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August 13, 2014 / Southerly

Ink

by Angela Rockel

We crawled down into the dark and we waited

When I was a child I loved to take charcoal from the fireplace and grind it to paste with water to make ink. Its opacity fascinated me – I would hold the jar to the sun, tilting it to find the thin meniscus at the very edge of the liquid through which some light could find its way. It was the world of darkness in small; I could come nearer to it, hold it in my hand, touch its surface and watch the end of my finger disappear into its mystery. And I could find images there; I used it to write and draw and paint lines and washes in velvet-black and soft grey, with a brush made from a chewed twig and a pen cut from a kelp gull feather brought back from the beach. It was satisfying to find the materials I needed close at hand. Sometimes I added the purple juice of phytolacca berries that grew in a weedy corner of the garden, and which we children called deadly nightshade, though of course it is not.tannin river

Here in the valley of the Huon the inky water of the river, stained purple-brown-black by buttongrass tannin from the high country, reminds me of those experiments in depth and darkness. In places on the west coast of the island where rainfall is very high (as on the west coast of the South Island in New Zealand), huge volumes of fresh water, tannin-dark, pour off the land and create an opaque layer on top of the salt water of the sea, limiting available light – and so the deep comes nearer. Feathery sea pens, corals, sponges that usually live very far down move up to reefs and outcrops just metres below the surface.

I’m thinking about all this because it’s cold enough to light the fire each evening and my husband has begun to collect the silky-brittle logs of char that are left in the morning ashes after the stove has been shut down overnight. He’ll crush them and soak them in seaweed tea before adding them to the garden beds. Charcoal is porous – each piece becomes a little outpost like a sunken wreck that hosts a world of life, supporting bacteria and fungi that sweeten and fertilise the soil. And if the char is made in a fire that’s not too hot, it retains oils and tars – an aromatic chemistry of persistence which allows it to last and last in the ground, doing its work without breaking down.charcoal

All over the world, rich black earth can be found where people have settled and stayed; where they’ve lit their cooking fires and dug the charcoal into their gardens with the kitchen scraps and broken pots, with the liquor from their ferments and pickles and brews thrown in to bring it to life. It’s there under the streets of Roman London; it’s there in the terra preta of pre-Columbian Amazon settlements abandoned hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago, quietly regenerating itself in collusion with earthworms, while the leached, infertile soils around it slurry and bake in the tropical wet.

Days are still short; the sun grinds in its black bowl – shining chunks, our planets and moons against that dark. Some of my companions have gone there already – one breath then gone, sounding. Night rises and I step in – sometimes it’s all I have of them, this ink that swallows the world.

Out in the paddock a circle of sodden ash marks the place where the solstice bonfire, bone fire, took the year’s accumulation of everything that’s unassimilable and turned it airy, bright and dark, ready to go back under. Each year the flames unfurl their hands and the cold lump of the heart hisses and wails; in the embers everything speaks and sings in its own voice and that is the song. The bonfire’s a chance to hunker down together; we watch the sparks go up and let the smoke catch in our hair and clothes, breathe it in, let it wash around us. Against all evidence of the immensity of cold at our backs, we turn our faces to the spot of warmth and light we’ve made to signal our hope that, truly, after this night, once again our part of the earth begins to lean toward the sun.bonfire

Humans everywhere have their ceremonies to mark the turns of the year – fires lit from a splinter of last season’s wood, char and ashes ploughed into fallow ground or scattered among the growing crops. The black, the coals and dust, the body of ink, unknowable, from which the next thing can come. After winter, something can happen; the ground rises in steam like a dark loaf – lives come up, trumpets and bells from underground, out of this fabric which we have a hand in creating and to which we return, ourselves and all that we make and do, for better and for worse, out of our own necessities. This journal, for instance, these posts of char.seedling

Find Angela Rockel on her blog: http://onsilverhill.blogspot.com.au

August 6, 2014 / Southerly

Riddle

by Angela Rockel

Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.
Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects

There’s a memory I carried as a series of sensations, wordless, all through my childhood:

I’m looking at something that fills my visual field. It’s a surface, squarish, textured and undulating, patterned with lines. Around its edge it separates into projections – I discover that I can move the thing, turn it and find another side, a different texture.

