Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation."

"In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."
A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage, 1983), p. 95, p. 104.

Susan Sontag stares out at the world from the cover of my battered and much highlighted paperback copy of The Susan Sontag Reader. I hold the book in my hands and see a woman in her forties who sits, glancing at the camera and the prospective reader; she is similing, relaxed, her arms are behind her head, a streak of white is visible in her jet black hair. "Marked by the gods," is what the ancient Greeks would have said. And they may well have been right. Ms. Sontag helped to form my mental image of intellectuals long before I understood what the word really means: she appears brave, independent, self-assured, strengthened by something important but ineffable that she seems to know and is willing to share with the reader.

All of these thoughts come to mind as I view this photograph, after learning of her death. Best of all, that smile that hovers on her lips says to the new reader, like the very young version of me who purchased this book years ago: "Don't be afraid ... let's talk."

I dwell on Ms. Sontag's physical attractiveness because she signaled to the world the glamor and dazzle in the life of the mind at a time and place when both were denied, that is, for poor "urban" young men -- like the teenager I was -- who are often unsure of their calling as thinkers and writers. Ms. Sontag's beauty only deepened with the passing of the years, despite her struggles with ravenous illnesses, struggles which themselves became subjects for philosophical reflection in her elegant and allusive prose. Like Mailer, Plimpton, Edward Said or Christopher Hitchens and a few others, Sontag seemed to embody something essential about New York's mental climate. She was tough and smart, so that her readers (who by virtue of that fact alone became her students) began to swoon the moment they encountered that familiar voice in her pages. I sure did.

Iris Murdoch has spoken of the "erotic power of genius," again invoking the Greek imagination in the word "eros." Susan Sontag's literary presence defined the concept for me. I am now in my mid-forties and only too well aware of Ms. Sontag's regrettable -- in fact, regretted by her -- statements about American "evil" made during the sixties, at the height of the Vietnam conflict. Yet I am more convinced than ever of Ms. Sontag's importance as a critic and thinker, of her brilliance and -- to a lesser degree -- of her importance as a literary artist.

I never met Susan Sontag. Nonetheless, I felt a personal loss when I learned of her death. I have thought about this and come to realize that the best way of saying goodbye and thanking her is to engage in a dialogue with her work, to "interrogate her text," as the French say. I have selected for analysis her classic essay, "Against Interpretation." This is a work that I admire, but do not fully accept -- since I have a very different view of the nature and importance of interpretation, of what interpretation is, a view which is derived from the philosophical work of the great contemporary phenomenologists and hermeneutic thinkers, among them Gadamer, Ricoeur, along with others.

I begin with a very brief summary of Ms. Sontag's argument; then I will discuss some of my objections to her argument; finally, I offer some of my opinions not as conclusions, but only as invitations for the reader to continue thinking about the issues. This invitation to a dialogue is something in keeping with the values of the hermeneutic enterprise.



It may be best to begin with a story, to which we will return later: "Once upon a time," there was a great writer who became friendly with a much younger writer. The older writer worked for a long time on a novel, let us say seven years (like Jacob working to earn his love), and upon completing it, turned it over to his young friend. "Read this novel," he said, "then review it for me."

The younger man was awed and intimidated, remarking: "How can I be sure that I will have stated accurately what it means, without allowing my values to intrude on my assessment of the work?" The older writer offered some very important advice concerning interpretation. He said: "Just describe, as objectively as possible, what the novel is about and the themes that you identify in the work. Your most objective and neutral descriptions will turn out to be your subjective evaluations of the work." He neglected to add that those subjective evaluations would also be the most objective assessments of the art object for the honest interpreter.


"The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual." (p. 95.) But the "earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality." (p. 95.) For Plato, of course, this made art dangerous and suspect, since it was merely an imitation of pale reflections of the "forms," that is, "imitations of imitations" that we encounter in daily experience. Worse, the seductiveness of art may cause us to turn away from the strenuous effort to discern truth in the realm of ideas, which (for Plato) is the only place where it can really be found, leading us to an obsession with the shadows on the wall rather than to the ascent from that dark cave into the sunlight, to which our "questing natures" must be directed by the philosopher.

Totalitarians from Plato to Stalin dislike art. Perhaps this is a result of art's delight in play or its irreverence. Like sexual love between any two human beings, art has an ominous tendency to encourage freedom. Aristotle's response to his teacher is to defend the utility of art as "therapy" by "catharsis." (p. 95.) Ms. Sontag explains the Aristotelean theory: "Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions." (p. 95.)

