Susan Sontag is an intellectual deity best remembered as provocative, shrewd, and somehow unknowable. Her cultural identity was composed of her ideas, not episodes from her personal life, which is why the release of Reborn: Journal & Notebooks 1947-1963 is so significant. These painfully personal entries offer a glimpse into her inner sanctum, a world of self-doubt, sexual expression, and the growth that took place outside of her essays and novels; a world that, up until this point, had yet to be discovered.
Reading Reborn feels akin to breaking into someone's home and rummaging through their personal effects. The reader is an intruder inside Sontag's mind. She never wanted her journals published, which is something her son, David Rieff, struggled with. In his touching preface, he argues that, if he hadn't released them, someone else would have. This is a valid point, yet it still seems a bit wrong.
But Sontag knew the implications of keeping a diary. After reading those of her lovers without permission, she admits: "Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes? No. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people." So the publication isn't something that would have surprised her. And, among the hundreds of books listed throughout Reborn, few seem to have given her as much fervid pleasure as Andre Gide's journals. "I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it. Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion that I experience the appropriate labor pains for every thought he gives birth to!" Clearly the value of publishing diaries and journals of notable writers and thinkers was not lost on Sontag. Maybe she was just too self-effacing or self-conscious to see herself in that way.
One of the main threads through Reborn is Sontag's struggle with her homosexuality. When she first attends Berkeley at the age of 15, she writes about dating men, but very honestly declares that she does so more as a result of social pressure rather than desire. Soon, she finds herself involved with a girl who introduces her to the late-1940s San Francisco gay scene. Her accounts of this time come to life, suffused with the thrill of self-discovery and expression. Something clearly ignites inside her.
Yet those pesky mores of hetero-normative society eventually catch up with Sontag: "Being queer makes me feel more vulnerable. It increases my wish to hide, to be invisible -- which I've always felt anyway." These feelings of anxiety lead to an abrupt December 1949 entry in which she offhandedly mentions her engagement to Philip Rieff, a man whom she's just met. Despite new developments such as her marriage and the birth of a son, the next few years are barely chronicled in her journals or notebooks. That she stopped writing during this climactic time in her romantic and personal realms is intriguing. It's as if she lost herself in the ritual of these traditional acts.
Her writing picks up again in 1956 as her marriage convulses in its death throes. She likens the practice of marriage to mutual immolation and degrades the custom further: "Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings." Sontag ends up fleeing the scene of her "marital wars" for Europe. This is where she seems to have returned to herself at last. She becomes involved with a woman represented only by the letter H (and later another woman called I) and plays the part of the unloved, a role familiar to her husband who has yet to realize that Susan has already divorced him in her thoughts. What follows is a series of episodes in which Sontag wavers between despising her lovers and pleading with them to love her more. Turns out that even geniuses suffer from the brutality of Eros.
Perhaps more interesting than Sontag's successes and failures in love is the manner in which she records her existence: "I write to define myself -- an act of self-creation -- part of the process of becoming." In her rigorous self-analysis, she disassembles her personality, turns over parts of interest in her hands, studies them, and, with a new understanding, creates herself anew as the person she wishes to be. A rebirth -- the latest edition of a continuous work-in-progress -- takes place.
The main achievement of Reborn is that the collection humanizes a woman who has become somewhat of an untouchable to many. Her own words prove that she was far from invincible, even though she believed this right up until her death (which she thought avoidable). She was a woman with great mental capacity and perception, yet someone dealing with the same personal struggles that hamper us all. Although sifting through such personal philosophy and turmoil proves exhausting at times, there is much to be gained from Sontag's example; mainly, the comforting knowledge that self-doubt is a universal symptom and that the insatiable hunger to know more, love more, be more is what makes us human.