Why Can't Mothers Be Intellectuals?

Ambitious. It's a word that changes definition depending on what we are using it to describe -- legislation, science, a man or a woman. Hearing a man called ambitious conjures up images of a bootstrap-yanking young turk, an entrepreneur. When applied to women, it summons up something decidedly gauche -- a place-jumping, conniving vixen with '80s hair, willing to do what it takes to get her way; it's loaded. It's a word frequently ascribed to the young Susan Sontag by reviewers of her latest book, Reborn, a posthumous collection of her journals spanning from 1947-1963.

This may stem from the introduction written by Sontag's son, David Rieff, who also edited the journals for publication. He writes that the entries oscillate between "pain and ambition," diagnosing her as an "ambitious young person from the deep provinces who wants to become a person of significance in the capital," which makes Sontag sound a bit like a character out of Valley of the Dolls. Which, we know from her first entry, she is not: the fourth item under "I believe" is: "The only criterion of an action is it's ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy." In this same short passage, she decries God and ends with a ringing endorsement of big government that stops shy of co-signing on socialism. Not exactly the blithe sentiments you expect from a 14-year-old girl's diary.

Rieff contends that the first volume of Sontag's diaries shows she "self-consciously and determinedly went about creating the self she wanted to be." Reading over her early few years, pre-1953 or so, you wonder how much creation or self-invention was really going on. Yes, surely, she was, as The Replacements once sang, achin' to be -- but what teenager doesn't lust immodestly for a grand future? The difference here was that Sontag was not asking big of the universe, she was asking -- expecting with certainty -- of herself, of her own mind. It's clear that she wasn't a vessel looking to fill up but rather a dense nugget anxious to detonate infinitely.

Ambitious isn't the first word that comes to mind when describing this straight-curious teenage girl obsessed with opera whose to-do list includes reading Huysmans --  self-interested is. You could even call her precocious if she weren't so deadly serious.

In the first half of the book, Sontag's vigorous intellectual appetite, her ache to actualize, is something we root for. It's this desire, this intensity, that makes her a fairly easy protagonist -- you want her to win. Rieff recounts that Sontag's stepfather warned her not to read too much for fear of scaring off potential husbands; nevertheless, she plowed through Mann. Sontag wasn't interested in the kind of life prescribed to girls in 1948, and was more concerned with her mind than her marriagability.

The critics' response to Reborn qualified Sontag's ambition: "formidable" (The Guardian), "comically oversize"(New York Magazine). The Times recycles the girl from the provinces line. You sense critics aren't just talking about her epic reading lists and Gide-lust. As the diaries progress, Sontag's self-interest and self-making grows less charming -- it curdles with age -- and she begins to present a more conflicting character.

It is in the book’s second half that we begin to see what "ambitious" is code for. We see Sontag, a woman who is interested in her intellectual life above all, become a teenage bride and then a mother at nineteen, only to bail a few short years later. We certainly can't begrudge her the desire to be free and see the world -- that is all any 24-year-old would want. But we do. Her ambitions conflict us; on the same pages where we read of her eminent freedom (as she's preparing to leave Boston for Oxford) and perhaps feel some empathic relief (she's been comparing her marriage to a jail for several years) -- she's unsentimental and tearless. Her meals are rendered with more detail than her family. You are sad for Sontag and you are sad for her son and husband -- though not in the same way -- you want her to pursue her freedom, but you do not want the mother to leave.

The nature of journals makes awkward spaces for the reader to assume or parse as truth: She is leaving her family behind, she knows she is going for good, they do not, and why does she keep writing about movies and snacks? The incompleteness of record is a lingering frustration. The knowledge that these journals are edited by her son adds a layer of awkwardness to them, a secondary awareness -- what it must have been like for him to not just read this book but labor over it? (Rieff was also his mother's editor at Farrar Strauss and Giroux for a time.)

In the first half of the book, certain expected details are curiously absent, and we are left wondering if their absence contains any meaning or significance. In one entry, shortly following her transfer to the University of Chicago, Sontag details her chance to research for a sociology professor. The following entry, dated barely two weeks later, in one terse 14-word sentence, declares their engagement. There are no juicy courtship details, no furtive kisses in the cloakroom. This announcement is nestled among pages of notes on meeting Thomas Mann and some woodshedding on moral philosophy.

The first years of her marriage, her pregnancy, and Rieff's birth are not chronicled -- leaving us to wonder if she simply didn't journal or if the pages were trashed somewhere along the line -- perhaps purposefully, or not. At one of the first scant mentions of her son's existence, he is already a talking toddler. There are no digressions into her changing role as a mother; the book is heavy on Kantianism, light on diaper duty. As Rieff underscores in the introduction, the journals invite judgment. They are damned by what they do say as much as what they don't.

Sontag as a mother is not what we want of mothers; her journals are not easily slotted into the canon of writing on motherhood. Several months into Sontag's post-Oxford sojourn to Paris, where she is engaged in a tempestuous affair with a mean woman who insults her bedroom skills -- an affair that is sad and covers many pages with its wretched details -- Sontag lets loose one of the saddest revelations yet: When her son is out of sight, he is out of mind, and she doesn't think of him much. However, she admits, "Of all the people I have loved, he's least of all a mental object of love, most intensely real."

Later, upon her return to America, she reclaims custody of her son. In a lucid entry she writes while at the park with him, she describes feeling like her son's childhood is a "sentence," much like her marriage, writing, "I must change my life so that I can live it, not wait for it." She then wonders if she should give David up; he is almost 10. Bracketing these sad lines are the fruits of her ambition -- notes for lectures, foundations of the theories that would later define her as one of the great American intellectuals, reminders to bathe more frequently, and another interminable affair with a woman who seems to hate her. She clings to the study of moral philosophy with the hope it will tell her what her feelings ought to be. "Why worry about analyzing the crude ore, I reason, if you know how to produce the refined metal directly?" she writes in early 1960. Self-invention, indeed.

Yet, can we judge the pursuits of a teen mom who went on to be one of the great American thinkers as vainglorious? She simply wanted to achieve her self. It is easy to say she did, though we can't presume she would agree. Sontag was not someone we think of as a mother; she was a private and seemingly singular entity, an upright truth-seeking device, the great public intellectual. And here we are, arriving unbidden, into her most private thoughts, wondering what we are to think of a mother who does not seem to want to be a mother, who is immersed in a self-interested pursuit. How are we to read Reborn? Single-mom success story? The dreams-deferred of a girl-nerd Godzilla? A Rosetta stone that decodes the rest of her work? To claim her successes as feminist determination is too reductive and assuming "truth" to her private failings, given the nature of journals, is also a mistake. We must simply acknowledge both sides of her ambition, where it got her -- and where it didn't.