Notes from Against Interpretation and Other Essays by Susan Sontag

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Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Sontag, Susan

Against interpretation

Time: 2021-11-12 21:51

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.

On style

Time: 2021-11-13 01:47

To treat works of art in this fashion is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.

Time: 2021-11-15 22:28

For morality, unlike art, is ultimately justified by its utility: that it makes, or is supposed to make, life more humane and livable for us all. But consciousness—what used to be called,rather tendentiously, the faculty of contemplation—can be, and is, wider and more various than action. It has its nourishment, art and speculative thought, activities which can be described either as self-justifying or in no need of justification. What a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize. This act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness is the only valid end, and sole sufficient justification, of a work of art.

The artist as exemplary sufferer

Time: 2021-11-18 21:37

It is the author naked which the modern audience demands, as ages of religious faith demanded a human sacrifice.

And why is so? Maybe the growing emphasis on individualism makes a person more socially exotic for one's exclusivity.

Time: 2021-11-18 21:36

Why do we read a writer’s journal? Because it illuminates his books? Often it does not. More likely, simply because of the rawness of the journal form, even when it is written with an eye to future publication. Here we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this, even when the author writes in the first person or uses a third person which transparently points to himself.

Time: 2021-11-19 13:56

The journal gives us the workshop of the writer’s soul. And why are we interested in the soul of the writer? Not because we are so interested in writers as such. But because of the insatiable modern preoccuption with psychology, the latest and most powerful legacy of the Christian tradition of introspection, opened up by Paul and Augustine, which equates the discovery of the self with the discovery of the suffering self. For the modern consciousness,the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer. And among artists, the writer, the man of words, is the person to whom we look to be able best to express his suffering.

Time: 2021-11-19 13:57

The writer is the exemplary sufferer because he has found both the deepest level of suffering and also a professional means to sublimate (in the literal, not the Freudian, sense of sublimate) his suffering. As a man, he suffers; as a writer, he transforms his suffering into art. The writer is the man who discovers the use of suffering in the economy of art—as the saints discovered the utility and necessity of suffering in the economy of salvation.

Time: 2021-11-19 13:57

The unity of Pavese’s diaries is to be found in his reflections on, how to use, how to act on,his suffering. Literature is one use. Isolation is another, both as a technique for the inciting and perfecting of his art, and as a value in itself. And suicide is the third, ultimate use of suffering—conceived of not as an end to suffering, but as the ultimate way of acting on suffering.

Time: 2021-11-19 13:59

Thus we have the following remarkable sequence of thought, in a diary entry of 1938. Pavese writes: “Literature is a defense against the attacks of life. It says to life: ‘You can’t deceive me. I know your habits, foresee and enjoy watching your reactions, and steal your secrets by involving you in cunning obstructions that halt your normal flow.’… The other defense against things in general is silence as we muster strength for a fresh leap forward.But we must impose that silence on ourselves, not have it imposed on us, not even by death.To choose a hardship for ourselves is our only defense against that hardship … Those who by their very nature can suffer completely, utterly, have an advantage. This is how we can disarm the power of suffering, make it our own creation, our own choice; submit to it. A justification for suicide.”

Time: 2021-11-19 14:50

Everyone knows that we have a different, much more emphatic view of love between the sexes than the ancient Greeks and the Orientals, and that the modern view of love is an extension of the spirit of Christianity, in however attenuated and secularized a form. But the cult of love is not, as Rougemont claims, a Christian heresy. Christianity is, from its inception (Paul), the romantic religion. The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering —suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, by one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium.In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.

I might disagree.

Simone Weil

Time: 2021-11-19 20:00

There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering—rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr.

Time: 2021-11-19 20:46

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

The anthropologist as hero

Time: 2021-11-20 22:22

MOST serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness. The felt unreliability of human experience brought about by the inhuman acceleration of historical change has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea, of intellectual vertigo. And the only way to cure this spiritual nausea seems to be, at least initially, to exacerbate it. Modern thought is pledged to a kind of applied Hegelianism:seeking its Self in its Other. Europe seeks itself in the exotic—in Asia, in the Middle East,among pre-literate peoples, in a mythic America; a fatigued rationality seeks itself in the impersonal energies of sexual ecstasy or drugs; consciousness seeks its meaning in unconscio-usness; humanistic problems seek their oblivion in scientific “value neutrality” and quantification. 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. Modern sensibility moves between two seemingly contradictory but actually related impulses: surrender to the exotic, the strange, the other; and the domestication of the exotic, chiefly through science.

