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Susan Sontag: On the Function of Common Sense

susan sontag diaries

I made it through Susan Sontag's recently released notebooks: As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. “As Consciousness” is the second of three projected volumes. The first, “Reborn,” began in 1947 when she was 14 and ends in 1963.

In an essay in the 1960s Sontag asked “Why do we read a writer's journal? Because it illuminates his books? Often it does not.

The real interest lies in encountering “the writer in the first person . . . the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works.” Sontag's notebooks offer us a rare opportunity to explore the inner thoughts, “the ego behind the mask”, of someone many consider to be a genius. If you can muddle your way through some of her fragmented thoughts, you will find some real gems of wisdom.

I underlined this bit on common sense from 1976. Sontag writes:

Common sense (le bon sens) is always wrong. It is the demagoguery of the bourgeois ideal. The function of common sense is to simplify, to reassure, to hide unpleasant truths and mysteries. I don't just mean that this is what common sense does, or ends up doing; I mean this is what it is designed to do. Of course, in order to be effective common sense must contain some part of the truth. But its main content is negative. To say (implicitly) that, this being so, that is not so.

Similarly, all polls of opinion must be superficial. They reveal the top of what people think organized into common sense. What people really think is always partly hidden.

Only way to get at it is through a study of their language—a study in depth: its metaphors, structures, tone. And of their gestures, way of moving in space.

Still curious? Order a copy of her notebooks: Reborn and As Consciousness. Also see: 3 Steps to refuting any argument and Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom.