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

Susan Sontag; Edited by David Rieff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




544 Pages


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This, the second of three volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, begins where the first volume left off, in the middle of the 1960s. It traces and documents Sontag’s evolution from fledgling participant in the artistic and intellectual world of New York City to world-renowned critic and dominant force in the world of ideas with the publication of the groundbreaking Against Interpretation in 1966.

As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh follows Sontag through the turbulent years of the 1960s—from her trip to Hanoi at the peak of the Vietnam War to her time making films in Sweden—up to 1981 and the beginning of the Reagan era. This is an invaluable record of the inner workings of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power. It is also a remarkable document of one individual’s political and moral awakening.


Praise for As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh

“In the three years since Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, was published, at least three more books about the literary titan have appeared . . . [but] nothing compares with going to the source directly. The second of three volumes, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, spans the years of Sontag's most prodigious output and her greatest intellectual influence, including the 1966 publication of her first volume of essays, the landmark Against Interpretation, and the equally influential Illness as Metaphor, a 1978 treatise inspired by her first bout with breast cancer.” —Melissa Anderson, Newsday

“That tormented Sontag is known to many, but she was not all Dark Lady. It’s impossible to read these journals and not experience the warmer sides of her ambition: her deep admiration for certain artists around her, her animating wish to encourage and promote . . . Rieff designates the second volume as his mother’s ‘political bildungsroman,’ the record, as she put it, of ‘falling out of love with Communism.’ Yet he chose to call this volume As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, a title pointing to her inner life rather than her political one. It is through this startling image, noted in a margin in May, 1965, that we today see the thirty-two-year-old Sontag awaken to her finitude: her life had to reach an end, just as consciousness is harnessed to flesh. But, then again, perhaps it isn’t: language—which can capture and embody consciousness—lives on, and has its own fleshiness. As Sontag’s hero, Roland Barthes, once wrote, ‘Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.’ If anyone else’s language trembles that way, as this volume of her journals attests, it is Susan Sontag’s.” —Emily Greenhouse, The New Yorker

“The Sontag that appears here is, at times, very different from the strident academic who polarises public opinion. She is anxious, self-deprecating and frequently heartbroken . . . As in the earlier volume of diaries, Reborn, in which Sontag wrote reminders to herself to wash, this collection brings a more fragile, neurotic side into view. And yet there is still much of the academic who did not suffer fools—or ‘Modernist-nihilist-wise-guy-bullshit’—gladly. Her lengthy analyses of her relationships are broken up with quotations from Wittgenstein, or counterpoised by reported conversations with Jasper Johns and Joseph Brodsky . . . She writes dozens of obsessive lists . . . each a reminder of her voraciously catholic interests . . . Over the course of the diary, a picture of a complicated, brilliant person emerges. A little like her criticism, her diary entries combine her interests with bright, aphoristic turns of phrase . . . these diaries are a reminder of the value of the work that made her great, and also mysterious—“partly (and forever)” escaping from view.” —The Economist

"These journals present the opportunity to delve deeply into the soul of Susan Sontag . . . Magnificent."—Nancy D. Kates, San Francisco Chronicle

Consciousness is ultimately a very serious book, as it would have to be, as the record of the inner life of a renowned and resolutely serious person . . . It is a story of settling and unsettling, of restlessness and of trying to find a place to rest, of examining the parameters of adulthood, of questioning what it means to be a friend, a lover, a writer, an artist, a mother, a person in the world. ‘I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it's the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art,’ Sontag writes. If this is the case, then Consciousness is a presentation of the residue of Sontag, the part that is not art. It’s life . . . At its best, [Consciousness] is Sontag turning her keen intellect onto the world and onto herself, practicing criticism in her architectural, adversarial, serious way . . . we should  . . . be grateful for the dissemination of these notebooks, with their long stretches of self-analysis and their pops of insight.” —Lisa Levy, Los Angeles Review of Books 

“Sontag seems addicted to writing lists—of films she has seen, or would like to see, and of her extensive reading, including Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud. But there is plenty of deeper, psychological revelation. While, outwardly, she appeared formidably confident, her entries here show her to be riddled with doubt, anxiety and a fear of showing weakness . . . These often intense accounts of the inner life of a passionate, highly cultured intellectual woman are riveting.”—Rebecca Wallersteiner, The Jewish Chronicle

"The title of the second volume of Susan Sontag's diaries comes from a note in the margin next to an entry from 1965: 'spiritual project—but tied to making an object (as consciousness is harnessed to flesh)'. It is a curious phrase, suggesting the paradox that is art: a real, tangible thing resulting from a long, indefinable process. It evokes, too, the duality of Sontag herself: the public figure, whose provocative essays can seem to readers intimidatingly confident, and the mind that made them—which, as her diaries reveal, was unusually full of pain. The title was presumably chosen by Sontag's son, David Rieff, who will edit three volumes in total; the first, Reborn, which came out in 2009, started in 1947 . . . This second volume covers the period in which she produced the main body of her essays and fiction. Rieff edits his mother's innermost thoughts only lightly, adding in names and correcting factual errors, but leaving it up to the reader to establish which of the notes might refer to which of the essays. Having abandoned academia, Sontag spent her 30s writing and consuming New York's culture: watching films, attending 'happenings', visiting the studios of her artist friends Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Thek and Jasper Johns. Her diary entries are often short and elliptical, consisting of observations ('Jasper Johns = Duchamp painted by Monet'), quotations from her reading, and, most of all, lists. But the majority of the volume is devoted to Sontag's consciousness, her notes clearly coloured by the 'deconditioning' that took place on the couch of her therapist, Diana Kemeny . . . Unlike her essays, which warned against looking for hidden depth, her personal prose champions Freudian conjecture: on her dislike of her body (particularly her legs), her desire to please others, her 'insatiable' appetite for culture. Sontag's essays are arch, intransigent—so it is a rare pleasure to read, in her diary, discoveries being made in real time . . . As her diaries reveal with such intensity, she harnessed only a fraction of her mind to produce the writing we have seen until now; the rest is consciousness."—Emily Stokes, The Guardian

