Literary Hub

What Happens When You Pose as Susan Sontag on Twitter?

susan sontag

“One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people,” Susan Sontag once wrote, appropriately, in her journal. But it’s hard to imagine that she could have predicted a future in which almost 15,000 people read her journal daily.

Last winter, my first in a city notorious for its bitter cold, I spent much of my time cooped up in my apartment, hovering alternately over my space heater and my laptop. I was lonely and bored, and despite my relentless use of a medical-grade SAD lamp, my depression had kicked into full gear. In short, I needed a project, ideally one that wouldn’t require me to leave the house or exert too much energy. Inspired by the now-defunct Andy’s Diary account, which tweeted daily entries from Warhol’s diaries on the dates on which they were written (or in his case, reported over the telephone), I set up an account under the handle @sontagdaily. Just after waking up each morning—and sometimes, let’s face it, afternoon—I tweeted short excerpts that I transcribed from my copy of Sontag’s printed journals.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that prior to starting the Twitter account, I’d never read Sontag’s diaries. I purchased the volume—baroquely titled As Consciousness Is Harnessed to the Flesh: 1964-1980—in college, at the merchandise table of a bad one-woman show about Sontag’s early life as recorded in her 1947-1963 journals. The show mostly consisted of an actress in the role of young Sontag sitting at a large desk while smoking cigarettes and reading fragments of the diaries aloud in a melodramatic voice. I don’t remember why I purchased the book. It’s possible I was trying to impress my English professor, who had invited me to the show and who herself recalled Sontag, with a pale gray streak at the front of her dark hair, a general frustration with stupidity, and a severity that was somehow charismatic. Though I went on to read and adore Sontag’s incisive criticism and wildly inventive short stories, the volume of her diaries sat unread on my bookshelf for years.

In this sense, my choice to tweet from Sontag’s, of all famous people’s, diaries, was random: I simply happened to have her journals on hand. But I like to believe that Sontag came to me in order to provide me with something that I lacked: a sense of purpose, maybe, or resolve. As I sat on my couch in nightgowns, eating Cheerios by the handful for dinner and crying often, I wondered whether, through some digital form of osmosis, I could emerge from my project more Sontagian and therefore stronger. When you think of Susan Sontag, after all, you think of the precision of the criteria laid out in “Notes on Camp,” how the essay serves as a holistic itemization of an entire aesthetic. You think of the comprehensiveness and assertiveness of On Photography, of the careful moral considerations in Regarding the Pain of Others, of the profound empathy expressed in “The Way We Live Now.” You think of integrity.

The tweets got little attention at first, but it had never been my goal to accrue followers. Mostly, I just found the exercise soothing. Unlike writing, which often feels impossible during periods of depression, duplicating and posting Sontag’s diaries required little thought or scrutiny. Susan had done the hard work for me here; all I had to do was select 280 characters or fewer to share with the public. I even found solace in solving the problem the journals presented: Sontag did not write in her journal every day, and many of her journal entries are undated. I rectified the situation by tweeting excerpts from the undated entries on dates with no corresponding entry. When I could, I made these autobiographical, as if constructing my own life from the fragments of Susan’s. On the morning after I kissed someone I shouldn’t have, for example: “Illicit are the most perfect loves.”

Most interesting to me was the haphazard nature of the experiment, how disparate sentences would appear next to one another achronologically on my feed, inadvertently creating a full and vivid portrait of Sontag not as she presented herself but as she really was. On January 15th, I tweeted Sontag’s 1957 list of “rules + duties for being 24,” which include “Have better posture” and “Never complain about Brandeis or money.” On January 16, 1971, her 38th birthday, a more jaded Sontag reports, “I’m looking for my dignity. Don’t laugh.”

This last line is characteristic of the journals: Sontag is a woman who, despite her status in letters as a paragon of gravitas and self-respect, is constantly looking for her dignity. Her diaries suggest that she rarely finds it. “I am lazy, vain, indiscreet,” she wrote in 1958. “I laugh when I’m not amused.” It is this sort of entry—in which Sontag appears positively un-Sontagian—that gets the most attention on Twitter. One of the account’s most popular tweets comes from a 1964 entry: “Underneath the depression, I found my anxiety.” Another, from 1962: “I say ‘excuse me’ when I make an awkward move in sex.”

When you think of Susan Sontag… You think of integrity.

Sex presents big problems for Sontag, and it takes up more space in her diaries than any other subject. As it turns out, she’s bad in bed, something she brings up frequently and with a self-hatred that borders on unhinged. In the only all-caps entry to appear in the journals, she writes, “I SHOULDN’T TRY TO MAKE LOVE WHEN I AM TIRED. I SHOULD ALWAYS KNOW WHEN I AM TIRED. BUT I DON’T. I LIE TO MYSELF. I DON’T KNOW MY TRUE FEELINGS.” It’s charming to read, mostly for its uncharacteristicness. Because the other thing you think of when you think of Susan Sontag is cool. You think of someone collected and assured—sexy, even. You think of cigarettes and black turtlenecks, of chilly derision and the iconic gray streak. You think of the 1992 interview in which she purports never to have heard of Camille Paglia, or of the photograph taken by Annie Leibovitz, her long-term partner, of Sontag sitting before her typewriter in a full teddy bear suit, which in an absurdist way possesses its own kind of sex appeal.

