Sontag on Heartbreak
by Lee Felice Pinkas
My first heartbreak, at age fifteen, sent me to songs. To schlocky inspirational books whose platitudes I held close, repeated like mantras. Later, revisiting the knots of a complicated relationship in my late twenties, I found Susan Sontag’s journals.
“I always fell for the bullies,” Sontag admits. “Their rejection of me showed their superior qualities, their good taste.”
I found her book in Berlin, Germany. I had followed a guy named Jonah there the summer after our breakup. I was not proud of myself, leaning on pretexts to save myself from the truth that I had crossed the Atlantic to pursue the ghost of a relationship.
The apartment I was renting was full of the uniform spines of German books I could not read. There was also one small shelf of English books: Baldwin, Duras, and—the one I found myself most drawn to—a volume of Sontag’s journals that spanned the years from ‘64 –‘80, years she spent bereft over the breakup with her partner, Cuban playwright, María Irene Fornés.
The volume, the second in a trilogy edited by Sontag’s son David Reiff, is called As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh after a marginal note from the journal. It was possibly a note for a project, describing the difficult, sometimes painful, process of transforming one’s inner images into an external product. I had read a handful of Sontag’s famous essays in Against Interpretation. In her published work, she tells us exactly what style is and is not. This is the Sontag of popular imagination, authoritative, self-possessed. In “On Style” she asserts: “ Every style is a means of insisting on something”; “metaphors mislead”; “morality is a code of arts.”
But Sontag’s journals, published posthumously, contain her inner life. They are the texts behind the texts she published in her lifetime. It’s there where the high priestess gives way to the cowering woman who is at times uncertain, afraid of all that exposed flesh. The journals are where I found comfort in the idea that someone with so much public authority could feel, as I often did, pathetic.
Describing the difficulty of writing, she admits: “Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” In the pages of her journals, I found her beating heart. There, I learned of her difficulties with writing fiction, her insecurities with sex, and her heartbreak over Irene.
“I am Irene’s Maginot line,” Sontag declares in the second fragmented entry of Consciousness, referring to the fortification built by the French in World War II. Irene was cold, unfeeling. “Her very ‘life,’” Sontag writes of Irene, “depends on rejecting me, on holding the line against me.”
And, then: “Because I don’t understand. I don’t really accept the change in Irene. I think I can reverse it—by explaining, by demonstrating that I am good for her.”
I understood this demonstration. I thought, if I could enjoy my time in Berlin, write, take in the layers of the city with ardor like Sontag took in London, Paris, New York, Jonah would feel this pulse and be drawn back to me.
As I read and languished and obsessed, I came up with theories: it was Jonah’s relationship with his father that made him such an angry, resentful person. It was his latch-key childhood that turned him into a viper when I tangentially alluded to someone else’s success. I had some evidence; half-ashamed, half-proud, he once admitted to me that his mother had told him, her own son, that he didn’t have a soul. With these reminders, I tried to convince myself that he was the one who was damaged, not me.
Sontag, too, pathologizes Irene in order to comfort herself: “As long as she is occupied in warding me off, she doesn’t have to face herself, her own problems.”
Jonah possessed a road-flare sort of rage; I kept a catalog of his furies: the time I joked about the possibility of spiders in our rented cabin upstate; the time he became irate when I told him I was making dinner and took two hours to produce a small salad that could not fill him up; the weekday brunch at a restaurant that turned into a seething, silent meal. His complaints about job prospects in higher education suggested that women were taking away what was his. He was so bafflingly insecure that any statement of mine that so much as hinted at another person’s literary, artistic, or academic accomplishments made him angry. His anger, while never physical in nature, often made me feel like I’d been hit. The desire to do so, I felt, was rippling just beneath the surface.
But he was also witty and self-deprecating and quick, a kind of Oscar Wilde of the Internet age. He had an impressive taxonomy, the product of a TV-addled youth run through the machine of academia. His jokes mixed academic jargon with characters from The Jersey Shore. He listened to Death Grips and read Heidegger and joked that he really was reading Playboy for the articles. He was deeply, genuinely funny.
We also had a rich email correspondence. Once, following a dramatic weekend when he left New York City to try to sort out his feelings, I received the following message: “I feel like I’m chasing after wind scattered pages from an enormous, unbound manuscript, never having a page in hand for long enough to collate before having to lunge after the next one.” I saw him there, cartoon-like in a blank expanse, grasping at the flying pages.
I felt compelled to match his intensity, to generate.
Sontag describes this effect when she writes, “I am attracted to demons…People with their own generators.” She lists Irene as one of the demonic, a person who could nurture Sontag’s intellect and feed her lifeforce. Sontag found comfort in these people she deemed mad, in part because their intensity gave her permission to burn.
Once, criticizing his recent ex, Jonah explained that he was tired of always being the one to fuel their relationship, to come up with the ideas. I heard what I wanted to hear—that he was over this previous relationship, not that he was calming his own broken heart.
I became a generator of my own, challenging him, feeding him books, and sometimes showing off about who and what I knew. In those days I often felt alive with my own manic energy. More often than not, however, my attempts backfired; Jonah told me I made him feel small.
If I mentioned a musician or a writer I knew—in a city where it’s almost impossible not to know someone—it usually ended in a fight where he was the victim, a Kaputnik, a nothing-of-a-PhD-student who would never find a job. Sometimes, convinced by his reversals, I wondered if I’d pushed too hard.
