Monday 8 June 2020

Favourite Books #5

Not strictly fiction – although I note the remit stipulates only ‘books’, not novels – this is an anthology of Sontag’s early, ground-breaking essays (From Against Interpretation: Simone Weil; Against Interpretation; Notes On Camp; Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson; On Style. From Styles of Radical Will: The Aesthetics of Silence; The Pornographic Imagination; Godard. From Under the Sign of Saturn: Fascinating Fascism; Under the Sign of Saturn; Syberberg's Hitler. From On Photography: The Image-World. And Writing Itself: on Roland Barthes). While she also wrote fiction (this book also includes extracts from her early experimental works, and she penned two rather more conventional novels in her older years), she was always a far better essayist and cultural commentator than she was a novelist.  

As the article I wrote for the Dublin Review of Books (linked to below, and which itself grew out of a shorter book review I did for the Sunday Independent, before I fell out with them) indicates, she was ‘a formidable influence on my intellectual development’, as her books ‘spoke to me of a contemporary and capacious sensibility, so at variance with the narrow and at times downright prissy academic criticism we were prescribed at college.’ It is almost impossible to imagine now, but in the early ’80s UCD or Trinity didn’t even have a Film Studies department, and popular music was certainly not thought worthy of sustained academic analysis. Movies and rock’n’roll were just for kids, and they’d soon grow out of it. It was impossible to envisage that Bob Dylan, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones would one day come to be seen as major cultural figures. Along with her hero Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag did more than most to evolve the democratisation of culture we take for granted today. She opened a door in my head that made it possible to see that, if you were possessed of a strong enough sensibility, and were sufficiently knowledgeable, you could write about anything – literature, music, film, theatre, visual art, sport  – and make connections between disparate things. Unfortunately, this has not always served me well in my own career, as in journalism, newspapers and magazines still like you to be ‘the books guy’ or ‘the music guy’, or ‘the film guy’, etc. The vice of specialisation. 

She wrote so many great books – some, such as Illness As Metaphor or Regarding The Pain Of Others, beyond the terminal point of this collection – that choosing one is difficult, and a sampler is probably the best way to go. Besides, it was my introduction, and I cherish it still. 

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