Against Interpretation

by Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pp., $4.95

Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag; drawing by David Levine

Nietzsche called George Sand a “writing-cow.” Judging by Against Interpretation, it seems that the remarkable Susan Sontag deserves no less a tribute. Certainly in her trend-swept chronicle of cultural disturbances, here and in Europe, the ink in Miss Sontag’s pen never runs dry. On page after page, ideas, counter ideas, and perhaps even what might be termed non-ideas, squirt, trickle, or smudge. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” observes Miss Sontag. “It’s not a lamp but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but ‘a woman.’ ” It’s not Howard Taubman, it’s “Stanley Kauffmann.” And so forth.

Reprinted from, among other haunts, Partisan Review and The New York Review, Miss Sontag’s collected essays are brilliant, punchy, brisk, and, in a characteristically contemporary way, a little perverse. In her splendid study of the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, Miss Sontag touches upon something of what I mean. “Modern thought,” she says, “is pledged to a kind of applied Hegelianism: seeking its Self in its Other…The ‘other’ is experienced as a harsh purification of ‘self.’ But at the same time the ‘self’ is busily colonizing all strange domains of experience.” In Against Interpretation, then, the figures and movements treated are, first and foremost, of an “exemplary” cast. Like Miss Sontag, all are attracted to extremes: asceticism as a species of spiritual fulfillment in Simone Weil; the arbitrary as a disciplinary device in some of the new wave films; Cesare Pavese and suicidal ineffectuality; Michel Leiris and physical disgust; the theater as interpersonal abuse or “radical juxtaposition” as in Marat/Sade or Happenings.

What supports such a heady ensemble and what shapes many of Miss Sontag’s ingenious turns and twists is her ardent, almost cryptic, concern with “a new, more open way of looking at the world and at the things in the world.” Putting the matter very bluntly, Miss Sontag refuses to acknowledge art as “statement” or “argument,” she demands a “descriptive, rather than prescriptive aesthetic,” and decrying the continued “prestige of ‘realism’,” she rejects the more traditional social or psychological formulation about human nature or the self. Above all, saluting the experimental character of contemporary poetry, music, and the plastic arts, Miss Sontag favors an equally radical transformation of the drama and the novel. In her discussion of Nathalie Sarraute, Miss Sontag states that the coming-of-age of the novel in England and America

will entail a commitment to all sorts of questionable notions, like the idea of “progress” in the arts and the defiantly aggressive ideology expressed in the metaphor of the avant-garde. It will restrict the novel’s audience because it will demand accepting new pleasures—such as the pleasure of solving a problem—to be gotten from prose fiction and learning how to get them…But the price must be paid. Readers must be made to see, by a new generation of critics who may well have to force this ungainly period of the novel down their throats by all…

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