You showed that it was not necessary to be unhappy," Susan Sontag writes in "A Letter to Borges," "even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is." Sontag's new collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls, drawn from her work of the past twenty years championing artists, art forms and causes, salvages tremendous comfort from acute disappointment. Her idiosyncratic moral aestheticism, which provokes the Left and the Right in this country, sets the terms for the collection, providing the grounds of her esteem for artists in a wide variety of media and her disillusionment with her fellow intellectuals. For the "barely closeted moralist," as she describes the younger self that wrote Against Interpretation (and she has long since come out of this closet), it is a given that "there is no possibility of true culture without altruism."
Where the Stress Falls is not a typical Sontag essay collection. First, it contains none of the extended sieges on an idea or form that make up. Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, On Photography, Illness as Metaphor and Under the Sign of Saturn. Instead, it offers forty essays parceled out under three headings-"Reading," "Seeing" and "There and Here"--in just under 350 pages. These piece's are mostly brief, many as short as three pages, most under ten, and only two of roughly 25 pages: "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes" and "Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo." These two are among the most satisfying essays in the volume because Sontag has room to explore, detour and elaborate. Second, the vast majority of these essays--prefaces, introductions and program notes--originally addressed not a general audience but one made up of enthusiasts: those who attended a performance of Bunraku (Japanese puppetry) or a Wagner opera, or who bought a catalogue of painter Howard Hodgkin, a translation of a novel by W. G. Sebald, or a collection celebrating one hundred years of Italian photography.
It is the mark of Sontag's immense authority as a generalist that there is virtually no stylistic difference between an introduction to a new translation of Pedro Paramo and an exploration of the appeal of the grotto in House and Garden. All the same, the obligations of prefaceor program-writing require Sontag to restrain the sweep and ambition that marked her most famous work in order to turn attention toward, not compete with, the artists she so fervently admires.
Attention is the coin of Sontag's realm and, sadly for the feminist reader, she rarely - chooses to bestow it on women. Only three women artists receive consideration: Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, cultural critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (to whom she dedicates the volume) and dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs, the subject of "Lexicon for Available Light." One wishes this were not so, not only because when she chooses to, Sontag writes thoughtfully about the stubborn asymmetries of gender. The author of the best essay on the position of women never anthologized, "The Third World of Women" from Partisan Review in 1973, Sontag has been extremely astute, about feminist concerns. (That essay could have been written yesterday, it anticipates so many of the later fractures within feminism.) But while never simple-minded about questions of gender, Sontag is no longer at the vanguard, as we can see in the smart but by no means groundbreaking introduction to Women, Annie Liebovitz's extraordinary collectio n of photographs. She seems to have as little interest in recent feminist thinking as contemporary feminists have had in her. That is, to my mind, regrettable for both.
Perhaps the fact that Sontag feels the injuries of her position as a woman is the reason she rarely elects to write about it. She seems to admire most in Elizabeth Hardwick her refusal to dwelt on wounds to the self: "Not a breath of complaint (and there is much to complain of)..." One's own pain is simply never a tasteful or ethical subject of contemplation, taste being a form of ethics for Sontag. Women are not the only ones praised for this reticence. She respects poet Joseph Brodsky's ability to bear "[i]ntractable grief.. .with great indignation, great sobriety" as much as Hardwick's "[c[auterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms." Indeed, disciplined self-transcendence in form is a value extolled in everything from writing to dance (Childs, Lincoln Kirstein and Mikhail Baryshnikov) to painting (Hodgkin).
Gender simply isn't where the stress falls. But to speculate on why this might be violates the terms of reading that she lays out in "Singleness," one of the essays in which she describes her relationship to her own writing. She warns strenuously against making assumptions about her person from either what she has chosen to write or what she hasn't: "I write what I can: that is, what's given to me and what seems worth writing, by me. I care passionately about many things that don't get into my fiction and essays...My books aren't me--all of me. And in some ways, I am less than them." While Sontag is more willing to insert herself into some of these essays than one might expect, the entire collection is laced with caveats about autobiography, its capacity to conceal as well as reveal, and her dismay at the indefatigable self-exposure of so much contemporary writing. Autobiography can be a "wisdom project" but only when, like Adam Zagajewski's Another Beauty, it "purges [one] of vanity" or, like Roland Barthes' late work, it is "artfully anti-confessional."
So where does the stress fall? What is it that absorbs her attention and draws forth her most passionate moral commitments and aesthetic appreciation? In the third of the volume's three sections, "There and Here," we see a point of moral crisis that unifies the collection as a whole. This section includes essays Sontag wrote about her experiences in Sarajevo in the early 1990s; they deliver both a moving account of the Sarajevans' plight and a stinging rebuke to the European and American intellectual community.
If the intellectuals of the 1930s and 1960s often showed themselves too gullible, too prone to appeals to idealism to take in what was really happening in certain beleaguered, newly radicalized societies that they may or may not have visited (briefly), the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety, seem at least equally deplorable.
Beyond personal failure, she censures a more general collapse of international solidarity and attenuation of political engagement; this is a time, she concludes, when "[o]nly domestic political commitments seem plausible." The provincialism and timidity excoriated in "There and Here" provide stark contrast to the heroism extolled in the essays of "Reading" and "Seeing." The moral compass that US intellectuals have so tragically lost she finds in writers like Yugoslavia's Danilo Kis, "who spoke up against nationalism and fomented-from-the-top ethnic hatreds" but "could not save Europe's honor, Europe's better idea," and Poland's Witold Gombrowicz, who in "strengthening his disaffection from nationalist pieties and self-congratulation" became "a consummate citizen of world literature."
Sontag indirectly explains the diminished expectations of Where the Stress Falls in "Thirty Years Later...," her introduction to a new edition of Against Interpretation, reprinted here. "The world in which these essays were written no longer exists," she concludes, but "How one wishes some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived." Suffusing this collection is her awareness that neither aesthetic value nor moral commitment claims serious reflection in advanced capitalist cultures, which have witnessed a "vertiginous shift of moral attitudes" whose "hallmark is the discrediting of all idealisms, of altruism itself; of high standards of all kinds, cultural as well as moral." The narrower address of Where the Stress Falls and its more limited ambition predict that it will not engender the controversy or the esteem of Sontag's earlier work. But as "Thirty Years Later..." suggests, perhaps it is not so much Sontag who has changed, but the world around her.
Such a powerful sense of disaffection from the present moment might induce a deep nostalgia for the better times of thirty years ago. Thankfully, with one possible exception ("A Century of Cinema," which yearns for the cinephilia of that era) Sontag does not indulge. The pervasive sorrow of the essays is tempered by her boundless capacity for admiration and pleasure in literature, dance, painting, photography, opera and film. Where the Stress Falls oscillates between melancholy and delight, outrage and a cautious optimism. Collecting these exercises in advanced appreciation, she seems not to have abandoned the hopefulness that supplied the energy of her early work, her then unwavering belief in the value of serious reflection. That hopefulness is muted, but not extinguished: "There is desolation and, as well, so many fortifying pleasures supplied by the genius of others."
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|Title Annotation:||Review; Where the Stress Falls|
|Author:||Nelson, Deborah L|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2001|
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