Susan Sontag on Sex
By Maria Popova
“Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be… It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should,” Alain de Botton wrote in his fantastic meditation on how to think more (meaning better) about sex. Indeed, for all its promise of pleasure, sex has invariably been a source of great frustration and anxiety even to some of history’s most brilliant and enlightened minds. Take, for instance, Susan Sontag: From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library), which came in as one of 2012’s best books on psychology and philosophy and which is now out in paperback, comes this remarkably, relatably human contemplation of the psychological turmoil of sex, a snippet of which you might recall from Sontag’s illustrated insights on love.
In an entry from November 1, 1961, shortly before her twenty-ninth birthday, Sontag muses:
As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough.
It’s just this attitude I don’t have about sex. I don’t tolerate error, failure—therefore I’m anxious from the start, and therefore I’m more likely to fail. Because I don’t have the confidence that some of the time (without my forcing anything) it will be good.
If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
I experience the writing as given to me — sometimes, almost, as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more than me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.
I would like to feel that way about sex, too. As if “nature” or “life” used me. And I trust that, and let myself be used.
An attitude of surrender to oneself, to life. Prayer. Let it be, whatever it will be. I give myself to it.
Prayer: peace and voluptuousness.
In this, no room for shame and anxiety as to how the little old self rates in the light of some objective standard of performance.
One must be devout about sex. Then, one won’t dare to be anxious. Anxiety will never be revealed for what it is — spiritual meanness, pettiness, small-mindedness.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is sublime in its entirety and has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.
Published July 30, 2013