by Susan Sontag
“Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny - very tiny, content.”
- Willem De Kooning, in an interview
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
- Oscar Wilde, in a letter
The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, , Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.
It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself.
Plato, who proposed the theory, seems to have done so in order to rule that the value of art is dubious. Since he considered ordinary material things as themselves mimetic objects, imitations of transcendent forms or structures, even the best painting of a bed would be only an “imitation of an imitation.” For Plato, art is neither particularly useful (the painting of a bed is no good to sleep on), nor, in the strict sense, true. And Aristotle’s arguments in defense of art do not really challenge Plato’s view that all art is an elaborate trompe l’oeil, and therefore a lie. But he does dispute Plato’s idea that art is useless. Lie or no, art has a certain value according to Aristotle because it is a form of therapy. Art is useful, after all, Aristotle counters, medicinally useful in that it arouses and purges dangerous emotions.
In Plato and Aristotle, the mimetic theory of art goes hand in hand with the assumption that art is always figurative. But advocates of the mimetic theory need not close their eyes to decorative and abstract art. The fallacy that art is necessarily a “realism” can be modified or scrapped without ever moving outside the problems delimited by the mimetic theory.
The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such - above and beyond given works of art - becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.
Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . .,” “What X said is . . .” etc., etc.)
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.
This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.
Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.
Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.
Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don’t you see that X is really - or, really means - A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?
What situation could prompt this curious project for transforming a text? History gives us the materials for an answer. Interpretation first appears in the culture of late classical antiquity, when the power and credibility of myth had been broken by the “realistic” view of the world introduced by scientific enlightenment. Once the question that haunts post-mythic consciousness - that of the seemliness of religious symbols - had been asked, the ancient texts were, in their pristine form, no longer acceptable. Then interpretation was summoned, to reconcile the ancient texts to “modern” demands. Thus, the Stoics, to accord with their view that the gods had to be moral, allegorized away the rude features of Zeus and his boisterous clan in Homer’s epics. What Homer really designated by the adultery of Zeus with Leto, they explained, was the union between power and wisdom. In the same vein, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the literal historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible as spiritual paradigms. The story of the exodus from , the wandering in the desert for forty years, and the entry into the promised land, said Philo, was really an allegory of the individual soul’s emancipation, tribulations, and final deliverance. Interpretation thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy. The situation is that for some reason a text has become unacceptable; yet it cannot be discarded. Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text (another notorious example is the Rabbinic and Christian “spiritual” interpretations of the clearly erotic Song of Songs), they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.
Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. 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. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning - the latent content - beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) - all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.
Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)
The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.
In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comformable.
This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself - albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony - the clear and explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the job.
The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God. . . . Another oeuvre that has attracted interpreters like leeches is that of Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s delicate dramas of the withdrawn consciousness - pared down to essentials, cut off, often represented as physically immobilized - are read as a statement about modern man’s alienation from meaning or from God, or as an allegory of psychopathology.
Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation have taken hold. But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and is applied to works of every quality. Thus, in the notes that Elia Kazan published on his production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it becomes clear that, in order to direct the play, Kazan had to discover that Stanley Kowalski represented the sensual and vengeful barbarism that was engulfing our culture, while Blanche Du Bois was Western civilization, poetry, delicate apparel, dim lighting, refined feelings and all, though a little the worse for wear to be sure. Tennessee Williams’ forceful psychological melodrama now became intelligible: it was about something, about the decline of Western civilization. Apparently, were it to go on being a play about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Du Bois, it would not be manageable.
It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted. Perhaps Tennessee Williams thinks Streetcar is about what thinks it to be about. It may be that Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet and in Orpheus wanted the elaborate readings which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their “meanings.” Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that Williams’ plays and Cocteau’s films do suggest these portentous meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking in conviction.
From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations. But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form.
Again, Ingmar Bergman may have meant the tank rumbling down the empty night street in The Silence as a phallic symbol. But if he did, it was a foolish thought. (“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” said .) Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.
It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.
Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.
Interpretation does not, of course, always prevail. In fact, a great deal of today’s art may be understood as motivated by a flight from interpretation. To avoid interpretation, art may become parody. Or it may become abstract. Or it may become (“merely”) decorative. Or it may become non-art.
