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Ways of seeing

Ways of seeing
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First Published: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST

Last words: Sontag, who lived in New York, died in 2004 at age 71. AFP
Last words: Sontag, who lived in New York, died in 2004 at age 71. AFP
Updated: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST
Where The Stress Falls | Susan Sontag
Books, celebrated American essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote—and the books page of a newspaper is the place to be repeating this—“are a way of being fully human”. Without books, we are more likely to be without history, without memory, without imagination, without good language, without that kind of scepticism or doubt that stimulates reflection and an appreciation of complexity.
Last words: Sontag, who lived in New York, died in 2004 at age 71. AFP
Books expand inwardness: The experience of them, in a hyperkinetic age full of carefully plotted stimuli, is tantamount to a kind of meditation. Before there is a book, there must be a reader—a mind that has the space in it for the experience of extended connection with a book. “By books, I mean the conditions of reading that made possible literature and its soul effects,” Sontag writes in an essay, wondering if books will survive the assault of our “advertising-driven televisual reality”.
Here, undoubtedly, is a combative and adversarial thinker with a very high-minded view of reading. But as the pieces in Sontag’s final collection of essays, Where the Stress Falls, demonstrate, the truly remarkable thing about Sontag (1933-2004) was not so much the gravity of her pronouncements as the range and catholicity of her interests. Where the Stress Falls contains essays on books, films, music, dance, art and photography, each one of them a felicitous combination of close interpretation of particular works and larger arguments about the history of the medium itself. This high view of multiple art forms informs all of Sontag’s work, generating rapid cross-connections (“As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it.”) Like all great critics, Sontag brought to her work a combination of perspicacity and personality: The erudition of a trained and subtle mind applying itself to a careful observation of its highly individual reactions to art, and able to reproduce its journeys in lithe, allusive prose.
Among the 40 or so essays here, surely the most widely circulated and discussed was Sontag’s essay from 1995, A Century of Cinema. For Sontag, cinema was the greatest contribution of the 20th century to the corpus of human art forms, a form rooted first and foremost in a wonder “that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy”. There was something total about the cinematic experience. “Lovers of poetry or opera or dance don’t think there is only poetry or opera or dance,” she writes. “But lovers of cinema could think there was only cinema.”
Where the Stress Falls: Penguin,358 pages, Rs599
But much as Sontag’s essay was a reprisal and a stocktaking of where the movies had gone over 100 years, there was also something deeply elegiac and pessimistic about it. For Sontag, the 1960s and 1970s represented the peak of what she termed “cinephilia”—a highly informed, highly personal love of the movies held by a substantial number of aficionados committed not just to films, but to film-watching in a darkened theatre, so that they might be overwhelmed “by the physical presence of the image”. But over time, this cine system had been broken down on the supply side by the simplifications of capitalist production, which had eliminated the tension between cinema as industry and cinema as art, and on the reception side by the sheer proliferation of images and the expansion of private home viewing. These observations could profitably be applied to the story of India’s own popular cinema.
Perhaps the first skill of the good literary critic is knowing how to quote—that is, knowing how to supply the part that will rouse in the reader a need for the whole. Attention to a work of verbal art involves stepping back at times and letting the work speak for itself. This becomes especially important if the essay is an argument for the beauty of a novel or a poem or a play few have ever heard of. Sontag was an especially adept practitioner of quoting, and there are wonderful passages here from the work of such masters as W.G. Sebald, Witold Gombrowicz and Adam Zagajewski. Where the Stress Falls is not just eloquent invitation to the pleasures of reading, of watching, of inwardness, but itself an incarnation of some of these pleasures.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST