Death and Archives
David Rieff, in his Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), provides a commentary on the last two years of his mother’s life, the writer Susan Sontag. It is a blunt, no holds-barred, account of how he and his mother handled the death sentence she received in 2004. I read it because of my interest in Sontag’s writings, and because I know she kept careful records regarding her work. We get glimpses of this in Rieff’s book.
Sontag, an individual who longed to live at any cost and who wished to control her existence as best she could, is an interesting person to view in their final months. Rieff writes, for example, “In a strange way, she lived her life as if stocking a library, or materializing her longings . . . She never said this, but I wonder if her sense of herself was not inextricably bound up in this collecting – the subject of so much of her best writing” (p. 15). She kept at such efforts right to the end: “She would not contemplate extinction until the last moth of her life. And even then . . . Instead, throughout most of her illness, she was still interested in compiling lists of restaurants and books, quotations and facts, writing projects and travel schedules, all of which I understood to be her way of fighting to the end for another shard of the future” (p. 20). Creating such documents was partly a means for Sontag’s control and survival, and what we see is a glimpse into how personal recordkeeping is linked to the human impulse for resisting oblivion.
In this book, we read about Sontag collecting information about her illness, writing in her diaries, and always planning another project and something else she wanted to convey to her readers. Rieff observes, “While making an inventory of some of her personal things shortly after she died, I found in her wallet a thick wad of cards – memberships to museums, performance spaces, and frequent-flyer programs, and cards from restaurants. That wallet itself was like a set of future itineraries” (p. 160). And what we see is someone who measured her life with notes in books, volumes of quotations, and outlines of future essays and books. Although Rieff never says it, and the picture we get is someone who wanted to go on forever (or at least to age 100, rather than the 71 years she reached), there is the sense that the publications and manuscripts would keep her with us. I am not sure what provision has been made for preserving her personal archives, but I am sure it will be one of the richest collections documenting a twentieth century writer.