On the Essays of Susan Sontag and Oscar Wilde
by Robert Russell
The advent of the 1960s in America saw a cultural, political, social, and intellectual frenzy. The religious revival of the previous decade had spawned a counterculture of free-thinking contrarians; McCarthyism had created a nation of widespread suspicion and violent disdain for even just the word “communism”; and the ongoing conflict in Vietnam–a war having persisted for many years and continuing to rage for many more with uncontested ferocity–fomented revolts and protests across the country. Amid the chaos, literary critic Susan Sontag made a contentious claim, one in which she uprooted and rejected centuries worth of reading methodology and literary studies. Published in 1964, “Against Interpretation” was met with mixed reviews. In it Sontag draws on the influence of a wide range of scholars, philosophers, while simultaneously lambasting various schools of philosophy and criticism, ultimately concluding that “in place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (Sontag 14). Sontag believed that the collective approach to literature had become skewed; that the focus of reading had shifted and now lay more in the analysis and excavation of a “deeper” meaning. Her essay was a defense of surface reading, an argument emphasizing the pleasure derived from the simple act of experience over an in-depth analysis.
The idea of looking only upon the surface, Sontag takes directly from Oscar Wilde. In his formative essay “The Decay of Lying: an Observation,” Wilde under the guise of his dialectic inquisitor Vivian, defends the Paterian idea of “art for art’s sake,” that “art never expresses anything but itself” (Wilde 769). It is an idea that enables a reader to rely only on the text to extract meaning. But the idea that wading in the shallow waters of a piece of art is better than swimming to its deepest depths and discovering what is there to be found is discouraging. Interpretation, criticism, can enhance the experience of art. Instead of repudiating interpretation, what is needed is a calibration of interpretation. The key is knowing when to interpret and how far; to recognize how deep to penetrate, to find other meanings, and then analyze those other meanings in relation to the text and, in turn, in relation to other possible meanings. In such a calibration lie the tenets in attaining the most out of art, in finding its highest value. It is realizing that there is an equilibrium between interpretation and the lack of interpretation, and then finding the fulcrum. Where the fulcrum lies depends on the an inverse correlation between the amount of content in the work of art and the amount of interpretation sought in the reader–the smaller the amount of content, the greater the amount of interpretation; the greater the amount of content, the smaller the amount of interpretation.
The smaller-content-greater-interpretation ratio is most evident regarding poetry. Oftentimes the interpretation of a poem far exceeds the lines that actually comprise it, the various speculated “deeper meanings” running down a web of a different avenues, each one attempting to, as Sontag puts it, “translate the elements…into something else” (Sontag 8). But in many cases, analyzing such elements enhances the experience of the poem especially if the poem itself is vague, odd, or extremely terse. William Carlos Williams’s best-known (or perhaps most-taught) poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” is four stanzas of four words each, the poem itself only sixteen words in total, with each stanza’s final word sitting neatly indented under the stanza’s first three-word line. Not only is the amount of content irreducibly small, but “the elements of the poem,” the content itself, force interpretation from the reader. What “depends upon a red wheel barrow”? Why is it “glazed with rain water” and located “beside the white chickens” (Williams 1-16)? The derivation of meaning lies in the questions and plausible answers that arise in its reading, lest the poem be read “on the surface” and simply be what it is: an odd assortment of descriptions with an empty implication. Without interpretation, the poem itself is a shallow puddle, but thinking about the poem, about the questions that arise and the answers borne from such questions, transform the puddle into a well of possibilities. Interpretation gives the poem meaning which in turn elevates its experience.
However, the small-content-large-interpretation ratio is not limited to poetry; even in prose, such a formula denotes the greatest amount of value from a text. One of the most famous pieces of flash fiction, a short, six-word sentence: “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemingway (Jones), is another example in which the fulcrum stabilizing the amount of content and the amount of interpretation sits largely skewed in one direction. The amount of content in the story, a mere six words, inspires the numerous interpretations that give the story weight and depth. There is a morbid implication in the content: a baby has died, how? did the death occur before or after the birth? who writes these words? both parents or did the mother die in childbirth and now only the father remains? There are so many questions from such a short sentence. Because the story is not so much a story as a “starting-point for a new creation” as Wilde wrote in his essay “The Critic as Artist” (777), interpretation is the actual experience of the piece of art. Wilde wrote that “criticism is itself an art” (774) which is to conflate experience and interpretation and to create something new from it. However, in this very case, such an experience is not a “new creation” but rather a contemplation, a visceral, emotional experience attained through the interpretation of the work.
But the ratio of content to interpretation drastically shifts when regarding a longer piece of work such as a novel. In her essay, Sontag scathingly critiques the role of interpretation when reading a novel claiming that the reader’s initial approach to a piece of literature will ultimately determine what allegories or “deeper meanings” he or she extracts from the piece. She writes, “Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy…those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelations of Kafka’s fear of his father…” (Sontag 8) and the list goes on and on. No two readers read the same the work of literature and have the same experience. Sontag argues that such interpretations, such extractions of allegory, detract from the art itself. Interpretation is detrimental in this way, as it not only fails to supersede but actually exasperates conformation bias. The reader who approaches Kafka only focusing on Marxist themes of the exploitation of the proletariat will inevitably find evidence of such themes and in turn will overlook various other themes to be found in the work.
