Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sontag's "Against Interpretation"

When Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” was first printed, I was highly sympathetic. With an anti-academic literary heritage I regarded as descending from Pound to Rexroth to me, I used to ridicule the PMLA and declare that my only interest was poetry, not literary criticism. Yet a good share of my favorite books had been critical: Pound’s ABC of Reading, Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry, Miller on Rimbaud, and Nabokov on Gogol. I loved the very different oeuvres of Edmund Wilson and Northrup Frye and learned from Blackmur and Brooks. In addition I particularly fancied essayists from the past including classic critical statements from the likes of Plato, Longinus, Sydney, and Shelley. I was not, I suppose, as much concerned with consistency as I was an admirer of Sontag’s originality, passionate engagement, and scintillating insights. And how could I resist a writer who calls for an “erotics of art”?

Recently rereading the essay for the first time in a half century, I felt again admiration for her insightful comments and her bravura rhetoric, even as I demurred from what still seem to me her polemic overstatements. She makes no secret of her partisan attitude and feels little need to justify her use of words like “obtuse,” “onerous,” and “insensitive” to characterize her antagonists.

Her basic point is a familiar one and one dear to Romantic suppositions: that criticism is a lesser parasite on the body of literature. Sontag points out quite correctly “to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world,” and then proceeds into metaphorical territory, adding that, apart from being “reactionary” and “stifling,” it “poisons the sensibility” rather like “the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry.” She evokes rape by calling interpretation an “assault” which “violates” art. Worst of all (in the eyes of the aesthete, at any rate), it is “philistine.” When I first read her argument, I greeted it with pleasure as a challenge to the academic mandarins and, at the least, as a passionate cri de coeur from the radical caucus.

Yet the essay has the typical polemic’s flaw of rhetorical hyperbole. The fundamental logical problem is that Sontag fails to take into account that every written text, indeed, every perception, is similarly a reductive interpretation. If deconstruction has left no other useful lessons, it has revealed the inevitable inadequacy of language with high ambitions. Even Shakespeare must always settle for a part of the truth about love or government or death or god or the bird in the tree. Yet this does not mean that one should remain silent. The viewers of Macbeth appreciate not that its author has settled all questions but that he has enriched their partial vision with his own. Sontag indicates her awareness of this when she declares that Nietzsche was correct when he said “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and she promises to focus more clearly on a particularly pernicious form of interpretation, but after suggesting that she cares little for allegory (surely a rare bird these days), she tends to return repeatedly to the condemnation of any discussion of literary theme.

Furthermore, she takes no account – though she herself is surely making aesthetic decisions while writing a theoretical essay – of the potential for beauty, for literary quality, in works that might be called interpretative. Who would deny the place in the canon of Johnson’s or Hazlitt’s essays on the English poets, or of Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, or Woolf’s The Common Reader. Interpretive and critical writing may rarely achieve Parnassos, but probably no more rarely than works of poetry, fiction, or drama. Undeniably, in the same way that a critic may be a poet as well, interpretation may be at the same time literature.

That imperfect link between lived experience and the writer’s words never vanishes. Literature, while far from simple mimesis, always retains a relation, however tenuous, symbolic, transformed, and refracted, of what seems the experience of the external world. No single text, not even the accumulation of all texts, can be adequate to fully describe reality, yet each written record contains shards of truth. Criticism is simply literature primarily concerned with the author’s reading experience, no more different in theory from other forms of literature than stories about the sea or about love.

However I may demur from some of her sweeping conclusions, it also seems to me that Sontag was prescient (she does call art “magical”) in even an error. She thought that cinema, along with Pop and abstract art, were more or less immune to criticism, an error arising from perspective, as recent trends would have inevitably been the focus of fewer commentators. Sontag was incorrect, of course. University students who enroll in film courses thinking they will be easy find themselves buried under post-structural rhetoric and blinded by obscurantist terminology. Sontag must have observed in her later years that the “cultural criticism” so widespread today, though eager to analyze the least of cultural phenomena, seeks to discount aesthetic and appreciative considerations, what Sontag called “really accurate, sharp, loving description” in favor of a hunt after themes, for meanings, for “allegory” in Sontag’s usage. Among the most reductive of readings, those that truly impoverish the text, are produced by gender critics, new historicists, and soi-disant Marxists who approach quite closely the sort of simple-minded “decoding” she was attacking. Her call for an “erotics of art” looks in a way more attractive and necessary today than it did a half century ago, if only as a corrective.

If that judgement is also an interpretation, then the reader must take Sontag’s essay as an interpretation as well, and applaud not her quasi-scientific “research” but instead her creation of a memorable work of art strong enough to elicit a passionate response more than fifty years after its composition. Better evidence could not be adduced for the vigor of the characteristically human habit of interpretation.

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