Eventually words attached themselves to this experience – surface, line, projections, move – but it was twenty years or more before I put them together to make a story – an adult hand, my infant hand reaching to hold a finger.

Another memory – this one with words in it:

Bright colours, their soft edges on a flat field which can be moved, turned to show more. A yellow animal, a blue animal and words connect them. My sister knows the words, the same each time. I lean against her, feel her voice in the bones of my face and chest.

In time I learned book and page and read, and that sitting, being held, being told, looking at words and pictures was part of story.grendel

But being read to brought both comfort and danger – stories were full of violence, misunderstanding, betrayal. Malevolence and damage rode in on the bodily conviction of a voice. Rustem and Sohrab, father and son, manipulated, unknowing, fought in the dust between the camps of their opposing armies. Grendel and his mother erupted from their den beneath the lake. Relentless, my sister read on as the prince gave away even his eyes.

I wanted to read for myself, to find out whether or not stories would be more intelligible if I had control of the book. Impatiently I pursued the skill, though words and their fixed meanings didn’t match my world and left me feeling mysteriously askew; my moon and sun travelled backwards in their skies. Stories were interlocking collections of fixities that moved inexorably to their conclusions; they were artefacts, found items, inscrutable, finished. Stories were, as words seemed to be, closed.

Then when I was about seven, my mother gave me a prayer book filled with the wild laments and praise-songs of the old testament:

My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; He cuts me off from the loom.

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Deep is calling on deep in the roar of waters; Your torrents and all your waves swept over me.

Poetry showed me that fixity can be turned, unfolded; these voices spoke a response, had their say about the stories they were caught up in. I began to recognise that while language had created the world-view into which I was born – where experience was prescribed from outside by a monstrously capricious He – it also offered possibilities of resistance and change.

Divinities and the cultures they ratify are modes of (un)consciousness at play in language; consciousness widens with attempts in language to encompass styles of thought that are adequate to experience. As Rilke puts it, this stretching out is the process by which der Gott beraten sein (‘As once the wingèd energy of delight’) – from rat, read, riddle – this is how god works things out, takes counsel.

rilkeBut it’s a risky thing, to offer advice to a culture or a god, to seek a way to work with those inhuman voltages. Exhilarated as I was by the opening-out achieved by poetry, as a reading child I didn’t yet understand that the attempt to confront and reorganise received consciousness is costly, undertaken out of necessity. Anne Carson speaks about this cost in an essay on the poet Stesichoros. She says:

Born about 650 BC on the north coast of Sicily in a city called Himera, he lived among refugees … A refugee population is hungry for language and aware that anything can happen …

What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives… are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being … In the world of the Homeric epic, being is stable and particularity is set in tradition … Into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. [He] began to undo the latches … All the substances of the world went floating up … To Helen of Troy … was attached an adjectival tradition of whoredom already old by the time Homer used it. When Stesichoros unlatched her epithet from Helen there flowed out such a light as may have blinded him for a moment … (Autobiography of Red)

Temporarily or permanently, writing can be disabling. Escaping ‘the still surface of the code,’ the writer must tolerate exile and bewilderment within what theorists Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘foreign language within language’:

The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the ‘tone,’ the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people to come. (What is Philosophy?)

But first this ‘foreign language’ summons a self to come. As a young woman I wrote to make a song in the bleak standard English that was my inheritance as a mid-twentieth century New Zealander; I knew that this was possible because of the work of Janet Frame and others who wrote a particularity of place ‘unlatched from its epithets,’ in a syntax which stammered and sang. But in learning to do this for myself, I had to meet and come to terms with the existence of a non-standard cast of internal characters or modes who could make this local music, with whom I had till then been unfamiliar. I had to endure understanding that I didn’t know myself and I was panicked at times by what I learned.

The process of writing brings change, both freeing and frightening; it sends me out to practise a riddling conversation with the world that steps towards me each day, each night. Sensations – ‘rogue intensities’, as Kathleen Stewart calls them – bring me into a new relation, through thought and narrative and song, with ‘all the lived, yet unassimilated, impacts of things, all the fragments of experience’ which would otherwise be ‘left hanging,’ in the absence of this habit of attunement, of paying attention through writing.

The blog posts I offer in the coming weeks are part of this conversation – a winter suite in which things continue to unlatch from what I know about them and, looming close, emerge in all their strangeness. I touch, I turn things over, I wonder about them. I answer.

Works cited

Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. New York: Random House, 1999.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Rainer Maria Rilke. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Picador, 1982.

Kathleen Stewart. Ordinary Affects. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.

August 1, 2014 / Southerly

August monthly blogger – Angela Rockel!

A huge thanks to Gretchen Shirm for her excellent, interesting posts.

This month, our blogger is Angela Rockel. Her bio is below.

Rockel picAngela Rockel is a writer and editor who lives in southern Tasmania. Her poetry, articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in the Age, Australian Women’s Book Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Famous Reporter, 5 Bells, Hobo, Island, Jacket, Meanjin, RealTime, Salt, Siglo, Southerly, Southern Review, and a poetry collection, Fire Changes Everything, was included in the Penguin Australian Poetry Series edited by Judith Rodriguez.

Photo: Ngaire Green

July 30, 2014 / Southerly

Please come to the launch of issue 74.1!

It’s almost here! The new issue of Southerly, 74.1 Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse is at the printers and will be in our office in a fortnight’s time.

This issue considers how we think about the future in a time that doubts it will occur. It addresses the question of how culture retains its capacity to imagine possible futures in the face of multiple forces that threaten its existence: climate change, global war, the extinction of species. In local terms, Forward Thinking looks at how Australian literature imagines the world beyond present constraints and crises. The issues includes fabulous essays and non-fiction, as well as a wealth of poetry, short fiction, and reviews.

The issue is coming, but the time to plan a party is now. With that, we’d like to invite you to the launch of Southerly 74.1! There will be wine and nibbles, readings and general bonhomie, so please join us on Monday August 18th, at the University of Sydney, for a fabulous literary evening.

74.1 Launch Flyer

July 25, 2014 / Southerly

Questions of art in the novels of Siri Hustvedt

by Gretchen Shirm

I do not have a particularly visual imagination. I rarely ‘see’ the things that I write. More often than not, I hear the words. I’m never satisfied with anything I’ve written until it ‘sounds right’. This applies as equally to my critical writing as it does to my creative work. It’s almost like a process of tapping on a wall: for me any falseness will always be heard as I repeat the words to myself, rather than seen on the page. Perhaps this is why I find written descriptions of visual art moving. Sometimes more so than any visual encounter I might have had.

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The first time I thought about written representations of art was when I read Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved[i]. In that book, one of the characters, Bill Wechsler, is an artist and his characterisation is provided in large part through his relationship to his art. The novel opens with this arresting description of Wechsler’s Self Portrait:

It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand – a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moved up and down the streets of New York.

This painting is described from the perspective of Leo Hertzberg, an art historian, who acquires the painting and begins a life long friendship with the artist.

When I read What I Loved, I became fascinated with the idea of what happens when we ‘read’ art. Whether it is a reduced experience because we do not see the artwork itself, or whether it is paradoxically a more intimate encounter, because our focus is drawn in to aspects of the work we might have otherwise overlooked.

This painting (and others described in What I Loved) does not exist outside the novel. The ‘art’ itself resides in the writing, rather than in the painting. We are not ‘shown’ the painting, but we are given the description that Hertzberg gives of it. We see only what Hertzberg sees and our view of the painting is locked into his perspective. The description therefore says more about the character (and perhaps some of the novel’s thematic preoccupations) than it does about the artwork itself.

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Hustvedt’s subsequent novels also deal with questions of art and this is the overwhelming attraction of her novels for me. The way they contemplate art and attempt to capture the effect it has on us. How it shapes the way we live; her characters are disclosed through the way they interact with art. Her novels remind us that looking at art is a dynamic process. And somehow, the role art plays in her novels makes them richer, more experiential.

In some ways, because of the presence of art in Hustvedt’s novels, I find them truer to life. The moments when her characters contemplate art capture key moments of reflection that occur regularly in every day life but are difficult to record in novels, because of the need for narrative momentum.

