Susi Bechhöfer, 1936-2018.

Bechhofer H Education Trust
Susi Bechhöfer. (Image, Holocaust Education Trust)

I learned today, by a roundabout route, of the death of Susi Bechhöfer. I first came to hear of Susi from Dr Uwe Schütte of Aston University, when I was in correspondence with him about W.G. Sebald. Uwe had been very kind in providing me with all kinds of material and information about Sebald, and it was he who first told me of the connection between Susi and Austerlitz. He put me in touch with Susi, advising me that Sebald’s unauthorised borrowing of a major part of her life story for that of the life of the protagonist of Austerlitz was still a sensitive issue. I believe that Sebald may have made some private acknowledgment before his accidental death.


I had been meaning to get back in touch with Susi, to ask her about her experience of time and space – there are hints, but nothing substantial, in her two books, the as-told-to Rosa’s Child by Jeremy Josephs, and her own Rosa – and also to ask what gave her the idea of composing ‘letters’ to the mother she never really knew. Of course I’m sorry from my own point of view that I will not now have the opportunity; but much more importantly I am very conscious that we have lost another link with pre-WW2 European Jewry, the almost total loss of which robbed Europe of a cultural interweaving of great value, and left us poorer. Susi’s family must feel the lack of someone dear to them too.

Sebald held back from borrowing the more harrowing aspects of Susi’s life. Loss of identity was dreadful enough for his protagonist, he was not willing to plunder the details of something else which Susi has shown incredible bravery in making public in her books. If you want to know more, then look out for her books; each of them is a short and uncomplicated read.

Susi Bechhöfer is honoured at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, and at the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Also recently I came across Pavel Haas‘s ‘Study for Strings’. It was composed in Theresienstadt concentration camp, and performed there during the infamous 1944 Red Cross visit, when the Nazis had ‘cleaned up’ the camp to make it seem like more of a resort. After the visit a large number of the inmates, including Pavel Haas, were packed off ‘East’ to be murdered. As this site hopes to deal from time to time with the question “What is art?” I make no apologies for mentioning that Haas’s music, with its Modernist feel and its echoes of slavonic folk themes, would have been classified by the Nazis as ‘degenerate’ art and suppressed. We only have this piece because the string parts were found amongst papers from Theresienstadt; the double bass part was missing, and was reconstructed by a pupil of Haas. It is music of great vigour, and I have come to love it unashamedly.


Really, what the hell IS art? [2]

Since posting that extract from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I have been trying to avoid re-reading it. Having a definition of art made ventriloquially by James Joyce makes for a powerful precedent, if not a downright stumbling block to any claim of  further originality of thought! A while ago I published a piece here in which I imagined what it would be like to walk through an Egyptian precinct – I keep coming back to this, I know –  lined with depictions of deities, kings and queens, and all kinds of characters, when one did not have a separate word for ‘art’.

Comparing that situation to how we currently view art is a challenge. When I walk from the railway station to the university campus, how do I know that I am not somehow taking a similar walk to an ancient Egyptian’s? If there is something past or through which I walk that I do not have a defining term for, I have no idea I’m walking through it. The Egyptian might have been able to say “I am not Horus, and I am not Osiris,” the same way as I distance myself from any identifiable aspect of the city of Edinburgh, but neither of us can see the dividing line between ourselves and something for which we have no word. Perhaps the next time I make the journey, I ought to stop somewhere, look around, and say “Wow!” just for the heck of it.

Perhaps that very act, the act of stopping and staring around myself in wonder holds a key to the understanding of art. So I will take my first real step in the definition of what the hell art is. I realise immediately what hobbles any such step, of course; once we have a word for something, it becomes a tool of taxonomy. A definition is that which separates something from everything else, and as such it is a negative rather than a positive. Much as I would love to abolish the tem ‘art’ and simply experience it without mediation, that is now impossible. So I will, at least, try to make any definition as wide as I possibly can. I’ll immediate offer a caveat to that wideness: I am not at this point concerned with figurative uses of the word ‘art’. We can talk about the ‘artistry’ of Roger Federer, for example, when we really mean that his unique combination of skill, athleticism, and grace makes us go “Wow!” but that does not necessarily mean that when he serves an ace he is therefore presenting a work of art. Non sequitur. We can speak of the ‘martial arts’, but no matter how balletic any particular form of that may be, no matter how we may see Bruce Lee in action and say “Wow!” it is basically about hitting people and is not an artistic statement. For now, the figurative does not figure.

