Against Interpretation and Other Essays Critical Essays

Susan Sontag

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Against Interpretation and Other Essays Analysis

The pieces in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays are shorter, more specific, and less philosophical on the whole than the more developed essays which appear in Susan Sontag’s later collections such as Styles of Radical Will (1969) and Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), or indeed the extended essays that make up the well-received On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1978). The impact of Against Interpretation and Other Essays in the 1960’s cannot be attributed to the originality of the ideas espoused there, for they are, after all, derivative and second hand. Instead, the importance of Sontag is her early discovery of important and influential twentieth century thinkers and artists who were not widely accepted by the American intellectual community until the 1970’s. In the early 1960’s, relatively few in the scholarly and academic world knew of the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, Georg Lukacs, Roland Barthes, or Walter Benjamin; in the 1980’s, however, there are relatively few serious thinkers who have not been influenced by their work.

The key essays in the book, those on interpretation, style, camp, and the new sensibility, are the ones to which the reader must attend most carefully in order to understand the essays on individual artists and thinkers. Once it is understood that Sontag is making her most powerful case for a criticism that celebrates form rather than content, it is clear why she prefers Peter Weiss’s highly stylized and self-reflexive play Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean-Paul Marats, dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade (1964; The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, 1965) over Rolf Hochhuth’s more polemical and didactic Der Stellvertreter (1963; The Deputy, 1964). In terms of drama, it is theatricality—that is, the very techniques of theater that distinguish it from other art forms—which most interests Sontag and draws her to Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, and Weiss.

It is also this focus on theatricality and artistic self-consciousness that makes her admire the self-absorbed work of French writer Jean Genet (even if she does not particularly like Sartre’s book Saint Genet), the novelist and critic Nathalie Sarraute, whose book L’Ere du soupcon: Essais sur le roman (1956; The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, 1963) is a ringing manifesto against realism in fiction, and the highly literary and self-conscious New Wave French filmmakers such as Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais.

Sontag’s emphasis on form allows her to ignore content altogether in her essays on the science-fiction film and on the allegedly pornographic film Flaming Creatures (1962), directed by Jack Smith. “The Imagination of Disaster” is a model of objective structural analysis of the basic conventions of a film genre; the fact that the genre in question is the culturally disreputable science-fiction film, however, is what makes critics question the validity of Sontag’s purely formal approach. Similarly, her...

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