The character within her diaries reminds us that even Susan Sontag was not Susan Sontag: she did not naturally have the confidence and composure we so often associate with her. The actual Sontag “gorge[s] [herself] on passable pizza,” hates bathing so much she has to remind herself in writing to do it (and often fails to anyway), and declares: “What I want: energy, energy, energy. Stop wanting nobility, serenity, wisdom—you idiot!”

It’s thrilling to see Susan Sontag call herself an idiot in part because she’s not, but also because she is, in the way that a lot of us are idiots, eating weird foods from jars in the middle of the night, sleeping with the wrong people, procrastinating on deadlines, and refusing to wash our hair on inexplicable yet intransigent grounds. It’s as though Sontag needed to be messy and insecure in the wings in order to appear self-possessed and assured on the main stage. Her diaries give us permission to plummet into our own abjection, and suggest that we might even need our abjection in order to do something dignified later. You may be covered in Cheerio dust now, they assure us, but you won’t always be. You may not have left the house in three days, but you will.

*

There are a number of things you should expect to happen in the event that you start posing as Susan Sontag on the internet. The first, unsurprisingly, is that you will start talking about Susan Sontag incessantly. You will bring her up at meetings with your undergraduate students (“Spelling went out when reading went out,” you’ll remind them pedantically, quoting a 1978 journal entry) and in chats with your favorite bartender (from a passage about Sontag’s inability to handle two vodka martinis: “My head feels heavy. Smoking is bitter.”). And dates! As hard as you try to refrain, you will constantly quote Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks on dates. You will quote her at length and anecdotally, as though she were your aunt or your kooky landlady. You will not get many second dates.

Another thing is that you will have trolls—in particular, a New York character actor who is angry at Sontag for being rude to him at a book-signing decades ago and who bitterly alludes to the event in the account’s replies regularly. Once, when another follower inquired about his frequent interactions with the account, he explained: “Tweeting her provides some measure of solace. I have her captive, she must listen, even as she chooses to ignore me. It’s become a parlor game.” Though I’ve laughed at the troll’s baffling online behavior, I understand that he and I are playing the same parlor game: one that has more to do with the idea of Susan Sontag than with Sontag herself. We are both using Sontag for our own catharsis, both demanding that she fill voids within us that are likely to remain empty.

*

I often think of the photographs of Sontag’s corpse that Leibovitz took and gruesomely published two years after Sontag’s death. Though I had nothing to do with the print publication of Sontag’s diaries, I sometimes wonder if publicizing them is analogous to Leibovitz’s action. Sontag never intended for anyone to read her diaries. So why must I invade her privacy posthumously? Why can’t we—Leibovitz, the troll, the followers, and I—just let Sontag rest soundly? But then I consider what Sontag wrote in a 1968 entry: “[Do I think] it is possible that someday someone I love who loves me will read my journals —+ feel even closer to me?” I do feel closer to Sontag as a result of reading her journals. And I do love her, wholeheartedly, so much so that I routinely risk alienating potential romantic partners just so I can bring up her name. Sometimes, like when a day’s tweet expresses the exact emotion I’m feeling, be it rage or confusion or loneliness or sorrow, I even feel like Susan Sontag loves me back.

Here’s one more thing that will happen to you when you start a Twitter account in the name of Susan Sontag: you will begin to talk about David Rieff, Sontag’s son and the diaries’ editor, as though he is your annoying older brother. “Get your act together, Rieff!” you might shout to bemused friends at a party. Or you might repeatedly google him to try to figure out what in God’s name he’s been up to. You see, the second of what is purported to be three volumes of Sontag’s diaries was published by FSG in 2012, and I’ve found no compelling evidence that the third volume, which will constitute Sontag’s private writings from 1980 through her death in 2004, will be printed anytime soon. This isn’t fair to Rieff, to be sure; I have no reason to believe that the absence of the third volume, which I await the way some people await the forthcoming Game of Thrones novels, is his fault, and there are plenty of possible reasons it has yet to surface.

Still, I get frustrated. It’s not simply that I’m running low on material for the Twitter account, though I am. It’s mostly that I want more: more of Sontag’s enlightenment, but also more of her banality and her chaos, which are enlightening in and of themselves. Being a conduit for Sontag’s thoughts gives me a sense of purpose. Without this role to fulfill, I imagine I’ll feel like, as she once put it in her journals, “a ventriloquist’s dummy without a ventriloquist.” I need Sontag’s company, but more than that, I need her guidance; she’s the professor I’m perennially trying to impress, or else the star of a bad one-woman show I can never stop producing.

I’m feeling better these days: it’s sunny outside and my mood had improved. But inevitably, there will come a time when I’m mopey or heartbroken, when I’m eating sardines straight out of a tin and I can’t remember the last time I bathed and I have the urge to delete everything I’ve ever written, that I will need Susan Sontag, looking unperturbed and omniscient in a knit sweater on the journal’s front cover, to assure me: I’ve been there.

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