Sontag’s assessment is important; however, even in regarding longer pieces of work, wherein the large amount of content proposes challenges in the interpretation, there is often still a degree of interpretation to be found that will enhance not only the experience of the reading but the value of the literature itself. The content-to-interpretation ratio still applies, however, only with the recognition that whatever themes, allegories, and “deeper meanings” that a reader unearths should not overshadow or preclude various other discoveries. Reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and only focusing on the role that Stephen Dedalus’s father Simon Dedalus plays–not simply as a paternal figure, but the effects, influences, and detriments caused by such a figure–detracts from the mountain of other important themes, the various roles of other characters, and the very transformation of Stephen himself. A reader must calibrate such an interpretation: understand the role that Simon Dedalus plays as a father, authority figure etc., see the effects he has on Stephen, and recognize the potential depths of such an interpretation without letting it cloud or encompass other potential interpretations that fill the lines of the novel. To only read the novel with a focus on the analysis of Simon Dedalus is to miss the role of religion, the fear of Hell, the plenteous other authority figures in Stephen’s life and their relation to God, the religious and artistic epiphanies that transform little Stephen into the young man he becomes, the artist who vows “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (Joyce 276), and understand how the word “forge” twists the trajectory of the novel depending on its multiple definitions. Focusing on one thread precludes the reader from seeing the tapestry that is the novel. However, recognizing the single thread–seeing its color, length, material, and how it weaves and connects to other threads–is to see the essence of the art in its totality and peer into the various potentials that lie beneath such an intricate surface.
But while the content-to-interpretation ratio applies to literature in the necessity to gauge how much to interpret and even interpret the interpretations that arise, there are indeed works of literature that extend beyond the ratio. In Sontag’s essay “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer,” first published two years before “Against Interpretation,” she writes,
“Why do we read a writer’s journal? Because it illuminates his books? Often it does not. More likely, simply because of the rawness of the journal form, even when it is written with an eye to future publication. Here we read the writer in the first person; we encounter the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works. No degree of intimacy in a novel can supply this, even when the author writes in the first person or uses a third person which transparently points to himself” (Sontag 41-42).
To interpret a work of art, should a reader reach for the artist’s diary? to see the man behind the mask? Sontag’s assertion calls to mind not only Nietzsche and Freud (“masks of ego”) but also Oscar Wilde whose ideas were doubtless influenced by the two aforementioned. Wilde writes, “All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals” (Wilde 769). A reader who takes the “Life and Nature” of the author, that is the content of his diaries and journals, and uses that content in the interpretation of the author’s work commits the crime of “elevating” such ideas “into ideals.” While the “rawness of the journal” and the “ego behind the mask” is indeed an experience in itself, it should not be used in the interpretation of the artist’s work. Sontag writes in “Against Interpretation” that “It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted” (Sontag 9). It is a misleading approach to the interpretation of a piece of art, especially one wherein the foundation of its experience is distorted since the art itself becomes a pane of glass exposing the artist instead of a mirror reflecting the reader.
Beyond the content-to-interpretation ratio are works that blur the space between reality and unreality, fiction and nonfiction. The ratio does not work for novels such as My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, his colossal six-volume autobiographical novel which many scholars have compared to the work of Proust. Applying an interpretation to such a work of literature only foments the opposite of its intended effect: a total detraction from the art itself. It is a novel that does not lend itself to interpretation because it not only lacks structure, narrative, and plot, but also because the content of the novel, as enormous and dense as it is, relies solely on the deconstruction and suspension of truth. A reader in his approach to Knausgaard should remember what Sontag, again drawing on Nietzsche, writes in her novel The Benefactor that “Truth is always something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be not truth about anything. There would only be what is” (Sontag 11). To interpret the novel, or even a part of it, a reader would have to assume something definitive about the content, and to make such a claim about the novel would imply that some aspect of the content is true or not, which is impossible to claim. One claim cannot be truthful while another claim is untruthful. Reading Knausgaard is an experience founded on the unknowability of whether what is written is the truth or not, even under the guise of truthfulness. Interpreting the novel, a reader must choose in which direction to perceive the novel, as fiction or nonfiction, and the novel does not conform to either option. The interpretation of Knausgaard’s novel is null; the novel is only experience.
Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, and many other works that fall outside the ratio of interpretation exemplify Oscar Wilde’s claim that “Life imitates Art” (Wilde 769). Such works of literature are both mimetic and expressive: Knausgaard’s novel depicts the world around him, life as he knows it; but in its reading, the novel depicts the world around the reader, life as the reader knows it; art imitates life, and life imitates art. It is this result that the calibration of interpretation strives for: to experience a work of literature as it is and, like Wilde wrote, “as it is not” (Wilde 778). The reader who moves the content-interpretation fulcrum–gauging how deep to probe into the text, how to determine which threads to unfurl and follow, how to read into certain details, symbols, metaphors, and which others to leave alone–and finds the scales of content and interpretation in equilibrium succeeds in attaining the highest value to be found in the work of art. Sontag concludes her essay “Against Interpretation” which such a goal: “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” (Sontag 14). The means of attaining Sontag’s and Wilde’s goal is in the recognition that art is and simultaneously is not what it appears to be. Knowing where to draw the bounds of interpretation, when to remain in the shallowness of its water and when to dive into its depths, is the key in both appraising the art’s value and attaining it.
Jones, Josh. “The (Urban) Legend of Ernest Hemingway’s Six-Word Story: ‘For Sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.’” Open Culture 2015. openculture.com/2015/03/the-urban-legend-of-ernest-hemingways-six-word-story.html. Accessed 27 November 2020.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin, Ed. By Seamus Deane, 1992.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 1966, pp 3-14.
---. “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 1966, pp 39-48.
---. The Benefactor. Picador, 1963. Pp. 11.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch. 3rd Edition. Norton & Company Limited, W.W., 2018. Pp. 770-783
---. “The Decay of Lying” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch. 3rd Edition. Norton & Company Limited, W.W., 2018. Pp. 766-770
Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Poetry Foundation 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45502/the-red-wheelbarrow Accessed 27 November 2020