Postmodern Literature Makes a "Form-al" Reply to Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation"
“Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market. The writer is driven by his conviction that some truths aren't arrived at so easily, that life is still full of mystery, that it might be better for you, Dear Reader, if you went back to the Living section of your newspaper because this is the dying section and you don't really want to be here."
DON DELILLO, in an essay
“METHOD HAS BECOME
SUPREMELY, POLITICALLY IMPORTANT.”
KATHY ACKER, in an interview
“The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such—above and beyond given works of art—becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form' is separated off from something we have learned to call ‘content,' and the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory” (Sontag 4). [ii]
“It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art” (Sontag 5). [iii]
“Of course, I don't mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.' I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain ‘rules' of interpretation” (Sontag 5). [iv]
“Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness” (Sontag 7). [v]
“Interpretation is the revenge of intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world” (Sontag 7). [vi]
“To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.' It is to turn the world into this world. (‘This world'! As if there were any other.)” (Sontag 7). [vii]
“This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else” (Sontag 8). [viii]
“It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else” (Sontag 10). [ix]
“To the extent that novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don't reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation” (Sontag 11). [x]
“What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art” (Sontag 12).
“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” (Sontag 14). [xii]
The world in which these essays were written no longer exists.
Susan Sontag, “Thirty Years Later”
[ii] Postmodern fiction responds to this separation of form and content by founding itself on the claim that form is content, content is form.
Take, for example, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, Thomas Pynchon's V., and Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School. Nabokov's work is a serious game of hide-and-seek, existing as a metafictional mise-en-abîme in which the narrator, Kinbote, becomes so unreliable that we are not sure whether the other characters even exist. We are forced to create a new definition for reality—the reality within the fiction. Which world are we in? How do we read this world and what is the story behind it? Nabokov toys with the reader, mocking the very act of traditional reading and interpretation by making it impossible to read his words left to right and front to back. Should we consult the endnotes and index as we read their referents? Should we attempt to read the novel straight through, ignoring the connections until we stumble upon them in the traditional way? Nabokov makes both acts impossible by footnoting even his index, throwing the reader back and forth and over and over in a neverending cycle.
In V., we are thrown about in a different sense. This novel is more traditional only in the sense that it relies completely on language and it reads in a linear, front-to-back way. Here, each time we give in to one of our assumptions, it is simply knocked from our grasp. Pynchon holds out hundreds of characters for us to peek at, and chooses very carefully what he reveals and when and how he reveals it. The fictional world which he creates depends on the fact that just when we believe we can see where a character is coming from, the number of possible interpretations of V. become so astronomical (a character refers to the search as “the exhaustion of all possible permutations” [Pynchon 298]) that we are forced back into concentrating on simply finding an interpretation for the character (object?) called V..
Acker's Blood and Guts in High School is an ultimate denial of narrative convention. She introduces us to an utter frustration with the incommunicability of language, espousing that we must rely on something else—something that all of us must figure out together. We must all start at the beginning, where no one is ahead in the race – where no one knows more words than anyone else, and no one knows the best ways to use language yet. Behind her words and drawings and maps lies the idea that history and teaching “deaden” society. How do you reach the reader when your only medium is language, and you can't distort and contort it enough to say what you mean? Acker simply denies the commonly accepted literary form by placing drawings and maps and combinations of symbolic languages at key points in Blood and Guts until she goes so far as to create for Janey, her protagonist, her own entirely new sacred language.
[iii] At this point, Sontag's claims extend a little too far even for postmodern fiction's aims at daring interpretation. Postmodern fiction does not believe that content does not exist in a work of art. The reliance on disruptions of form (on “form-al” disruptions) does not precipitate a lack of content or meaning, rather it spurs the reader to consider the content inherent in the form itself.
In John Barth's short story “Lost in the Funhouse,” for example, the fictional plot is splintered and reflected upon by the introduction of a mediating plot: we have, on one level, a boy's coming of age story. On another level, we have instructions on how to write a story, instructions which, within the boy's coming of age story, are sometimes followed and sometimes not. The presence of the instructions makes the coming of age plot seem just that: A created plot. Traditional suspension of disbelief is constantly transformed into suspension of belief. Barth mocks the idea of using rules, guidelines, and conventions in order to create methods under which his work can be interpreted and analyzed by erasing the sense of verisimilitude for which most writers strive. He shows us the technical secrets, analyzing the story for us (for example, we are told what italics are used for right after italics are used, what initials and blanks are used for right after initials and blanks are used [Barth 33]). Critics beware—what shall they write about? ‘Lost in the Funhouse' is a Norton Critical Edition of itself. In the end, we are left with the feeling that while Barth is laughing at those who wish to interpret everything, he is also envious of that very work. He writes, “Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed” (Barth 45).