Time: 2021-11-20 22:50

Certainly the earliest visitors to pre-literate peoples were far from being detached. The original field workers in what was then called ethnology were missionaries, bent on redeeming the savage from his follies and making him over into a civilized Christian. To cover the bosoms of the women, put pants on the men, and send them all to Sunday school to mumble the gospel was the aim of an army of stony-eyed spinsters from Yorkshire and rawboned farmers’ sons from the American Midwest.

Time: 2021-11-21 00:07

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Lévi-Strauss outlined a post-Marxist vision of freedom in which man would finally be freed from the obligation to progress, and from “the age-old curse which forced it to enslave men in order to make progress possible.” Then:history would henceforth be quite alone, and society, placed outside and above history, would once again be able to assume that regular and quasi-crystalline structure which, the best-preserved primitive societies teach us, is not contradictory to humanity. It is in this admittedly Utopian view that social anthropology would find its highest justification, since the forms of life and thought which it studies would no longer be of mere historic and comparative interest. They would correspond to a permanent possibility of man, over which social anthropology would have a mission to stand watch, especially in man’s darkest hours.

The death of tragedy

Time: 2021-11-29 17:21

What are the implacable values of Homer? Honor, status, personal courage—the values of an aristocratic military class? But this is not what the Iliad is about. It would be more correct to say, as Simone Weil does, that the Iliad—as pure an example of the tragic vision as one can find—is about the emptiness and arbitrariness of the world, the ultimate meaninglessness of all moral values, and the terrifying rule of death and inhuman force. If the fate of Oedipus was represented and experienced as tragic, it is not because he, or his audience, believed in “implacable values,” but precisely because a crisis had overtaken those values. It is not the implacability of “values” which is demonstrated by tragedy, but the implacability of the world. The story of Oedipus is tragic insofar as it exhibits the brute opaqueness of the world, the collision of subjective intention with objective fate. After all, in the deepest sense, Oedipus is innocent; he is wronged by the gods, as he himself says in Oedipus at Colonus. Tragedy is a vision of nihilism, a heroic or ennobling vision of nihilism.

Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson

Time: 2021-12-03 10:12

Bresson’s form fulfills beautifully the prescription of Alexandre Astruc, in his famous essay “Le Camera-Stylo,” written in the late forties. According to Astruc, the cinema will,ideally, become a language. By a language I mean the form in which and through which an artist can express his thoughts,however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions, just as in an essay or a novel … The film will gradually free itself from the tyranny of the visual, of the image for its own sake, of the immediate and concrete anecdote, to become a means of writing as supple and subtle as the written word … What interests us in the cinema today is the creation of this language.

Time: 2021-12-03 10:24

The reason that Bresson rejects acting reflects his notion of the purity of the art itself. “Acting is for the theater, which is a bastard art,” he has said. “The film can be a true art because in it the author takes fragments of reality and arranges them in such a way that their juxtaposition transforms them.” Cinema, for Bresson,is a total art, in which acting corrodes. In a film, each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at. Acting has nothing to do with that, it can only get in the way. Films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them; using not what they do, but what they are.

A note on novels and films

Time: 2021-12-04 22:14

Nevertheless, there are useful analogies which may be drawn between the cinema and the novel—far more, it seems to me, than between the cinema and the theater. Like the novel, the cinema presents us with a view of an action which is absolutely under the control of the director (writer) at every moment. Our eye cannot wander about the screen, as it does about the stage. The camera is an absolute dictator. It shows us a face when we are to see a face, and nothing else; a pair of clenched hands, a landscape, a speeding train, the façade of a building in the middle of a tête-à-tête,when and only when it wants us to see these things. When the camera moves we move, when it remains still we are still. In a similar way the novel presents a selection of the thoughts and descriptions which are relevant to the writer’s conception, and we must follow these serially,as the author leads us; they are not spread out, as a background, for us to contemplate in the order we choose, as in painting or the theater.

Piety without content

Time: 2021-12-04 22:55

The significance of Kaufmann’s book is that it is one more example of a prevailing modern attitude which seems to me, at best, soft-headed and, more often, intellectually presumptuous. The attempts of modern secular intellectuals to help the faltering authority of “religion” ought to be rejected by every sensitive believer, and by every honest atheist.God-in-his-heaven, moral certitude, and cultural unity cannot be restored by nostalgia; the suspenseful piety of religious fellow-travelling demands a resolution, by acts of either commitment or disavowal. The presence of a religious faith may indeed be of unquestionable psychological benefit to the individual and of unquestionable social benefit to a society. But we shall never have the fruit of the tree without nourishing its roots as well; we shall never restore the prestige of the old faiths by demonstrating their psychological and sociological benefits.

Notes on “Camp”

Time: 2021-12-09 19:48

Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.