The flight from interpretation seems particularly a feature of modern painting. Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation. Pop Art works by the opposite means to the same result; using a content so blatant, so “what it is,” it, too, ends by being uninterpretable.
A great deal of modern poetry as well, starting from the great experiments of French poetry (including the movement that is misleadingly called Symbolism) to put silence into poems and to reinstate the magic of the word, has escaped from the rough grip of interpretation. The most recent revolution in contemporary taste in poetry - the revolution that has deposed Eliot and elevated Pound - represents a turning away from content in poetry in the old sense, an impatience with what made modern poetry prey to the zeal of interpreters.
I am speaking mainly of the situation in , of course. Interpretation runs rampant here in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde: fiction and the drama. Most American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that novels and plays (in ), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation.
But programmatic avant-gardism - which has meant, mostly, experiments with form at the expense of content - is not the only defense against the infestation of art by interpretations. At least, I hope not. For this would be to commit art to being perpetually on the run. (It also perpetuates the very distinction between form and content which is, ultimately, an illusion.) Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films, I believe. This is why cinema is the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now. Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is, is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it, and still being good. For example, a few of the films of Bergman - though crammed with lame messages about the modern spirit, thereby inviting interpretations - still triumph over the pretentious intentions of their director. In Winter Light and The Silence, the beauty and visual sophistication of the images subvert before our eyes the callow pseudo-intellectuality of the story and some of the dialogue. (The most remarkable instance of this sort of discrepancy is the work of D. W. Griffith.) In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret. Many old Hollywood films, like those of Cukor, Walsh, Hawks, and countless other directors, have this liberating anti-symbolic quality, no less than the best work of the new European directors, like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Olmi’s The Fiancés.
The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art. It also owes to the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds. Then, too, there is always something other than content in the cinema to grab hold of, for those who want to analyze. For the cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms - the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting, and composition of the frame that goes into the making of a film.
What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?
What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary - a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary - for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. On film, drama, and painting respectively, I can think of Erwin Panofsky’s essay, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” Northrop Frye’s essay “A Conspectus of Dramatic Genres,” Pierre Francastel’s essay “The Destruction of a Plastic Space.” Roland Barthes’ book On Racine and his two essays on Robbe-Grillet are examples of formal analysis applied to the work of a single author. (The best essays in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, like “The Scar of Odysseus,” are also of this type.) An example of formal analysis applied simultaneously to genre and author is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov.”
Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.
Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example, the films of Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life.
Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
“One of the difficulties is that our idea of form is spatial (the Greek metaphors for form are all derived from notions of space). This is why we have a more ready vocabulary of forms for the spatial than for the temporal arts. The exception among the temporal arts, of course, is the drama; perhaps this is because the drama is a narrative (i.e., temporal) form that extends itself visually and pictorially, upon a stage. . . . What we don’t have yet is a poetics of the novel, any clear notion of the forms of narration. Perhaps film criticism will be the occasion of a breakthrough here, since films are primarily a visual form, yet they are also a subdivision of literature. o deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.”
Seriousness, for Susan Sontag, was a flashing machete to swing at the thriving vegetation of American philistinism. The philistinism sprang from our barbarism—and our barbarism had conquered the world. “Today’s America,” she wrote in 1966, “with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing.” Intellectuals, doomed to tramp through an absurd century, were to inflict their seriousness on Governor Reagan and President Johnson—and on John Wayne, spareribs, and the whole shattered, voluptuous culture.
The point was to be serious about power and serious about pleasure: cherish literature, relish films, challenge domination, release yourself into the rapture of sexual need—but be thorough about it. “Seriousness is really a virtue for me,” Sontag wrote in her journal after a night at the Paris opera. She was twenty-four. Decades later, and months before she died, she mounted a stage in South Africa to declare that all writers should “love words, agonize over sentences,” “pay attention to the world,” and, crucially, “be serious.”
Only a figure of such impossible status would dare to glorify a mood. Here was a woman who had barged into the culture with valiant attempts at experimental fiction (largely unread) and experimental cinema (largely unseen) and yet whose blazing essays in Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books won her that rare combination of aesthetic and moral prestige. She was a youthful late modernist who, late in life, published two vast historical novels that turned to previous centuries for both their setting and their narrative blueprint; and a seer whose prophecies were promptly revised after every bashing encounter with mass callousness and political failure. The Vietnam War, Polish Solidarity, AIDS, the Bosnian genocide, and 9/11 drove her to revoke old opinions and brandish new ones with equal vigor. In retrospect, her positions are less striking than her pose—that bold faith in her power as an eminent, vigilant, properly public intellectual to chasten and to instruct.
