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VI. On Susan Sontag and “Good Art”

In a footnote from her essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag refers to film as a “subdivision of literature.” Now, I have never been one to uphold any kind of “hierarchy of the arts” (of what use would this be anyhow?), but I am interested in the relationship between different artistic mediums, and, in particular, as Sontag describes, that between film and literature. “Subdivision of literature” suggests literature as a kind of umbrella term encompassing film within its greater arena, as opposed to, as one might have intuitively supposed, two separate subsets within the greater arena that is “art.” Furthermore, the phrase disallows the opposite (“literature as subdivision of film”) to be true. What is it, then, that makes literature more “all-encompassing,” and what does it mean for a film to be “literary”?

An examination of “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie,” Sontag’s essay on the French filmmaker’s fourth film about a struggling-artist-turned-prostitute, will prove useful here. In the essay, Sontag points out two general tendencies of the artist: the tendency toward proof, characterized by an emphasis in considerations of form, and the tendency towards analysis, which is more akin to fruitless “rambling” within a work, as the artist chases after the “infinite angles of understanding.”

As you might have guessed, Sontag favors the former, insisting that “In great art, it is form—or, as I call it here, the desire to prove rather than the desire to analyze—that is ultimately sovereign. It is form that allows one to terminate.” Thus, it is characteristic of great art to contain “endings that exhibit grace and design, and only secondarily convince in terms of psychological motives or social forces.” Vivre Sa Vie is therefore “literary” in the sense that, as in all great literature (Sontag names Shakespeare’s early comedies and Dante’s Divine Comedy as paragons), at play is a predominant concern towards proof—as opposed to analysis. The term “literary,” used to describe film, is thus a bit of a misnomer on Sontag’s part, as it might have suggested the presence of qualities intrinsic to literature, whereas all she is referring to is that which defines good art, within any medium. For Sontag, this means the artist emphasizes the formal: that is, they include a conspicuous element of design (symmetry, repetition, inversion, doubling, etc.).”

Sontag’s insistence on form strongly reminds me of my Art Hum instructor, Daniel Ralston, who would call us out whenever we would respond to a painting with such platitudes as: “I think the three birds represent the Holy Trinity” or “The expression of the left-most figure is one of intense melancholy”—statements of a nature which would no doubt have gone unheeded (perhaps praised) in some of my previous Core classes. For example, during my Literature Humanities course several years ago, a full hour was once spent on a Freudian analysis of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (which, unfortunately for me, I consider to be one of the most beautiful novels of all time). Ralston would often respond to these comments by saying, “Yes, but, what about formally—for example, what can you say about the composition?” And though frustratingly delimiting and didactic at first, I eventually came to realize this methodology was far more compatible with my personal relationship with art, which, for the most part, had tended to go ignored by many of my humanities classes at Columbia.

This issue came up once during the discussion section to my Western class (FILM 2120, Topics in American Cinema: The West) the previous semester. The topic of discourse was the Edenic imagery permeating throughout some boring film whose name I can’t recall. Someone had said, “I don’t see it. I don’t see him [the director] trying to do that,” to which the others collectively responded in defensive choir, “But it’s there,” leaving the poor girl outnumbered. In that moment, what none of us understood was that, at its core, the disagreement arose out of a difference in hermeneutical approach. On one hand, there was the school of thought that perpetuates myth by asserting that “this is there” and this isn’t, that “this ought to be but not that” (i.e. all the feminist readings of these films), and, on the other hand, there were those who believed that a work of art is the thing itself, not whatever meaning is forced out of it by some ulterior agenda.

The subject of her famous “Against Interpretation” essay, Sontag is well aware of this dry hermeneutical approach, prevalent among most schools, which tends to mistreat the work of art. As she writes: “…it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (‘What X is saying is…,’ ‘What X is trying to say is…,’ ‘What X said is…’ etc., etc.)” (4). “Content,” in this sense, is tantamount to “what I think it says” which is always subjective—whereas it should be acknowledged that content is in fact objective (“This is not Edenic imagery, just a shot of a meadow where this story happens to take place”), and that anything more than that is a stretch, fabricating superfluous intellectual delusions that numb the senses and are best befitted for the most cerebral of students, those who relish the thought of life in academia and seek to write theses along the lines of “A Queer Reading of the Works of Pedro Almodovar” or “Marxism in Kafka”—horrible titles, but you get the idea. Sontag beautifully sums up the problem as follows:

“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.”

And what would fix this? A de-emphasis on content and a recognition of art as a sensory experience. Or, as Sontag put it: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It is by abiding by this mantra I’ve discovered the audiovisual intensity of Faulkner to be found in Aronofsky’s crescendos, the minimalist serenity and ennui of Hemingway in Antonioni, and the hypnotic allure of flawed (but painfully realistic) characters from Tolstoy in Kieslowski. Literature is thus capable of being as “cinematic” as the cinema is of being “literary”—it’s just a matter of form, form, form.

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