This essay, from Benjamin Anastas, originally appeared in the Sept/Oct/Nov 2009 issue of bookforum.com, as well as in the print edition of the same issue of Bookforum magazine.
It’s typical of God’s vanity that, after creating the heavens and the earth and all that goes with them, he had to go ahead and claim the word for his son’s business. “In the beginning was the Word,” the opening lines of the Gospel of John instruct, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Ever since, the power to capitalize the w has been the prize that nearly every writer would kill for—or die trying.
If the poem is a salvo at the skies and the play a pincer movement, then the novel is a full-blown putsch. It creates its own firmament between two covers, divides light from darkness, fills the waters with odd life-forms, and chokes the earth with abundance. The novelist’s word is almost the Word. One problem: What about the God who invented it? He must be killed, captured, or paid off handsomely and sent into exile. He must be dealt with.
The first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals, edited by her son, David Rieff, and published last year under the title Reborn, begins with an entry dated November 23, 1947—Sontag was fourteen—listing the precocious Californian’s core beliefs. At the very top, marked “(a),” is “That there is no personal God or life after death.” Before Sontag has ever published a word, she has written God’s death sentence.
This small matter settled, she follows up with her second belief: “The most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty.” Sontag is free to think her own way into understanding. Like the apostle Paul, she has learned to “put away childish things.” She has turned to literature for guidance. The rest of Reborn—if not the rest of Sontag’s life—is a testament to this. Sontag exhorts herself to read Stephen Spender’s translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, immerses herself in the work of the principled French libertine André Gide, judges Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain to be “a book for all of one’s life.” She compiles laundry lists of novels, plays, stories, and books of poetry that she aspires to read like a mystic seeking out new and ever more demanding spiritual disciplines. In 1949, when Sontag joined some friends for an audience with Mann at his home in Pacific Palisades, her journal entry describes the encounter this way: “E, F and I interrogated God this evening at six.”
Reborn, just as much as it provides a glimpse into a cultural celebrity’s fiercely guarded private life (and we don’t have many left that hold such fascination), gives us a record of how Sontag gained the visionary powers that every fiction writer covets. She approaches the novel with a certainty so fervent that it is clearly on par with religious belief—not even Gide, or Mann, would question the affinity. Sontag acknowledges this fact in one remarkable line from Reborn that could be adopted as the novelist’s credo: “God, living is enormous!”
God, living is enormous. As a pure sentence, it is almost perfect. There is no end to its reverberations or bottom to its mystery. There is murder in the “God” but also reverence; fiction may be “the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity,” as James Wood writes in The Broken Estate, but what novelist can dream of competing on the playing field of the printed page with a Maker whose every word arrives as truth, whose every idea is fact, and whose pride of authorship extends to all creation? Despite the long odds, one of the novel’s chief concerns from its beginning has been to try and steal a little thunder from the Divine— or at least his home office on earth, the church—through satire, mockery, and, at times, outright sacrilege. The trope had already been well established by medieval literature (see The Canterbury Tales); Cervantes, then Fielding, continued the ritual undressing. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Victor Hugo would stop the action of Les Misérables for a polemic against the institution of the convent, although his broadside makes a crucial distinction: “We are for religion, against the religions.”
This stance, with its haughty backhand to the church for its hypocrisy and all-purpose endorsement of religious mystery—no matter what form it takes—kept the belief necessary for the novel’s survival alive, while preserving a place for the novel as a kind of opposition party to scripture. Perhaps no novelist’s work has embodied this paradox more than Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s—and he managed it by virtue of an imagination so all-encompassing that it might have been a gift from God himself. He even offered his readers a prophetic taste of modernism in a speech the Grand Inquisitor gives to the returned Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov:
How many among those chosen ones, the strong ones who might have become chosen ones, have finally grown tired of waiting for you, and have brought and will yet bring the powers of their spirit and the ardor of their hearts to another field, and will end by raising their free banner against you!