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Against Interpretation and Other Essays

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  6,839 ratings  ·  330 reviews
Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag's first collection of essays and is a modern classic. Originally published in 1966, it has never gone out of print and has influenced generations of readers all over the world. It includes the famous essays "Notes on Camp" and "Against Interpretation," as well as her impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beck ...more
Paperback, 312 pages
Published August 25th 2001 by Picador (first published 1966)
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Glenn Russell


Susan Sontag, 1933-2004 - American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, political activist

One of the leading critics of her generation, Susan Sontag's powerful voice is much in evidence in this outstanding collection. For the purposes of my review, I will focus on the lead essay, Against Interpretation, an essay that continues to speak profoundly to us today. Here are a batch of direct quotes coupled with my comments:

"None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art kn
...more
Michael
Aug 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recs, 2017
A wide-ranging debut collection of essays on art, film, and literature that’s as stimulating today as it was when it was first released in the ‘60s. Sontag’s caustic wit, sharp prose, and succinct observations about aesthetics make all the essays worth reading, even though many of her ideas have long since been absorbed into the mainstream. Here, she examines everything from existentialist thought to the tropes of science fiction, and her mind’s always interesting to follow.
DoctorM
Feb 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There was a time, long ago and in another age, when anyone at university who wanted to be well-read or conversant with things intellectual read this book. I'm one of them. I sat in Cross Campus at New Haven and devoured "Against Interpretation" one autumn afternoon. Needless to say, I had a deep intellectual crush on Susan Sontag--- ah, I thought, if only I'd been able to court her in some alternate New York where we were both eighteen or nineteen! I still love this book, all these years later. ...more
E. G.
A note and some acknowledgments

I
--Against interpretation
--On style

II
--The artist as exemplary sufferer
--Simone Weil
--Camus' Notebooks
--Michel Leiris' Manhood
--The anthropologist as hero
--The literary criticism of Georg Lukács
--Sartre's Saint Genet
--Nathalie Sarraute and the novel

III
--Ionesco
--Reflections on The Deputy
--The death of tragedy
--Going to theater, etc.
--Marat / Sade / Artaud

IV
--Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson
--Godard's Vivre Sa Vie
--The imagination of disaster
--Jack Smi
...more
Ahmad Sharabiani
Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Susan Sontag
Against Interpretation is a collection of essays by Susan Sontag published in 1966. It includes some of Sontag's best-known works, including "On Style," and the eponymous essay "Against Interpretation." In the last, Sontag argues that in the new approach to aesthetics the spiritual importance of art is being replaced by the emphasis on the intellect. Rather than recognizing great creative works as possible sources of energy, she argues, contem
...more
Zanna
Dec 10, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
Shelves: philosophy
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.
I ended up finding 'Against Interpretation' useful. Its central claim is that there is a kind of interpretation that is anti-art in that it diminishes the possibilities for appreciating/enjoying/experiencing the art rather than increa
...more
Cheryl
What a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize.

To bask in intelligent discourse of literature, fine arts, and theatre, is to turn to Susan Sontag's Against Interpretations, where the cultured world is viewed aesthetically. Serious conversations elude the personal, criticism becomes communion with art, wherein the reader is almost an after-thought because the dialogue is the writer, the intellectual musing, and the subject. The prose pulsat
...more
Steven Godin
I loved 'On Photography', it's one of the best essays I've read. Some of her others however, I haven't thought much of. This collection of essays and criticism from the 1960s is certainly one of the better Sontag books I've read. It flatters the reader's intelligence without being intimidating. From Sophocles to Sartre, it seems that Sontag has read everything, and has the gift of getting her ideas across in reader-friendly prose, something that isn't shared by all those in the same boat as her. ...more
Jesse
Here is where I discovered my model, my ideal: I too aspire to be able to discuss and analyze so deftly literature, cinema, music, theater, philosophy, theory and society, and their countless and inevitable intersections. The celebrated "Notes on Camp" and the title essay are the standouts, but everything--even the comparatively weak theater reviews--are worth reading.


"My idea of a writer: someone who is interested in 'everything.'"

-from "Afterward: 30 Years Later"
...more
Matt
Mar 05, 2008 rated it liked it


"Instead of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."

Yes...

But what the hell does that mean?
...more
Greg Brown
Dec 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
There don't seem to be as many public intellectuals around as there used to be. Sure, there are more commentators than ever—look at the many, many bloggers out there, as well as other individuated voices carving out their own identity, even within larger publications. But the public intellectual in the middle of the 20th century seemed to comprise something different, something a bit larger in scope. These days, criticism tends to be done piecewise, either commenting or reacting incrementally on ...more
Tosh
Oct 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The famous essay on camp is in this edition as well as wonderful essays on Godard and Beckett. Sontag was an amazing essayist, a really great cultural critic. A walking and breathing treasure of knowledge and clear thinking. One would think she would have loved Goodreads -- but then maybe not. For sure she would be arguing with everyone on this site. What fun!

But seriously even if one disagrees with her work, she is important just for her taste in literature among other things.
Jonfaith
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: crit, theory
Jerking off the universe is perhaps what all philosophy, all abstract thought is about: am intense, and not very sociable pleasure, which has to be repeated again and again.

That's Ms. Sontag on Genet, in lieu of discussing Sartre's Saint Genet. I find it an amazing analogy for thinking and I'm curious what Heidegger would have thought of the affront? There are attendant opportunities which have to be ignored. Yet it lingers and I contemplate.

Against Interpretation was Sontag's first collection
...more
Morgane
Jan 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
I wanted to like this, I thought I would like this, and I did like parts of it, but ultimately it fell flatter than a sad pancake at some alternative to IHOP (I don't know where people get their sad pancakes these days).

