WHERE THE STRESS FALLS, a new collection of essays written between 1982 and 2000 by Susan Sontag, explores literature, visual arts, and cultural expressions. In it Sontag sets out not only to introduce the reader to obscure artists and their works, but also to examine well-known works and her personal attachments to them. While Sontag famously posited that to understand art one must begin with intuition and personal response as opposed to analysis or intellectual reasoning, she sends mixed messages in this collection. Her former anti-interpretive position is no longer apparent. The best essays are responses, personal and often emotional reflections and observations. The worst essays are long, dry, and written in a lecturing or overly academic tone or have her own experiences as the topic. Many, simply put, are analytical or interpretive.
In the first section, "Reading," Sontag offers 11 essays celebrating the pleasures of reading great literary works. By presenting novels and authors she feels are sadly overlooked, she invites readers to share some of her favorite works while explaining why they are among her favorites. "Afterlives: The Case of Machado de Assis" lovingly presents a late 19th century novel that challenges traditional forms of narration. This essay is among the most enjoyable as Sontag writes simply about this humorous and unique book. The topic also offers an opportunity to share personal insight: "I thought I was writing a satire on optimism and on certain cherished (by me) ideas of the inner life and of a religiously nourished inwardness. (What was going on unconsciously, as I think about it now, is another story.)" Much of Sontag's essays on literature are candid and reveal much about her personal love of reading and method of writing. The essays dealing with new or unexplored literary narrative perspective are the most interesting. The more analytical essays, while occasionally illuminating, are less enjoyable. Several very short essays ("Walser's Voice," "Pedro Paramo," "DQ") and the beautiful "A Letter to Borges" are wonderful in their exaltation of great novels and novelists as well as the pleasure we find in reading them. Here Sontag is a reader, swept away by the written word, and sharing her passion with us, her readers.
"Seeing," the second section of essays, explores such diverse expressions as classic opera, Japanese puppet theater, film, modern dance, and Italian and American photography. In "Borland's Babies" a collection of photographs is clearly described and any analysis is subtle. The tone is conversational, relying on open-ended questions, inviting the reader to examine the pictures and to formulate their own response. Instead of lecturing, Sontag elucidates by giving no answers but simply sharing her provocative questions.
The third section, "There and Here," collects essays on topics of travel literature, the process of writing, literary influences, and what Europe means to the author (it is "more essential" to her than America). In this section, more than the others, Sontag discusses her own achievements and merits as an intellectual. When Sontag writes in "Thirty Years Later" of her surprise at being regarded as a "tastemaker" and "vanguard" and how she did not set out to write "manifestos," it is hard to believe her. In this essay, and in others, Sontag's estimation her herself and her body of work is off-putting. In "Answers to a Questionnaire," Sontag shares her responses as the only American surveyed by La Regle du Jeu on international intellectuals and their roles. Interestingly enough, Sontag gives nine self-congratulating answers to six questions. Most distressing in this section are the essays "Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo" and "The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)." The first describes Sontag, in an effort to "pitch in and do something," staging Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in the war-torn city. While no one would rightly question the need for artistic expression, cultural activity, and entertainment in a place as stricken as Sarajevo, Sontag spends 24 pages seemingly defending her action. The second, written in 1988, mourns the lost, ideal Europe (and the former Euro-centricity) of Sontag's imagining.
There are several good essays in WHERE THE STRESS FALLS. Most of these are concerned with the pleasure derived from beautiful, well executed and challenging works of art. In them Sontag's style is unpretentious and her tone is personal. It is only in the essays where her analysis is heavy handed, her references obscure, her vocabulary difficult, and her topic her own achievements that one begins to lose interest and even feel insulted. For the most fanatic Sontag admirer, the graduate student in cultural studies, or those looking to engage in mental debate with Sontag, this book is full of good stuff. Those looking only for interesting and accessible discussion or observations on good books, brilliant photography, and cutting edge dance should look elsewhere.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 21, 2001
Where the Stress Falls: Essays