For or Against Interpretation; Is There Really Any Question?

AGAINST INTERPRETATION, Susan Sontag, New York, Farrar, and Giroux, $4.95

Kenneth Tynan once described the critic as a backseat driver who knows the way but can't drive a car. Unfortunately his definition does not explain someone like Susan Sontag--a critic with no sense of direction.

Against Interpretation has everything wrong with it. With no effort at all one can find inaccurate epithets (Camus' language is "stately ... an inexhaustible self-perpetuating oratory); mixed metaphors ("Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely vebose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous soleminity and by ghastly repetitiveness"); solemn statements of the obvious ("The truth is, some works of theater may be judged primarily as of works of literature, others and attempts to be "in" ("those four wonderful Floppy Raggedy Andy dolls, the Beatles").

But these criticisms are trivial when one considers the book's basic fallacy, summarized in the over-discussed title essay. Miss Sontag argues that the concern of the critic is not to discover the "meaning" of a work, but to talk around it. She never gets around to defining "meaning", but one gathers that she equates it with paraphrasable content:

By reducing the work of art to Its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable (sic).

Nothing New


In her essay "On Style" she summarizes her view of art, which obviates interpretation:

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.

There is nothing new here. No intelligent person asks "What does it mean?" in the tone of voice Miss Sontag hears, except possibly the authors of the Hymarx College Outline Series.

Meaning provides a serious critic with the motivation for analysis. When he sees a movie or reads a book it moves him, it gives him an idea--it means something to him, emotionally or intellectually. The real problem is "Why and how does it mean what is does?" This curiousity is aroused by the recognition of meaning. Meaning is whatever makes a book worth reading; Miss Sontag, true to form, finds few books worth her time.

There are twenty-six essays in Against Interpretation, and only three of them are about something Miss Sontag liked. These three deal with the most obscure books or films she touches upon. When she manages to praise something, it is always in the "no, but" form:

I am not persuaded by Levi-Strauss' arguments against Sartre. But I should say that he is, since the death of Merleau-Ponty, the most interesting and challenging critic of Sartrean existentialism and phenomenology.


I do not believe (as many do) that Lukacs is the figure who speaks the most interesting or plausible form of Marxism today, much less that he is (as he has been called) "the greatest Marxist since Marx." But there can be no doubt that he has a special eminence and claim to our attention.

The latter quotation can also be read as "Look at me. I am different. I don't like what other people like. Miss Sontag would debunk ice cream if she could find a publisher. She even comes out against truth:

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.

Maybe she's writing to be different. Maybe she's writing to be cute. My guess is that she's writing for the money.