Saturday, June 16, 2012

Susan Sontag and the stresses of reading

Books, the great American essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “are a way of being fully human”. This is a point of view that this site is of course very sympathetic to. Without books, we are more likely to be without history, without memory, without imagination, without good language, without that kind of skepticism or doubt that stimulates reflection and an appreciation of complexity. Books expand inwardness: the experience of them, in a hyperkinetic age full of carefully plotted and speeded-up 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, WhereThe 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, 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 he block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it.”) Like all the 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 own highly individual reactions to art, and able to reproduce its journeys in lithe, allusive prose.

Among the forty or so essays collected here, surely the most widely circulated and discussed was Sontag’s essay from 1996, “A Century of Cinema”. For Sontag cinema was the greatest contribution of the twentieth 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.”

But much as Sontag’s essay was a reprisal and a stock-taking of where the movies had gone over a hundred years, there was also something deeply elegiac and pessimistic about it. For Sontag, the nineteen-sixties and seventies 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 cynical formulae and 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 in the modern world and the expansion of private home viewing. “The reduction of cinema to assaultive images,” Sontag writes, “and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.”  These observations could profitably be applied to the story of Indian 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, in words, 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 poem or play few have ever heard of, for then it is the excerpt that persuades as much as the analysis. Sontag was an especially adept practitioner of quoting, and there are wonderful passages here from the work of such masters as WG 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.

And here is a wonderful essay on Sontag – both admiring and mocking – by the writer Terry Castle: "Desperately Seeking Susan."


Phil Greaney said...

An insightful and persuasive review - thanks, a pleasure to read.

I tend to agree in general with Sontag's notion of 'cinephilia' and the 'golden age' of the 60s and 70s. However, I wonder how far this represents a common human desire to undermine the art and culture of the next generation. An antidote to this is the study 'Everything Bad is Good for You', which demonstrates how television and film has become more densely rich and complex through some excellent examples.

In any case, I share your endorsement of Sontag's love of books: I'm leaving the French Alps (I'm from England originally) to live in New Delhi, which means - alas - saying goodbye to some of my books. I write on that here:

Best to you; thanks for sharing your thoughts


Pessimist Fool said...

I liked her comments. On 60s and 70s being peak of cinema, I have seen quite a few people remarking that. To an extent, it may be because then they too were at their prime and obviously one feels more for that time in life. I agree that we hardly hear about any director being in the same league as Fellini, Kurosawa, ray, Bergman. But there are many films today which are as good as films in 60s n 70s. But yes not many directors have been able to produce that kind of body of work.