Against Interpretation and Other Essays Summary
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 pornography and science fiction, and on psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and the contemporary French novel. Her range of interests not only breaks down the distinction between art and entertainment but also reflects her personal taste. She invites readers to ponder the development of her own sensibility rather than submitting her critical power only to the canon of recognized masterpieces.
Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, then, is a record of Sontag’s intellectual development. As she remarks in her preface to the paperback edition, the book is to be regarded as a work-in-progress in which she explores and embraces positions, some of which she has later rejected, modified, or returned to with a new perspective. She is less concerned with specific judgments than with the theoretical positions that underlie those judgments. She writes as an enthusiast and partisan—rarely attacking work she does not like. What makes Against Interpretation, and Other Essays so exhilarating is that it shows a critic in the midst of forming her opinions, realizing that everything she writes is subject to revision and that she remakes her identity through confronting new and old works of art.
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...
(The entire section is 807 words.)