When we read we want to soften the blow. We read the lines but we don’t get the impact. So when Sontag says that we interpret because we can’t accept what’s on the surface, that’s extremely subversive. We look away, like we don’t want to see the accident we have caused.
I’ve read Philo, whom Sontag talks about. I loved Philo’s skill in interpreting scripture because I love puzzles and Philo turns the sacred text into a Rubix cube of the soul that has to be solved. But is that a cowardly choice? Sontag says when we can’t live with the text as it is and we can’t give it up either, we interpret.
Sontag writes about Dante that in medieval times it must have been revelatory to read a text that had multiple levels of meaning, like the Divine Comedy. But in our time, when we are so assaulted by stimulus, our goal should be to see the surface for what it is. But we don’t want to, that’s too hard. We’re running away from the ground we’re standing on.
She cites Oscar Wilde’s well known praise for the surface of things. Wake up. There is no depth. The surface is the “depth”. But that view is historically conditioned. Attending to the surface makes the most sense in our own time.
But it might not make sense in another era. I think this is very radical too. Our most fundamental approach to life could be just our fashion of the day. That sort of makes Anna Wintour our prophet. It scares me.
The new Whitney Museum is located on the water and walks on it. I was on the eighth floor when a guide was talking about the monumental expressionist painting that Lee Krasner had made after her husband’s death. Her husband, of course, was Jackson Pollock. The guide talked about how Krasner’s art had been overshadowed by her partner’s. Then she called Jackson Pollock “Mr. Krasner”. That’s the Whitney being the Whitney, which I love.
Sontag would have said that the best art criticism would describe what there was to see. That asking the question “What does it mean?” or saying that “the meaning of this book (or film) is —” is philistine. A review should make you carefully and passionately notice the book, or the film or the painting. There is no other underlying meaning. She calls this the erotics of art. And frankly, it’s like sex.
I know what Sontag means when I see “blind” people walk through a museum. They look at the paintings like they are not there. They don’t “see” them. Or they will read a poem and be put out because its expression is original and they are not used to it. And they say that they don’t know what the poem means. But what it means is what you are looking at on the page. Like Lee Krasner’s painting is what it is. You are supposed to look at it. Our time is so full of distractions. The more we have to look at, the less we see.
We don’t crave depth, we crave surface. We want to be here, not ghosts in our own world. Can we achieve that or is it just a quest like something Don Quixote would be into?
The trade paperback issue of Against Interpretation and other Essays by Susan Sontag from Picador, which I purchased, is a beautiful book. You don’t have to agree with it. That’s not the point.