Against Interpretation and Other Essays Summary

Susan Sontag


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Susan Sontag created a sensation in the mid-1960’s with her essay “Against Interpretation.” Although she made it clear that she was not against all interpretation of works of art, her position quickly became associated with the idea of art for art’s sake—that is, with a concern only with form and style, not with morality and content. She later conceded that her approach was too polemical; she was attacking message-mongering critics but left herself open to the charge of being amoral. She later corrected her position in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), a collection of essays in which she explicitly argues that a work’s style or aesthetic properties cannot be viewed in isolation from its creator’s moral sensibility.

“Sensibility” is a key term in Sontag’s vocabulary. As she points out in the paperback edition of Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, her work is actually the revelation of her evolving sensibility, of her way of looking at the world. She is not a critic who is especially interested in explicating works of art; rather, she explores art for what it says about the sensibility—the mindset—of its author. For example, her essay “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” is less concerned with his individual films than with his way of imagining the world.

Sontag has been lauded and attacked for her catholic tastes. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays contains essays on...

(The entire section is 426 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sontag’s signature essay, “Against Interpretation,” like its companion piece, “On Style,” highlights her concern with form. Sontag feels she is writing at a time when critics tend to discuss content, reducing works of art to their messages or themes. What art says is less important than how the art expresses itself, Sontag insists. In her view, to treat art as simply a conveyer of content is to negate the idea of art itself.

“Against Interpretation” provides an erudite summary of the history of literary criticism, in which Sontag takes issue with Aristotle’s definition of art as mimetic; that is, art as an imitation of nature. To Sontag, this definition makes art beholden to standards outside itself.

The implications of Sontag’s position are apparent when she attacks the idea that art can be judged by society’s notions of morality. Since those notions change over time and differ from one society to another, art has to transcend the immediate circumstances of its production, and art should be judged by its own terms. In other words, Sontag is reiterating the “art for art’s sake” argument advanced by Wilde in his famous essays “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying.”

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays contains many of Sontag’s most famous essays, including “The Imagination of Disaster” (her anatomy of science-fiction films) and “Notes on ’Camp,’” the work that made her virtually an overnight sensation when Time magazine published a summary of it. The essay on camp is hardly an essay at all but rather a series of numbered pithy passages. Sontag defines camp in many different ways, but the essential point is that it is a sensibility that values style—works of art that are flamboyant, exaggerated, and even corny. A film such as King Kong is campy, for example, because it is so overdone, so self-consciously attempting to be a monster film meant to thrill its audience.

What made “Notes on ’Camp’” so startling is Sontag’s willingness to discuss virtually in the same breath high culture (opera) and popular culture (film) as camp. She blurs the distinction between elite and mass cultural tastes, shocking certain critics and exciting others who see her work as revolutionary—a new way to unify disparate kinds of art.