Always provocative, even if you don’t agree with her, Susan Sontag was one of the most influential critics of the last fifty years. She came of age in and was a central player in the intellectual rigor of the 1960s and 1970s, and may have the reputation for pushing esoteric, highly sophisticated works of art, though one of her central texts, and the one with which she jumped into the critical world — Against Interpretation — argues for a more visceral, subjective critical response. Certainly her essays elicited such responses from readers. Recently The Library of America published an invaluable collection of Sontag’s early work in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s.

Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.

Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.

In 1966, at the age of thirty-three, Sontag published her first essay collection, Against Interpretation. With essays on subjects as varied as Camus’ Notebooks, Ionesco, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, and “camp,” the essay that provided the biggest splash is the title essay.

“Against Interpretation” is a seductive piece, particularly for someone like me who left the academy. In it, Sontag says:

None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because no one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.

The type of theory that Sontag decries in this essay is “interpretation,” or a kind of reductive analysis that breaks a work up into its content and form. This essay was originally published in Evergreen Review in December 1964, and I know that still today there are many who experience a love of literature but who find that love crushed as they are forced to “interpret” texts (similarly, there are those whose true passion — and I mean that word — is just this kind of work). It’s not that Sontag wishes no one would critique a work of art (she does this through most of this book); it’s that she hopes that as we write about a work we find a language that “recover[s] our senses,” helps us “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Of course, the essay has its critics. But, again, the underlying theme is so compelling — haven’t we all felt the sublime power of art? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to write intelligently about art without killing that reaction, to, as Sontag puts it, “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it”?

In 1969, Sontag published her second books of essays: Styles of Radical Will. Another work of criticism, this book of essays contains some more works on Godard, another on Ingmar Bergman’s (fantastic) film Persona, one entitled “The Aesthetics of Silence” (which I’m still trying to wrap my head around), and a provocative one entitled “Trip to Hanoi,” in which she describes North Vietnam with sympathy.

In the latest episode of The Eclipse Viewer, David Blakeslee and I talk about Jane Fonda’s own trip to Hanoi, and the famous picture taken there and that is taken apart by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Letter to Jane (click here for a description and link to that episode. I found it fitting, then, that the next collection of essays in this book is Sontag’s On Photography, a 1977 compilation of essays on photography, particularly the politics of photography. This collection won the NBCC Award in 1977. I’m not up on writings about photography, but in researching about this collection I’ve found that it’s a central, go-to text for photography theorists.

So, let’s see, so far Sontag has covered aesthetic theory, literature, film, and photography. What’s left? Ah, illness.

A year after publishing On Photography, Sontag published Illness as Metaphor. At the time she wrote this monograph, she was being treated for breast cancer (though that does not come up in the text). Apparently at the time (and, I’m sure, today), there was the belief that cancer patients brought their disease upon themselves. This serves as an interesting springboard for Sontag, who understood that illness was being, in a way, “interpreted,” or, rather, that people were being interpreted through their illnesses, much like tuberculosis patients were read through their disease. But it’s more than that. Because these diseases have been deadly and incurable, they are mysterious. They become mystical and “acutely enough feared [to] be morally, if not literally, contagious.”

She begins:

My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.

It’s a fascinating look at how illness forces people, needlessly, into the far corners of their lives. Naturally, many argue that illness also provides meaning, but, like all of the essays in here, even if you fundamentally disagree, it’s important to see this marvelous mind work through these various topics.

I’ve been pleased beyond my expectations by two extensive essay collections this year: this one and Simon Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness (here). If you don’t read essays or essay collections, might I suggest you stray from that habit here. These are intelligent, observant minds, an example to us of how to think, even if — especially if — it ultimately leads us to different conclusions.

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