Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049
In this collection of forty-one essays, published thirty-five years after the collection Against Interpretation launched Sontag’s reputation as one of the most important American intellectuals, Sontag reaffirms her commitment, as she says of the painter Howard Hodgkin, “to work on behalf of, in praise of, beauty.” Sontag comes not to bury but to praise what she has encountered in her travels through books, museums and galleries, darkened theaters, dance and music halls, and even foreign geographies, where she has sought out such exotica as garden grottoes and volcanoes. Although many of the individual essays take up and articulate the sensual and intellectual riches of a particular subject simply for the sake of celebrating its creation, the essay collection as whole can also be seen as a kind of apologia pro vita sua for Sontag’s own vocation as a consummate mental traveler who is “interested in everything,” and who has continually pursued what might be termed the voluptuousness of artistic experience and knowledge.
Although most of the essays are preoccupied with delineating the small and large pleasures of her aesthetic encounters, Sontag also shares her worries about what she sees as the threatening demises of what she holds most dear—books, the art of reading as the inculcation and nurturing of the inward self, high critical seriousness, the cinema, and even “the idea of Europe.” Moreover, while there are spirited defenses of modernism and modern art throughout the essays, the collection ultimately reveals Sontag’s investment in the Romantic ideal that art should be a vehicle for self-transcendence. Not all of the essays in the collection are equally strong, and there are quite a few of them that are too thin or too occasional—some pieces were originally written for gallery exhibition catalogues and performance programs, some are all too brief prefatory appreciations, and there is even one “note,” on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605-1615), written for a National Tourist Board of Spain catalogue. Moreover, much of the writing gathered here could be faulted for lacking the focus, power, and originality of Sontag’s earlier expository writings; nevertheless, quite a few of the essays more than amply demonstrate what Sontag believes emerges in the writing of Roland Barthes—“a vision of the life of the mind as a life of desire, of full intelligence and pleasure.”
By way of exemplifying the multiple levels of her aesthetic sensibility, Sontag has divided the collection into three sections, “Reading,” “Seeing,” and “There and Here,” each of which encapsulates a distinctive mode for encountering world culture: reading, seeing, and traveling. The first section, therefore, is mainly comprised of writing on literature in a variety of shorter and longer forms—critical essays and appreciations, as well as book forewords and introductions. As is typical with most of Sontag’s forays into literature, the emphasis is on the work of Continental writers, such as W. G. Sebald, Roland Barthes, and Danilo Kiš, and on lesser-known international writers. Only the title essay, “Where the Stress Falls,” an exposition of the modern techniques of narrative perspective in the novel originally written for The New Yorker, focuses on American writing—that of the little-known novelist Glenway Wescott as well as the more renowned authors Ford Madox Ford, Randall Jarrell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.
The essays in this section perform a variety of critical functions. In some cases, Sontag simply wishes to introduce the work of an author whom she feels has been little appreciated, and therefore she has included some short essays that originally served as prefaces in editions of an author’s work. For example, there is a spirited introduction to the little-known Latin American “masterpiece,” Memórias póstumas de Brás Cunas (1880), an imaginary autobiography by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, which Sontag believes is as noteworthy and “modern” as Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), and upon which she bestows the title of “greatness” because it is “one of those thrillingly original, radically skeptical books that will always impress readers with the force of a private discovery.” Likewise, she lavishly praises the storytelling talents of Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1918-1986) who, although famous in his home country in his lifetime and highly influential upon other Spanish-speaking authors, was relatively unknown in the United States until Sontag arranged for a new English translation of his novel Pedro Páramo (1955) in 1994.
In other cases, the appreciation of an author’s work is an occasion to articulate the pleasures and insights to be gained from slightly larger subjects. Therefore, in her introductions to prose works by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva and the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (“A Poet’s Prose” and “The Wisdom Project”), she is also writing about the importance of the role of “the poet as the avatar of freedom,” of literature as “soul nourishment,” and about the idea that, for writers who live in “lacerated” parts of the world, the recovery of historical memory is an ethical obligation. In the case of her essay, “A Mind in Mourning,” on the career of the late German novelist W. G. Sebald, already much lauded and admired in the world of literary letters, Sontag’s deeper subject, which comes very close to her own image of herself as a writer, is the writer as ideal promeneur solitaire—a mentally restless, relentlessly curious wanderer who is the citizen of no country and whose life is a series of tours and peregrinations through what might be called the interior cities of world culture. Finally, two of the essays in this section, “Where the Stress Falls” and “On Writing: Roland Barthes,” although ostensibly written in order to elucidate the literary enjoyments and human wisdom to be afforded by particular authors and works, are really extensive expositions of the art of writing itself and of the writer’s vocation.