But “Wow!” does hold the key, I think. That is the very word I used a few decades back, while I was climbing a wide staircase in a French chateau, and came across a massive painting by Fernand Léger on a wall. Looking back at that, allowing my imagination to conjure the scene in my memory, I realise of course that the first requirement in a definition of art is this: art is phenomenal. By that I mean that a work of art has to appear to us, to come upon our perception as something outside ourselves. Gaston Bachelard tells us that imagination comes before action (The Poetics of Space34), and indeed before a work of art can be created, it is imagined in the mind of the artist. But if it the imagined work is not realised, that image is not a phenomenon, it has no ‘appearance’. Not everything that is phenomenal is a work of art of course. We may speak of daffodils ‘dancing’, of bird ‘singing’, or morning ‘painting the sky’, but as I said above the figurative does not figure.

The second requirement I will bring in is this: art is intentional. Art is first imagined by the artist and then is realised, becomes that phenomenon I referred to. A natural landscape, a view, a mountain, a stone on the summit of that mountain, none of these is ‘art’, because, unless one posits a creator deity who is the ineffably perfect template of an artist, they are phenomenal but not intentional. I can think, however, of an occasion or a set of conditions under which one or any of these might be considered art. That is if an artist decides to ‘situate’ it. If an artist first imagines and then carries out the conducting of a group up a mountain, where he points to the stone on the summit and says “Behold!” then the stone becomes involved in a work of art; but the work of art itself is not simply the stone nor the stone the work of art, rather the act of the artist presenting it is – that is the total phenomenon to the onlookers, even though the phenomenon of the stone may then be or become all that captures their attention. The foregoing shows the artist’s intention in moving something from imagination to realisation. So far, therefore, we have intention (imagination), realisation, and phenomenon.

I would argue that even if randomness is factored in, these criteria can be fulfilled. If, for example, an artist happens across something ‘trouvé’ and situates it, then we still have intention, realisation, and phenomenon. There is a definite element of randomness in, for example, ‘gestural abstraction’, or action painting as it was also known, but the randomness does not negate the criteria.

Franz Kline, Painting Number 2 1954
Franz Kline, Painting No.2, 1954.

At this point I feel as though I’m going over old ground. I don’t believe I’m saying anything that countless people have said before. But then, I don’t pretend that the material in this blog is academic writing. Perhaps I will – who knows? – stomp around inside the walled precincts of thought long enough to catch, in my peripheral vision, the door to the outside that has been there all along. But don’t hold your breath. Next time I address this subject, I hope to move on to see what we can exclude – taxonomy being all about exclusion, as we know! – from the criteria I have proposed today.


work cited:

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,

Penguin Classics, 2014

“Power is Power”

1 du Maurier
du Maurier


When I was an undergraduate I wrote an essay, in response to a set question asking me to judge between two books, and chose which one was worthy of receiving a prize as the best English-language novel of the twentieth-century – we had been studying the culture of literary prizes. There was a shortlist of novels we had studied in our module, with space for a wildcard of our own choice, and an instruction to pick any two. I picked Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell.

1 Orwell

The first task of the essay was to set out the criteria by which the two novels would be judged, and the second was of course to explain my reasons for awarding the prize to one and not the other. They might seem to you to have been a very odd pair, the first having usually been dismissed as a novelette since it was first published, the second being one of the twentieth century’s greatest dystopian novels. However, I made a case for Rebecca being a very strong contender. I argued that its reputation, perhaps based on the rather mannered Alfred Hitchcock movie of 1938 starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, of being a melodramatic, Gothic novelette rather than on its own merits, was ill deserved. It is a tense and subtle psychological thriller, brilliantly written, and also a satire on a disappearing social class and that class’s attitude toward the status of women. The satirical aspect of both novels drew them closer in genre, of course, and the quality of du Maurier’s writing closed the gap on merit. In the section where I described the criteria, I made the following statement:

[…] the winning book, whilst not simply being a sermon, should serve a lasting purpose, telling us something about human nature, the human mind, or human society which does not simply fade with the era in which the book was written. In 1995, Booker panel chairman George Walden made the complaint that “very few people write with any conviction about the present” (Prescott 256) and “[s]o few of the Booker entries tackled modern England […] Is there something wrong with England?” (360). Both finalists tackle the “modern” England of their era, even though one is cast as an imagined, yet-to-come ‘Airstrip One’. Both tackle aspects of the observed class structure or politics of the time in which they were written. It might be expected that this would shackle them to that time. The criterion proposed means that along with and despite their relevance to 1938 and 1948, there should be a contemporary or timeless relevance also. Both authors would readily accept the verdict of posterity. A du Maurier character said “We shan’t know [the great writers of today] for fifty years” (62); Orwell would “take the chance that time will do to me what it does to most prophets” (174).

