Susan Sontag on Life, Death, Art, and Freedom
“Oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”
By Maria Popova
The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us the celebrated thinker’s list of “rules + duties for being 24” and her 10 rules for raising a child. On February 13, 1951, shortly after Sontag’s 18th birthday, she jotted down some fragmented notes on her current reading — War and Peace, Caudewll, a biography of Dostoyevsky — then turned the existential lens inwards, as one inevitably, and often reluctantly, does around personal milestones, adding to other cultural icons’ meditations on the meaning of life:
… the great question-dynasty: … if we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision, + impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?’
Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it– but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast; which is merely to say that I reject weak, manipulative, despairing lust, I am not a beast, I will not to be a futilitarian. I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.
But how, when one can, to instrument the fact of wholeness + love? One must attempt more than the surety of reflexive nurturing. If ‘life is a hollow form, a negative mold, all the grooves + indentations of which are agony, disconsolations + the most painful insights, then the casting from this … is happiness, assent– most perfect + most certain bliss.’ But how protected + resolved one would have to be! And this leads one outside art to the dying, the madness– oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?
More of Sontag’s meditations on life — including her thoughts on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms — are collected in the second volume of her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.
Published October 4, 2012