Other writers had abandoned their post. So Sontag responded to a 1997 survey “about intellectuals and their role” with a kind of regal pique:
What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which, as their participation in these events testifies, they belong.
She held a contrary creed. “I go to war,” she said a decade after witnessing the siege of Sarajevo, “because I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be, and war is a tremendous reality in our world.”
Behind the extravagant drama, though, was a shivering doubt. Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete, that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance. The feeling flared up abruptly, both when she was thrilled by radical action and when she was aghast at public complacency.
“For Susan Sontag, the Illusions of the 60’s Have Been Dissipated”: this was the smiling headline for a profile of Sontag in the Times. The year was 1980, a hinge for her, and the article—by a twenty-five-year-old Michiko Kakutani—was occasioned by the release of “Under the Sign of Saturn,” Sontag’s fifth book of nonfiction. “Although she maintains that her current attitudes are not inconsistent with her former positions,” Kakutani wrote, “Miss Sontag’s views have undergone a considerable evolution over the last decade and a half.” The gruesome disappointment of the sixties’ militancy had sent shudders through the left-wing intelligentsia of which Sontag had once been a symbol.
So the Times piece presented a woman of dignified prudence, whose deviations are of the mature, domesticated kind. “The sensibility that resides in this particular town house is an eclectic one indeed,” Kakutani begins, as the piece swivels like a periscope to survey the gleaming appurtenances of the life of the mind: the eight-thousand-volume library, the idiosyncratic record collection, and the portraits of iconic writers who keep watch over Sontag’s desk like benevolent household gods—Woolf, Wilde, Proust.
And Simone Weil, the Marxist turned mystic who, during the Second World War, fled her native France and protested the humiliation of her countrymen by starving herself to death. In 1963, Sontag had begun an article on Weil, for the first issue of The New York Review of Books, with a thundering declaration: “The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois.” So, at that point, was Sontag. Weil was a specimen, for her, of a fascinating species: the raving writer, the flagellant writer, the writer impaled on ruthless principle. “No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom,” Sontag wrote. “Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.”
To love seriousness was to quest for electrifying contact with spiritual and ideological extremes. The piece on Weil—a woman “excruciatingly identical with her ideas”—is a hymn to extremity. Extremity shone with the promise of transcendence, which is why Sontag strapped herself to the thrashing energies of the sixties. She was enshrined as an intellectual in revolt, unleashing her polemics on the repressive drabness of “our liberal bourgeois civilization.” Along the way, she learned, as she put it, “the speed at which a bulky essay in Partisan Review becomes a hot tip in Time.” The Weil essay, along with pieces on Alain Resnais, psychoanalysis, Camus, and Cesare Pavese, appeared in Sontag’s first essay collection, which in 1966 boomed cannon-like from the prow of the literary left: “Against Interpretation.”
It was crucial to be against: against fustiness, against the horror in Vietnam, against the leering excesses and calculated impoverishments of the global capitalist order. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”—Sontag’s phrase from the book’s title essay—is now imprinted on the public imagination because it sent the ecstasies of the youth movement hurtling toward the arena of aesthetic taste.
“Styles of Radical Will,” Sontag’s best book, was published three years later, and contained an essay on Godard in which she gave full-throated expression to the spirit of revolution that had swept up the poor, the dark, the sensuous, and the young. “The great culture heroes of our time,” Sontag announced, again, “have shared two qualities: they have all been ascetics in some exemplary way, and also great destroyers.”
This was in 1968—the year she flew to Hanoi and visited the Vietcong, publishing an account in Esquire. It was the apex of her militant commitment. Although she had long since turned up her nose at the “philistine fraud” of the American Communist Party, the North Vietnamese had inspired her, the struggle filling her mind with a vision of a changed world. “The Vietnamese are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we are,” she marvelled.
