Pillars #5. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

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Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I can no longer remember when I first heard the name “Susan Sontag,” but as far as I can remember, that name has always had an absolute omnipresence combined with a weightiness that simply could not be ignored. Even before I really knew who she was of what she did, I knew that she was as important and as intellectual as you could get.

The first thing I read by her was On Photography, which I think was in 2003. I’m sure a lot of it went right over my head at the time, but I got the basics of the book and I remember finding it easy to read and liking it very much.

Around that time I also read In America—the National Book Award impressed me, and I was curious to see what Sontag’s intelligence looked like in fiction. I recall being rather baffled by the book, liking certain stretches but never really figuring out what made Sontag want to write the book or what it was all about.

Through the years that followed, I would find myself renewing my acquaintance with Sontag. She’s such a capacious, wide-ranging author that it seems difficult to read her systematically, so it seems that I just read her as chance and inclination contrived to make room for her.

Perhaps this explains why it took me so long to read what is possibly her best-known, and maybe just plain best work: the essay “Against Interpretation.” This essay hit me like nothing else of her had ever hit me. It was really one of those transcendent reading experiences where it’s like you’re under a spell; and I read it with that energy of true engagement, where virtually every sentence gave encouraged me to continue the argument in my head in several different ways at once. It was an essay that deeply influenced how I wrote, that showed me new ways that I might try to write essays, new techniques and tricks I could try out. I wrote at least one essay in clear imitation of it.

One of the things that I love about “Against Interpretation” is how it stretches back, to the very, very beginning. Its very first words are, “The earliest experience of art . . .” This is such a bold and, frankly, risky way to begin an essay, but it works for Sontag, because what she wants to talk about can withstand that sort of a context. This isn’t some overwrought rhetorical flourish . . . she makes a very good case that the thing she’s arguing goes back to our earliest thoughts about art.

Of course Sontag does not know what the earliest experience of art was like. Nobody knows what it was like. And yet she writes about it. She uses hedging words like “must have been” and “seems to have,” and these are the essayistic equivalent of sleight of hand, ways of saying things that you know to be true, despite the fact that you would come off as laughable and ridiculously pompous if you simply stated them as such.

What is Sontag talking about in this introductory section of her essay? She is talking about the idea that art is mimesis, that it is a representation of something that exists in the world. This theory of art, she tells us, has never seriously been challenged in all of the thousands of years of Western art since the Greeks first proposed it. The reason she brings this up, she says, is that mimesis requires that art justify itself (another sleight-of-hand: she never goes in to why this is, she just casually asserts it and moves on). And once you enter the realm of justification, you begin to talk about benefit, purpose, things like that, and you can never reclaim that innocent approach to art that you had before the discovery of theory. And this is the original sin of the art world: now art must justify itself, it must be interpreted. Sontag is writing against the idea of interpretation. She is trying to write against this experience of art.

Already there is so much that is impressive about this essay. To begin with, in just under three pages Sontag has taken us from the origins of all Western art to the present day, zeroing in on what may be the problem of all art. She has revealed the container that art exists in, and she has implied that there is some way to escape it. She has convinced us (or at least made us willing to consider) that there is a blind spot in all of our experiences of art.

It is said that good fiction requires the suspension of disbelief, and the same is no less true of essays such as this one. These three introductory pages have taken us into the world of the idea that Sontag is proposing. Like a skilled novelist she has given us just enough information to make this world live in our minds, to make her view of art and what has gone wrong with it exist for us. Even if only for an hour of our lives, Sontag’s argument about the original sin of art feels true, and this is essential to getting us to read the essay, to give it the gravity Sontag wants to invest in it, to make us feel why she is so passionate about getting rid of interpretation. There is scarcely a difference between this and the opening incident that proposes a lifelike character whose dilemma we cannot help but be fascinated by. This is when abstract intellectual debates begin to feel emotional and important, the way the ticking time bomb in a Hitchcock movie feels important. And Sontag does it so well here.