“On Writing: Roland Barthes,” perhaps the strongest piece of writing in the entire collection, deserves special mention. Originally written as a preface to A Barthes Reader (1982) shortly after Barthes’s untimely death in 1980, the piece is both a eulogy for Barthes’s career as an eminent man of letters and cultural philosopher and a passionate exaltation of the vocation of writer as theorist of the mind. Although Sontag has never committed herself to writing an essay on a subject about which she is less than enthusiastic, it would be difficult to find another essay by Sontag as exuberant as this one in its admiration for its subject, whom Sontag asserts will one day appear “a greater writer than even his more fervent admirers now claim.” Much of what Sontag expresses here regarding Barthes’s style and aims as a writer could just as easily be applied to her own oeuvre. For example, she praises Barthes’s supple prose style as “recognizably French,” as well as “comma-ridden and colon-prone,” “idiosyncratic,” “fearlessly mandarin,” and “irrepressibly aphoristic,” all of which descriptions are characteristic of Sontag’s work as well. While the essay is largely at pains to carefully illumine Barthes’s important work as a semiologist and formalist critic and to explain his unique contributions to postmodern criticism, Sontag’s primary motive is the desire to put forward and defend the idea of a particular kind of cultural critic—in this case, Barthes, but she is clearly defending her own canon of work as well—as an artist whose supreme achievement is revealing the “mobility of meaning” and the “kinetics of consciousness.” Furthermore, Sontag uses her appreciation of Barthes’s career to defend a certain practice of writing—again, similar to hers—that is playful and sensuous, and that allows the author to project himself into his subject, thereby fulfilling what Sontag sees as France’s “great national literary project, inaugurated by Montaigne: the self as vocation, life as a reading of the self.” Although some, after reading this essay, might be discomfited by the self-aggrandizing gestures being played out upon the corpus of Barthes’s work—arguably, a far more important writer than Sontag—the essay is ultimately a moving evocation of not only one author’s life and work but also of the idea of writing as the loving embrace of subject and object.
The second section of the collection, “Seeing,” is perhaps the weakest in the book, mainly because many of the pieces were written to accompany art exhibits and theater performances and therefore are somewhat lacking in context. Occasionally they do not make sense at all without the accompanying visual references, as is the case with the rather cryptic and too elliptical (and sometimes silly) catalogue notes written for a 1989 exhibit at a London gallery that featured the American painter Jasper Johns’ Dancers on a Plane series. As always, Sontag is at her best when elucidating narrative art, and thus her essay on the German filmmaker Werner Fassbinder’s fifteen and one-half hour epic film, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1983), the plot of which she compares with Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899), is a lucid contemplation of cinema as a hybrid art that brings theater and the novel beautifully together. Likewise, her program essay for a 1987 production of Wagner’s operaTristan und Isolde, “Wagner’s Fluids,” is not only a smart literary explication of the opera’s plot through a close analysis of the functions of its fluids—water and blood, medicinal balms and poisons—but is also an occasion for Sontag yet again to laud the Romantic ideal of art as emotionally excessive, extravagant, and erotically troubling. When Sontag takes the time to explore pictorial art in exhaustive detail, as she does with the paintings by seventeenth century Dutch artist Gerard Houckgeest (“The Pleasure of the Images”) and modern American painter Howard Hodgkin (“About Hodgkin”), the results are a ravishing representation of the power of language to conjure up striking visual images and to illumine a painter’s vision. Other essays in this section treat the subjects of modern dance and American ballet, modern and contemporary photography, the avant-garde theater of Robert Wilson, and even the history of garden grottoes.
The final section of the book, “Here and There,” is quite possibly the strongest, representing some of Sontag’s most thoughtful explorations of what it means to be an intellectual, a writer, and a mental and actual world journeyer. “Homage to Halliburton,” which opens this part of the book, is Sontag’s loving (albeit brief) tribute to the American writer who first inspired in her, when she was seven, a desire to be a traveler and writer. Anther essay, “Questions of Travel,” also addresses the various junctures between writing, traveling, and the aesthetic life, and there are two essays, “The Idea of Europe (One More Elegy)” and“There’ and Here,’” which lament, respectively, the passing of “the Europe of high art and ethical seriousness” and America’s neglect of the situation in mid-1990’s Bosnia. Still other essays explore the nuances of what it means to be a writer and intellectual (“Singleness,” “Writing as Reading,” and “Answers to a Questionnaire”). Also included is a preface to a 1996 Spanish translation edition of Sontag’s first collection of critical writings, Against Interpretation (1966), in which Sontag appraises what she perceives to have been the strengths as well as the shortcomings of that earlier volume.
Additionally, there is an essay on the Russian poet and old friend Joseph Brodsky, as well as the reprint of a speech, “On Being Translated,” that Sontag delivered at a conference on translation held at Columbia University in 1995. The longest and most important essay Sontag includes here is “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” in which Sontag shares the story of her staging of Beckett’s play in war-ravaged Sarajevo and redefines what has always been her moral commitment to speak out against social injustice—in this case, genocide—and to do more than simply “bring the news to the outside world.” Ultimately, the essay reveals the power of art to bring solace, and even enlightenment, to the darkest corners of the world, while also illustrating Sontag’s commitment to embrace, in her life as well as in her work, the strenuous process of deracinement entailed in the vocation of the truly cosmopolitan and secular public intellectual.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 97 (August, 2001): 2077.
Houston Chronicle, September 28, 2001, p. 7.
Library Journal 126 (October 15, 2001): 76.
Publishers Weekly 248 (August 20, 2001): 72.
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