All of Knowledge as One’s Province

November 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

On the release of Susan Sontag’s complete and unexpurgated (as in 168-page) Rolling Stone interview from 1978, Mark O’Donnell cannot help but marvel at Sontag’s ability to keep up with the sense of boundlessness and insatiability she projected in her approach to reading, her wish to have her assumptions challenged and the euphoria she evinced at the discovery of the new, and “the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value”:

There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.”  And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything.

It is hard not to think that Sontag decided to invest in the responsibility of her image early in her life, what from the boasts of reading translations of Mann and Gide as a teenager to the lists and self-absorptions she committed to her journals in those years (Age 15: “It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence.”). Such pressure to keep feeding both the self and the public image of the self could have easily led to madness.

Fittingly, here is what she wrote, at age 16, about Gide’s The Counterfeiters:

I am fascinated but not moved … Here; a novel by Gide called The Counterfeiters dealing with a small chronological slice of life around a man called Edouard, who is planning to write a book called The Counterfeiters, but is now preoccupied with keeping a journal of his life while his life is colored by the idea of writing this book (as Hopkins sees the wreck of the Deutschland through a drop of Christ’s blood)–and he thinks this journal will be more interesting than the proposed book, so that he now plans to publish the journal and never write the book. Edourard is Gide, beginning and ending in medias res.


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