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Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag


Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was first published in 1961. It is hard in 2020, to accept that this was almost 60 years ago, especially since

many of the works reviewed in this volume of criticism, containing

essays as late as 1966, would probably not make it into the mainstream

today. If - and if must be repeated for emphasis - if the objects of her

criticism in the 1960s were manifestations of the current mainstream in

the arts, then 60 years ago, at least to this reader, then contemporary

theatre, film and art of today seem much more conventional, even

conservative. No-one now, it seems, takes risks.There are names

that remain familiar in Susan Sontag's critiques. We have a Genet,

Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Godard, Brooke, Arthur Miller, but there are

many others who would now claim only anonymity. But what is truly

interesting is how reluctant Susan Sontag is even to mention trends from

popular culture, the term I personally regard as a misnomer.Indeed,

the essays are, by contemporary standards, elitist. Ironic, isn't it,

that they come from the decade which became notorious for challenging

elite status? Perhaps we forget that an element of 1960s culture was to

invade elite structures, to cram them with experience it would find both

challenging and uncomfortable. Susan Sontag herself obliquely refers to

this attempt at change by noting "... the American theater is ruled by

an extraordinary, irrepressible zest for intellectual simplification.

Every idea is reduced to cliché, and the function of cliché is to

castrate an idea." The implication is that much needed change via

infiltration was already happening. One wonders what her opinion might

be today.As already stated, these essays on criticism unashamedly

intellectual. There is not a hint that they also want to address

popular themes in popular language or on its own terms. Susan Sontag

does address popular culture, but sometimes, as in her analysis of

science fiction movie scenarios, to record her belief that it relies on

the formulaic. She was not alone in casting an apparently academic eye

over mass market culture. At the same time in Britain, we had Kenneth

Tynan and Bernard Levin, both young Mavericks in their way, but also

both securely establishment figures, despite Tynan's enduring celebrity

drawn from his use of the f-word on a live television chat show. And Bernard Levin, for those who care to remember, offered a satirical and

critical monologue late on Saturday nights on That Was The Week That

Was, the satirical revue populated by largely upper-class intellectuals

who would later become superstars and pillars of the establishment. This

was a fate not to befall Susan Sontag and some of her ideas still sound

contemporary. How about this as a plea to writers that they should imagine a status other than Godly? "The immediate cozy recognition that the lifelike in most

novels induces is, and should be, suspect... I wholeheartedly sympathize

with what she objects to in the old fashion novel. Vanity Fair and

Buddenbrooks, when I read them recently, however marvelous they still

seemed, also made me wince. I could not stand the omnipotent author

showing me that's how life is, making me compassionate and tearful, with

his obstreperous irony, his confidential air of perfectly knowing his

characters and leading me, the reader, to feel that I knew them too. I

no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand."

How many subsequent writers took note of this advice? My suggestion is a

few, but none of them popular.At the heart of Susan Sontag's

ideas about art, theatre, literature and criticism is the need for

audiences to be open to challenge. She writes "Hence, too, the peculiar

dependence of a work of art, however expressive, upon the cooperation of

the person having the experience, for one may see what is 'said' but

remain unmoved, either through dullness or distraction. Art is

seduction, not rape. A work of art possesses a type of experience

designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce

without the complicity of the experiencing subject." Perhaps the 60

years that intervened have conspired to reduce this willingness to

tolerate the unexpected? Or perhaps nothing has changed. Audiences were

never very good at it.In the Modern Classics edition of her work,

Susan Sontag had the opportunity, some 30 years after publication, to

offer her own reflections on the significance of the writing. She

reflects on how the artistic climate had already changed and on the

characteristics of the decade in which her critical essays were written.

These three short quotes from the final essay from the 1990s indicate

why Against Interpretation is now an achievement in its own right, and

not simply a response to the work of others."Perhaps the most

interesting characteristics of the time now labeled the Sixties was that

there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian

movement.""Now the very idea of the serious (and of the

honorable) seems quaint, 'unrealistic' to most people and when allowed -

an arbitrary decision of temperament - probably unhealthy, too.""The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not."Truly we live in a different age.

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