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Summer 1996

Thirty Years Later...

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Susan Sontag
To look back on writings of thirty years or more is not a wholesome exercise. My energy as a writer impels me to look forward, to feel, still, that I am beginning, really beginning now, which makes it hard to curb my impatience with that beginning writer I once was in the literal sense.

Against Interpretation, my second book, was published in 1966, but some texts in it date from 1961, when I was still writing The Benefactor. I had come to New York at the start of the 1960s—not to invent myself but to put to work the writer I had, since adolescence, pledged myself to become. My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in everything. Being interested in “everything” had always come naturally to me, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way. And natural to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended. The only surprise was that there weren’t more people like me.

I’m aware that Against Interpretation is regarded as a quintessential text of that now mythical era known as The Sixties. I evoke the label with reluctance, since I’m not keen on the omnipresent convention of packaging one’s life, the life of one’s time, in decades. And it wasn’t The Sixties, then. For me it was chiefly the time when I finally wrote a novel I liked well enough to publish, and began to discharge some of the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which had distracted me from writing fiction. I was filled with evangelical zeal.

The radical change I’d made in my own life, a change embedded in my moving to New York, was that I was not going to settle for being an academic: I would pitch my tent outside the seductive, stony safety of the university world. No doubt there were new permissions in the air, and old hierarchies had softened, had become ripe for toppling—but not that I was aware until after the time (1961 to 1965) that these essays were written. The freedoms I espoused, the ardors I was advocating, seemed to me—still seem to me—quite traditional. I saw myself as a newly minted warrior in a very old battle: against philistinism, against ethical and aesthetic shallowness and indifference. And I could never have imagined that both New York, where I had come to live after my long academic apprenticeship (Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard), and Paris, where I had started spending the summers, in daily attendance at the Cinemathèque, were in the early throes of a period that was, that would be judged as, uniquely vital. They were, New York and Paris, exactly as I’d imagined them to be—full of discoveries, inspirations, the sense of possibility. The dedication and daring and absence of venality of the artists whose work mattered to me seemed, well, normal. I thought it normal that there be new masterpieces every month—above all in the form of movies and dance events, but also in the fringe theater world, in galleries and improvised art spaces, in the writings of certain poets and other, less easily classifiable writers of prose. Maybe I was riding a wave. I thought I was flying, getting an overview, sometimes swooping down to get close.

I had so many admirations: there was so much to admire. I looked around and I saw a great deal of importance to which no one was giving its due. Perhaps I was particularly well-fitted to see what I saw, to understand what I understood, by virtue of my bookishness, my Europhilia, and my reverence for the arts. Still, it surprised me, at first, that people found what I said “new” (it wasn’t so new to me), that I was thought to be in the vanguard of sensibility and, from the appearance of my very first essays, regarded as a tastemaker. Of course, I was elated to be apparently the first to pay extended attention to some of the matters I wrote about; sometimes I couldn’t believe my good fortune that they had waited for me to describe them. (How odd, I thought, that Auden hadn’t already written something like my “Notes on Camp.”) I was—I believed—merely extending to some new material the aesthete’s point of view I had embraced, as a young student of philosophy and literature, in the writings of Nietzsche, Pater, Wilde, Ortega (the Ortega of “The Dehumanization of Art”), and James Joyce.

I was a pugnacious aesthete, of course, and a barely closeted moralist. I didn’t set out to write so many manifestos, but my irrepressible taste for aphoristic statement conspired with my staunchly adversarial purposes in ways that sometimes surprised me. In the writings collected in Against Interpretation this is what I like best: the tenacity, the succinctness (I suppose I should say right here that I still think most of the positions I took were right)—this, and the rightness of certain psychological and moral judgments in, say, the essays on Simone Weil, Camus, Pavese, and Michel Leiris. What I don’t like are those passages in which, as I now see it, my pedagogic impulse got in the way of my prose. All those lists, recommendations! I suppose they are still useful, but they annoy me now.

The hierarchies (high/low) and polarities (form/content, intellect/feeling) I was challenging were those that inhibited the proper understanding of the new work I admired. Inevitably, that focused me on the work of contemporaries, although I had no programmatic commitment to the “modern” or the new. Taking up the cause of new work, especially work that had been slighted or ignored or misjudged, seemed more useful than writing about old favorites. (Perhaps, too, I was motivated by a desire to break new ground for myself, and not merely echo the passions of my university days.) Writing about new work I admired, I took the canonical treasures of the past for granted. The transgressions I was applauding seemed altogether salutary, given what I took to be the unimpaired strength of the old taboos. The new work I praised (and used as a platform to relaunch my ideas about art-making and consciousness) didn’t detract from the glories of what I admired far more. Enjoying the impertinent energy and wit of a species of performance called Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was—I am—for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture. No hierarchy, then? Certainly there’s a hierarchy. If I’d had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then—of course—I’d have chosen Dostoyevsky. But did I have to choose?

The great revelation for me had been the cinema: I felt particularly marked by the films of Godard and Bresson. I wrote more about cinema than about literature, not because I loved movies more than novels but because I loved more new movies than new novels. Of course, I took the supremacy of the greatest literature for granted. (And assumed my readers did, too.) But it was clear to me that the film-makers I admired were, quite simply, better and more original artists than nearly all of the most acclaimed novelists; that, indeed, no other art was being so widely practiced at such a high level. One of my happiest achievements in the years that I was doing the writing collected in Against Interpretation is that no day passed without my seeing at least one, sometimes two or three, movies. Most of them were “old.” My gluttonous absorption in cinema history only reinforced my gratitude for certain new films which (along with my roll-call of favorites from the silent era and the 1930s) I saw again and again, so exalting did they seem to me in their freedom and inventiveness of narrative method, their sensuality and gravity and beauty.

Cinema was the exemplary art activity during the time these essays were written, but there were astonishments in the other arts, too. Fresh winds were blowing everywhere. Artists were insolent again, as they’d been after the First World War until the rise of fascism. The “modern” was still a vibrant idea. (This was before the capitulations embodied in the idea of the “post-modern.”) And I have said nothing here about the political struggles which took shape around the time the last of these essays were being written: I mean the nascent movement against the American war on Vietnam, which was to consume a large part of my life from 1965 through the early 1970s. (Those years were still The Sixties, too, I suppose.) How marvelous it all does seem, in retrospect. The two poles of distinctively modern sentiment—of course they have a reciprocal relation—are nostalgia and “utopia.” Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of the time now labeled The Sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian moment.

The world in which these essays were written no longer exists.

Instead of the utopian moment, we live in a time which is experienced as the end—more exactly, just past the end—of every ideal. (And therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.) An illusion of the end, perhaps—and not more illusory than the conviction of thirty years ago that we were on the threshold of a great positive transformation of culture and society. No, not an illusion, I think.

It is not simply that The Sixties have been repudiated, and the dissident spirit quashed, even as these have become the object of intense nostalgia. The ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons. No recommendation exists outside a certain setting. The recommendations and enthusiasms expressed in the essays collected in Against Interpretation have become the possession of many people now. But so far as my views did, to a certain degree, triumph, it was not only because of the persuasiveness and success of my book. There was something in the time which was operating to make my views more acceptable, something of which I had no inkling—and, had I understood better my time, that time, call it by its decade-name if you want (I don’t), would have made me more cautious. Something that it would not be an exaggeration to call a sea-change in the whole culture, a transvaluation of values—for which there are many names. Barbarism is one name for what was taking over. Let’s use Nietzsche’s term: we had entered, really entered, the age of nihilism.

So I can’t help viewing the writing collected in Against Interpretation with a certain irony. I still like most of the essays and a few of them, such as “Notes on Camp,” quite a lot. (Indeed, there is only one thing in the collection I don’t like at all and would remove if I could: two theater chronicles, the result of a commission from a literary magazine with which I felt allied, Partisan Review, and accepted, briefly, against my better judgment.) Who would not be pleased that a collection of essays and reviews written more than three decades ago continues to matter to new generations of readers: in English the book has stayed continuously in print in many editions, and remains in print or has more than once been republished in many foreign languages. Still, I urge the reader not to lose sight of—it may take some effort of imagination—the larger context of admirations in which these essays were written. To call for an “erotics of art” did not mean to disparage the role of the critical intellect. To laud work condescended to, then, as “popular” culture did not mean to conspire in the repudiation of high culture and its burden of seriousness, of depth. I thought I’d seen through certain kinds of facile moralism (as in the essays on science fiction films and on Lukacs), and was denouncing them in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn’t understand (I was surely not the right person to understand this) is that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large, and that some of the more transgressive art I was enjoying would reinforce frivolous, merely consumerist transgressions. Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete, with the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries. Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, “unrealistic,” to most people; and when allowed, as an arbitrary decision of temperament, probably unhealthy, too.

I suppose it isn’t wrong if Against Interpretation is read now, or re-read, as an influential, pioneering document from a bygone age. But that is not how I read it, or—lurching from nostalgia to utopia—would wish it to be read. My hope is that its republication now, and the acquisition of a new generation of readers, could contribute to the near-hopeless task of shoring up the values out of which these essays and reviews were written. The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have triumphed. The values that underlay those judgments did not.

Susan Sontag was a novelist, essayist, filmmaker, playwright, and human-rights activist, among other things; this essay was written on the occasion of the thirtieth-anniversary re-issue of her first book of essays, Against Interpretation. She died on December 28, 2004.


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