At this point the problems begin, for in defending art a crucial distinction is introduced into Western thinking on aesthetics: " ... it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call 'form' [subjective] is separated from something we have learned to call 'content,' [objective] and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory." (p. 96.)

This is akin to the moment when Eve ate the apple and gave it to Adam. It means that the innocent experience of art was over for Western humanity and the need for interpretation -- like evil in the Garden of Eden -- entered history. "What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails," Ms. Sontag suggests, "is the perennial, never-consumated project of interpretation. And conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art." (pp. 96-97.)

Ms. Sontag then defines interpretation, somewhat tendentiously, as "a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain rules of interpretation." (p. 97.)

Her essay is both an argument and a plea for setting aside theory and the apparatus or machinery of interpretation, so as to return to the "the things themselves," to paraphrase Edmund Husserl's phrase from another context, to restore the "innocent" encounter between spectator or observer and work of art or art object, something which Ms. Sontag recognizes may be very difficult or impossible for us now, but which must be our only hope for avoiding the falsification of the work of art through intellectualizing, or by viewing it through the prism of abstractions that serve as the "irremovable spectacles" of the late twentieth century intellectual.

Sontag points to cinema as a form of art holding out the slim chance for an unmediated encounter between creator and recipient of the work, and to abstract expressionism and the writings of Beckett and Kafka (Pinter and Stoppard?), by contrast, as nearly irresistible invitations to interpret. This final claim -- and distinction -- is one that I am skeptical about. Is there a work of art that can escape interpretation? I doubt it, but I will hold off on stating my reasons for this opinion until later.

In any case, this hope for an uncontaminated experience of art, in our otherwise polluted and impure aesthetic environment, motivates Ms. Sontag's argument: "In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable." (p. 99.)

Ms. Sontag did not say it, but the implication was there that art needs protection at a time when provocative and politically daring works of the imagination were appearing in an unprecedented numbers in the United States, while artists faced the prospect of censorship, or at least milder forms of repression. There were court battles over the alleged obscenities in the works of Henry Miller, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence. Later, even writers like Kurt Vonegut and John Updike would face the prospect of censorship and the consignment of at least some of their books to the flames, particularly if those works happened to be found in school libraries. In what follows, I shall set forth some problems with Ms. Sontag's claims.


Is there such a thing as a work of art that we can approach in a pure or pristine condition? I doubt it. For one thing, all works of art are products of -- and are embedded in -- a "form of life," a tradition, or history. The history is "in" the work of art, as part of that object, but also (and at the same time) part of us, as spectators. One reminder of this is the current reaction to Andy Garcia's film The Lost City, which I plan to review. This is certainly true of linguistic products or texts, which we encounter only from within a shared linguistic tradition. There is a whole lot that we have in common with any book that we can read, also with any painting or sculpture that we approach as inheritors of a civilization that is always already "reflected" (mirrors and doors?) in those works.

This is a crucial aspect of the hermeneutic insight which is derived from Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur. To experience a work of art it is necessary to interpret. There is no choice about this -- because the work of art can only be the gift of one feedom that remains incomplete until it is received or deciphered by another freedom. It is an ultimate form of communication. In both instances, however, it is only a "bounded freedom" to which one refers in pointing to the work of art as the place of "meeting." The distance or boundary between the observer and what is observed is insecure; it is transgressed all the time; it is permeable, porous, dissolving always. The painting that moves me is implicated in me, as I live within it. No two people see the same painting even as they look at the same canvas, especially if they view it at different times, or even if the same individual views a painting at different times in his or her life. (See "Arthur Schopenhauer and the Metaphysics of Art.")

This gift of art is only possible because of the network of understandings that are presupposed in this "meeting" between artist and recipient. Accordingly, to understand a work of art is: 1) to see it against a framework or background-set of shared assumptions and practices, in a "holistic" process, where the recipient or interpreter moves back and forth from the text to those common assumptions, then returns to the text, in a "hermeneutic circle"; and 2) this means that understanding is ultimately a matter of affirmative commitment to, or engagement with, the object by the interpreter -- an engagement in which prejudices can never be entirely excluded, nor should they be, since they are necessary to the "fusion of horizons" that is the completion of the hermeneutic circle, artistic transaction, or understanding of the art-work. Commenting on Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method, William Outhwaite writes:

"For Gadamer, ... preconceptions or prejudices are what makes understanding possible in the first place. They are bound up with our awareness of the historical influence or effectivity of the text; and without this awareness we would not understand it. It is impossible to understand the Bible or The Communist Manifesto without a knowledge of the role that they have played in our history."