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GS 4Siri Hustvedt’s books. Photograph Julien Klettenberg ©

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Hustvedt is also an accomplished art critic and essayist. She has written two books of essays on visual art, the first a book of essays on paintings The Mysteries of the Rectangle[ii]. In it, Hustvedt offers us this explanation of why she loves painting:

Hours may pass, but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can… A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.

The second is a collection titled Living, Thinking, Looking[iii] and many of these essays document her intimate relationship with visual art, her own interpretations of particular artworks and artists (she has an ongoing fascination with Francisco Goya, for example) and the way art works on us.

Hustvedt writes that art is what happens in the relationship between the viewer and the thing viewed. She writes, ‘Art partakes of the intersubjective because we do not treat it as just a thing, but as an object imbued with the traces of another living consciousness.’

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Photography has also played an important part in Hustvedt’s novels. In The Sorrows of an American[iv], for example, the main character Erik Davidson is pursued by a man who takes surreptitious photos of him and a woman with whom he is involved. The act of photographing a person without their knowledge is, Davidson observes, ‘an overtly aggressive act’. In fact, Davidson is terrorised by the man who takes these photographs and it is not difficult to see why: our image, particularly our face, is bound up with our identity and portrait photography is one of the few times we hand the control of our image over to another person.

A similar event occurs in Hustvedt’s first novel The Blindfold[v], in which the protagonist, Iris, is disturbed by a photograph that’s taken of her (by a man) in which her ‘face lacked clarity, in part because the light was obscured, but also because the expression I had was nonsensical, an inward leer or grimace that signified no definite emotion or even sensation.’ Iris feels violated by the image, because she does not think it accurately represents her.

Again, these photographs do not exist, except as they are written by Hustvedt and the offer key moments of stillness within the text, when we see her characters from the outside.

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In her most recent novel, The Blazing World[vi], the act of artistic creation is brought into focus. Specifically, the book is about female artists and the fact that people feel generally more comfortable labelling a work as ‘great’ if they can locate ‘a cock and a pair of balls’ behind it.

The novel is about the fictional artist Harriet Burden, a sculptor and new-media artist, whose art went largely overlooked early in her career, but who stages an art hoax, in having three men give their names to her work and of observing the (dismaying) reaction to it.

Hustvedt’s novel is riddled with references to philosophical explanations for art, but at its heart, the novel addresses the idea that female creativity is often very different to its male counterpart. When Burden creates art, it is not a mere intellectual exercise; her art is deep and personal, she pours herself into it. In a way, her art cannot be separated from her. Or as Hustvedt puts it, ‘…she pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns.’ What Hustvedt is suggesting in this novel is that a rethinking of how we assess art is required: how we value art must be extended beyond male conceptions of meaning to include female ones.

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Hustvedt’s writing acknowledges the way art affects us. That the moments we interact with art often coincide with key moments of understanding about ourselves and about how we fit into the world. We are rarely as ‘present’ and self-aware at any other moment as when we are observing art.

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Her novels capture the profound moments of stillness and contemplation that occur when we look at art; how the process of looking outwards, inevitably leads us back inwards.

[i] Hustvedt S (2007). What I Loved, Hodder and Stoughton

[ii] Hustvedt S (2005). Mysteries of the Rectangle, Princeton Architectural Press

[iii] Hustvedt S (2012). Living, Thinking, Looking, Picador New York

[iv] Hustvedt S (2008). The Sorrows of an America, Sceptre

[v] Hustvedt S (1992). The Blindfold, Sceptre

[vi] Hustvedt S (2014). The Blazing World, Sceptre

July 17, 2014 / Southerly

On the long novel and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

by Gretchen Shirm

The type of novels I like best are roughly around three hundred pages. There is something about the shape of narrative of that length of book that I find deeply satisfying. I think it is about the limitation that length imposes upon a writer – the narrative of the book has to be confined to that space, the novelist has to give more thought to what is left out and to silences. Silences, to me, are perhaps the most important thing about a novel.

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Silences ask me as a reader to think, to insert myself into the book and to speak back. There are usually fewer silences in a longer book.

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Many of my favourite novels are about this length – Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (288 pp), Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin (320 pp), Delia Falconer’s The Service of Clouds (322 pp), James Salter’s Light Years (308pp) and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (291 pp), for example. Many others are shorter.

