Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation And Other Essays

Against Interpretation And Other EssaysUntil her death in 2004, Susan Sontag was the undisputed doyenne of American letters, her writings ranging over foreign policy, film, literature, art, photography and human rights with equal felicity. Her fame began with the publication of Against Interpretation And Other Essays in 1966, which was celebrated in its day and has never since gone out of print, so it’s fitting that this collection of essays serves as my introduction. Taken as a whole, they are very much of a piece with the revolutionary spirit of that decade. The titular essay famously denounced interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon art,” and ended by calling not for a hermeneutics but an “erotics of art.” She broke from many of her peers in championing the artistic merits of film and pop music, defending the “low brow” in her famous essay “Notes On ‘Camp.'” In many ways, Sontag was at the vanguard of a popular reform movement, one that looked with suspicion upon the old and established aesthetic standards and sought to elevate new mediums and artists.

Whether praising or condemning, she writes with genuine lyrical beauty; her opening paragraphs, in particular, are models of economy and metaphor for aspiring writers, as when she prefaces a discussion on Albert Camus by contrasting the qualities of husbands – reliability, intelligibility, generosity and decency – with the quality of lovers, who offer greater excitement and spontaneity at the expense of their “moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality.” Camus, argues Sontag, is the husband, and few men, as Sontag well knows, would content themselves with that description. “Neither art nor thought of the highest quality is to be found in Camus. What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of his work is beauty of another order, moral beauty, a quality unsought by most 20th century writers.” I love Camus, as Sontag does, but she is entirely correct. He is not Kafka or Joyce; we cannot love him as deeply as we love these two because there is nothing in him to inspire an equal hatred or revulsion. He is safe, moral, upright, a husband.

In her excellent short essay “Simone Weil,” she discusses the literary climate in the twilight of the 20th century:

There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering – rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond.

There is, I think, in this short aside, the kernel of what would become David Foster Wallace’s famous complaint about irony, that it had become “the song of the bird who has learned to love his cage.” An age that “only believes in the reality of sickness” looks with suspicion on truths presented earnestly, not couched in suffering or layers of absurdity. This is the foundational principle of post-modernism, which arrives at its truths (when it does) circuitously. In such muddy waters, irony thrives and affect flounders. From this perspective, the collection’s final essay, written 30 years after the others and assessing them from that perspective, strikes a less jubilant note.

To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to then as “popular” culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its complexities. When I denounced […] certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand (I was surely not the right person to understand this) was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing its credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries.

I first read this with painful recognition. The very idea of a substantive difference between works of art is now treated with suspicion, if not outright scorn. In the eyes of many modern critics, to make distinctions between writers is to impose your own standards on others, an imperialist sin, and any pretension to special knowledge or insight born from experience or, heaven forbid, innate gifts of intelligence or sensibility, is naked elitism.

Such is the current literary climate, at least in academia, and such is the wider resentment for “high” art. As Sontag puts it, we can and should have both The Doors and Dostoevsky, but any person, any culture, that cannot distinguish between the two to the benefit of the Russian is utterly lost.