04 November 2015

Reading Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag is one of those people I kept on hearing about, who other people mentioned, who turned up in other people's stories, but I didn't really know who she was. She turned up as the dead partner of Annie Liebovitz in a documentary about the photographer, and there was that documentary about her in the film festival which I failed to see and now can't get hold of. She gets mentioned in other people's books, she wrote fiction, she wrote criticism, she directed plays, she did all kinds of stuff of which I am only vaguely aware.

But, she'd turned up often enough that I thought it was time to find out for myself, and so have been reading some of her essays. Starting with the collection, Against Interpretation, from 1967 (or at least the edition I have is from then - it's the English edition though, so the US edition might have been earlier).

I must have already been aware that Sontag was quite opinionated, and I am sometimes a bit nervous of definite, opinionated people (being myself, on one hand, a bit postmodern, and on the other a bit indecisive) so I was quite delighted to read this in the introduction:
Before I wrote the essays, I did not believe many of the ideas espoused in them; when I wrote them, I believed what I wrote; subsequently, I have come to disbelieve some of these same ideas again--but from a new perspective, one that incorporates and is nourished by what is true in the argument of the essays.

Reading some of these essays, I have been struck by how chaotic some of the organisation of them seems to me, how little proof she sometimes gives, and how she makes enormous, sweeping statements. And also how absolutely marvellous those enormous sweeping statements are, and how I have copied many of them down into my journal, and then read them out to Sean later. (In her defence, I should also note that I've been reading some of her more recent pieces in Where the Stress Falls, a much later collection of her writings, and I thought the writing was much tighter, less chaotic - but perhaps also less free-wheelingly mind-blowing?)

So, basically, here are some of my favs, so I can find them here again when I'm looking for them.

From 'On Style'

Art is not only about something, it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.
[Works of art] present information and evaluations. But their distinctive feature is that they give rise not to conceptual knowledge (which is the distinctive feature of discursive or scientific knowledge - eg philosophy [etc...]) but to something like an excitation, a phenomenon of commitment, judgement in a state of thralldom or captivation. Which is to say that the knowledge we gain through art is an experience of the form or style of knowing something, rather than a knowledge of something (like a fact or a moral judgement) in itself.
She quotes Nietzsche, from The Birth of Tragedy: 'Art is not an imitation of nature but a metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in order to overcome it.'
Usually critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his [or her] own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise. The sense of inevitability that a great work of art projects is not made up of the inevitability or necessity of its parts, but of the whole.
In the greatest art, one is always aware of the things that cannot be said ... of the contradiction between expression and the presence of the inexpressible - stylistic devices are also techniques of avoidance. The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences.

Notes on 'Camp'

I enjoyed the form of this essay as well as the content. It's written in numbered paragraphs, which is something that I have been using in a (very) long prose poem I'm working on at the moment (and have been, on-and-off for the last year), and which adds a delightful and sometimes staccato energy to it. It has also suggested to me that my taste is often quite camp.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation--not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. it only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, its not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp doesn't propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn't sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.


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