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! It brings up an age when ideas mattered, when there was passion in the air about sweeping away old thoughts and discovering and valorising the new.
I have no longer any anxiety on behalf of the author, but I still generally dislike the kind of interpretation that Sontag seems to be talking about; the kind that says one thing is another in a text and tyrannically insists on this translation. However, I am eager to read interpretation and criticism - this is definitely part of my pleasure in the text (Sontag ends by saying 'we need an erotics of art rather than a hermeneutics'), not only a way to get more pleasure out of it. So Smith helps me to get more out of reading Hurston, but her intro is art in itself (it is aesthetic; Sontag says the aesthetic is 'that which needs no justification'). For most of us, they will remain silent.))) ((I now have a better way to describe my resistance to The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Sontag describes Thomas Mann (who I haven't read) hilariously as 'overcooperative' in that he inserts intimations of the correct interpretation into his texts. It makes us think of an art work as a statement somehow packaged. In Status Anxiety Alain de Botton explains the view that Arnold sets out in Culture and Anarchy like this: art as a protest against the state of things, an effort to correct our insights or to educate us to perceive beauty, to help us understand pain or to reignite our sensitivities, to nurture our capacity for empathy or to rebalance our moral perspective. Im not sure who is making mush here, because Sontag argues in On Style that art can teach us to be more ethical because the mode of being needed to contemplate art is a useful rehearsal for the mode required for ethical behaviour, which is just a form of acting or code of acts, and goes on to say in many of these essays that art 'educates the feelings', 'nourishes' us, 'sends us out refreshed'. Her main purpose in 'On Style' is, I think, to advise critics to find form in content rather than the converse.
These days, criticism tends to be done piecewise, either commenting or reacting incrementally on each new publication or event, or slowly embodying a larger critique through the slow, steady work of embodying it. Instead, Sontag and others worked through periodicals like the New York Review of Books, or the Partisan Review. The New York Review of Books still exists (and continues to put out superb work), but it isn't the center of the intellectual conversation the way it used to be. This, then is to say that Sontag comes across as very refreshingnot just because she's intellectually brilliant (which she is), or that she provides a novel way of looking at art (which she does), but because she writes so damn well that it's hard not to be carried away by her conclusions because they just sound so damn good. In elevating content above form (and I'll dispense with the air quotes, even though Sontag justly uses them throughout), we cut off the ways in which how a work formally functions determines its aim and effect on the audience.