I Think About This a Lot: Susan Sontag on ‘Emotional Book-keeping’

Photo: Rene Saint Paul/RDA//Everett Collection

I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

This is a story about a habit broken by an offhanded phrase I found in 2013. If you had a habit, then it’s easy to remember what it was like to have had it. To keep it broken, you remember what it was like to break it and, because of that, I think about this line from Susan Sontag’s journal all the time. It comes from an entry dated March 14, 1960, when she was irritated by someone’s “ceaseless emotional book-keeping.”

The rest of the page is full of shorthand — long dashes and plus signs and initials instead of names. In that jumble, this phrase “ceaseless emotional book-keeping” reached out and grabbed onto my face. It perfectly described my game at this time: Ceaseless emotional bookkeeping was my vain attempt to apply order and logics to the unpredictable moods of my hot little heart.

When I read it, this heart leapt in recognition. I think I might have even called the city planner I was dating, thrilled, that I finally understood how exasperating this habit of ceaseless emotional bookkeeping was. The words bounced around in my head like one of those old screen savers of text, shimmering and twisting all around. Ceaseless! Emotional! Bookkeeping!

As I understand it, it’s the practice of keeping track of a relationship’s cadences in a systemized way, an attempt to organize the logistics of love stuff. Sontag’s girlfriend was arguing that she had earned a year of patience because she had put up with Sontag’s difficult behavior a previous year. This is the rationale of an extreme bookkeeper. The bookkeeper judges a relationship by balances. The bookkeeper monitors the heart’s expenditures: is this worth time, energy, care?

I felt seen by this phrase, ceaseless emotional bookkeeping, in a way that was both hard to take and highly unflattering. I would particularly bookkeep in my romances, but also with friends and family, anyone that held my heart. In an elegant mental spreadsheet, I would record great acts of patience, surprises of fresh tomatoes and cold wine, unforgettable compliments, spider removal, kindness to each other’s families. I would tally sweetness and comfort, edginess and snips to hold myself and others accountable. I’d add everything up. I’d keep an eye on the balance.

When there was an argument, the ledger would arrive. I’m also not great at details, so I’m sure the numbers had been cooked in some fashion. It was taxing to try to keep an accurate tally — as if a system of affections could ever be accurate. And it was undoubtedly infuriating for the person who was being tallied.

Have you ever tried to reason with someone about whether accompanying you on an ehhhh friend’s backpacking adventure would be balanced out by traveling to a remote and dubiously curated sculpture garden? Have you ever had someone report disappointedly on the number of sweet things you said to them in the last week? I hope not. I personally haven’t, but I can’t say the same for a city planner I dated in 2013.

Look, if you’re sensitive and practical, rational and sweet, then the idea of emotional bookkeeping has a certain charm. Both sides of the brain are at work — to be rigorous but considerate but loving but fair but also systematized.

It’s the rubric that causes the problem. Or rather, the idea that a rubric could exist. Actions have different weights, generosities have different contexts, and feelings can’t really be filed. Making a pros-and-cons list can sometimes clarify through reduction. Sometimes it can leave you wondering if you should multiply “SO PATIENT” by three so that it can counterbalance “FREQUENTLY LATE.”

Equations and inventory can be a comfort during a time of confusion. Emotional bookkeeping is a way to understand the beats of a relationship. It’s not a reliable tool for relation. The romantic cataloging continues in the backdrop of my exciting mind (besides that, it’s mostly Linda Ronstadt songs in there, a true party), but I no longer weaponize the catalogue. When I am tempted to roll it out, Sontag’s frustrated description that this is ceaseless emotional bookkeeping reminds me of its own faults.

This story, I guess, is ultimately about when language sticks to a trait. I’ve been thinking that it’s the blasé, just-throwing-this-out-there fragment that can fix your shit. The offhanded has confidence. It isn’t claiming complete truth, which is suspicious. It’s not a neat and smooth certainty that, while you believe it, you can’t quite access. The offhanded fragment has a weird edge that fits into your brain where you need it to.

You can look for wisdom and you can even outright ask for it, but sometimes you don’t know what wisdom you want because you’re not really sure what the problem is. When I found “ceaseless emotional book-keeping,” I wasn’t looking for anything in Sontag’s journals. I just wanted reports from a smart mind thinking smart things in an everyday sort of way. I ended up learning that I couldn’t use a clerical practice to understand the wiggly heart. Logics of feeling don’t hold up — and I don’t want them to.

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I Think About This a Lot: Sontag on ‘Emotional Book-keeping’