Stories are seen, lived or told. Susan Sontag's Where The Stress Falls reminds its reader that seeing, living and telling are not simple acts. This academic yet personal collection of essays –- most of them reprinted from articles, speeches and book prefaces -- are challenging, insightful, rhapsodic and questioning, depending on the article.
Sontag's theme is memory, reflection, narrative trustworthiness, author self-awareness and rationalizations, and how these affect the artist's creation of art and the reader/spectator's experience of the work of art. She writes primarily of literary works, but also mentions film, dance, photography and the art of travel. She delves into the conscious –- for the self-aware and honest artist -– and unconscious -– for creators and viewers who are less inclined or less aware –- personal and cultural models that affect our engagement with art.
Since most of the essays are written about art, the experience of reading Where The Stress Falls is like hearing a stranger describe a friend she loves but whom one may or may not be familiar with. Sontag's interpretation of Wagner's Fluids, for instance, will bring a twinkle of insight to the eye of anyone who knows Wagner's operas. Sontag's comment, "In Wagner's misogynistic logic, a woman who characteristically doubles as healer and seducer is often the true slayer" would help deepen a Wagner fan's understanding of his operas, which it no doubt did as a program essay for the Los Angeles Opera Production of Tristan and Isolde. But for those readers who know nothing of Wagner or Tristan, the essay might bring some enlightenment on opera or Wagner in general. Sontag manages to explain these creatives in a helpful manner so one is not completely lost. But the overall effect of this book written about different artists is to either make the reader search the book for an essay on some creative work or person they know or become a dilettante who learns a little of this and a little of that and ends up being generally enlightened about seeing and interpreting.
Which is probably not so bad. In Where the Stress Falls, Sontag rhapsodizes or challenges several writers whose works were treasures of clarity, self-awareness, cultural-awareness, intellectualism, creativity or truth -- writers such as Glenway Westcott and Gombrowiz. Neither of these writers were previously known to me, but Sontag's description of their works certainly is an invitation for me to put them on my "To Do" list.
Her writing style is primarily academic and intellectual and is often witty in a subtle way. But some of the essays, "Singleness," "Thirty Years Later," and "Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo," are less formal, more personal, and manage to bring the reader closer to Sontag. The book shines when Sontag gives her readers a historical or cultural overview of a particular artist. And sometimes the book fails even as it shines. For instance, when Sontag discusses the notion of photographs as giving opinions —- even if the photographer is not aware of giving such opinions -- she uses the concept of female beauty to prove her point. Her point is brilliantly proven. Julia Cameron, famous female photographer, seemed to see women only as objects of beauty. A beautiful woman was the height, so to speak, of female achievement. Sontag shows how common this is in the world. She even shows Cameron's underlying subtle racism by mentioning that Cameron stopped photographing "beautiful women" when she left England, presumably because no beautiful woman existed outside of the western hemisphere. But here is where Sontag fails: she continues to speak of the Western world's definition of women –- weak, frail, unmasculine, pure -– as if that definition was always used for all women in the west. Surely, Sojourner Truth's great speech, "Ain't I a woman?" tosses such a description of femininity out the window, because black women were never seen as frail or objects of beauty in need of protection? And so, although Sontag tries to be inclusive and even comments on writers from Latin America, most of the essays –- and the worldview they represent -– are primarily dedicated to writers who fit into the dialectics of the Western Canon. Even in her travels, her wanderings are primarily Euro-centric.
But these are small quibbles. Her essays concern not the multicultural America that is being created or soon will be but the culture Americans inherited, with the mental preoccupations, poses, and priorities of writers and intellectuals of that culture. It does a good job of showing how that culture thought, and more importantly how they hid their thoughts, from themselves and their readers —- even though those hidden thoughts were in plain sight for those who had eyes to see.