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In a longer novel, the focus is necessarily more diffuse; the canvas is larger.

Recently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch made me think about the structure of the long novel and how it differs from the shorter one.

I’m always conscious when I pick up a longer novel of what else I could be reading in the same length of time. And perhaps, because of this, I demand more from the longer novel; I’m always conscious of the investment I am making in it.

I’m also very aware of the discipline of good writing – of the amount of material it requires a writer to throw away.

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Part of me also resents the assumption that a longer novel is, because of its length, somehow more substantial than a shorter one.

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From the moment I picked The Goldfinch up, I had to admit the book was riveting. Beginning with a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which the 13 year old protagonist Theo Decker survives the incident, but loses his mother. It covers the span of over a decade until Theo reaches his mid twenties. While leaving the museum in the confusion of the aftermath of the explosion Theo removes Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. The narrative is spun artfully around this missing masterpiece (in perhaps an ironic gesture, the painting itself is small). Theo’s guilt at having stolen the piece is meshed with his grief at having lost his mother in the same incident.

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In order for a long novel to work, it must take on an architecture that is fundamentally different to the short novel. It requires an overarching plot to give the novel its continuity, but it also requires various subplots to sustain its length. At 771 pages, what is remarkable about The Goldfinch is its single perspective, first person narrative.

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My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)

My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)

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What I was attuned to in reading The Goldfinch was the way in which Tartt places a number of narrative threads in the novel that she picks up at a later point and through this structure, gives the novel its momentum and overwhelming sense of cohesion and inevitability.

This pattern is created from the very first page when we read that Theo is in Amsterdam as he narrates the book and has been involved in some type of crime. From this point, he tells us about the explosion that killed his mother, working from that point back (as a thirteen year old) to where he is today (as a twenty six year old). Already, we know the book is moving back towards Amsterdam, which already provides the book with its momentum.

It was this sort of placing and picking up on of key characters that seemed key to the movement of the novel. This occurs with Theo’s father, from whom Theo is estranged when the novel opens, but later plays a crucial role in Theo’s development. It also occurs with his school friend Boris, whom he meets in Las Vegas and years later runs into Theo in a bar in New York (this was the only ‘coincidence’ that I found slightly jarring.)

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The second meeting with Boris divides the novel neatly in two. The first half of the novel has to do with Theo’s guilt about keeping The Goldfinch and his excruciating dilemma about whether to return it to the authorities. The second is in his effort to locate it after it is taken from him. With its two distinct parts, roughly covering Theo as a teenager and Theo as a young adult, The Goldfinch read to me like two novels in one.

Other elements include the three significant location changes in The Goldfinch: from New York to Los Vegas, back to New York, to Amsterdam. There is also a subplot about a man who tries to bribe Theo for the painting, another plot involving Theo’s fraudulent sale of several pieces of antique furniture and his betrothal to the sister of his childhood friend Andy Barbour, with whom he had lived after his mother died.

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Whereas in the shorter novel, everything is working towards a single point, in the longer novel, there is often the sense of many of its separate threads finally coalescing. In the longer novel, there is usually more plot, more story, more characters than in a shorter novel. In a way, the focus in the longer novel is necessarily on resolving many of the unruly elements of the book that have been introduced to sustain its length.

In the shorter novel, the gratification for me is more often an emotional one – in the intimate account I have been offered of a character, in coming to understand that character as a human being, I have also come to terms with a part of myself. In the longer novel, the satisfaction often, and certainly in The Goldfinch, comes from bringing together the many different characters, plots and subplots into a resolution of events.

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I do often admire the longer novel for its sheer scale and the ambition of its writer. The longer novel covers more surface area. Like The Goldfinch, it often involves a broader cast of characters, more locations and events and yet, sometimes I feel when the effort is on so many things, it is taken away from the smaller, subtler details. The smaller details, the finite observations about people, what they do and how they do what they do. The details that disclose a person; they tell us the things a character doesn’t know even about themselves.

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Sometimes, with a longer novel, I am in a way offered more, but I often find myself leaving with less.

July 11, 2014 / Southerly

Writing that changed my life: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation

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.

GS 2Susan 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).

GS 2 2Whilst 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

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