Another thing that is essential about this essay are the asides. Here are a few of them: “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”; “interpretation makes art manageable, conformable”; “our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”; and, of course, the most famous: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

It must be said that remarks like these, as brilliant and as inspiring as they are, are not easy to fit into an essay. They often stick out, disrupting the flow of the argument, sounding silly in the wrong context, simply taking you out of this suspension-of-disbelief that Sontag has so carefully constructed. Even reading them in this blog post, so out of context, they sound so less interesting than in the course of Sontag’s essay. Remarks such as these must be carefully fitted into their place, or else they must be abandoned (perhaps to be worked in to some other essay). What I’m saying is, it’s not easy to make these sorts of things work—these are the darlings you’re told to kill. It is impressive that Sontag can get so many into this piece, and that she can make these feel as though they are native to the flow of the essay, a flow that she has be so careful to establish and sustain.

“Against Interpretation” is scarcely 11 pages long, but it took me 45 minutes to read for the first time. (I know, because at the bottom of it I wrote, “45 excellent minutes.”) There you have it: it is a piece that retards your progress, that makes you linger over it, expanding it with your own thoughts, pondering the possibilities, simply reveling in its grandeur. And it is an essay whose main point has always stuck with me, whose question has always remained a question that I take with me when I experience art. How many essays do you remember the last line of? How many essays stick in your mind and condition your experience of art?

Excerpt from The Surrender

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There’s a book that I wrote called The Surrender that will be publishing from Anomalous Press on March 31, 2016. It’s launching at this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, so you can get it at the Anomalous Press booth then, or in bookstores, etc thereafter.

If you would like an advance look at this book, some of The Surrender was excerpted at Entropy yesterday. (I also wrote a little about The Surrender in this post from November).

The book began its existence in the fall of 2014 when I published “The Last Redoubt” with The White Review. At the time I thought that essay was going to be the end, but early in 2015 I was presented with the opportunity to expand that essay into an entire book. So I added an essay that goes before “The Last Redoubt” and one that goes after it, thus forming a triptych of essays. The first essay deals with aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood—basically things leading up to the events depicted in “The Last Redoubt”—and then the third essay deals with the past few years, that is, things that happened after the events in “The Last Redoubt.”

The excerpts found at Entropy come from essay number one. You can read them here.

Translation Issue of The White Review

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Daniel Medin has once again edited a fantastic translation-themed issue of The White Review. You can find the full table of contents here. I’ve got a rundown of some of the highlights below, but before I get to that, thought I’d mention that Daniel and I are collaborating on a little something set to hit later this year. Details forthcoming.

Galina Rymbu: a remarkable young Russian poet (check Music & Literature for a feature on her own the line). “Sex Is a Desert” is an outstanding poem.

Liliana Colanzi: a Bolivian writer who is likely to attract some serious attention over the next couple years. Dalkey will be publishing a collection of her stories this year.

Li Er: Like Can Xue, this author takes Chinese fiction to new places.

Monika Rinck: Along with Uljana Wolf, a very interesting younger poet working in German.

Wioletta Greg: Part of a novella (the title is literally “Unripened Fruit”) that Portobello will be publishing down the line.

Esther Kinsky: She generated a reputation for stunning translations, and now she’s rising as a writer. Fitzcarraldo will publish her By the River in 2017.

Nir Baram: Reputedly “the Israeli Musil.”

Wolfgang Hildesheimer: a more or less forgotten genius, whose extraordinary biography of Mozart made waves when it was published. Hildesheimer knew everyone, read everything, translated Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. 2016’s his centennial year.

Books That I’ve Had Memorable Conversations About, 2015

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I thought it would be an interesting addition to my favorite reads of 2015 to make a list of some of the books I’ve had the most memorable conversations about.