My conclusion at the end of the essay was that both books were works of originality and imagination, both dealt with the psychology of their protagonists (Winston Smith and the unnamed Mrs. De Winter), but dexterity of language and greater continuing relevance edged Nineteen Eighty-Four ahead.

Of course this was a very artificial exercise, aimed solely at testing our grasp of the issues surrounding literary awards, and our ability to assess two novels on a scale of literary merit that we ourselves had set. It was as artificial as the televised debate – or rather the created-for-television debate – between Will Self and Adam Gopnik, about whether Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was the greater dystopian novel of the twentieth century. As members of the audience pointed out during the brief Question-and-Answer session, the two authors did not write their novels in contention with each other but to stand alone, and both are fine novels[1].

1 Self

The chief argument that Will Self and Adam Gopnik appeared to be making, had to do with the continuing relevance I mentioned above. In essence, the debate came down to a box-ticking exercise about which of the two novels was more prescient about today’s world. Brave New World can claim to have foreseen the life of unproductive comfort as lived by the middle class of the North-West Quartile[2], the lack of the effect of war on our lifestyles, our dependence on artificial pleasure, our dependence on people of a lesser caste to clean up after us, and so on. Nineteen Eighty-Four foresaw the surveillance culture, the helicopter gunship, the Stockholm syndrome, and the shortening of understanding by the manipulation of language. The ‘evidence’ brought in defence of each book was rather predictable – Self starting by impishly insulting his audience as “Alphas,” Gopnik citing the governmental styles of Trump and Putin.

1 Gopnik

However, dystopian novels do not need to be novels of prescience. Their function is not to say “Wouldn’t it be awful if…” but “Isn’t is awful that…” If it were a question of judging the most prescient book ever written then the prize would probably go to Das Kapital by Karl Marx. But again, he did not write that as a work of future prediction but as one of current analysis. It just turns out that his description of nineteenth-century capitalism shows a model that is still recognisable today. In fact it was recently dramatised by Sarah Woods, for BBC radio, who applied a Marxian analysis to the manufacture of a mobile phone.

All dystopian fiction has to set itself in the future, however, in order to be able to exaggerate the contemporary trends it satirises, but that is the only reason. Take Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, the theme of which was slavish addiction to mass media by a dumbed-down public. The fact that it foresaw the phenomenon of ‘reality TV’ is secondary to the point made by the way the slogan “This is the Year of the Sex Olympics – Sex Olympics Year” was chanted over the end credits, to the viewing audience which, if it was truly awake, would suddenly realise that it had just slavishly sat through a television programme. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as another example of another novel written to exaggerate contemporary trends[3]. Equally, all dystopian fiction has to envisage a central, controlling force, in order to shore up the idea of a uniform culture that is dangerous to resist. Thus the most common, and most facile, complaint made against the genre, is that its lack of prescience is signalled by the fact that in most of the world – at least the world as known by folk in that North-Western Quartile – is culturally and politically ‘free’. But then none of us, particularly if we are comfortable but in effect regardless of whether we are comfortable or socially excluded, is capable of seeing the totality of what hedges us in and keeps us in our place.

1 Huxley

Thus Orwell’s picture of constant war, of the ruthless exercise of political power, of the betrayal of socialism by the Bolsheviks, of the switching of enmities, of the curtailment of language, are all based on mid-twentieth-century factors he witnessed first hand. Similarly, Huxley’s characters’ cheerful hedonism is based on cultural factors he witnessed in America. Whether they are prescient or not has little to do with their canonical status, as little as do the works of, say Dickens, Sterne, Shakespeare, or Chaucer, all of whom satirised the society around them.

This has been a diversion from what I had intended this blog for, but it has been, for me, an enjoyable one. And on that moment of cheerful hedonism, I shall close.

 – – – – – – – – – –

[1] Orwell did complain that Brave New World to an extent plagiarised Zamyatin’s We, but ironically Isaac Deutscher (34) made the same accusation about Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[2] by which I mean mainly the more affluent countries of Western Europe and North America.

