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Susan Sontag's Ruminations 'Reborn'

TERRY GROSS, host:

When public intellectual essayist and novelist Susan Sontag died in 2004, she left behind some 100 notebooks that chronicled her life and thoughts since adolescence. Selections from the earliest notebooks have just been published in a collection called "Reborn." It's edited by Sontag's son, David Rieff. But critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Maybe the unexamined life is worth living after all. I say that mostly in jest, but I don't know if I've ever even dimly entertained that thought before. The heretic notion that a very light lobotomy might be not be such a bad thing came over me as I was reading "Reborn," which is the title given to Susan Sontag's newly published journals and notebooks from the period 1947 to 1963.

Sontag is resolutely hard on herself and resolutely off-putting. She never makes it seem powerful or sexy or God forbid fun to be smart. She talks in her journals about the passions of the body, but about the passions of the mind she's mute. Instead, the impression a reader gets from delving into her private journals is that intelligence is as much an austere duty as it is a gift.

From her teenage years onward, Sontag willed herself to carry out the promethean task to know everything. Her journals are filled with lists of the books she's read or feels she needs to read. For instance, in an entry dated December 19th, 1948, when Sontag would have been 15 years old, she writes: There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read. Here are just a few. The list, which includes the works of Andre Gide, Dante, Faulkner, George Meredith, Dostyesky, Taso(ph), Shaw and O'Neil, goes on in the original notebook for more than five pages and includes over 100 titles.

The notebooks are also filled with sterner versions of Ben Franklin-like self-improvement lists. An entry for 1961 begins: One, not to repeat myself. Two, not try to be amusing. Three, to smile less, talk less. These 16 years' worth of Sontag's journal entries cover her antsy teenage years, her escape to college at age 15, her early lesbian love affairs, her baffling sudden marriage to her college instructor, Phillip Rieff, at age 17, her escape to Oxford and Paris, and eventually her divorce and landing in New York City during the late heyday of the reign of the New York intellectuals.

Taken together, these entries compose a rare female account of gargantuan ambition, self-confidence and discipline. As Sontag's son, David Rieff, who's the editor of this collection says in an astute and melancholy preface: From her early adolescence, my mother had the sense of having special gifts and of having something to contribute. She wanted to be worthy of the writers, painters and musicians she revered.

For better or worse, Sontag never got over herself. She always seems to have believed in her own fabulousness intellectually. Sexually, it was a different matter. There are lots of painful entries here about humiliation at the hands of female lovers who've grown indifferent. There are also many ruthless remarks about marriage. The entry recording her marriage reads: I marry Phillip with full consciousness and fear of my will toward self-destructiveness. Several years later, she comments: I am scared, numbed from the marital wars. Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills and wet blankets.

As with so many other subjects in these journals, Sontag conceals even as she reveals. Writing in shorthand, rather than conducting a full-length assessment of herself, a reader naturally wants to know how she came to terms so early on with her lesbianism, why she married Rieff, how she made the decision to leave him and her young son to flee to Oxford. But somehow, Sontag's journals make readers feel that even to ponder these questions suggests that we're not grasping the more important subjects.

We don't much like public intellectuals in this country. We tend to think of them as elite, mostly humorless, and certainly anti-democratic. Whether the presidency of Barack Obama changes that attitude at all remains to be seen. But most certainly, Sontag's journals will just confirm the reigning prejudices against eggheads.

Sontag's journals chronicle an amazing story, the willed self-creation of an intellect. But it's a story to admire, not a story that inspires.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947 to 1963" by Susan Sontag, edited by her son, David Rieff.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.