Against Interpretation, By Susan Sontag

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The Independent Culture

This classic collection of essays and criticism from the 1960s flatters the reader's intelligence without being intimidating. Sontag has seemingly read everything, from Sophocles to Sartre, but has the gift of explaining ideas in reader-friendly prose – a gift not shared by all the critics who followed the trail she blazed.

The title essay is an attack on the mimetic theory of art, and on the cult of interpretation that it has spawned. On the interpretative view, A Streetcar Named Desire is about the decline of Western civilisation, rather than "a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche Dubois". The true task, Sontag argues, is not to ask what the work means, but to appreciate what it is; or, as she puts it, "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."

"On Style" is a spirited attack on the division between form and content – an entirely spurious one in her view – arguing that one should be able to appreciate Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will as a masterpiece despite its Nazi propaganda. It's clear that she herself is far more interested in "style" than in "content", and can't help but invoke the distinction even while debunking it.

Sontag is a stern critic and there is often a lofty, de haut on bas quality to her judgments – Christopher Isherwood is rebuked for a "lazy two-page sketch" defining "camp" – and the reader will find plenty to disagree with. But the essays are unfailingly stimulating. Though they bear the stamp of their time, Sontag was remarkably prescient; her project of analysing popular culture as well as high culture, the Doors as well as Dostoevsky, is now common practice throughout the educated world. And the artists and intellectuals she discusses – Nietzsche, Camus, Godard, Barthes etc – demonstrate that she knew which horses to back.