Monday, May 08, 2006

Some thoughts on the occasion of finally reading Susan Sontag

I have a confession to make. I've read very little philosophy and very little literary criticism. Perhaps this is not much of a confession, but it feels like an intellectual deficiency, something I've wanted to address without actually getting very far. I finished reading Hermann Broch's massive novel, The Sleepwalkers, this weekend. There is much to say about it, and my thoughts on it will be the subject of an upcoming post. But, famously, it contains lengthy stretches of philosophy ("The Disintegration of Values" chapters). Kant is a key reference point. These pages were difficult for me, and I expressed frustration that I apparently don't read philosophy well. My wife (who has read a fair amount of philosophy) helpfully offered that it takes practice. Yes, well. I know this. One problem I've always had is where to begin--there is so much, and only so much time available. And there's all the fiction waiting to be read, and I feel like I got such a late start. With literary criticism, it's much the same, though I've only become aware of it much more recently, and the names are less generally familiar than the big names of philosophy. I've compiled a nice list of critics to seek out and books to acquire (thanks especially to Dan Green and Steve Mitchelmore for most of these). I've now read a couple of chapters from Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, a (very) little bit of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, half of Italo Calvino's The Uses of Literature, the opening chapters of Michael Wood's Nabokov study, The Magician's Doubts, Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".... with the criticism, the dilemma is always, should I read the work(s) under discussion before reading the criticism? This has too often led to delay. Yet I know that it's foolish to expect to read everything, or to necessarily read things in the "right" order.

When Susan Sontag died about 18 months ago, true to form, I'd not yet read any of her work either. It's somehow slightly embarrassing to be picking up books only after the author's died, but there it is. In the ensuing months, we scored used copies of several of her books of essays and other non-fiction, among them Against Interpretation, On Photography, and Illness as Metaphor.

The early Sontag of Against Interpretation makes for some bracing reading. The astonishing, casual erudition, the assured critical pronouncements, the patient working through of serious ideas. I feel that if I'd encountered Sontag in college that she would have overwhelmed me, dominated my sensibilities. And it's tempting to be nostalgic for an earlier intellectual environment, though I'm sure that even 40+ years ago the audience for such essays was small. And intellectual battles of the past are always difficult to imagine, to enter into. (Amazing to consider the literary and cinematic giants who were still alive and working when she was writing these pieces.) Reading the essays in this collection, it strikes me, banally, that there is real pleasure in reading someone like Sontag. That it's not necessarily just about the specific subject at hand, though in the best of them she points the reader back to the works themselves. It's about the ideas and how she applies them. It's an obvious point, but it's a useful reminder--worth keeping in mind when fretting about whether or not to read another critic at a given time. Those pieces I've especially enjoyed so far have included, besides the famous ones, such as the title essay, and "On Style" and "Notes on Camp", the absorbing discussions of Camus (who I've read some of, and perhaps outgrown), of Sartre's mammoth book on Genet (who I intend to read soon--the only thing I've read is 2/3 of his fascinating memoir of living with Palestinians in refugee camps), of the then-current French critics such as Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet ("I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand.")....

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