“Against Interpretation” and other essays, by Susan Sontag

It’s a little intimidating to try to comment upon this essay collection. Its first two essays–“Against Interpretation” and “On Style”–are so fascinating and so lucid that I am afraid my commentary can only impose a gloss of half-understood meaning on top of Sontag’s clear structure. After reading these first two essays, I was convinced that I was reading a work of literary criticism that was like nothing else that I had read: a work where it was actually possible to understand what the author was trying to say.

If any of you have tried to read a French theorist, then you know what I mean. They’re interesting as all hell, but you’re never quite sure that you’re “getting it” (unless you have a professor to walk you through it…but then there’s a persistent fear that he’s misinterpreting it for you). These two essays don’t have that problem.

The first makes a fairly straightforward case against the act of imposing an interpretation upon a text. As Sontag says: “For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else.”

As an example, she cites the work of Kafka, which she says:

“…has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God.”

Sontag’s objection is that interpretation destroys our understanding of the text. When we see The Castle as an allegory for totalitarianism, those rather simplistic metaphors systematically undermine the complexity of what Kafka has written. In the end, we come away from a text feeling satisfied at “getting” it and dissatisfied that what we’ve “gotten” is so trite.

In contrast, Sontag proposes that if there is to be any literary criticism, it should be a criticism that describes the form or the appearance of the work of art. Criticism should be more about the experience of reading a book and less about the ideas that pop up in our head after we’re done reading it.

 

In the second essay–“On Style”–Sontag takes on that old whipping horse, the antithesis of style and content. You’ll have to forgive me for groaning a little when she began the essay. I’ve heard numerous SF critics (Mamatas, Duncan, and Delany) explain how style is not simply something that is layered on top of content and how books are really nothing but style.

Sontag has clearly heard the same thing, though. The first paragraph of the essay is:

“It would hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. Everyone is quick to avow that style and content are indissoluble, that the strongly individual style of each important writer is an organic aspect of his work and never something merely ‘decorative.’

“In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. It is not so easy, after all, to get unstuck from a distinction that practically holds together the fabric of critical discourse, and serves to perpetuate certain intellectual aims and vested interests which themselves remain unchallenged and would be difficult to surrender without a fully articulated working replacement at hand.”

The essay goes on to examine various ways in which our literary discourse perpetuates the notion that style and content are separate. For instance, when critics praise a book, despite what they call its crude or careless style. Or when someone says that a style is “ornate” or “flowery”–as if the style is a decoration that is being put on top of some otherwise pellucid object (the content)

Sontag then speaks about the function of “content”–why, to some critics, the notion of content cannot be easily abandoned.

This then segues into an old argument about the purpose of art. Most aestheticians fall (it seems to me) into one of two camps. There are those who believe that art’s only duty is to be beautiful (Oscar Wilde, Sontag) and there are those who believe that art should fulfill some moral purpose (Tolstoy, John Gardner). To Sontag, content is the surface gloss and style is the deep interior of a work of artwork. She writes:

“In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation.”

Art’s subject-matters are merely objects that are being subjected to some kind of transformation or disfigurement by the artistic work. The process of transformation is the interesting thing about the work; not the object of transformation. Clearly, the best examples of this are avant-garde works. Proust’s novel is about high society in fin de siecle France, but that’s almost beside the point. His novel could be about any milieu and any set of characters; what’s more important is how he describes his subject matter in a way that the reader has never before experienced. The primary thing that a reader will take from Proust is not some knowledge about French culture; it’s a new way of looking at the world and a new way of experiencing his or her own life.

 

These essays will be red meat to anyone coming from a science fiction background. I get the feeling that we’re all pretty anti-litcrit out here in the sci-fi world. And we’re particularly anti the whole “this stuff is symbol for some other stuff” kind of literary criticism, because that sort of litcrit ends up being hopelessly reductionist re: the whole SF/Fantasy enterprise. I mean, I’m consistently shocked by the extent to which spaceships are actually just ships that fly through space and dragons are actually just huge monsters that breath fire. I mean, maybe they do have some deep psychological meaning, but that’s not the primary way that they’re understood by SF readers. If SF/F tropes were primarily symbols, then I don’t think we’d have the phenomenon of people getting all bent out of shape because the science is wrong or because the magic system isn’t internally consistent. For instance, in literary criticism, I don’t think anyone ever worries about whether the Very Old Man With Enormous Wings from the Marquez story has hollow bones or whether his wingspan is actually large enough to generate sufficient lift. Which is not to say that SF/F tropes aren’t more than monsters or inventions…it just means…hey, you know…this shit is pretty complicated. It’s not easily understandable. If we could explain it, then we wouldn’t actually need to read the book, would we?

Anyway, after reading the introductory essays I was totally revved up for the rest of the book. When a person throws down a gauntlet and essentially says, “All of you other literary critics are doing it wrong,” I expect the following essay collection to be full of examples of How To Do It Right.

But it wasn’t. Actually, she sidesteps the whole literary criticism angle: none of the subsequent essays is about a novel; most are about films or the theater.

Still, I enjoyed the collection alot. I particularly enjoyed her spirited defense of the avant-garde. In literature, no one pays very much attention to the avant-garde. And Sontag is quite contemptuous of that state of affairs. She considers the novel to be a stale form, as compared to film or music or painting (in the last of these, the avant-garde has almost entirely taken over the form).

My favorites amongst the rest of the essays were “The imagination of disaster”–an essay about the way that science fiction films imagine apocalyptic scenarios–and her most famous essay, “Notes On Camp”–a description of the celebration of the kitsch and celebration that seems to have, with the recent entrenchment of hipsterism, become a permanent part of our culture.

But, for me, the most influential essay was one where she attempted to explicate the genius of Jean Luc Godard’s film Vivre sa vie. I have absolutely no idea what she was trying to say with this essay. I can understand the words, but I don’t understand how her final argument proceeds in any way from what she’s written. I even went and watched the film to see if I’d understand better afterwards. I did not. The essay is, to me, impenetrable. However, the film was excellent and made me think that perhaps these arty French flicks might have a little to teach me.

%d bloggers like this: