On Sontag's essays “Against Interpretation” (1964), “On Style” (1965), and "The Death of Tragedy” (1963).
What is it to understand a work of art? Sontag objects to critics' need to decode or translate literature into it's "meaning" or "content," divorcing it in the process from how this content is embodied. She argues that this content vs. form distinction isn't tenable; that the style of a work is an essential part of experiencing it. Like Nietzsche, Sontag thinks we're too analytical, too divorced from our instincts, and a direct encounter with art is essential to enliven us.
"Against Interpretation" is the direct statement of this view. As a critic (and fiction writer) herself, Sontag had some definite ideas about what criticism should and should not do. It should help orient us to better understand a work. It should not seek to replace the work, to restate "what the work is trying to say" in simpler terms, to distill out the philosophical points, and definitely not to translate it according to some set of interpretative principles, which is what she accuses Freudian and Marxist interpreters of doing.
So what's the alternative? What is it to engage with a work instead of standing at a distance and analyzing it? Well, it's not what the average person does either, which, according to José Ortega y Gasset's "The Dehumanization of Art" (which this essay is in large part an elaboration of and reaction to), is to identify with the characters and get sucked into the drama of the story. This too would be a matter of ignoring the work as art and zeroing in on its content, taken in this case as human drama and not as its "message." Sontag agrees with Ortega y Gasset and Kant that appreciating art means appreciating its form. However, she's with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in insisting that this is an ecstatic, disturbing experience, that we're not just beholding the form that an artist's will has taken, but participating in it, because that's how wills work with each other: The spectator essentially vibrates at the unique frequency of the work of art. This is philosophically important because art "educates the will to be in the world."
"On Style," an essay that we introduced near the end of our our Shahidha Bari interview, gives us a complimentary way of making the same point. If the "message," the translated core, is the content of a work, then the style would be its form. As modern intellectuals, we're trained to see style as just the surface, as literally shallow, to be pierced through to get to what's deep and important. But the style is the rhythm of the work, it is what I just metaphorically called its frequency, and so is actually an inseparable part of the work's depth (its soul, if you will). Yes, some writers are more "stylized" than others, in that they are more playful or ornate with language, but we can't pretend that there's "style-less" writing. The simple sentences of Ernest Hemingway (or Camus's style in The Stranger, which is an expression of the blankness of the protagonist) still count as a distinct style.
One significant complication: Sontag praises in section 9 of "Against Interpretation" the idea of "transparence… the highest, most liberating value in art—-and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are." So the critical work should ideally present "a really accurate, sharp, loving description of a work of art." But clearly Sontag herself, as a critic (like Noah Berlatsky), is writing these essays not to just transparently expose us to good works of art, but to use works as a springboard to make some independent philosophical points. That seems to be exactly what Lacan is doing in his psychoanalytic analyses: explicating a work, yes, but not trying to replace it, but to give us more. Sontag is against this; she thinks we in the modern age are so overwhelmed by works that we shouldn't be seeking to multiply them, but to experience move vividly, with more transparence. People who praise Hemingway and complain about the style of a work being too showy do, according to this transparence ethic, have a legitimate point: An artist can clearly get in his or her own way (some day I'll feel comfortable using "their" in this context in a blog post, but not quite yet; hey, this parenthetical digression is illustrating my point by disrupting the flow of my sentence!), and a masterful stylist will create a "frequency" that is unified, that is most amenable to vibrating along with it.
In part two, we'll finish "On Style" and introduce a third essay, "The Death of Tragedy," to more directly connect Sontag's views to our recent Aristotle episode. Get the full, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
You can find all three of these essays, as well as hilarious essays targeting Sartre and Camus, in her collection, Against Interpretation and Other Essays.
Picture by Genevieve Arnold.