I wanted to mention her here due to two of her less well known books. The main one was
The Benefactor, a story where a person lived their life *for* their dreams. That is, they
would go around and do things to see how they impacted their dreams, a kind of reversal
of the way interpretive types approach dreams, as ways of viewing waking life.
I also wanted to mention her Against Interpretation, which both irritated and inspired me.
While not about dream interpretation, her analysis of interpretation in the arts reveals the
power dynamics (the shadow side) of interpretation that can slip into many kinds of
"... I don't mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche
(rightly) says, 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' By interpretation, I mean here a
conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain 'rules' of interpretation."
Though not happy with the impositions of ancient forms of interpretation, she is even
harder on contemporary styles:
"Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary
zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the
troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an
overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but
respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of
interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a
sub-text which is the true one."
"It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious
or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else. "
"Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of
items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a
mental scheme of categories. "
"Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Lawrence, Gide . . . one could go on citing author after
author; the list is endless of those around whom thick encrustations of interpretation have
taken hold. But it should be noted that interpretation is not simply the compliment that
mediocrity pays to genius. It is, indeed, the modern way of understanding something, and
is applied to works of every quality. "
How then, does she envision our encounter with dreams or other works of art?
"What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not
saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They
can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of
art, not usurp its place? "
Susan could have easily said what Oscar Wilde said "It is only shallow people who do
not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."
"What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content
provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions
of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary - a descriptive, rather than
prescriptive, vocabulary - for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this
sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. "
"Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp,
loving description of the appearance of a work of art. "
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds
from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of
works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors
and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on
excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory
experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer
crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition
of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic
must be assessed.
"What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear
more, to feel more."
"Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to
squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back
content so that we can see the thing at all".
"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, rather than to show what it
"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. "
Farewell, Susan Sontag. I will miss you irritating and prodding me on to new ground,
higher ground, groundless depths.