But, while she was being led around by terse, determined guerrillas, it struck her that her elaborate American appetites for rock and psychology and The New York Review of Books were marks of the very luxury she longed, in those days, to abolish. “I live in an unethical society,” she wrote in her journal,
that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures. Those who don’t enjoy (in both senses) my pleasures have every right, from their side, to regard my consciousness as spoiled, corrupt, decadent.
She yearned to be identical to her ideas, to display the punishing consistency of Weil, but her ideas jostled and sparked, exploding her sense of what she was, or wanted to be.
This season brings us a Sontag collection that scrapes through the varnish of her persona. “Debriefing” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Benjamin Taylor, gathers her eleven short stories. It also stages a coup. Sontag the fantastically assured “dark lady of American letters” is guillotined by Sontag the punk, Sontag the agitated diarist, Sontag the perplexed. Short fiction was never quite her form, and these stories see her lurching down the page. They catch her between postures, in moments of poignant psychological wobble. This isn’t the majestic air of paradox that gallops through her writing on photography or Camus or camp but, rather, an aching, moving irresolution.
The private Sontag has, of course, already been thrust into the light by two volumes of her journals: “Reborn” and “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh.” They expose her sincerity and self-doubt, and bare the homosexual life about which she was so laboriously coy. And they furnish us with a fuller picture of her early life: the fatherless childhood in Arizona, the adolescence in Los Angeles, the precocity at the University of Chicago, and her marriage, at seventeen, to the scholar Philip Rieff. Then, there’s the brooding, demanding, but, finally, astonishing woman of letters presented to us by a rising pile of remembrances, notably Sigrid Nunez’s “Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag” and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a now iconic 2005 essay by Terry Castle in the London Review of Books.
“Debriefing” has a different appeal. The book lies somewhere between the bronze-plated imperiousness of her essays and the veil-yanking satisfactions of the journals. Raw, flailing feeling is pinched and styled, sometimes clumsily. The clumsiness is affecting. The satires here—“American Spirits,” “Baby”—are failures. But in the sad pieces our dauntless aesthete offers us glimpses of her psyche, and of intelligent heroes melting into a sense of sophisticated futility and thwarted feeling. Here is a Sontag heaving herself through shredded political romances and sapped passions, applying her ardor to disillusionment and drift.
“Old Complaints Revisited,” a story first published in 1974, portrays the agonies of flagging commitment: “I want to leave, but I can’t. Each day I wake up and tell myself today I’ll write a letter. No, better yet, I’ll go around and let the organizer know in person that I’m resigning. My arguments are in order. I review them in my head.” Anomie is not the problem. Attachment is. Our narrator is a servile participant in something called “the organization” but is on the brink of a traumatic break. Sontag pitches the “I” of the story against the shifting, anonymous mass of “the members,” loyal adherents to an unspecified political ideology. There have been purges and treasons in the past; now what is demanded—and insidiously enforced—is discipline. That discipline is political, psychological, and likely pointless, “unless the organization was designed simply to demonstrate the power of human perseverance in the face of crushing obstacles.”
But suffering within the organization rewards the sufferer with a perverse cachet. So a whole political insurgency trudges along, wincing beneath the whip of a relentless sanctimony. The narrator—whose gender is carefully withheld—admits “my wish to lead not just a good but a morally intense life,” and we see that this is the damning little virtue that makes him or her so vulnerable to the tyranny of the group. This is a tight, asphyxiating seriousness. The narrator had wanted to be a writer. Yet the organization promises a purpose: a chance to bring the political will and the starving spirit into shining, total alignment.
Sontag, glancing at Kafka, opts for allegory. She furnishes us with a model of how orthodoxy takes hold of the psyche and begins to twist. The narrator writhes within a fantasy of political commitment, though the political conditions are unripe. The dreamed-of reckoning is impossibly distant. So power is exerted almost entirely within the organization, among its pious militants, generations of whom have clung to their lovely discipline throughout a vast, indifferent history. A lesson flickers at the bottom of the fable. “Dissent must be set off from dissent,” the narrator says. “I dissent differently.”
The idea haunted her. Slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice, sensuous extravagance and leftist commitment, Sontag sometimes found herself contemplating the obliteration of her role as public advocate-cum-arbiter of taste. To be serious was to stake a belief in attention—but, in a world that demands action, could attention be enough? (“I wanted to be useful,” she remarked of her 1978 book, “Illness as Metaphor.”) Because she had gone through the conflicts of the sixties, her instinct was to sprint to the barricades and decry quietism as complicity and contentedness as moral failure. This was the logic of movements, of course. But she would live to see them die.
“I don’t want to satisfy my desire, I want to exasperate it,” a character says in “Unguided Tour,” which appeared in this magazine in 1977. The story, which bears an open resemblance to the work of Donald Barthelme, is made up of dialogue between two nameless speakers, and rolls, with gloomy facility, from war to history to art. Love, as the opening lines make clear, throbs at the narrative center:
I took a trip to see the beautiful things. Change of scenery. Change of heart. And do you know?
They’re still there.
Ah, but they won’t be there for long.
I know. That’s why I went. To say goodbye. Whenever I travel, it’s always to say goodbye.
We’re instantly faced with a question of scale. How, Sontag wants to know, can the psyche manage its devotions—to love, but also to the immensity of the world? The problem intensifies, as private loss (“change of heart”) is stamped dolefully upon the landscape (“change of scenery”). Like actors in Godard, Sontag’s characters speak a sighing, allusive language draped with erudition. The action here, if it can be called that, unfolds in a glamorously abstract, vaguely Continental universe: there’s a dictator, a piazza, a war—and souvenirs, cathedrals, and the exiled leader of a Liberation Front. (When she later made a filmed version of the story—the fourth and last of her films—she shot it in Venice.) “The trial is next week, so now they’re having demonstrations. Can’t you see the banner?” But the political intrigue is muffled, distant, a chic ripple in sensibility.
These are privileged people. They ransack the planet in a ravenous search for stimulation, an act that churns experience to an exhausted, cosmopolitan sludge. They lament this. In their drained world, there’s nothing but the memory of love, the memory of joy—and the memory, strangely, of a socialist hope. “We can march in their workers’ festivals,” one says airily to the other, “and sing the ‘Internationale,’ for even we know the words.”
Even we know the words: political solidarity shrivels into pantomime. The gestures are wooden and rote. Intelligence has spent itself, plunging into a kind of spiritual insolvency. And history, offered up for the delectation of Sontag’s protagonists, is revealed to be a miserable fetish, “one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love.”
“Unguided Tour,” like “Old Complaints Revisited” and six other stories in “Debriefing,” were collected in the only other book of Sontag’s stories, “I, etcetera,” from 1978. The title is telling. So is the year. A decade had passed since the peak of the youth movement, with which she had declared a gallant sympathy. Many of these stories, then, are stalked by the memory of an age of revolution: the shrieking climax and thudding bathos, the militant action and miserable defeat, the struck postures and private sacrifice—all the desperate palpitations of a heart hurled at the world.
The final portrait above Sontag’s desk in 1980—hanging beside Woolf, Wilde, Proust, and Weil—was of the German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin, who sulks beautifully at the center of Sontag’s essay “Under the Sign of Saturn.” It is the key to “Later Essays” (Library of America), a new volume that collects her last five books, excepting the novels, and trembles with melancholy. Benjamin was loosely attached to the Frankfurt School: a coterie of Marxist scholars that included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (the last of whom shared a house with Sontag and her then husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts). The group rose to radical prestige in Weimar Germany by piercing the skin of bourgeois ideology with their glinting dialectical acuity. Soon they were forced to flee. Many of them settled at universities in the United States, but Benjamin, devotee of Baudelaire and translator of Proust, insisted on going to Paris—and died while escaping to Spain. “I felt I was describing myself,” Sontag told Kakutani about the Benjamin essay. “I’m trying to tell the truth, but of course I know I am drawn to the part of people that reminds me of myself.”
