28 December 2004

Sometimes the only way to understand death wholesale—as we've just seen in Asia, disturbingly similar to the immediate results of the Krakatoa eruption a little over a century ago—is to look at it retail. One at a time. The irony that we can now apply this to Susan Sontag herself, when the wholesale/retail distinction is such an important (if all too often unacknowledged) part of her critical legacy, seems a bit much for the end of the year. Actually, it's a bit much for any time.

Sontag is one of those mid-century literary theorists who are/were far more important for their "failed experiments" than for any groundbreaking theoretical work they did, but whose attitude (the true theory behind those experiments) is nonetheless valid. Her willingness to apply the same standards to "popular" art as to "highbrow" art made her many enemies, including self-satisfied entities like Irving Howe, who rather notoriously referred to her as a publicist for quilt-making. (Given Howe's own dubious treatment of anti-Stalinist Socialist writers of the mid-twentieth century—including, but far from limited to, George Orwell—this should raise a few eyebrows; or at least raise the eyebrows of the few of us who have actually read the f*@%^*%!g books.) The oxymoronic title of her most-famous book of essays led too many to dimiss her work without reading it, and too few to engage with it after reading it. In that way, Against Interpretation is the literary equivalent of constitutional law: talked about, but all too often dismissed as wrongheaded while too seldom read in the original.