Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was first published in 1961. It is hard in 2020, to accept that this was almost 60 years ago, especially since many of the works reviewed in this volume of criticism, containing essays as late as 1966, would probably not make it into the mainstream today. If - and if must be repeated for emphasis - if the objects of her criticism in the 1960s were manifestations of the current mainstream in the arts, then 60 years ago, at least to this reader, then contemporary theatre, film and art of today seem much more conventional, even conservative. No-one now, it seems, takes risks.
There are names that remain familiar in Susan Sontag’s critiques. We have a Genet, Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Godard, Brooke, Arthur Miller, but there are many others who would now claim only anonymity. But what is truly interesting is how reluctant Susan Sontag is even to mention trends from popular culture, the term I personally regard as a misnomer.
Indeed, the essays are, by contemporary standards, elitist. Ironic, isn’t it, that they come from the decade which became notorious for challenging elite status? Perhaps we forget that an element of 1960s culture was to invade elite structures, to cram them with experience it would find both challenging and uncomfortable. Susan Sontag herself obliquely refers to this attempt at change by noting “…the American theater is ruled by an extraordinary, irrepressible zest for intellectual simplification. Every idea is reduced to cliché, and the function of cliché is to castrate an idea.” The implication is that much needed change via infiltration was already happening. One wonders what her opinion might be today.
As already stated, these essays on criticism unashamedly intellectual. There is not a hint that they also want to address popular themes in popular language or on its own terms. Susan Sontag does address popular culture, but sometimes, as in her analysis of science fiction movie scenarios, to record her belief that it relies on the formulaic. She was not alone in casting an apparently academic eye over mass market culture. At the same time in Britain, we had Kenneth Tynan and Bernard Levin, both young Mavericks in their way, but also both securely establishment figures, despite Tynan’s enduring celebrity drawn from his use of the f-word on a live television chat show. And Bernard Levin, for those who care to remember, offered a satirical and critical monologue late on Saturday nights on That Was The Week That Was, the satirical revue populated by largely upper-class intellectuals who would later become superstars and pillars of the establishment. This was a fate not to befall Susan Sontag and some of her ideas still sound contemporary.
How about this as a plea to writers that they should imagine a status other than Godly? “The immediate cozy recognition that the lifelike in most novels induces is, and should be, suspect… I wholeheartedly sympathize with what she objects to in the old fashion novel. Vanity Fair and Buddenbrooks, when I read them recently, however marvelous they still seemed, also made me wince. I could not stand the omnipotent author showing me that’s how life is, making me compassionate and tearful, with his obstreperous irony, his confidential air of perfectly knowing his characters and leading me, the reader, to feel that I knew them too. I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand.” How many subsequent writers took note of this advice? My suggestion is a few, but none of them popular.
At the heart of Susan Sontag’s ideas about art, theatre, literature and criticism is the need for audiences to be open to challenge. She writes “Hence, too, the peculiar dependence of a work of art, however expressive, upon the cooperation of the person having the experience, for one may see what is ‘said’ but remain unmoved, either through dullness or distraction. Art is seduction, not rape. A work of art possesses a type of experience designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.” Perhaps the 60 years that intervened have conspired to reduce this willingness to tolerate the unexpected? Or perhaps nothing has changed. Audiences were never very good at it.
In the Modern Classics edition of her work, Susan Sontag had the opportunity, some 30 years after publication, to offer her own reflections on the significance of the writing. She reflects on how the artistic climate had already changed and on the characteristics of the decade in which her critical essays were written. These three short quotes from the final essay from the 1990s indicate why Against Interpretation is now an achievement in its own right, and not simply a response to the work of others.
“Perhaps the most interesting characteristics of the time now labeled the Sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian movement.”
“Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic’ to most people and when allowed - an arbitrary decision of temperament - probably unhealthy, too.”
“The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”
Truly we live in a different age.