The Return of the Human Sciences, p. 25.

It is in this sense that one might say, as Carlos Fuentes does of Cervantes's Don Quixote for a native Spanish-speaker, "one is born having read it." I would say the same for a native English-speaker of Shakespeare's Hamlet. And because those are BOTH of my native languages, so that I cannot choose between them, I was born having read those two literary works and a few others.

There is no work of art apart from the prejudices or subjective biases and "values" of the maker and recipient of the work of art, whose merits -- the artistic work's "objective" merits, that is -- arise within a scheme of practice and are not denied by it. They may even result from this dance of "creation-and-interpretation" itself. Thus, interpretation is conceptualized much more broadly by hermeneutic thinkers than Ms. Sontag would like. Interpretation includes "ANY mode in which one encounters the work of art." Perhaps a better way of saying it is that interpretation is that encounter between artist and recipient. Interpretation is a meeting between subjectivities in mystery. Think of the Scriptures, Constitution, Sherlock Holmes.

You can interpret a book or a painting or a piece of music "scientifically," if you like, but it will not be all that helpful. Scientific understanding is just one kind of interpretation. Much depends, of course, on the type of knowledge that you are after. I can provide you with the external statistics of a painting -- weight, measurements, chemical components, age and so on. I can do the same for a book. In both cases, however, I will miss the point of what the work of art is and what it MEANS. My guess is that much the same will be true of my encounter with another human being. The meaning of another person's life, who or what that person is, will not be something that we can see under a microscope nor will it be found at the bottom of a test tube. By the same token, you will not find the beauty in the Mona Lisa or in Dali's 1954 painting Crucifixion Hypercubus, by performing an experiment or taking an electromagnetic image, though you certainly may learn other things that way. According to Gadamer:
" ... understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood." Truth and Method, p. xix. (This insight applies both to persons and works of art.)


Let us now return to the story which I mentioned earlier. Any attempt to describe, dispassionately and objectively, what a novel "means" will only produce the reader's subjective assessment of the work, which may nevertheless be true -- even in an objective sense -- to what that work "is." What the work is will be in flux, since the work's meaning is dynamic and not static. A traffic light is a text, for example, which is only understandable to someone who brings a great deal of prior knowledge to his or her encounter with that text -- knowledge of cars and streets, driving, modern society, mechanisms, the meanings of the colors "red" and "green" in this context. None of this knowledge is spelled out, say, in a huge billboard over the traffic signal; but it is simply part of the assumed background or framework to that encounter betwen driver and traffic signal. Nevertheless, there sure is such a thing as a bad misreading of that traffic signal. Interpreting "red" to mean "go"; when everyone else reads "red" to mean "stop," may get you killed. This would not be a good interpretation.

What is War and Peace about? Woody Allen claims that, after his speed-reading course, he mastered this text in fifteen minutes and concluded that "it's about Russia." There are "objectively" better interpretations of that novel, which is not to suggest that Woody's interpretation is wrong. Much depends on what the reader brings to the encounter with the work. (See Professor Rick Roderick's discussion of "interpretation" in Nietzsche's work, in his Teching Company lectures.)

Ms. Sontag might wonder whether there is a sense in which the work of art tells us what it is about. Hermeneutic thinkers will insist that this is something which we decide together with the text and its maker, depending on where we find ourselves and it, in time and in culture, in its history and our own, but that our encounter with works of art, despite our best hopes for an impossible purity, will never be "unmediated." (See my review of Lost City.) An interpretation is always someone's interpretation. This does not preclude the interpretation from being true.

Since Ms. Sontag is no longer with us, when I return to her texts, I find -- not the person I discovered as younger and more foolish man, neither the person she was then nor the person she became at the end of her life -- but only the person and the meanings I am prepared to discover and appreciate now, at this moment in my life. I reflect on this as I come to share again in the perceptions of that wise and beautiful friend depicted on the cover of her book, which I now return it to its place on my shelf, so she can keep an eye on me.

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