[3] It is perhaps unremarkable that since the election of Donald Trump and the rise of triumphalism in the Religious Right, The Handmaid’s Tale has experienced a revival. It is less unremarkable, given that Trump leans heavily to the neoliberal right, that Nineteen Eighty-Four also experienced a revival.

I am grateful to poets Daniel Paul Marshall and Marie Marshall (not related) for initiating this topic, in a comment thread to one of the former’s essays. A special thanks to the latter for reminding me that I had reminded her about The Year of the Sex Olympics. I apologise for not using this post as an opportunity to comment further on DPM’s original post, but I do recommend it as an interesting essay.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that the title of this piece is taken from an episode of Game of Thrones. When Petyr Baelish remarks to Cersei Lannister that “Knowledge is power,” she, with a mere gesture, causes her men-at-arms to draw their swords and hold their points to his throat. “No,”, she says, “power is power!” I don’t know whether Game of Thrones, in printed or televised form, can claim a place as dystopian fiction; it is a fantasy with supernatural elements, set in a land where noble families vie for the crown, and as such it draws on the late medieval period in England. The ascendancy of House Lannister is based on the absolutism of the Tudors that followed that historical period. As such it could be said to allegorise the unrestricted, ultralegal power enjoyed now by transnational billionaires, but that would be stretching it.

 – – – – – – – – – –

Works cited

“Das Kapital.” Drama, BBC Radio4, 2ndMay 2018.

Deutscher, Isaac. “1984– The Mysticism of Cruelty.” Twentieth Century

Interpretations of 1984, edited by Samuel Hynes, Prentice-Hall,

1971, pp.29-40.

du Maurier, Daphne. The Years Between. Samuel French Ltd., 1947.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia.Penguin, 1962.

Prescott, Lynda. “Pat Barker, The Ghost Road.” The Popular and the

Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature 1940-

2000, edited by David Johnson, Routledge, 2005, pp.244-399.

“The Year of the Sex Olympics.” Theatre 625, BBC2, 29thJuly 1968.

Really, what the hell IS art?

Joyce 200I first read the passage in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from which the excerpt below comes, when I was seventeen, which is about the age Joyce himself was when this photograph opposite was made. I have never forgotten it, and I have never forgotten the book either – it had on its front cover a famous photograph of the young, clean-shaved Joyce, standing in front of what appears to be a greenhouse. He has a flat cap on his head, which he has cocked over to his right; his hands are thrust into the pockets of his baggy trousers, and he stands with his feet firmly planted apart. Locked in that almost defiant frame, and still to emerge are the denizens of Dublin, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, and the Mamalujo quartet… “Tip! Tip!”

The passage was in my mind when I came up with the url for this blog. Stephen Dedalus’s definitions always struck me as being a good landmark at which to start a debate about what the hell art might be, and the questions he leaves hanging in the air well worth pondering in pursuit of an answer. Lynch’s laconic interjections should stand too, to remind us that we are mortal and, as such, open to having the Mickey Bliss taken out of us.


—To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty. Aquinas says: Ad pulcritudinem tria requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance. Do these correspond to the phases of apprehension? Are you following?

—Of course, I am, said Lynch. If you think I have an excrementitious intelligence run after Donovan and ask him to listen to you.

Stephen pointed to a basket which a butcher’s boy had slung inverted on his head.

—Look at that basket, he said.

—I see it, said Lynch.

—In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in space. But temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehended it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

—Bull’s eye! said Lynch, laughing. Go on.

—Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of apprehension. Having first felt that it is one thing you feel now that it is a thing. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible, separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum, harmonious. That is consonantia.

—Bull’s eye again! said Lynch wittily. Tell me now what is claritas and you win the cigar.

—The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism, the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But that is literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley’s, called the enchantment of the heart.

Stephen paused and, though his companion did not speak, felt that his words had called up around them a thought-enchanted silence.

Joyce cover 200—What I have said, he began again, refers to beauty in the wider sense of the word, in the sense which the word has in the literary tradition. In the marketplace it has another sense. When we speak of beauty in the second sense of the term our judgement is influenced in the first place by the art itself and by the form of that art. The image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the artist himself and the mind or senses of others. If you bear this in memory you will see that art necessarily divides itself into three forms progressing from one to the next. These forms are: the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

—That you told me a few nights ago, said Lynch, and we began the famous discussion.