Sontag has this whole "war on philistinism" thing, and I get that, and I think it's vaguely a worthy cause, but you can't help the philistines see the light if you keep using references to artists/writers/movies/anything no one's heard of, and making judgmental remarks in passing
...more
Steve
Nov 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I’ve some difficulty processing Ms. Sontag’s thoughts. If there were une Académie Américaine, she would have been a leading member, maybe the only member.  Was she America's Simone de Beauvoir?  She was indeed a prodigy, one who certainly would have had no truck with this corn country son of an accountant.  How do I square the accolades bestowed from academics and publishers with a voice directed at such a narrow, elite audience, an audience that would shun me as a member?

A few thoughts come to
...more
Gabriel
The strange thing about this criticism is that it has already become outmoded. Not that Sontag's critiques are themselves inadequate, but that the ground beneath them has shifted in very predictable (given her own theses) ways. And in some way, these (I hesitate to call them essays, as the great majority of this book is given over to reviews) critiques lead the reader to the conclusion that Sontag's reviews are ephemeral where they should have been permanent. But perhaps that is the nature of th ...more
Joshie
The endurance and magnificence of this essay collection lie not with their ability to persuade but their stimulating arguments and ideas. However—this is a reductive take on an otherwise complex topic—I completely agree that society's eagerness and obsession to interpret / interpretations ad nauseam may be harmful and art should be felt rather than interpreted. Also controversial in places, Sontag's take on form over content forces sceptics to reconsider, reexamine this seemingly insoluble debat ...more
Cheryl
"Writing criticism has proved to be an act of intellectual disburdenment as much as of intellectual self-expression. I have the impression not so much of having, for myself, resolved a certain number of alluring and troubling problems as of having used them up.' Susan Sontag 1966 ...more
Peter Landau
Jun 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
When I’m reading a writer who speaks to me I’ll often share quotes that jump out off the pages, and I did that a few times reading AGAINST INTERPRETATION AND OTHER ESSAYS by Susan Sontag. Usually, those quotes are well-received, but not Sontag’s. Friends dismissed her as “second-rate cribbing” off of better minds, where I saw a dialogue. But, whatever, this was the first of her works I’ve read, and her first published collection, and I really enjoyed being in her mind for 300 pages. She mostly d ...more
Sketchbook
Apr 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
A pop fart from an amoralist of the 60s. Amoral in that Susie would say or write or bed anything to promote herself in the marketplace. A collection, which includes her musings on Camp, that seeks to achieve lit'ry orgasm. Her "mentor" : publisher Roger Straus. ...more
El
It's a still life water color,
Of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
The borders of our alliance.

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Coupl
...more
David
Nov 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: big-white-square
"It is time that the novel became what it is not ... a form of art which people with serious and sophisticated taste in the other arts can take seriously."

and

"in our own time, art is becoming increasingly the terrain of specialists. The most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language."

I'm such a sucker for smart people. If all the idiots were liberals and all the right-wingers were arty-types and bra
...more
Mitch
Sep 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Sontag is right about practically everything. She predicts post-structuralism and post-modernism and warns against them. She was a skeptic about Freud and Marx when it was not fashionable. She was one of the first to see Ozu and Bela Tarr as greater filmmakers than their peers, and last but not least, she defends the aesthetic against the predations of moralists and politicians.
sofía
anyone who knows me knows that i think most works of art by straight white men are a complete waste of my time, so a book written by a white woman which spends 83.47% of its time eulogising the thoughts of white men, was hard to get through, and therefore i didn’t read every essay.

fact is, susan sontag is a Cool Girl™. she writes as if to conceal her identity as a queer woman living in the 60s by aligning her thoughts to that of the french white men she so clearly worships. it’s especially clea
...more
Montserrat Letona
May 25, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
Susan is probably my favorite essayist and I admire her intellect immensely, she always touches movies and works of art that I like even though at times she seems to compare too much European vs American and sometimes being a little unfair towards Americans.

What I like about Susan is that her essays don’t feel outdated at least to me, she’s such an intellectual and she was ahead of her time, or maybe as she points out herself, she was just very aware. With such a knowledge of past, present and f
...more
Rachael
Notes on camp was fun and I enjoyed the piece on Godard. Otherwise not for me bc I’m low IQ.
Andrew
Jun 28, 2010 added it
Shelves: essays, susan-sontag
When I read Susan Sontag's essays, I imagine that if I was at the same party as her, I'd find her on the back porch with one of the host's books, and if one of us pulled out a bottle of wine or a spliff, she'd talk about how lame most of the people in there were. Throughout her essays, she expresses a perceptiveness and a skepticism and a clarity of thought that's refreshing to say the least. Her style manages to span both highly specific and highly general essays, and she even managed to inspir ...more
Jeremy
Jun 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
I'm fourstarring this pretty much for the first two essays, "Against Interpretation" and "On Style", which are must-reads for critics and reviewers. The remaining essays about specific works were less interesting, excepting those about Godard, Antonioni, and Ionesco. If you're a fan of the films of Resnais or Bresson, or the novels of Camus or Genet (not I!), you might get more of an intellectual thrill. ...more
Callum McAllister
"Saint Genet is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and by ghastly repetitiveness." - a great sentence, or The Greatest sentence. ...more
Thomas
I enjoyed the first two essays even if they were a bit dense for my liking. Maybe it’s me that’s dense.

The rest seems to be mostly literary criticism of writers about whom I know little and care even less. I couldn’t finish it.

I’m not saying this isn’t good. It’s just not for a philistine like me.
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Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and did graduate work in philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford.

Her books include four novels, The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover, and In Am
...more

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Juneteenth, observed on June 19th each year, is an American holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in Galveston,...
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“Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. 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.

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. 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.)

The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have. ”
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“The ideal or the dream would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates.” 21 likes
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