by Gretchen Shirm
When I was younger, it happened all the time that writing changed me. This was because I had read so little, that everything I read seemed new and profound. When I was at high school, novels did this to me. Then it was short stories and poetry. Now, it is usually non-fiction. I read so much, it is rare that I read a piece of writing that has a world altering affect on me.
‘Against Interpretation’[i] was one of the few pieces of writing that changed everything for me. Specifically, it changed how I read and how I look at art. Never do I read a novel now without being conscious of the need to see the writing for what it is; I pay much more attention to words and sentences than to plot and content.
Susan Sontag in a bear suit. (Paris Review)
That the simple act of assigning meaning to a work might be to do it violence sounded revolutionary to me when I read this essay. I was therefore dumbstruck when I realised the essay was written before I was born. Sontag wrote the essay in 1964, at the height of modernism (shortly after Clement Greenberg’s famous essay ‘Modernist Painting’). In some sense, it was a response to the specific art movement of that time and is therefore in some senses dated. Sontag acknowledges as much in her essay ‘Thirty Years Later…’[ii]
In order to explain the effect this essay had on me, I have to convey my own version of it and in doing so, I am acutely aware of the irony of offering an interpretation of a text that derides interpretation. What I hope to do is to offer enough of a snapshot of it to explain the effect it had on me.
Essentially, what Sontag argues is that the role of the critic is not to convey what a work of art means, but what it is. Sontag begins the essay by observing that art was originally conceived by the Greek philosophisers as the interpretation of reality. Interpretation of art as an exercise, Sontag writes, is essentially reductive. It takes the elements of a piece of work and reduces it to less than the whole. In the act of interpretation, the text itself is altered, but the critic can’t admit that any violence is being done to the work and instead maintains that the act of interpretation discloses ‘its true meaning.’ (p. 6).
The tone of the essay is forceful, even polemic. Like much of Sontag’s writing, it entertains no alternate view. Her case is put so strongly, it is almost enough to ridicule any dissent into silence before it is spoken. That, I think, is part of Sontag’s particular appeal.
Interpretation, Sontag writes at her most fervent, is, the intellect’s revenge on art (presumably because the intellect is not capable of producing the work himself).
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. (p. 7)
And later this gem, ‘Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.’ (p. 8).
Her essential problem with the critics of her time was their focus on content and meaning over form. In accordance with this model of criticism, Sontag writes that A Streetcar Named Desire has been read as an allegory for the decline of western civilisation and the tank in Bergman’s The Silence, a phallic symbol (p. 9).
Abstract expressionism, Sontag tells us was a deliberate attempt to defy interpretation. It attempted to have no content, so that no meaning could be attributed to it. It was a direct response to the criticism of art. Instead, the artwork became, about the form, even about the paint. What Sontag wants from critics is more attention to form and style (her essay ‘On Style’ goes into more detail about what she means when she refers to these elements). Famously, Sontag concludes her essay with these words,
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (p.14).
Whilst I don’t agree with everything Sontag writes in this essay, it revolutionised the way I read and look at art. I no longer read ‘realism’ as an unmediated and seamless picture of the world, but as the use of language in a way that attempts to show the world as we see it. It has made me very aware of words, sentences and structure. When I look at a painting, I try to remind myself to look at the paint and brushstrokes and how the image has been formed by colour and lines.
It would be, I think, impossible to write about a work of art or a book at all without falling foul of some of Sontag’s rules. And to be unable to write about art or writing would be to significantly diminish our exposure to books and art. Good criticism, I think, pays attention to most of the tenets of Sontag’s essay and the work of criticism that gives a general appraisal of plot and pays no attention to style or form is of very limited value. I always balk at critical assessments that use metaphor in an effort to convey the work’s meaning – that is overstepping the critic’s role. Something essential, I think, to what Sontag is saying is that the artwork does and ought to be allowed to speak for itself.
When I am reviewing a book, I always repeat Sontag’s penultimate incantation to myself.
‘The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.’ (p. 14).
I try to remind myself that I must convey how, through words, language and sentences the text is what is. Having done that I cannot, however, claim to have always resisted the impulse to sometimes also say what I think it means.
[i] Sontag S (2009). Against Interpretation and other essays, Penguin Classics, Pp 4-13
[ii]Sontag S (1961). Where the Stress Falls, Penguin Classics, pp. 268-273
Second photo (C) Gretchen Shirm