I am against (1) violence, in particular, colonialist wars and imperialist ‘interventions.’  Above all, against torture.  (2) Sexual and racial discrimination.  (3) The destruction of nature and the landscape (mental, architectural) of the past.  (4) Whatever impedes or censors the movement of people, art, ideas. . . .  (If I’m for anything, it is — simply — the decentralization of power.  Plurality.)  In short, the classical libertarian/conservative/radical position” (446-447)

Best films (not in order)

1.  Bresson, Pickpocket
2.  Kubrick, 2001
3.  Vidor, The Big Parade
4.  Visconti, Ossessione
5.  Kurasawa, High and Low
6.  [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg, Hitler
[ . . . ]
20.  Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
[ . . . ] (449-450)

1978: “Sex a sublimation of the desire to work” (453); “I am against turning illness into a ‘spiritual condition'” (454); “Crisis of Leninist ideology in the 1970s . . . .  Judge a regime by what it does to its opponents” (460).

Why opponents?  Why not judge a regime based upon advances in production of material necessities to overcome want?  Or rises in health, longevity, literacy, consciousness of international class solidarity?  The easy answer is that these are not “adversarial” criteria, while judging a regime “by what it does to its opponents” is perfectly adversarial.  But aimed at what regime, representing what class in society?

Texas Chainsaw Massacre a new threshold; most important film of the 1970s” (470).

1979: “Events of the 70s: 1) the discrediting of utopian communism as a plausible anchor belief for intellectuals + artists; 2) Euro-ization of the Western European countries; 3) the collapse of American imperialist ideology + growing cultural/political isolationism of the U.S.” (481)

On point 1: There was no utopia proposed or offered to intellectuals and artists as an “anchor belief” by workers and their oppressed allies, their leading cadre organizations, or Marxists in general.  If intellectuals and artists like Sontag inferred or interpreted statements and events that way, it is their petty-bourgeois-radical shortcoming at work, not ours.

On point 3: No U.S. isolationism was possible, or would be under the normal workings of imperialist capitalism.  Perhaps Sontag here means chauvinism, a byproduct of war economy and cold war?

Sontag’s increasing use of medical and epidemiological terms to describe her political judgments becomes more pronounced at this time (488): political -> biological (illness, cancer).  Many pseudo-Marxists and pseudo-leftists suffered the same symptoms of shipwreck after China’s invasion of Vietnam at the behest of U.S. imperialism: their fantasy bubble about the exceptional “authenticity” of the Chinese brand of Stalinism burst unceremoniously.  Unmentioned is the fact that 1979 was also a year of popular breakthroughs: Nicaragua, Grenada, Iran.

“A failure of nerve.  About writing.  (And about my life — but never mind)” (490); “New ‘revolutionary’ regimes replacing the old dictatorships . . . new blends of cruelty and hypocrisy” (491); ” . . . melancholy.  It is, after all, my subject” (495).

1980: “Lacanianism: It gives you a heavy language to walk around in”  (500); “One must oppose communism: it asks us to lie — the sacrifice of the intellect (and the freedom to create) in the name of justice.  (And, finally, order.)  Communism means the creation of a much more oppressive bureaucracy than capitalism.  There is no such thing as communism.  Only national socialism. — That’s what won. . . .  The fascist language was defeated — the communist language survived, + became the rhetoric (and flag of conscience) of most new nationalisms, ex-colonized peoples” (514).

Sontag is dismissive of movements and achievements of the anti-colonial revolutions, clearly indicating to the immense majority of humanity that, in effect, that they should never have started their anti-imperialist enterprise.  There is a near-hysterical pitch to these lines.  The essayist deepening her relationship with anti-Soviet émigré Joseph Brodsky (a defender of the Shah of Iran [516]), obsessing about aphorisms, finally parrots in full free association the classic rationalizations of anti-communist literature.  She is afraid to be left behind in the stampede to become first among equals as a procurer of left cover for Wall Street.

“Surrealism: antipathy to everyday life + sentimental ideas about love + solitude” (522).

The last line of the book: “Great subject the West falling out of love with Communism.  End of a 200-year-passion” (523).

There are heaps of the same gaseous political nonsense in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh.  This bandying-about of amorphous terms like “the West” recalls the shorthand of every 20th-century liberal, neo-conservative, and social democratic defender of U.S. imperialism, from Kojève to Bloom to Fukuyama to Habermas.


Do Sontag’s journals and notebooks convey the anxieties and self-doubts of an arriviste?  No, the pomposity of double-thinking is absent; only supreme intellectual self-assurance and more than a little sporting blood can account for the delight she takes in placing names like Antonioni and Bert I. Gordon on the same sheet of paper.

As noted at the beginning of this review, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is a book laboring under severe disadvantages for the reader.  Lack of a chronology means we are unable to make sense of a whole catalogue of insights in their proper context.  All notations take on the air of lifeless abstraction.   Footnotes and a proper glossary explaining in more detail Sontag’s friends and broader cultural activities would have inched the book closer to usefulness.  Alfred Chester and Richard Goodwin, I suspect, will only remain known because of the stature of their friends and employers; the fact that such disparate men could have a friend in common, and that that friend is S.S., is astounding.  Happy would be the reader not driven to Wikipedia every few pages.

The book would benefit greatly from a photo section and a professional index, neither of which editor Rieff sees fit to provide.


