The Venus of Interpretation: Susan Sontag is “Against Interpretation” and for the Sensual Love of Art

venus_of_willendorf_by_artofthemystic-d3glif3In the beginning, art was religion.

“The earliest experience of art,” Susan Sontag writes in “Against Interpretation,” “must have been that it was incantatory, magical” (Sontag 1). With her round belly and mammoth breasts, The Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest known human figurines from 30,000 BCE, was some kind of invocation, whether of fertility, childbearing, sex, the harvest, or the earth we cannot know, but she is undeniably an invocation.

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Anonymous was Woman: Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own,” and The Bechdel Test

So few women appeared in the literary canon before the 20th century, Virginia Woolf explains in A Room of One’s Own, because women lacked the education, encouragement and opportunity to become writers. Times have improved, thanks to pioneers like Woolf, but we still have far to go until women have an equal voice with men in literature and film.

Woolf proposes a gifted but uneducated sister of Shakespeare, named Judith, who eventually killed herself because she could find no outlet for her gift. Woolf argues that it is very difficult for genius to arise “among labouring, uneducated, servile people” (Woolf 1022). Those who are held down by class and convention, forced to slave away without schooling, have little opportunity to become great writers.

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The Reading of Mystery and the Mystery of Reading

Where do these tracks lead?

The trail comes out from under the trees, onto open savannas, where first we stood and began to follow animal traces with our eyes, reading signs and reconstructing stories of our prey. The path winds around a method of examination and interpretation of detail, which we might, in retrospect, call the art of detecting, modeled in a folk tale first known in the west as “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Next the trail moves upward through the scientific methodology and logic of Voltaire’s Zadig and reaches a summit in the technique of ratiocination in Edgar Allan Poe’s definitive mysteries. Eventually, the tracks continue across the screen and lead all the way to–

Well, I wouldn’t want to give it away.

By inviting the reader to participate in the resolution of the mystery, Poe established the genre. Taking advantage of the formal aspects of this type of tale, a tale of detection, which goads the reader into examining and interpreting detail, Poe was in effect encouraging close reading and even literary interpretation. For the art of detecting and the art of reading are so closely intertwined that we may call them the same act.

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Books I’ve Never Read Whose Titles Have Influenced Me

Even though I have not read these books, their titles have impacted my life, altering my values, my understanding, and my experience with their titles alone.

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Wilson Watts

The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

Because It is Bitter and Because It is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates

What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter

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From Glory to Gangrene: A Shift in Rhetoric in the Great War

Glory

A generation of poets greeted the Great War with many fine words, most of them capitalized: Honor, Glory, and England!  This capitalization, and all it implied, would not survive the trenches.

Modern progress had been disorienting up to that point, with its rapid industrialization, changes in science, shifts in philosophy and nearly incomprehensible art, but there was still the feeling, before the war, that civilization was marching onward and upward.  The word “progress” itself implies such an upward movement, and few, if any, questioned progress.  That idealistic view of technological advance was gassed in the fox holes.

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Acting Stereotypes Out: Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend

When Al Jolson put on black face in the first talkie, he turned himself white, according to the article “Blackface, White Noise: The Jazz Singer Finds His Voice” by Michael Rogin. Wasn’t Al Jolson white to begin with? Well, he was Jewish. The plot of The Jazz Singer (1927) revolves around the young performer’s decision to become a cantor for the synagogue, like his father, or pursue a career in Vaudeville. Jakie Rabinowitz chooses Vaudeville and changes his name to Jack Robin, just as Asa Yoelson had changed his name to Al Jolson. The movie, like the play it was based on, was a thinly veiled biography of its star.

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The Serial Beyond the Serial: Battlestar Galactica

A serial narrative is a story broken up across time, delivered in pieces rather than as a whole. Battlestar Galactica, the television series launched in 2004, is typical of a serial narrative: it has an overall narrative arc which stretches across four seasons, but, as is common for serials, especially in film and television, each episode has its own beginning, middle and end, so in effect we have many smaller stories making up a larger narrative. But these do not make up the entire tale of the Battlestar Galactica, not by a long shot. The recent TV series is itself an episode in a series of series, which extends into film, books, comics, games and webisodes, the whole of which is part of still larger traditions of science fiction, genre and religion. In fact, it is almost impossible to establish the limits of the story Battlestar Galactica, a serial within a series of series.

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The Cereal Narrative

A cereal narrative: Just as the milk fills the bowl, the doorbell rings. The milk slowly warms up and the Honey Bunches of Oats turns soggy. Swelling and disintegrating, the cereal becomes a kind of brownish mush that yellows over and sours, attracting flies. Late one night, the kitchen window opens slowly, scattering the flies. (To be continued.)

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