8/17/2014 – American essayist Susan Sontag once wrote that, “The urge to interpret is the compliment mediocrity pays to genius.” Are these are fighting words?
She adds that, “We approach works of art in order to interpret them. Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world-in order to set up a shadow world of meanings….Interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone.”
Of course, this falls in the face of all the analysis of subtexts and symbols I struggled through as an English major. Should we simply experience a work of art or literature as it is? Does interpretation result in distancing oneself from the work itself, as if the work had been disinfected and sliced and now lay dead on a slide under the microscope?
I think of an author listening in surprise, shock, or awe as a literary student interprets his character’s angst as symbolic of Christ on the cross. No longer does that character have any life to share with us ordinary people.
Nietzsche has said that “All things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” No one can get out of school without appreciating the wisdom of this statement. Try to argue successfully your interpretation of a work of literature, art, or classroom rules, and you’ll soon find out that if your interpretation differs from that of your teacher or principal, you lose. This may seem like a silly analogy, but I am sure that any interpretation by a well-known literary figure will far outweigh any attempt I make.
Charlie Chaplin said, “I do not have much patience with a thing of beauty that must be explained to be understood. If it does need explanation by someone other than the creator, then I question whether it has fulfilled its purpose.”
A lot has been written on the subject of criticism and interpretation, and they often wear the same hat, but interpretation is relatively benign. I would be delighted if someone would actually consider my novels important enough to interpret their deep and subtle meanings. I hope they find some.