Where the Stress Falls: Essays, by Susan Sontag. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 288 pages. $25. BUY NOW


The stress falls on provocation. Not the slick, faux-conservative, forked-tongue provocation of contemporary cultural critique, but the provocation that attends bold assertion. Assertions like: Our standards of modernity are a system of flattering illusions . . . Life, when not a school for heartlessness, is an education in sympathy. . . Of course, history should never be thought of with a capital H . . .

Susan Sontag's assertions, on exhibit in Where the Stress Falls, a collection of essays from the last two decades, aren't gratuitously provocative; they're stylistically so. And style, by Sontag's own, forty-year-old proclamation, is the idea incarnate.

Most of the best ways to discuss Sontag's writing can be found in Sontag's writing. In subject and approach, she takes after no writer so much as Roland Barthes, whose sentences she describes here as "complex, comma-ridden and colon-prone, packed with densely worded entailments of ideas deployed as if these were the materials of a supple prose." She notes that his writing "reaches for the summative formulation; it is irrepressibly aphoristic." While the same can be said of her own sentences, Sontag achieves a different effect. It's elemental: Barthes was waterósad, "affable," and wise; one wants, as Sontag suggests, to pluck the epigrams from his prose and admire them as poetry. Sontag is fireóbrilliant and challenging, a "pugnacious aesthete." One is more inclined to contest Sontag's aphorisms, resist them, or accept them provisionallyóknowing, all the while, that she's mostly right.

And though she reaches for summation point by point, Sontag's most right formulation isn't an idea but an actionóthat of writing. She consistently articulates, defends, and embodies what she believes to be her responsibility as a writer, a "citizen of literature." Through these (largely unrelated) essays on artistic or cultural achievement, Sontag puts forth a manifesto, not about the nature of greatness, but about how to receive it, how to be an audience to greatnessóand the responsibility this entails.

"My idea of a writer," explains Sontag, is "someone interested in 'everything.'" In these essays, she repeatedly casts herself as the omnivorous observer. Reader: "A writer is first of all a readeróa reader gone berserk; a rogue reader; an impertinent reader who claims to be able to do it better." Seer: "Ordinarily I feel coextensive with my body, in particular with the command station of the head, whose orientation to the world (that is, frontality)óand articulationóis my face, in which are set eyes that look out on, into, the world; and it is my fantasy, and my privilege, perhaps my déformation professionnelle, to feel that the world awaits my seeing." Traveler: "It is understood that the journey is unending, and the destination, therefore, negotiable. To travel becomes the very condition of modern consciousness, of a modern view of the worldóthe acting out of longing or dismay. On this view everyone is, potentially, a traveler." Each of these three modes for receiving and interpreting world culture carries a section of the book. Accordingly, the section titles are "Reading," "Seeing" (which includes listening), and "There and Here."

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