When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 224pp, £16.99 (hardback)
Diaries 1963-1981: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, Susan Sontag, Hamish Hamilton, 544pp, £18.99 (hardback)
‘The presence of human consciousness is a radical, qualitative change in the natural order. What are we, after all? Why are we such mysteries to ourselves?’ So asks Marilynne Robinson towards the end of an essay entitled ‘Cosmology’. It caps a fine collection of meditations on the themes which course through her fiction, particularly the relevance of faith in the modern world and the vicissitudes of the human condition. Another spring release showcases the equally enquiring mind of another American grande dame of letters. Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries carries a subtitle that suggests affinity with Robinson’s concern: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Both books display lucid and rigorous thinking, whether embedded in Robinson’s fully-fashioned discourses or distilled in Sontag’s roughly sketched reflections. The writers are practitioners of different kinds of thought but a discernible alliance can be traced, founded on curiosity at how the world works, fearlessness towards testing and disputing ideas, plus a formidable, deep-seated intelligence. The results are enthralling.
Early into When I Was a Child Robinson explains that American history and literature are her main focal points, and that she has studied other histories and literatures in order to gain perspective on this American civilisation (Homer, she tells us, would be ‘astonished’ to find his epics on her shelf ‘in the middle of an unrumoured continent’). This is a useful mini-manifesto for summing up the essays in this collection. Each one utilises such first-person experience and observation so that a certainintimacy is ever present to lighten Robinson’s weighty topics. She writes diligently on art and society, and searchingly on the ramifications of democracy and capitalism. Forays into fiction are surprisingly rare, and readers seeking insight into the nuts and bolts of the writer’s craft will be disappointed (‘Read’ seems to be her only edict).
Similarly, we should not expect to be shocked. Robinson is no polemical essayist, preferring to convince than appear contrarian. In ‘Austerity as Ideology’ she jolts us with ‘the unacknowledged fact that America has never been an especially capitalist country’ before going on to put forward a persuasive case. As with the best of essays, often a personal memory or event will serve as a springboard to exploring a broader avenue of thought. Reminiscing on school leads to ways in which the imagination can improve the health and humanity of the community – but not before she has apologised for her tangent: ‘I have wandered into the terrain of societal tensions by which the dear old United States is much afflicted at the moment.’ In ‘When I Was a Child’ childhood reading is a stepping- stone to solitude and the ‘democratic privilege’ of loneliness, a pleasure that is ‘sensitising and clarifying’, affording us a better communion with others. And in ‘Imagination and Community’ we go from her book collection to ‘the frontiers of the unsayable’, our attempt with language ‘to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said’.
One shortcoming is a reliance on the unsayable, or rather the unknowable. Robinson’s theorising has its limits. She is more than adept at raising an issue but wary about offering solutions. In ‘Freedom of Thought’ we find one of the few passages on fiction but where it comes from and why we need it are ‘Two questions I can’t really answer’. She hides behind safe, non-committal standpoints – ‘I suppose’ and ‘I suspect’ pepper, and consequently mar, many an argument – to the extent that we occasionally yearn for a gutsier ‘I believe’. She claims ‘we live on a little island of the articulable’ but there are moments in each essay when we would not know it.
However, she is on surer ground when writing on religion. Faith, both as a concept and personal belief, is Robinson’s main subject matter and forte. She describes Housekeeping (1980) as a very allusive book ‘because the narrator deploys every resource she has to try to make the world comprehensible’. Robinson, allied to God, seeks answers in religion. She professes a love of ‘ancient literature and religion’ but as we read her we dismiss that as understatement. Christian belief does more than taint her thinking; it imbues each essay, as it does her fiction. A section on the value of the soul, that ‘masterpiece of creation’, offers a valid physical versus spiritual debate. It reminds us, into the bargain, of those similar soul-obsessed passages in Home (2008), with Ames declaring ‘The grace of God can find out any soul, anywhere’. Robinson is unafraid of her points of view reading like biblical proverbs: ‘The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another’ is one conclusion. She makes an illuminating contrast between the dual merits of science and religion and how both ‘are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf’; she tests the meaning and modern-day currency of words (liberty, democracy) with their usage in various translations of the Bible; and she analyses Old Testament law, compares it with a Puritan code from 1641, and emboldens her argument with further excerpts from More’s Utopia.
Robinson emboldens further arguments with lines from the likes of Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill, Freud and Calvin. She also enriches those arguments with her trademark poetic descriptions. ‘This teeming world, so steeped in its sins’ she writes, the beauty in her words disorientating us for a second: is this praise or criticism? Divine Providence has a job making itself heard these days ‘within the wild roar of the cosmos’. She almost justifies her lyricism by claiming ‘language is music’, and that ‘written words are musical notation’. In that last essay, ‘Cosmology’, she might fall short in unravelling the mysteries of human consciousness but we have become too absorbed in the lushness of her prose to care. We came from somewhere and we are heading somewhere, ‘and the spectacle is glorious and portentous’ – much like this writing.