Sontag writes, “The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really—or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C?” (Sontag 5). This is, in large part, exactly what Pynchon is mocking in V., posing his challenge to the notion of signifiers and absolute meanings. Lurking behind his prose seems to be another voice: do not be distracted, dear reader, by the question I know is taking over your reading of my work—who (or what) is V? “God knows how many Stencils have chased V. around the world” (Pynchon 451). Postmodern fiction directs us to forget the rules, or at least shatter them open in order to see that meaning and content are ever-shifting—and ever-second to form.
Sontag next calls our attention to the notion that interpretation and the urge to interpret arose in late classical antiquity—in order “to reconcile the ancient texts to ‘modern' demands” (Sontag 6). This urge, of course, remains a palpable one, and it is upon that urge that our postmodern writers rely (or else what would be the fun of their dares?). “Interpretation,” she continues, “thus presupposes a discrepancy between the clear meaning of the text and the demands of (later) readers. It seeks to resolve that discrepancy” (Sontag 6).
[v] Thus, postmodern literature is never (as most people assume) devoid of content. It is instead a dare to interpretation—to the very idea that literature may be evaluated, whether within a historical view of human consciousness or without one.
[vi] Sontag might just as well be Acker's Janey in lines such as these, evolving her trope of the suffocation of criticism to the point where now, not only is interpretation destroying culture, but the very world, the very air we breathe. One gets the feeling she must verily enjoy the dares posed by the authors under discussion.
Perhaps postmodern fiction is the revenge of art upon interpretation.
[vii] “There is a world inside the world.” The mantra of Don DeLillo's Libra. Is this another point of departure between Sontag's fight against interpretation and the fight taken on by postmodern fiction? Her italic accent of the is very definitive, very settled, very un-postmodern. Underlying the majority of postmodern novels is the pastiche form, producing layers of memory the authors feel more appropriate to our lived experience of the past by recognizing the non-linearity of this process. The fragmentation of the mode serves to unify a more humanistic representation of memory, both individual and collective. Using pastiche as a principle of aesthetic representation allows for a fusing of elements not usually joined together by traditional methods. Psychologically, such claims for truer or purer representation are logical on many fronts. The very idea of memory is fractionalized and fragmented from the beginning; we only perceive a fraction of what happens, we only remember a fraction of what we've perceived, and even those memories are divided into different areas of our brains, different levels of clarity, different priorities.
There is no the there.
Part of what is at work in postmodern fiction is the idea that there are many worlds. In Libra especially, DeLillo blurs the lines between reality, history, and fiction.
Like Sontag, however, DeLillo mocks those that try to use rules to analyze meaning behind art just as he mocks the possibility of real interpretation. And like Sontag, DeLillo admits that there will always be a human need to try. “Facts are lonely things,” thinks Nicholas Branch in the novel. “Oswald's eyes are gray, they are blue, they are brown… He is right-handed, he is left-handed” (DeLillo 300). From the beginning, DeLillo sets forth the purpose that will be behind every word of Libra, a novel built around a fictional account of the actual Kennedy assassination:
Let's call a meeting to analyze the blur. Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second. We will build theories that gleam like jade idols, intriguing systems of assumption, four-faced, graceful. We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams. (DeLillo 15)
[viii] Postmodern literature won't allow that, relying as it does on the idea that there is no there there. “Real art,” Sontag writes, “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” (Sontag 8). Postmodern fiction operates on both levels. It makes the interpreter nervous, and refuses to be reduced to interpretable content.
It is a universal sin among the false-animate or unimaginative
to refuse to let well enough alone. Their compulsion to gather together, their pathological fear of loneliness extends on past the threshold of sleep; so that when they turn the corner, as we all must, as we all have done and do – some more often than others – to find ourselves on the street. . . You know the street I mean, child. The street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning – we hope – is some sense of home or safety. But no guarantees. A street we are put at the wrong end of, for reasons best known to the agents who put us there. If there are agents. But a street we must walk.
[ix] This kind of statement seems too simplistic, both for Sontag and for postmodern fiction. Interpretation, after all, could also just as easily stem from the need to explain the depth of an inexplicable experience. Sontag seems to be cheating at this point with her use of a sloppily hyperbolic “always.” There is merit, after all, though she takes the view that “the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their ‘meanings'” (Sontag 9).