“A powerful self-portrait gradually emerges. Sontag avoided personal writing, as Rieff explains; perhaps, he suggests, the diaries constitute ‘the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write’ . . . the reader warms more to her through her sudden lists of appealing adjectives (‘besotted, cerulean, ogival’) or her likes (‘Drums, carnations, socks, raw peas’) and dislikes (‘television, baked beans, hirsute men’) . . . a tribute by a scrupulous son to his difficult, gifted mother . . . In its fragmentation and incoherence and passion, its combination of the erudite and the everyday, it is more true to life, both intellectual and emotional, than the most artful novel or careful biography. It may well be that Sontag’s diaries, like Virginia Woolf’s (which she knew and admired) will come to be seen as just as brilliant and important as anything she wrote.”—Anne Chisholm, The Telegraph

"The impersonality of so much of Sontag’s writings—an impersonality by turns bold, willful, and elegant—naturally leaves us wondering whether a different kind of writer will be revealed in her journals and notebooks. Will the writing be more spontaneous and less guarded? Will it turn out that there was some lyric mode that she chose to suppress in what she published? . . . With the second of three volumes of journals and notebooks skillfully edited by her son, the writer David Rieff, we are in the period when Sontag was a figure to be reckoned with. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh moves from 1964 to 1980, the years when she published three works of fiction and five works of non-fiction . . . If the journals do anything for Sontag’s reputation, it may be to demystify her to a degree, for there is an earnestness and even a flat-footedness that cannot be reconciled with the sense of Sontag as the girl with dark hair from California who appeared miraculously to revitalize New York’s literary culture in the 1960s. What we discover in these pages is very much the writer we have already known, though often in a less polished form. And the absence of polish has a way of underscoring her painful deliberateness, the sense that she is not so much writing a journal as observing herself writing a journal . . . Few writers of the past fifty years have been so expert at keeping the educated public so enthralled. Those who dismiss Sontag entirely will say it was all a matter of celebrity placement: the good looks, the up-to-the-minute subjects, the posh friends. But whether one likes much of what she wrote or not, the case is more interesting. There is something of the intellectual showman about Sontag, with the showmanship taken very seriously indeed . . . This author of instruction manuals for the thinking public had a way of locating herself in a kind of middle distance in relation to her readers—neither risking a familiarity that might compromise her authority nor standing so far away as to seem entirely out of reach . . . Sontag brings her frequently lofty subjects close to the reader, but not too close—so that she satisfies some yearning in the public to know or to understand without ever satisfying it entirely."—Jed Perl, The New Republic

"Sontag is an enthusiast but not, properly speaking, a popularizer; she writes for the initiate, not the naif. The seduction of her sentences is their hardness and authority; they could never be accused of a light touch. She wears her learning like chain mail."—Christine Smallwood, Bookforum

"As in Reborn, the first volume in the planned Sontag journals and notebooks trilogy, Sontag’s son, David Rieff, begins the second with a strikingly candid introduction. In the full-tilt, questioning, and expressive entries that follow, Sontag suffers epically over love and heartbreak in her relationships with women and her hasty marriage and grapples with haunting memories of her wounding childhood. Angst blooms repeatedly, followed by self-chiding for her emotional turmoil and an oft-repeated refrain, 'I must be strong.' Toward her son, adoration flows unstintingly, however self-sustainingly. 'One thing I know: if I hadn’t had David, I would have killed myself last year.' A champion list-maker, Sontag keeps track of books, movies, resolutions, even 'qualities that turn me on.' Her journals accompany her all over the world as her stature rises. She writes incisively about the many remarkable writers, dancers, and artists she meets, and she is happiest recounting time spent with Joseph Brodsky. A truly moving and illuminating chronicle of the vital inner life of an exceptionally nuanced thinker and risk-taking artist coming into her full powers."—Donna Seaman, Booklist



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As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh
19645/5/46The right hand = the hand that is aggressive, the hand that masturbates. Therefore, to prefer the left hand! ... To romanticize it, to sentimentalize it! 
I am Irene's [the Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés--SS's lover for a time in Paris in 1957 and then her partner in New York between 1959 and 1963] Maginot Line. 
Her very "life" depends on rejecting me, on holding the line against me. 
Everything has been deposited on me. I am the scapegoat. 
[This entry is emphasized by a vertical
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  • Susan Sontag; Edited by David Rieff

  • Susan Sontag was the author of numerous works of non-fiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.