Sontag and Fornés sparred, too. Every relationship has its own unique power dynamic, made up of intersecting layers of inequality. I don’t propose to know the particulars of theirs, but if we believe Sontag to be a reliable narrator of her relationship, we learn that Irene kept distance while Susan pined and languished and had her feelings hurt. Yet I also recognized the familiar push and pull—two egos vying for airtime. Sontag says of Irene: “I have damaged her ego, she says.”
After the relationship ended, I rode its Mobius strip in my mind, tracing how we flipped and turned upon one another; I wondered when I had made the wrong move or series of moves. Revisiting the tangled undergrowth of a former relationship can feel weak. Watching someone like Sontag follow these same lines—what she called the relationship’s “infinitely extending network,” its “dense weave”—reminded me that even serious intellectuals need to do that work.
Using Sontag’s journals as a balm, I glossed over the fact that her pain is undergirded by Irene’s generosity and her “limitless lavish love.” In fact, for Sontag, it was the disconnect between Irene’s caring qualities and the cold, controlling ones that left her with so much baggage to reconcile. I didn’t have that problem; nonetheless, it was Sontag’s process of excavation, rather than the artifacts themselves, that validated my own preoccupations.
It was also the two Sontags that had become apparent through her journals. It was the permission to be cut open and vulnerable on the one hand, and serious and ambitious on the other.
Bouncing from café to café in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, Consciousness in tow, I felt as though Sontag, with her raw pronouncements, was the only one who understood my obsession. I scanned the pages for her fragmentary admissions on Irene, often couched between notes on Henry James, various lists, ideas for writing, and casual mentions of so many famous friends.
In a list about Irene, Sontag notes the following:
“She knows better than I (about life, sex, etc.)
When we disagree, she is right
When I am wrong, she will teach me
When I try to help her—or take the sexual initiative—or correct her, I am wrong, clumsy, inapposite
When I improve, I will make her happy”
I pitied the Sontag of these lines, imagining a child castigating herself for not being good enough. Yet the vulnerability also comforted me. It was a feeling akin to seeing famous actors with stains on their clothing.
I learned more details of Sontag’s relationship with Irene later. One night, instead of going to a party, Irene suggested they go home and write. She sat down at the kitchen table and began writing a play, the first of many. Watching a novice sit down and write so easily must have killed Sontag. Who can say how she retaliated, whether or not she was conscious of it herself. For all of her self-effacement, I feel certain that Sontag also played back.
I am not by nature a fighter, but the fights with Jonah consumed me. Like a riptide, they came for me and the only way out was through. The content was often forgettable, likely owing to his ungenerous reading of a comment of mine that diminished him. I remember his face going blank, stretched like a sail over his sharp features, as if I were to blame for his suffering. The suffering seemed real enough, but it was incommensurate with what he claimed as its cause. I’d wonder if in these fights I’d provoked him on purpose.
On the last day we spent together, we were sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn when Jonah told me he was going to try to get back together with his ex. Later on, as we walked down an industrial street, in the shadow of a massive water tower in Greenpoint, I asked if it was just that he wanted to be with her again or if it was also that he did not want to be with me. He said, “Both.”
What seemed unbearably cruel at the time became a small mercy on his part. I would have continued to try to comb the fibers of our “dense weave” until he stopped me. It was that single word that told me it really was over. I returned to this word, both, in the coming weeks—and if I’m honest, months—to remind myself.
In the preface to Consciousness, Sontag’s son writes, “…I think her unhappiness in love was as much a part of her as was the profound sense of fulfillment she derived from her writing…” He explains that she was a student of her life, that she apprenticed herself to those she held closest.
I imagine the two gorgeous women wielding their considerable talents against one another. I imagine that their fights were as beautiful as they were ugly. Even while I know that fighting is almost never pretty, I can’t help but picture them as their black and white photos. Their fights materialize as a Beckett play, both women wrapped over and over in long, black scarves discussing and arguing over the qualities of a large stone that, in fact, represents life.
I’ve experienced how the project of unpacking a relationship through writing and talking can feel fulfilling, in the mode of literary analysis. The work of understanding a relationship with a complicated person can be addictive, can feel, as a friend put it, like trying to read Finnegan’s Wake. It can feel like progress, like solving, like exegesis, even if the wheels are merely spinning.
That summer in Berlin, I did finally see Jonah. He was riding his bike alongside a tall woman in a flowered dress that I immediately knew to be his former ex. In that moment, a flush of feelings, desire, adrenaline, sadness, rushed in. What I realized later is that he had become a paper doll to me. I’d been reconstructing him in my own image in order to disarm him. The real Jonah, in turn, disarmed me.
While my pain over him lingered in the background, I did enjoy myself in Berlin. I saw the recreated temple in the Pergamon Museum’s interior. I ate Döner and drank beers with friends along the canal. I consumed Baldwin and Duras and Sebald, and I learned from Sontag that sometimes what we call passion is more aptly called abuse, and abuse can be as addictive as it is damaging.
Sometimes, I feel ashamed that I still occasionally think or write about Jonah because I’m sure I was insignificant to him. Sontag’s emergence from Irene took years. She called it “the project of demythologizing Irene.”
I never really demythologized Jonah. I don’t believe we ever truly demythologize a person; either we live with them and watch them change and age and become more human to us, or they remain, as Jonah did, figures trapped in time and imagination. Then memory blurs them, becomes overwritten by newer life.
Lee Felice Pinkas is a writer and educator currently based in Philadelphia.