That part was probably Benjamin’s lavish intellectual appetite and tragic posture. His political intensity bloomed with feeling but also romantic contradiction; his writing revels in an astral sorrow. “I came into the world,” he once proclaimed, “under the sign of Saturn—the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.” He struck Sontag as “fiercely serious,” and something like his tenebrous sophistication rolls through all her books. He was drawn to Communism but preferred reading poetry to reading Marx; flashes of him can be glimpsed both in the shuddering militant of “Old Complaints Revisited” and in the weary flâneurs of “Unguided Tour,” who sigh along to anthems because they haven’t forgotten the words. Sontag’s essay concludes with a striking interpretation of Benjamin’s essay on the Viennese critic Karl Kraus which serves as a précis of her own political fate:
Benjamin asks rhetorically: Does Kraus stand on the frontier of a new age? “Alas, by no means. For he stands on the threshold of the Last Judgment.” Benjamin is thinking of himself. At the Last Judgment, the Last Intellectual—that Saturnine hero of modern culture, with his ruins, his defiant visions, his reveries, his unquenchable gloom, his downcast eyes—will explain that he took many “positions” and defended the life of the mind to the end, as righteously and inhumanly as he could.
The essay is from 1978, the same year as “I, etcetera.” That is to say, three years after the official Vietcong victory, which prompted Sontag’s exhausted ambivalence. In Benjamin’s intellectual style, or her rather idiosyncratic understanding of it, she had found a trapdoor in the roaring malevolence of history, the chance to be blistering but vulnerable—the chance, that is, to dissent differently.
Four years later, speaking at Town Hall, in Manhattan_,_ Sontag condemned Communism as “Fascism with a human face,” and—on a stage she shared with E. L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, and Gore Vidal—declared that “people on the left have willingly or unwillingly told a lot of lies.” The promises of the sixties, for her, had curdled. Although Sontag, like Benjamin, was never reconciled to the cruelties of capitalist society, she felt betrayed by its looming alternative.
She couldn’t possibly resign herself to an uncommitted aestheticism. But she tried. Sontag had told Kakutani in 1980 that political disengagement might prompt the culture to produce good, and not simply urgent, art: “We now have a situation where people are denied the hectic consolations of being part of movements.” Sontag claimed to cherish this new loneliness, since “in the end the life of a writer is very solitary.”
The statement is unlike her and was promptly forgotten. But you can hear in it the longing for something beyond the saturnine luminosity of Benjamin and the saintly self-martyrdom of Weil. A playfulness, perhaps—or, at least, a lightness of touch. “Later Essays” contains two pieces on Roland Barthes. He traipsed through postwar intellectual vogues—structuralism, semiology—and revelled, finally, in his own trilling peculiarities, an unrepentant aesthete. “He lacks anything like Walter Benjamin’s tragic awareness that every work of civilization is also a work of barbarism,” Sontag wrote in 1982, at a period in her life when she was becalmed between causes. Barthes, whom she had known, was for her a chuckling intellectual counterweight to her own erudite woe. This was a man “not tormented by the catastrophes of modernity or tempted by its revolutionary illusions,” who “refers to the present literary era as ‘a moment of gentle apocalypse.’ ” Such gentleness and humor and freedom from torment: these were traits she could admire but never quite claim.
“AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Sontag’s 1989 book and her next after “Under the Sign of Saturn,” announced her return, if not to militancy, then to advocacy. “The AIDS epidemic serves as an ideal projection for First World political paranoia,” she reported with alarm. The book is a bit pat, the arguments often self-evident—but it shoved Sontag back into the arena of political contest, her precious aloneness having been crumbled by collective suffering. The world had again been shattered, this time by a syndrome that was tearing through sub-Saharan Africa and the homosexual demimonde—that is, through populations already damaged by negligence or singled out for contempt by the same forces of reaction that Sontag had charged at twenty years before.
She recognized this. She was struck by the phrasing employed by the foreign minister of apartheid South Africa: “The terrorists are now coming to us with a weapon more terrible than Marxism: AIDS.” And she was appalled that the reactionaries in her own country—Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Norman Podhoretz—derived a cackling vindication from “pursuing one of the main activities of the so-called neoconservatives, the Kulturkampf against all that is called, for short (and inaccurately), the 1960s,” as they regarded AIDS as a punishment for the freedoms won by a rebellious age. The most gratifying insights of “AIDS and Its Metaphors” spring from this revelation of historical continuity, a sense that the old alliances, on behalf of the exploited and the despised, could be defrosted by political emergency.