In his Preface, David Rieff writes: “My mother never recanted her opposition to the [Vietnam] war.  But she did come to regret, and, unlike so many of her peers. . . , to publicly recant, her faith in the emancipatory possibilities of Communism, not just in its Soviet, Chinese, or Cuban incarnation, but as a system.”

The previous quotes from Sontag’s journals and notebooks, where she proudly defines her role as that of “adversary,” certainly confirm Rieff’s statement.  But “adversary” of what?  Aye, there’s the rub.  Adversarialism is as adversarialism does.  For Sontag it meant, once, putting herself on the line for the Vietnamese revolution.  But Rieff has, as he admits, removed all but a few of the journal entries from Sontag’s trip to North Vietnam.  He also mentions nothing about any journals from a later visit to China.  Their content is unknown, as is their length and scope.  Does this apparent “reduction” of the author’s work bring into question the good faith of the editorial enterprise?  How can it not?

* * *

Sontag was one of a generation of U.S. radical writers closely associated with solidarity for the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions and their leaderships.  As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh has few political entries, however, until the late 1970s, when Sontag began, like so many in her cohort, the long retreat into the camp of U.S. imperialism.  Accommodation was surprisingly easy: the same (or better) publishers, contracts, foundation grants, visiting scholar programs, and TV appearances beckoned.  All one had to do was join the “god that failed” brigade, equate communism with fascism, and become adversary of the proletariat instead of the bourgeoisie.  One could still complain about Republican wars.  All the better to complain as loudly as possible, while dining out with moral nullities like Joseph Brodsky, making the system look free and fair as it bombed the workers and farmers of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, and Grenada.

At the time, U.S. Socialist Workers Party leader Jack Barnes summed up the situation this way:

“. . . [T]here is no question whatsoever that we face a Mariel in the American radical movement,” stated Jack Barnes before the March, 1982, SWP plenum under a section entitled “A Mariel in the radical movement.” . . . Barnes continued: “That is without doubt what is happening on the U.S. left as the blows against the working class come down, as the polarization deepens, and as the imperialist war pressure mounts.  The difference between conditions and consciousness borne of being a worker and that produced by being immersed in a petty-bourgeois milieu is widening.  And the ranks of the North American marielitos — with Susan Sontag and her ilk leading the scramble for the boats — are growing.”

Barnes referred to Sontag by name after comments she made at the February 6, 1982 “Workers and Artists for Solidarity” event at Cooper Union in New York City.  From an eyewitness report of the time:

. . . Trying to put a left cover on the drive for capitalist restoration in Poland under the banners of Pilsudski and the Catholic church isn’t easy, particularly since Reagan and Haig have already cornered the market on “solidarity with Solidarnosc.”  At Town Hall there was some talk about Reagan’s “hypocrisy” from union reformists like Ed Sadlowski and Pete Camarata, and some bitter complaints by fired PATCO air controllers.  They’d already had a taste of the “democracy” enjoyed by “free world” unions.

But Susan Sontag let the cat out of the bag with a bitter diatribe against communism which left part of the audience gasping.  “Communism is fascism,” she proclaimed, “the most successful variant of fascism — fascism with a human face.”  Sontag may have earned herself a few free dinners at the Reagan White House, but the rest of the panel of lib-rad notables are merely paying the price in public embarrassment for their own hypocrisy.

Sontag’s regression was not simply an individual retreat, but part of a sociological event of note in all imperialist countries.  In the U.S. she joined the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Jerry Rubin, and David Horowitz; in France, Bernard-Henri Levy.

The context for this retreat was imperialist war, at home and abroad.  Starting shortly after the 1975 world capitalist recession, the U.S. capitalist class began a drive to alter fundamentally the relationship between labor and capital that was established at the end of the post-World War Two strike wave.  It is an offensive that workers and oppressed peoples in the U.S. and around the world still face today.  The offensive is completely bipartisan, carried out over decades by Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterrand, Kohl, Major, Clinton, Blair, Schröder, both Bush administrations, and today Barack Obama.

In her stance after 1978, Sontag bears a comparison to the petty-bourgeois radical intellectuals of the 1930s, men like Dwight Macdonald and Sidney Hook.  Once stalwarts who put their tongues and pens to work for the cause of revolutionary socialism, they succumbed to Wall Street’s late-1930s war drive.  Sontag’s cohort simply repeated their route into unconditional anti-Sovietism and anti-communism in a semi-farcical carbon copy.

* * *

After several decades as a public participant and observer in the world struggle against U.S. imperialism, Sontag’s career settled down into that of a respectable bourgeois novelist and fellow traveler of humanitarian intervention against — always the “adversary” — obstacles targeted by Wall Street.  (Her son and editor David Rieff plays a similarly useful and profitable game.  He is well known for once publishing an anti-Cuba article in The New Republic entitled “El Gulag.”  Being subtle is not a requirement in this crowd.)

Much was made in 1993 (and since) of Sontag’s role in the ideological brigade for the Washington/NATO dismemberment of Yugoslavia.  Her ego-drunken performance (directing a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo) is still held up as a model worthy of emulation by our privatized NGO intellectuals.  After September 11, 2001, she used the pages of The New Yorker to issue a condemnation of not the Wall Street’s permanent war against the world’s workers and the concomitant blowback, but merely against George W. Bush:

A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense.  But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality.

With appalling phrases like “ineptitude of American intelligence” and “smart defense” we have indeed come a long way from Trip to Hanoi.

Who among us is looking forward to her journals and notebooks of this period, 1981-2004?

Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.  His blog is Marxist Update.  He is on Facebook.

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