Sometimes even if a book doesn’t work as a whole, there can be a very memorable, impacting section in it, or even just a single extraordinarily pregnant image, which can often be easier to process in a conversation than an entire book. Other times books have just so overwhelmed you as an entire experience that it gives rise to remarkable encounters with fellow human beings, even though you can’t possible hope to bring the entire experience of the book into a single conversation. And sometimes a book opens up within you a space for a conversation you needed to have, either with or without knowing it. In all cases—and many others—this shows the great impact a book has had on your life and, for an hour or two, the life of another.

So here are a few books I read in 2015 that gave rise to very memorable conversations. Some of these are dramas I saw enacted on the stage that I’m counting as books read. And needless to say this is not an exhaustive list, just the ones that have come to mind. I purposely chose not to duplicate any from my “favorite reads of 2015” list, although obviously many of those would be applicable here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (tr. Don Mee Choi)

Reconsolidation by Janice Lee

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Top Girls and Love and Information by Caryl Churchill

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean, Anna Milsom)

The Musical Brain: And Other Stories by César Aira (tr. Chris Andrews)

Vertigo by W.G. Sebald (tr. Michael Hulse)

Vertical Motion by Can Xue (tr. Karen Gernant, Chen Zeping)

Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists by Joan Copjec

The Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

Jacob the Mutant by Mario Bellatin (tr. and contribution by Jacob Steinberg)

The Book of J by Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg

Boredom and Art: Passions Of The Will To Boredom by Julian Jason Haladyn

Favorite Reads of 2015: #13 Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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One of the noteworthy reading things I did in 2015 was to go back to Dostoevsky after years and years away. I did it with one of his late works, and definitely among the best things he ever wrote, Demons (alternatively translated as The Possessed). It’s a major novel of his coming in at over 700 pages, and possibly the book of his that has aged the best.

Demons concerns itself with the machinations of would-be revolutionaries in the middle of Russia’s 19th century, which, effectively, are petty members of the nobility of those who manage to exploit them to lead a nobility-like life. The plot centers around an attempt to foster a revolution in a small Russian town, and earlier this year I compared it to Krasznahorkai for the way in which the townspeople become caught up in their own madness, with predictably tragic results. This is a book that argues against nihilism by showing you just how awful that philosophy ends up being in pretty much everybody’s hands.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this book is the manner of its telling, which is through an outsider who observes the events from a distance and eventually becomes caught up within the machinations. The voice modulates quite a bit, from ironic to horrified to confused and distraught, and because the narrator only has so much knowledge you, the reader, get a very direct taste of the weirdness and perfidy on display in this story. It’s one of those stories that oftentimes feels bizarre, simply because you cannot fathom the motivations of the characters, even though you are aware that they are extraordinarily calculating and acting according to very clear motivations, albeit known only to themselves.

The book is fascinating both for its character portraits, whose insights into the nature of humanity are valuable to this day, and for what truth it manages to uncover about humanity as a political animal. In my read the book remains shocking and very humorous, and it does give a certain amount of historical insight into a period that remains very much relevant for Europe and Russia as historical entities. There is also one very outstanding scene where a puffed up “famous” novelist is entirely removed of his dignity, which I found very satisfying and will be very satisfying to many of you.

Subscriptions and Donations and Sales

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As I sort of mentioned earlier this week, December is traditionally the time when all of your favorite publishers get those $$$ that let them keep giving you the books you love for the other 11 months in the year.

It would be immensely cool of you to spend a few of your hard-earned greenbacks on some of their wares this holiday season. This is in your own interest, as you are helping enable the publishers you love to survive another year so that they can keep giving you the books you love. And you are also spreading joy into the lives of people who work extraordinarily hard for pretty blah pay to give you those books. And you are also doing a huge favor to readers 10 and 20 years down the line, who will benefit from these publishers not having shriveled up and died amid a wave of apathy.

Anyway, if you want to do this, here are some recommendations. These are great gifts, or get one for yourself.