Early in Susan Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor (1963), the protagonist attends a dinner party, and is surprised that Frau Anders expects her guests to have not only opinions but personality. ‘I had detected in myself a certain paucity of opinions,’ is the character’s response. Sontag herself, of course, one of the most analytical thinkers of the last century, was never short of an opinion. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is the second in three volumes of her journals and notebooks, and each page is crammed with the keenest of outlooks and observations. It is not the ‘Diary’ the publishers would have us believe, for Sontag offers no neat summaries of her days. It reads instead as a kind of vessel for containing her views on art, civilisation and her personal loves, aims and limitations.
Most ‘entries’ are therefore mere shards of thought – a brief character sketch, an outline for a future writing project, and only occasionally a précis of a recent trip, symposium or soirée. Such intellectual scraps can feel under-nourishing when compared to her finished and more wholesome essays. In her review, ‘Camus’ Notebooks’, she describes the book as ‘quarries for his writings’, criticises the fragmentary format and dismisses it as not exciting enough even for Camus aficionados and ineffectual in adding to our understanding of the man. On first glance the same case could be made for this book, until we realise Sontag’s notes, though also fragments, do in fact join up to provide a revealing, semi-cohesive portrait of her as writer, thinker and human being.
Sometimes she keeps things easy for us by bluntly listing her preferences. As she is in effect writing for herself, each opinion is received as an incontestable truth. The Beatles and The Supremes give her pleasure, parties are depressing, her mother is a ‘horrid woman’ of whom she was afraid, The Great Gatsby will last but the rest by Fitzgerald is ‘midcult junk’, and Nietzsche is only great ‘in the essays – mostly fragments’. (We could argue the same point regarding Sontag.) As days and weeks file by Sontag furnishes us with fleeting verdicts on films seen and books read, passes often heartfelt judgement on former lovers, male and female, and here and there extols her virtues, while during frequent low ebbs falls victim to the bitterest self-reproach. Her mother’s rejection has made her feel ‘unloveable’; her partner rejected her because she was ‘no good in bed’. Despite harbouring dreams of winning the Nobel Prize (for what she never says) she confesses to being complacent and unambitious. Worse – ‘I’m not a genius’. Nine years later, in 1975, she seems to have grown in confidence and acquired a direction, proclaiming herself ‘an adversary writer’, fuelled by the need ‘to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed’. Unlike Robinson, she is no liberal, but almost in line with Robinson’s staunch defence of Calvinism comes the bold avowal, ‘Yes, I am a Puritan’.
In Robinson’s Home we are told ‘Religion is human behaviour’. Sontag admits to having ‘a wider range as a human being than a writer’ but is virtually silent on religion (perhaps after nailing her colours firmly to the mast with her first entry in Reborn , volume one of her essays, saying she believes ‘that there is no personal god or life after death’). Instead she worships books. Her library is ‘an archive of longings’ that grants her succour from the outside world. Reading galvanises her to write, hones her skill and enables her to churn out killer aphorisms: a miracle is ‘just an accident, with fancy trappings’; Cockney slang is ‘rhyming plus knight’s move to the side’; criticism is ‘cultural cholesterol’. Reading is also word- building and her diaries are littered with lists of nouns and adjectives she has collated and jotted down so as ‘to thicken my active vocabulary’.
Throughout 1967 and 1968 the entries are fuller-bodied, with Sontag allowing herself more space to soul-search and articulate her experience in Vietnam as part of a delegation of antiwar activists. The diaries are riveting when such empirical thought is transposed into artistic endeavour. The notes from the Vietnam visit led to her ‘Trip to Hanoi’ essay; lines like ‘Art is never a photograph’ from 1964 would be polished and expanded on in the seminal On Photography (1977). However, ideas peter out or are even scored out. When editor (and Sontag’s son) David Rieff intervenes and writes ‘Crossed out but legible’ we as diary-peepers feel our guilt increasing, as if we are now sifting Sontag’s rubbish – not least when she declares at one point ‘I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here’. Elsewhere we find it hard to contextualise those stubbier fragments, and wish they could have connected with a greater whole, even something resembling a train of thought. An entry marked 7/26/70 reads ‘… Habits of despair’. No more, no less. Its brevity is tantalising, its content cryptic. Why the ellipsis? What habits and what despair?
Marilynne Robinson’s essays are a paradigmatic display of what could be termed thinking on occasion. Sontag’s diaries show that she never stopped thinking. Even her novels she described as ‘the fiction of thought’. Her thoughts matter most when she is the character, partly because a fallible humanity shines through that is absent from her essays. Sontag fails with the rest of us; she feels ‘the pressures of consciousness’. Exposure to this vulnerable underbelly makes for fascinating reading. And yet for all that tortured artist-thinker’s self-doubt it is reassuring to know Sontag could in the end accept the rough with the smooth: ‘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.’