The operational value system that emerges over the course of the collection becomes a mandate, a challenge. The audience has responsibilities, passionate admiration foremost among them. "Admirationóno, venerationófor a host of books had brought me to my vocation, on my knees."
Sontag admires W.G. Sebald's nobility, Adam Zagajewski's self-understanding, Witold Gombrowicz's rebellion. The surprisingly scholastic close readings she performsóof a Machado de Assis novel, or a Gerard Houckgeest paintingódemonstrate by example that reading and seeing are active, and that engagement rewards. As always, she champions lesser-known writers, forcefully reminding us why they shouldn't be neglected. And though her tightly focused and antirhetorical essays sometimes leave one with nary a clue as to their point, they invariably also leave one with the urgent desire to read the book or see the painting, play, dance she describes. Her passion evokes that urgency.
"Beauty," explains Sontag, is "first of all, an art of refusal." Sontag refuses, or eschews, traditional rhetoric (the art of convincing, the devil's muse). She favors an open-ended, discursive structure. As we hop from one stepping-stone to the next in the jungle of Sontag's formulations, it's not that we can't follow (for the direction is entirely rational); she just doesn't pave the way. We are accustomed to having a tour guide through treacherous terrainóto being led by the familiar hand of rhetorical structure (a notion identifiable here by virtue of its absence). Follow if you dare! is Sontag's siren song. More precisely, follow because you care.
A series of incidental pieces composed over twenty years for a number of publications on a variety of subjects, the collection is predictably uneven. Its sustaining interest ebbs and flows depending on the degree to which a reader shares Sontag's eclectic taste. As one might expect, the article on grottos for House and Garden is frilly; the tribute to Lincoln Kirstein for Vanity Fair is linear; the New York Times piece is uncharacteristically digestible; the many prefaces assume the reader has immediate access to the images or texts being discussed. The outstanding essays are "Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo" and "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes," both of which are definitive and awe-inspiring.
Of the three sections, "There and Here" deserves special mentionóbecause it's the most beautiful and fully realized and because travel is the least self-evident mode of receiving. A luminary on the global culture junket, Sontag has been on government-catered propaganda tours and self-styled missionsóto Communist China, to the Soviet Union and its "satellites," to Bosnia repeatedly throughout the '90s, as well as to traditional tourist destinations. These experiences have left her with stern notions about crusades: "Whatever your tug of sympathy, you have no right to a public opinion unless you've been there, experienced firsthand and on the ground and for some considerable time the country, war, injustice, whatever you are talking about." The same edict holds true for romanticized notions and forbidding stereotypes about foreign lands.
Travel is seeing, understanding, interpreting. Here we begin to feel the breadth of Sontag's years, not as wisdom but as an amassed and relentless engagement. "Travel," she writes, "is filling the mind."
Minna Proctor's translation of Federigo Tozzi's Love in Vain: Selected Stories was recently published by New Directions.