—I have a book at home, said Stephen, in which I have written down questions which are more amusing than yours were. In finding the answers to them I found the theory of esthetic which I am trying to explain. Here are some questions I set myself: Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic. If not, why not?

—Why not, indeed? said Lynch, laughing.

If a man hacking in fury at a block of wood, Stephen continued, make there an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?

—That’s a lovely one, said Lynch, laughing again. That has the true scholastic stink.

—Lessing, said Stephen, should not have taken a group of statues to write of. The art, being inferior, does not present the forms I spoke of distinguished clearly one from another. Even in literature, the highest and most spiritual art, the forms are often confused. The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero, which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

—Trying to refine them also out of existence, said Lynch.

Spectral Materialism


One should thus get rid of the fear that, once we ascertain that reality is the infinitely divisible, substanceless void within a void, “matter will disappear.” What the digital informational revolution, the biogenetic revolution, and the quantum revolution in physics all share is that they mark the reemergence of what, for want of a better term, one is tempted to call a post-metaphysical idealism. It is as if Chesterton’s insight into how the materialist struggle for the full assertion of reality, against its subordination to any “higher” metaphysical order, culminates in the loss of reality itself: what began as the assertion of material reality ended up as the realm of pure formulas of quantum physics. Is, however, this really a form of idealism? Since the radical materialist stance asserts that there is no World, that the World in its Whole is Nothing, materialism has nothing to do with the presence of damp, dense matter – its proper figures are, rather, constellations in which matter seems to “disappear,” like the pure oscillations of the superstrings or quantum- vibrations. On the contrary, if we see in raw, inert matter more than an imaginary screen, we always secretly endorse some kind of spiritualism, as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which the dense plastic matter of the planet directly embodies Mind. This “spectral materialism” has three different forms: in the informational revolution, matter is reduced to the medium of purely digitalized information; in biogenetics, the biological body is reduced to the medium of the reproduction of the genetic code; in quantum physics, reality itself, the density of matter, is reduced to the collapse of the virtuality of wave oscillations (or, in the general theory of relativity, matter is reduced to an effect of space’s curvature). Here we encounter ANOTHER crucial aspect of the opposition idealism/materialism: materialism is not the assertion of inert material density in its humid heaviness – SUCH a “materialism” can always serve as a support for gnostic spiritualist obscurantism. In contrast to it, a true materialism joyously assumes the “disappearance of matter,” the fact that there is only void.

Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, 2012, pp.21-22.

‘Against Interpretation’

Susan Sontag

Who could be against interpretation? Interpretation is what we do. It is as natural to us, and perhaps even as automatic to us as our breathing or our heartbeat. It is, I would say, the basic function of human cognition. We like to think that we deal with reality, but we do not. In fact we encounter a stream of instantaneous phenomena. These phenomena may have a relationship to reality, but that relationship is neither constant nor consistent, and nor is it in any way measurable. When we see a tree, for example, we do not, cannot, know the totality of ‘tree’; but the instant flash of trunk, branch, leaves, and whatever images come into our minds are what we interpret, and we give it a meaning, a word. We interpret it. We do not even reduce the totality down to that interpretation, because we do not have the totality to start with.

At this point the shade of Susan Sontag comes and stands at my elbow, crossly tapping her foot.

“That is not what I meant,” she says, and points to a passage in her famous essay, ‘Against Interpretation’.

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in its broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

Fair enough. Let’s set aside my insistence on our everyday experience of the world as being one of phenomena, and let’s take that definition of interpretation, damned by Sontag as “the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius,” and run with it. Here is the opening paragraph of her essay:

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incatatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

Sontag’s initial sentence is an example of the very process she abhors – it is an interpretation. Whenever we contemplate prehistoric humanity we come across things we don’t understand. Give us a flint hand-axe or a scraper and we’re happy, we can immediately see what they’re for. Give us unaccountable marks on a piece of bone, a cup-and-ring pattern on a stone, or a vivid painting on the wall of a cave – something for which there is no obvious purpose – and we feel compelled to invent one. We come up with a “must have been,” we consciously interpret. Our fall-back position is ‘ritual’. We have no proof that our remote ancestors divided life up by any kind of taxonomy that we would recognise, no evidence at all that painting a cave wall had any significance for them beyond being an act woven into everyday life, no evidence of their metaphysical sensibilities, no evidence at all of ritual. In fact, all we can be forgiven for recognising in the paintings is a mimetic quality, the one that the Greeks thought up later.