For instance, one can look at the ways in which Blood and Guts and V. identify with one another in an understanding of postmodernism. Both deal with issues of humanity and the fall of the soul – the epistemological versus the ontological: what can we know, and what world can we know it in?
Somehow Profane had difficulty getting back into the plot
of Existentialist Sheriff. After a while he got up and went over
to SHROUD. “What do you mean, we'll be like you and SHOCK
someday? You mean dead?”
Am I dead? If I am then that's what I mean.
“If you aren't then what are you?”
Nearly what you are. None of you have very far to go.
“I don't understand.”
So I see. But you're not alone. That's a comfort, isn't it?
“We don't care what danger there is, we tell the dead man after
he finishes speaking. “But we can no longer be human. We've
got to have that book.”
“You don't know what you're doing,” the dead poet says.
“You don't know anything. Therefore you can't do anything.
“You're capitalist bourgeois sluts.
“You're insane. Go back home.”
We must have that book!
We gamble for the red book with the dead poet who becomes
a devil. (Acker 159)
This is not lack of content—this is meta- (or mega-) content. These are the biggest questions. And they are the very questions on which postmodern fiction wants us to focus, putting aside the traditional explaining away of tropes and devices.
After all, Sontag herself does interpret within the same paragraph, precisely within her attempt not to do so. She writes about Last Year at Marienbad, “But the temptation to interpret Marienbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form” (Sontag 9, bold mine). This is, after all, interpretation, but it is the kind of interpretation urged by postmodern fiction.
[xi] Language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.
WALTER BENJAMIN in an essay
[xii] This is exactly what postmodern fiction forces us to do. Our task in Pale Fire becomes centered around the idea of simply finding the real story, or, less than that (and more than that), determining whether a real story even exists.
In these works, the act of interpreting backfires. In our ceaseless search to find the meaning – to discover V. or to possess Janey's red book – there is something essential that becomes lost to us. The discovery is not as important as the search. We are constantly forced to reevaluate the way in which we read any of these novels. We turn the page and say, “OH! That's what that means!” and then turn the next and say, “OH! I was completely wrong. That's what that means!” But this is what is essential to our understanding of postmodern fiction. There is no sanctioned reality. Reality is constantly reshaped and redefined.
What does it mean to be alive, to have a soul? How should we live? How do we reach people? The answers are not important—but surely there is no lack of content in the ways in which the questions are posed. In the end, there may exist no V. but the desire for her. The character Brenda asks Profane (the protagonist), “The experience, the experience. Haven't you learned?”
Profane didn't have to think long. “No,” he said, “offhand
I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing.”
They were quiet for a while. She said: “Let's take a walk.”
Later, out in the street, near the sea steps she inexplicably
took his hand and began to run. . . Profane and Brenda
continued to run through the abruptly absolute night,
momentum alone carrying them toward the edge of Malta, and
the Mediterranean beyond. (454-5)
It seems that only when Profane has finally given up all faith and hope in finding V. is he closer than he has ever been. The real fulfillment lies not so much in the final discovery as in the process that brings it to life.
In many ways, postmodern fiction and criticism can be seen as sister arts—especially in that both are the “free-est” forms of their respective fields. A fundamental question behind all criticism is whether or not it is all right to presume to know anything beyond what is presented in works of art. Postmodern fiction counters that we can presume whatever we'd like, but presuming will seldom be easy, and will almost never be supportable.
Within its dare to interpretation, however, postmodernism scrawls a luring note inviting the critics out to play.” Criticism sparks the kind of endless action-reaction dialogue that lies at the heart of postmodern fiction—the mise-en-abime nature of questioning and explaining and questioning again that never ends.
The goal of interpretation then (as Sontag postulates even before postmodern fiction has begun to gain momentum in its dares) should be to create a new kind: more an expression of the work's place in an evolution of ideas and art, less analysis. Less taste. Less judgment.A
A We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that, in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction. . . What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable… I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one manner: I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon a forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web. (Nabokov 289)
Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School (New York: Grove, 1984).
Barth, John. “Lost in the Funhouse” (e-text online, originally published 1968).
DeLillo, Don. Libra (New York: Penguin, 1988).
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire (New York: Vintage, 1962).
Pynchon, Thomas. V. (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.”
Bailey, Allison. "Postmodern Literature Makes a "Form-al" Reply to Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" en Columbia Journal of American Studies. 12/01/2005. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cjas/sontag.html