Pillars #5. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

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?

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