An Erotics of Art: Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

After we had condensed a fat classic into a single line in high school–my introduction to literary criticism–I grumbled to myself, “If that was all the writer wanted to say, then why did I have to read 472 pages and several articles? Why didn’t he just say it directly? Why bother hiding his point behind obscure symbols, as if it were some complex word puzzle?”

However, as Susan Sontag suggests in her essay “Against Interpretation,” art is more than its meaning. It is an experience, a sensual, emotional, and spiritual interaction. The urge to interpret, she argues, is “the revenge of the intellect upon art,” the revenge of the mind against something it cannot easily contain.

Instead, she says, we need an “erotics of art.”

“Bliss Dance,” giant sculpture by Macrco Cochane that once graced Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay (photo by Ronosaurus Rex)

By reducing a work to its meaning, a critic or student tames it, makes it manageable, removes its sometimes frightening, uncertain power that it has over us. In the same way, people reduce others to a category by saying, “So, you’re a Jehovah’s Witness,” or “You’re a middle child. That explains everything.” This labeling process makes the person easier to deal with than an emotive, contradictory being. Sontag is not trying to say that all interpretation is bad – she says it can be useful in “transvaluing” works from the past, reinterpreting older works for a newer age. Interpretation also helps us to know what the work is and how it is what it is, but that there is much more to literature than interpretation.

How many times have we heard someone react to an abstract painting with, “I don’t understand it,” or “I don’t know what it means.” Actually, the painting may not mean anything, but instead be a play of color, form, texture, and, perhaps, emotion.

Abstract photo by Ronosaurus Rex

Working then from her ideas and my own, the other levels at which literature, to narrow the discussion a bit, can be experienced include: hedonism, aesthetics, emotion, culture, and spirituality. Hedonism includes the simple pleasure of reading which may be done under a tree or on a comfortable couch with a glass of wine. It includes the feel of the paper, the smell of the book, and the sheer pleasure of reading itself. No matter how serious, all literature is escapism. I lay down my own life and problems and enter that of another (although I usually retain some aspects of self). And in spite of what our puritanical society tells us, all good literature is entertaining. Even a Lars van Triers film can be enjoyable in the way you wallow in the misery. A well-crafted, meaningful work that lacks this entertainment value is soon forgotten.

Aesthetic appreciation can include an appreciation of the craftsmanship with which the writer forms the text. It can also include an aesthetic appreciation of the poetry of a phrase, the realism of a dialogue, the power of an image, the effect of a description, the pleasure of a good story. Furthermore, literature stirs our emotions and thereby helps us to feel alive. It provides catharsis and can help us to understand human psychology. It can be a cultural critique as well. (Although Sontag disapproves of a work whose primary purpose is to do these last few things.)

Sontag’s major complaint is that interpretation denies the mythic, spiritual aspects of literature. Some works, such as Dracula, seem to transcend mediocre writing exactly because it involves such a powerful archetype. One reason that The Lord of the Rings is so effective is because we have the feeling that Tolkien is not creating a world, so much as rediscovering it. He disliked allegory and felt that the story itself must first have its own validity. Parallels can be drawn, lessons can be learned, but the story comes first. His friend and colleague C.S. Lewis did use allegory extensively, but The Chronicles of Narnia, as an example, never falls flat or seems didactic and dull, because the stories themselves are so good.

Through literature, the universe is brought closer to us. We are able to go places, experience things and be people that we would not be able to experience otherwise. It blurs the line not only between reality and imagination, but between self and other, and ultimately leads to the realization that the universe is ONE as the word itself implies, one verse, one story.

Almost everyone wonders at some point about the purpose of life. When I rejected the value system that I was raised with, I began to grapple with the question. Eventually, I decided that the purpose of life is life itself. Life does not need an outside justification; it justifies itself. The universe exists to exist, and any “purpose” is a reduction of its mystery and complexity. Similarly, art has such an impact on us and on society is that it can be such a rich and manifold experience.

Sontag is not saying that interpretation does not have a place in literature. What she opposes is the idea that an intellectual “understanding” of a text is everything. We should try instead to experience the work directly as a whole, and this involves the senses, mythos, and (although she gives up the point grudgingly) intellect. In fact, a great deal of her writing is interpretation, for instance in her long essay On Photography. The “erotics of art,” according to my interpretation of Sontag, is an experience of the full being of a work of art: body, heart, spirit, and, yes, mind.

Susan Sontag

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