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

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

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.

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