Fierce creature

The publication of a new collection of essays by Susan Sontag is not the monumental literary event it once would have been. In the 1960s, Sontag galvanized the literary world. Her notoriety rested on the novel fact (to her sexist society) that she was an attractive woman who was also an “intellectual.” But it was Sontag’s fresh perspective on late modernism—what we now call postmodernism—that gained her the attention of fellow intellectuals.

Today, however, Sontag’s ideas don’t exactly dazzle the intelligentsia. Everybody is sick of postmodernism; the whole enterprise seems to have been brought by a transnational corporation. Sontag’s dense, idea-laden prose probably reminds people too much of the meaningless jargon of the theorists who infest our universities.

And then there’s still the problem of her being a woman with a fierce intellect. When she criticized the media for treating the American public like infantile ninnies in the wake of 9/11, the reaction from the pundits was immediate. Sontag is a fifth-columnist, they cried. But by no stretch of the imagination did she speak in favor of the terrorists, nor did she even oppose military action against them. Because she didn’t join the lockstep she was deemed a traitor. Apparently, Thoreau was mistaken about all that different drummer nonsense.

Now, with her new Where the Stress Falls, we have before us a new collection of 41 essays that compile most of the non-fiction Sontag has published in the last 20 years. The collection is divided into three sections—Reading, Seeing, and There and Here.

Reading contains appreciations of such writers as Roland Barthes, Danilo Kis, W. G. Sebald, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Seeing covers her views on a wide range of exhibitory arts, including dance, film, photography and opera. Sontag’s best essays are found in this section, where she ponders why Pelleas et Melisande is the “saddest opera ever composed"; why we no longer feel any ambivalence toward Wagner’s “narcotic” music; and why, after a century of being modernism’s leading art form, the cinema has become winded.

Sontag’s worst writing belongs to the final section. Travel is one theme of There and Here, but Sontag also reflects upon her career as a writer and laments the collapse of internationalism among intellectuals. In a short, autobiographical essay that begins as an homage to the travel writer Richard Halliburton, Sontag explains that her early desire to become a writer was one with her desire to travel the globe (like Halliburton) and perhaps find her lost father who died in China when she was seven. One imagines the wonders a great personal essayist like James Baldwin could have done with this material, but Sontag drops the subject almost as soon as it is broached.

The exceptions to Sontag’s reticence are the two essays that detail the trips she made to Sarajevo during the Balkan War. Sontag trumpets these trips as heroic acts, which they were, but the sanctimony she exudes is apt to rankle anyone not absolutely convinced of her sainthood. Some will remember that Sontag staged a production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1993. This odd act of solidarity has always struck me as plain loony. One thinks of Walt Whitman bandaging the wounds of the dying soldiers during the Civil War. Sontag’s war efforts seem symbolic by comparison.

Nevertheless, many of the essays in this collection will give pleasure to any reader who is not afraid of the free play of ideas. Perhaps now that the mystique of Susan Sontag has dissipated, the author is more comfortable doing what she has always done best, namely, letting her readers stroll along the bustling avenues of her ideas.