Which is perhaps why the story in “Debriefing” that makes AIDS its explicit subject, “The Way We Live Now,” is also the strongest. Published in this magazine in 1986, it grasps the vastness and urgency of the crisis while noting its infinitesimal effects on the lives it disrupts. Devastating triviality and muddled sentiment scuttle through an account of a dying man and his friends. The man is never named:
And among those who came or checked in by phone every day, the inner circle as it were, those who were getting more points, there was still a further competition, which was what was getting on Betsy’s nerves, she confessed to Jan; there’s always that vulgar jockeying for position around the bedside of the gravely ill, and though we all feel suffused with virtue at our loyalty to him (speak for yourself, said Jan), to the extent that we’re carving time out of every day, or almost every day, though some of us are dropping out, as Xavier pointed out, aren’t we getting at least as much out of this as he is.
That “he” is stretched among the rattling psyches of Betsy, Jan, Quentin, Tanya, Paolo, Xavier. The story’s sentences are often like the one above—long, recursive, pocked by little objections and ricocheting between conflicting accounts. The single, powerful will—that reservoir of beautiful seriousness—has evaporated. Here, then, is a stifled kind of suffering, revealed in its power to inspire compassion and vanity and dread. “People are storing their own blood, for future use,” Sontag remarks in “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” The old model of altruism—donating blood anonymously—had been undermined by the epidemic. “Self-interest now receives an added boost as simple medical prudence.” So there’s a marvellous smallness to “The Way We Live Now.” What seems like love for the weakened, nameless protagonist turns into cynicism and selfishness. Perhaps, she suggests, that selfishness is built into this particular crisis seizing these particular people in their particular era—an era that wallows in the aftermath of dashed collective hope. This is an annihilating, spiritual fatigue.
And it grips Julia, a mordant, troubled woman, from the title story of “Debriefing.” Sontag’s style here is drifting and elegant, bearing a glimmering likeness to the work of her friend Elizabeth Hardwick. (She used to speak of putting “more Lizzie” in her prose.) Julia thrashes, moans, acts out, seems to dissolve into and finally reject the world. She throws herself at mysticism, withdraws from reason, and yet manages, still, to make people love her. Among those people is the narrator: the woman watching, feeling, trying to reason and haggle and intervene with Julia, trying to pay effortful, serious attention. The effort fails but is not, perhaps, useless. As the narrator admits near the story’s end, “I want to save my soul, that timid wind.”
“I was not trying to lead anyone into the Promised Land except myself,” Sontag wrote in 1966, sizing up the fiercer winds that gust through “Against Interpretation.” It has become a critical cliché to smirk at her dramatic volte-faces. In “Thirty Years Later,” written in 1995 as the preface to a Spanish edition of that book, she harrumphs at what remained of the sixties—its insolence, its impotent fury, its yen for levelling hierarchies—and laments what didn’t: the bravery, the élan that had driven her to espouse an “erotics of art” or to herald destruction as a creative impulse. She regrets her failure to grasp “that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large” even as she pines for that decade’s buoyancy and dauntless spirit.
“How one wishes,” she writes, “some of its boldness, its optimism, its disdain for commerce had survived.” The words tug at a thread that shoots through “Later Essays.” Sontag went to Bosnia in 1993, outraged that genocide prompted such a sluggish response from the West, which could, in her opinion, have swiftly halted the slaughter with a well-placed military campaign. By going to Vietnam in 1968, she had lodged her virulent protest against American bombs. In the Sarajevo of 1993, she wondered where they were.
She wondered the same about the intelligentsia. “How many times,” Sontag fumed in that questionnaire from 1997, “has one heard in the last decades that intellectuals are obsolete, or that so-and-so is ‘the last intellectual’?” The line appears halfway through “Later Essays” and trumpets an irony that hums through the preceding pages. Four years earlier, she’d directed Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in a harrowed Sarajevo. The world’s crises and allurements still transfixed her, and it remained the task of the intellectual to be sharply attentive and heroically stimulated.
“What has followed in the wake of 1989 and the suicide of the Soviet empire,” she wrote in an essay on the response of her peers to the Bosnian genocide, “is the final victory of capitalism, and of the ideology of consumerism, which entails the discrediting of ‘the political’ as such.” No triumphalism, then, about the End of History. If the political was hollowed, art was trivialized and collective life debased. All the valor and drama seemed to her to have vanished from the slack-jawed, victorious West. There was no ardor or ethics or conflict—and therefore no style, no virtue, no taste. What was lacking, in a word, was seriousness. ♦