Archipelago Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off all books through December 26th with the coupon code NEWSITE at check-out.

Open Letter Books. Subscribe. Holiday sale: 40% off with code BookSeason at checkout through Dec 31.

And Other Stories. Subscribe.

Verso Books. 50% off and free shipping on these titles through Dec 31.

Ugly Duckling Presse. Subscribe.

Wave Books. Subscribe.

Dorothy, a Publishing Project. All 12 books for $120.

Restless Books. Subscribe.

Melville House Publishing. Subscribe.

Music & Literature. Subscribe.

The Point. Subscribe.

The White Review. Subscribe.

Feed the Critic

I don’t know how widely this is known to people who aren’t lazy little litbloggers, but December is traditionally the “black friday” of the lame blogger world. In this month Amazon sales always go way up, ad revenues tend to spike, and this is also when the good readers of the world tend to open their kind hearts and pitch me a little change.

Which, all in all, makes for a nice little year-end bonus in the not-terribly-lucrative world of meaty literary criticism.

Not to get all “smallest violin in the world” about it, but doing this blog takes time. Yes, it’s fun to do, and it has benefits for me, and I enjoy pimping books I love, but it honestly does take a wee bit of effort to make this lame little blog happen every year. If you appreciate it and think it’s good for literary culture, please consider supporting it.

Anyway, if you’re a steadfast reader of this site and are so inclined to show your appreciation monetarily, now’s the best time. It’s easy. You can hit me directly with some Paypal love below. You can order some of your favorite 2016 titles through my Amazon links.* You can order gifts on Amazon here. You can buy The Latin American Mixtape, for yourself a total steal at just $2.99. There’s also Lady Chatterley’s Brother. Or order The End of Oulipo?, totally next-level literary criticism of the kind you’ve never read before.

* I know many of you have a completely justified and frothing hatred of Jeff Bezos and all of his projects. I understand! I put up the Amazon links in case you’re going to buy products there anyway, in which case doing so through my links will pretty much entirely kill Bezos’s razor-thin profit margin and hasten his demise. If you’d rather not purchase books from Amazon, find your local indie retailer here.










Favorite Reads of 2015: #12 Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

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Pound for pound, Where I’m Reading From is probably the most provocative book of contemporary literary criticism I read this year. This book presents a series of very concentrated meditations/arguments that were originally blog posts Tim Parks wrote for the NYR Blog. Arranged into groupings and laid out in a particular order, the posts cumulate very methodically and show clear evidence of a great deal of forethought. There are about 5 major lines of argument in this book, and they all collect around some of the major developments occurring with the novel form today.

Here Parks is arguing about the issues that are at the forefront of the novel’s development: what’s happening to it internationally, how the emerging international economy of literature is affecting its shape, the ongoing evolution of art and commerce in tandem, what the ultimate purpose of the novel form is, and if it’s worn out yet. Befitting blog posts, these essays are short and taut, but they manage to pack in quite a lot of detailed information, and the arguments presented here are precise and very interesting. There’s really no fat at all in this book.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Parks’s answers, but I do think he’s asking the right questions. And even when I do disagree with him, his discussion of the questions is always illuminating and a spur to my own thought. If you’re at all concerned with questions surrounding the novel as a contemporary genre of writing and how it will be viable in the future, this is a book you need to read.

For a more in-depth discussion of this book, see my interview with Tim Parks.

SE What about international prizes, which of course have their role in this global economy of literary value? In terms of the good or the bad they can do, do you feel like they have certain nontrivial benefits, either to the writer or the audience, above and beyond their utility to the literary economy?

