You may have seen me walking around campus for the past few weeks. If so, you would have probably noticed my new trendy accessory: a round, portly book. If you were perceptive, you would have suspected (rightly so) that my reasons for lugging around this indisputable signifier of intellectual buffoonery were manifold. Intellectualism is part of that, of course, but I’m carrying Susan Sontag’s new biography, “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” for reasons beyond mere pretension. After all, if signaling my intelligence and sophistication were my only goals, I’d be dragging GWF Hegel’s “Phenomenology of the Mind”.
I have to admit that Susan Sontag has invaded my psychic space. His sardonic spirit emanates from the biography in fragments that echo voraciously in me. In her I see too much and too clearly – her self-loathing, masked by exuberant confidence; his uncomfortable yet exhilarating commitment to art in all its forms; its agitating polemical capacities. Sontag found his words and spoke them, indifferent to retaliation.
But above all, Sontag jumped into my imagination because she dared write reviews in a way that matters. In “Against Interpretation”, his founding essay in response to the limits of the literary discipline, Sontag explains that “the modern style of interpretation hollows out, and as it hollows out, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a subtext which is the real one. In Sontag’s eyes, the main forms of digging occur in Marxist and Freudian readings, where works of art only become symbols of the “truth” of class struggle or psychological repression. These types of readings bring back heartbreaking memories for any student who has been asked to “understand” William Carlos William’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” in English class.
so much depends
a red wheel
next to white
“The Red Wheelbarrow” attracts the ground to dig, especially for a Marxist. Is the red wheelbarrow a symbol of the pastoral past of the proletariat? Do white chickens evoke future slaughter, just as the worker would only find death in the misery of industrial mills? Why does he depend on it so much? Where is the person who would use the wheelbarrow? Why has physical and human labor disappeared from the poem? How do these symbols and images work to destabilize the bourgeois agenda?
No, Sontag would say. Stop that!
The poem evokes an image in the mind, an emotional experience – no substitution of didactic meaning for the image is required. What I did above, according to Sontag, shifts the “ground” of the words in the poem to find nutritional nuggets below. Yet such an approach does not recognize that these nuggets are not an end in themselves, but the tools to describe the emotional reaction that led us to the poem in the first place. The “soil” is actually what we want. In Sontag’s language, “instead of a hermeneutics, we need an erotic art”. Putting aside hermeneutics, it asks us to turn away from an endless proliferation of substitute interpretations. By turning to eroticism, she invites us to develop new ways of talking about artistic experience, centered on the strange things that a 16-word poem could do. ours.
This question of knowing how to stage an “erotic art” is a delicate one, particularly in literary studies, especially for any young student embarking on a first foray into long-term literary criticism, especially when the fashion The current dominant of literary criticism in the academy has demanded that we ignore our experience of literature. For example, when I search for “At the lighthouse”by Virginia Woolf on JSTOR, 2,186 articles are published. During my tutorial at Oxford, I combed through article after article, book after book of this strain, writing about Woolf in a way that made me desperate. These reviews took a beautiful thing and they dug up the subtext and destroyed it. Woolf’s skill with the tongue bowed to the idea that the context reign supreme.
This idea this context reign supreme has a name: New Historicism. According to Joseph North in “A Concise Political History of Literary Criticism,” New Historicism arose out of a Marxist desire to identify how literary works are necessarily historically contingent. Judgments about “aesthetics” could no longer be used to value sonnets over slave songs. But this approach has had questionable effectiveness. After all, the woes of neoliberalism – inequality, climate change, neoconservatism – seem to have intensified, despite the prolific publications of “left” academics.
I must, however, defer a longer discussion of the relationship of literary criticism to historical change for another article. I discuss this mainly to elucidate that the most common form of digging today is no longer psychoanalysis or Marxism, but precisely New Historicism. The work of art has become a symbol, even a signifier, of history. Yet North, in a direct lineage with Sontag, explains why this approach is so unsatisfactory: “Very few people, it seems to me, begin to read a Virginia Woolf novel with the primary aim of learning more about British cultural life in the 1920s. ”
Moreover, there is a feeling – and now we are entering treacherous territory – that much of this historically contingent reading practice has diverted our attention from the true power of literature. Certainly, I sympathize with the New Historicism project, in its desire to do away with a model of literary criticism centered on white men writing on the works of white men. Still, I feel like we have strayed from literature itself. Literature is not the story; he fights powerfully against him.
But, it seems to me that a large part of literary criticism today has sublimated itself to publication quotas and to esoteric, specialized, contextual, historical knowledge. We no longer write about what art does and what he can to do. We only write about what it was where did. By ignoring the aesthetic experience of literature, we evacuate its capacity to influence the present. Helen DeWitt wrote in her breathtaking work of contemporary fiction, “The Last Samurai,” that “there are people who think that the only reason to read a book is to write one; people should call dust and darkness books and write thousands of words to send to dust and darkness ”(19).
Lately, when I was asked to introduce myself to this current model of literary criticism, I forced myself to quell an infamous and blasphemous question: Why is literary criticism important?
Because I had been told and asked myself to believe that the answer is intrinsic. We seek the knowledge of the coterie in the hope that these ideas will eventually emerge from the dust and obscurity and gain prominence. For now, intoned those around me, we must listen to Woolf and work “even in poverty and darkness” for a later moment of Messianic transcendence.
No, I mean. Stop that!
I don’t want to situate my little voice in a chorus of little voices, commenting on this or that minor point of this or that modernist author. We don’t have time for the slow runoff – we need the volcano. Call me hubristic, as I know many who will read this article will. I do not care. I came to art for its eroticism and I will no longer write in a way that abandons the orgiastic, tumultuous, incantatory “moments of being” that the best of literature unleashes in me.