In Sontag’s Archives

Benjamin Moser at The New Yorker’s book blog.

I am familiar with these concerns, and have always borne them in mind. Still, reading papers and manuscripts is one thing. Looking through someone’s e-mail is quite another, and the feeling of creepiness and voyeurism that overcame me as I sat with Gonzalez struggled with the unstoppable curiosity that I feel about Sontag’s life. To read someone’s e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time. If most e-mails are not interesting (“The car will pick you up at 7:30 if that’s ok xxx”), others reveal unexpected qualities that are delightful to discover. (Who would have suspected, for example, that Sontag sent e-mails with the subject heading “Whassup?”) One sees Sontag, who had so many friends, elated to be in such easy touch with them (“I’m catching the e-mail fever!”); one sees the insatiably lonely writer reaching out to people she hardly knew and inviting them to pay a call. In their reactions, one reads their bemusement, how hesitant they were to bother the icon, with her fearsome reputation.

With the software available today, the biographer who strives to put himself in the position of his subject is faced with new conundrums. One of the most intriguing tools that Gonzalez deploys is a program called Project MUSE, which can search an e-mail database and map the writer’s feelings with uncanny accuracy. You can see categories such as “medical,” “angry,” and “congratulations”; you can see, on a graph, what percentage of the time in May, 2001, for example, Sontag was happy or sad or upset.

As I was marvelling at this technology, I wondered how I would feel if someone searched my e-mail and revealed that I uttered an average of three hundred and twenty-one bitchy remarks per month, and that my weekly horniness index ranged from 34.492 per cent to 56.297 per cent. Should we, simply because we can, boil down human emotions and lives in this way? Would Sontag have wanted her life analyzed like this? Would anyone?

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