TP Let me say, right away, that I’d love to win a major literary prize. Why not? Money and prestige. The knowledge that people noticed and appreciated what you are doing, etc. However, in general I’ve long been convinced that prizes as they are functioning now are, for the most part, damaging. Books are not about winning and losing. There is no best book or best writer, though there are better books and worse books. Prizes like the Booker and the Pulitzer create the wrong kind of hype. Perhaps they increase sales here, but reduce them there. They encourage a certain public to constantly buy the kinds of books that win prizes, and I believe it is truly difficult for a genuinely innovative and controversial book to win a major prize. The only prizes I think have serious value are those for unpublished manuscripts. They give a chance to writers who otherwise might not have their work read. But I would say that. The first novel I published, the seventh I had written, won such a prize after rejection from more than twenty publishers, including the publisher who took it on through the prize. It went on to win other prizes and to be published in a dozen countries. It is still in print. But the prize that got it there has been ditched, because there is not sufficient glamour (winning/losing polarity) for prizes for first-time authors.

Briefly, About My Year-End List

Just wanted to take a second to make it blissfully, stupidly clear that the titles I’ve been putting up on my year-end list are extraordinarily subjective (verging on whimsical) and don’t at all represent a tally of everything I loved reading in 2015. To the degree that I’ve crafted this list at all, it’s mostly to steer clear from titles that have dominated the five bazillion other year-end lists currently in existence and that you’re probably already pretty well aware of and may in fact be reading at the moment.

So, for instance, The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector—duh!—I think I’ve already made my admiration for this book abundantly clear in a variety of ways. Of course you should read it! You know that!! No real need to ping it yet again on this list, even though it was clearly one of the best things I read in 2015.

And in addition, on these little entries I’ve been writing, I’ve been trying to go beyond just slapping down a bunch of titles and covers and to actually make a strong case for why you should take the time and read this book. Which, you know, takes some time to do well (or to at least try to do well), which again limits just how many titles yr beleaguered little blogger can feature here.

Basically, this list is me just saying, “Hey there, you look like the sort of person who reads this blog a lot. If you’re a person who can tolerate that high degree of proximity to my mental energies, maybe probably these books would be your thing. I really liked them! Here they are! Enjoy!!”

Favorite Reads of 2015: #11 Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

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Have a look at all of my favorite reads of 2015.

I first read Silvina Ocampo quite a while ago, at the time when I was living in Buenos Aires and any her fiction was virtually impossible to come by in English. It was a time when I was discovering so many greats that hadn’t quite yet made it in translation—Bioy, Sábato, Arlt, Saer, and even Aira, who was much better positioned than the other names on this list but still wasn’t really very well-known at that time—and it goes to show you that something good is afoot, as some of these names are now much better-known. Even with my so-so Spanish, I could tell that Ocampo was a hugely gifted writer.

This year Ocampo has finally gotten an English-language edition worthy of her talents, with the release (and pretty successful reception) of Thus Were Their Faces, a career-spanning collection of short fiction from the incredible NYRB Classics.

These stories are just plain eerie, creepy, and just a little bit evil, in the very best way that can be said. They have some genetic linkage to Clarice Lispector, in their highly original approach to depicting the lives of women, their feminism, their occult power, and their complete originality.

For more I’ll point you to my review at Music & Literature. Here’s a good quote:

To this day it is not hard to find people calling her Argentina’s “best-kept secret.” This may point to barriers for women in the heady modernist golden age, and it may also indicate barriers around the sort of fiction Ocampo wrote. Her influences are much harder to locate than those of Borges or Bioy—making it more difficult to situate her into a cultural lineage—and she chose subjects that courted marginality: child-narrators, the lives of animals, women’s couture, dolls, and madwomen. Borges, Bioy, and Ocampo all brought the surreal into the everyday, but whereas Bioy imagined how technology interfaced with his bizarre plots, and whereas Borges heroicized his adventure tales into master narratives that wrought new truths, Ocampo camouflaged her fantasies, as though they were microscopic details in yards of baroque wallpaper. If you blink at the wrong moment everything will look perfectly normal, yet once you do see that tiny seam in the fabric of what is, your eyes will see nothing else.

Ocampo was also an accomplished poet, and the volume of her poetry released this year should also be read.

LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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