“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.
For thirty thousand years after she was carved, art was religion, until in Ancient Greece science stole the thunder from the gods: “The power and credibility of myth had been broken by the ‘realistic’ view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment” (Sontag 2), argues Sontag.
What then could the faithless do with poets such as Homer whose work they admired? Rather than throw them away, interpretation was summoned to recreate the texts for a new age, as Sontag explains: “Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it” (Sontag 2). The Stoics, for example, who argued the gods should be moral, read Zeus’s rape of Leto as a union between power and wisdom. This act of interpretation “presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers” (Sontag 2).
Art began to have significance beyond its manifest content; there was now something behind the work, so that we had to look under or around it. Form and content were torn apart. Instead of incantation, art became representation, and the theory of mimesis, the idea that art mimics reality, was born.
Sontag is against the type of interpretation that replaces art with a pat statement of meaning. She argues, “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one” (Sontag 3). Hermeneutics, that blind worm digging through the shell to reach the nut, searches for meaning, and as it searches, it obliterates.
The production of meaning through interpretation is essentially one of translation. The interpreter, Sontag argues, uncovers a one to one correspondence between elements of literature and what they are supposedly saying. Interpretation then is a reduction of a work to its most basic idea, a statement of meaning, thereby replacing a living, dangerous work of art with a dry and inanimate proposition: “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable” (Sontag 3). When we know what a work means, it is no longer mysterious; it loses its hypnotic effect over us, so she says that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag 3).
In the same way that we tame art, we tame the world. Hermeneutics, the science of interpretation of scripture and literature, is only one symptom of a wide-spread obsession with denying the raw smell and sweaty existence of the world: “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings’” (Sontag 3). Searching everywhere for meaning, we sap the vitality from the dove to make it a symbol of peace; we turn the rose into a sign of love; we replace the stars with astrological symbols. Does anyone see a cloud anymore or do we only see shapes of other things? What happened to the tangible world? Where did it go? “Away with all duplicates . . .” Sontag demands, “until we again experience more immediately what we have” (Sontag 3).
How can we “experience more immediately what we have?” First, we need to stop replacing things with their meanings and begin to experience “the luminousness of the thing in itself” (Sontag 6). We need “to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (Sontag 7). We must rescue the Venus of Willendorf from being simply a “fertility goddess” and feel her rough round weight in our hand and feel her inexplicable power. We must make art invocation again and experience it in a direct and sensual way.
Sensuality in art is a more intimate experience of form, technique, and sound. We need to taste the words, roll them across our tongues, bite them gently like nipples, and taste their milk. This love and sensuality is what Sontag meant when she wrote, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (Sontag 7). Don’t make sense, she is suggesting, make love.