Tag: Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag — How I Write

Susan SONTAG.

Mason Currey's recently published Daily Rituals: How Artists Work mentioned the routines, quirks, and rituals of plenty of creative minds—novelists, painters, poets, philosophers, filmmakers, and scientists—but he missed one of my favourites, Susan Sontag.

She brought us insight such as, Three Steps to Refuting Any Argument, Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom, and Common Sense is Always Wrong.

That was all the motivation I needed to go exploring. It didn't take long before I found this treasure of an interview with The Paris Review where she details how she writes.

How do you actually write?
I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

Is there anything that helps you get started writing?
Reading—which is rarely related to what I’m writing, or hoping to write. I read a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects. And poetry. Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.

Do you write every day?
No. I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Miscellaneous. 1972. France. Paris. American writer, Susan SONTAG.

against_interpretation

Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag's second book, was published in 1966, but some of the essays date back to 1961, when she was still writing for The Benefactor. Sontag had some to New York in the early 60's, eager to become the writer she so longed to become. Her ideas at the time of a writer was someone interested in “everything.”

Against Interpretation is regarded as a quintessential text of the 60's. “It wasn't the Sixties then,” she writes. “For me it was chiefly the time when I wrote my first and second novels, and began to discharge some of the cargo of ideas about art and culture and the proper business of consciousness which had distracted me from writing fiction. I was filled with evangelical zeal.”

Interpretation

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

Taming Art

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.

Genius

…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.

Avoiding Interpretation

to avoid interpretation, art maybe become parody. Or it may become abstract. … Abstract painting is the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content,t here can be no interpretation.

Our Task With a Work of Art

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.

Art

Art is not only about something; it is something. … Art is seduction, not rape.

Morality

Morality is a code of acts, and of judgments and sentiments by which we reinforce our habits of acting in a certain way, which prescribe a standard for behaving or tiring to behave toward other human beings general (that is, to all who are acknowledged to be human) as if we were inspired by love. Needless to say, love is something we feel in truth for just a few individual human beings, among those who are known to us in reality and in our imagination. … Morality is a form of acting and not a particular repertoire of choices.

Metaphor of Art as an “Argument”

The metaphor of the work of art as an “argument,” with premises and entailments, has informed most criticism since. 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 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.

Love and suffering

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness. We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one's ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, but one's ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. … For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.

If this has you curious, you should read the entire book.

Susan Sontag on Style and Metaphors

Susan Sontag (1933-2004) spent a lifetime on writing, art, and the commodification of wisdom.

Her moving work, Against Interpretation, is regarded as a quintessential text from the 60s. In it, she addresses both the advantages and the disadvantages of metaphors.

Sontag writes:

against_interpretation

To speak of style is one way of speaking about the totality of a work of art. Like all discourse about totalities, talk of style must rely on metaphors. And metaphors mislead.

Take, for instance, Whitman’s very material metaphor. By likening style to a curtain, he has of course confused style with decoration and for this would be speedily faulted by most critics. To conceive of style as a decorative encumbrance on the matter of the work suggests that the curtain could be parted and the matter revealed; or, to vary the metaphor slightly, that the curtain could be rendered transparent. But this is not the only erroneous implication of the metaphor. What the metaphor also suggests is that style is a matter of more or less (quantity), thick or thin (density) . And, though less obviously so, this is just as wrong as the fancy that an artist possesses the genuine option to have or not to have a style. Style is not quantitative, any more than it is superadded. A more complex stylistic convention-say, one taking prose further away from the diction and cadences of ordinary speech—does not mean that the work has “more” style.

Indeed, practically all metaphors for style amount to placing matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor. The matter, the subject, is on the outside; the style is on the Inside. As Cocteau writes: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and one’s “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.

I should make clear, however, that what I have been saying about dangerous metaphors doesn’t rule out the use of limited and concrete metaphors to describe the impact of a particular style. It seems harmless to speak of a style, drawing from the crude terminology used to render physical sensations, as being “loud” or “heavy” or “full” or “tasteless” or, employing the image of an argument as “inconsistent.”

Against Interpretation is well worth the read in its entirely.

Against Interpretation

In reading Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation and Other Essays I came across this passage on interpretation.

Interpretation is a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can't admit do to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning. However far the interpreters alter the text, they must claim to be reading off a sense that is already there.

Susan Sontag: The Function of Common Sense

susan sontag diaries

I made it through Susan Sontag's recently released notebooks: As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. “As Consciousness” is the second of three projected volumes. The first, “Reborn,” began in 1947 when she was 14 and ends in 1963.

In an essay in the 1960s, Sontag asked “Why do we read a writer's journal? Because it illuminates his books? Often it does not.

The real interest lies in encountering “the writer in the first person . . . the ego behind the masks of ego in an author’s works.” Sontag's notebooks offer us a rare opportunity to explore the inner thoughts, “the ego behind the mask”, of someone many consider to be a genius. If you can muddle your way through some of her fragmented thoughts, you will find some real gems of wisdom.

I underlined this bit on common sense from 1976. Sontag writes:

Common sense (le bon sens) is always wrong. It is the demagoguery of the bourgeois ideal. The function of common sense is to simplify, to reassure, to hide unpleasant truths and mysteries. I don't just mean that this is what common sense does, or ends up doing; I mean this is what it is designed to do. Of course, in order to be effective common sense must contain some part of the truth. But its main content is negative. To say (implicitly) that, this being so, that is not so.

Similarly, all polls of opinion must be superficial. They reveal the top of what people think organized into common sense. What people really think is always partly hidden.

Only way to get at it is through a study of their language—a study in depth: its metaphors, structures, tone. And of their gestures, way of moving in space.

Still curious? Order a copy of her notebooks: Reborn and As Consciousness. Also see: 3 Steps to refuting any argument and Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom.

Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

A brilliant post from brain pickings drawing our attention to Susan Sontag and the commodification of wisdom.

As the interconnectedness and velocity of information continue to grow, these passages from Sontang's As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh speak to our desire to reduce complexity into soundbites. Soundbites, however, are designed to discourage critical thinking; we're expected to get it and move on. But that's not the way the world works. Simplifying complexity prevents informed conversations.

April 26, 1980

Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.

Ten days later she added:

One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?

Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking …

Follow your curiosity and check out three steps to refuting any argument and order a copy of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

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