The reductive verdict of ‘ritual’ is our colonial mind-set at work. It is the same hegemonic code and rules of interpretation that dubbed ‘ritual’ what we thought we saw when Maasai, or Andaman Islanders, or Maori, or Iroquois went through something that their society or culture regularly repeated. In our supposedly civilised superiority, looking down upon those whom we considered ‘primitive’, we reduced what they did to a word we could cope with, a word replete with condescension – we are above all that, we are rational beings, or so we say to ourselves.

Judith Butler

I’m going to digress for a while. This whole subject of ritual opens up another avenue of thought for me and, like a dog in a field, I like to follow fresh scents. I’ll go back to Judith Butler’s declaration of gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (519). Gender, Butler tells us, is performative, to which I always feel bound to answer, “What isn’t?” What single act that we do any moment of any day of the year, be it demonstrative of gender or anything else in our make-up or in what society or culture expects of us, is not in some way a declaration of who we are, who we are to be taken to be, or what we are currently doing? When we repeat that act, particularly on a regular basis, then its stylised repetition makes it part of a ritual. For that is what a ritual is – the regular repetition of a performative act. At every Catholic mass, the priest raises the host and consecrates it, by which performative action it becomes the body of Christ; his congregation recognises this, it is familiar to them, they have seen this performative act a hundred times or more.

It could be that the actions that came before our colonial eyes in East Africa, the Andaman Islands, Aotearoa, or Ontario, or before the rediscoverers’ eyes in the caves of South-Western Europe, do or did have that order of significance for their actors. But it is not so simply because we say it is so.

I have, in any case, always been dissatisfied with the word ‘ritual’. Where there is something familiar such as the Catholic mass mentioned above, or the way that the court officials and the advocates rise and bow when the Sheriff enters the courtroom, it is the outward signal that there is a process under way. I prefer ‘process’. It is still condescending and presumptuous to look on at something from an exotic culture, nod knowingly, and say, “Process.” But at least the word has less of a derogatory nuance. It might be possible to look at the cave paintings and surmise that there was a cultural process going on; but I believe the most we can do, the most we should do, is look with awe, and with satisfaction, at something our sisters and brothers felt it worth putting there.

In her essay, Susan Sontag makes a plea for us to back off from conscious interpretation. She says (or rather, she said in 1964 – her shade is no longer standing at my elbow tapping her foot):

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? […] What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. […] Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are […] In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
(12, 13, 14)

“Of things being what they are.” I certainly see where she is coming from. But this takes me back to my initial point – the impossibility of knowing what things are. Our first, perhaps our only, experience of an artefact is that immediate phenomenon, filtered through our senses, dealt with by our powers of perception, made some-sort-of-sense-of if sense is really what we’re making; this phenomenon, instead of standing still, plays a giant game of association with our mind, conjuring up other images, some of which seem to last, others dissipate before they’re fully formed. We do ‘interpret’, we can’t help it. I often put it this way – we read everything. Just not as coherently as we would like to believe.

In my opinion we ought to be aware of this. Perhaps it is not an erotics of art but a ‘chaotics’ that we need, or, if you prefer something more solid to hold onto, something with an –ology to it, a phenomenology of art. Perhaps we need a whole tool set, a Swiss-Army-Knife of the consciousness, in which we keep interpretation, erotics, chaotics, and any other handy tool.

Sontag might not have liked that idea, and would have kept the interpretive tool snapped shut. Not for her the peeling away of the skin to reveal and interpret content. Of modernist art she said:

The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic, but it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is…,” “What X is trying to say is…,” “What X said is…,” etc.)

Lyn Hejinian

What Sontag is saying here – I know, that’s cheeky of me! – is that art is never used as a means of communication. I doubt that such a statement can be accepted. Many works in all kinds of genres are produced to be seen and heard and understood, to convey a message or to make a point, to be instrumentalist even didactic. Sontag objects to the epanalegesis of Philo of Alexandria, and by extension of any revision of the meaning of scripture, down to this day, beyond the expression of the religious experience of the culture within which it was first written; thus she must object to any passing over of the proprietorship of content, if content there is, and surely to form, which she privileges above content. This is a narrowing down. A poet such as Lyn Hejinian, on the other hand, takes an approach that is vigorously diametrically opposite. For Hejinian, intrinsic in loosening her own proprietorship of a poem is relinquishing authority over meaning. She finds with Yurii Tynianov that even a single word does not have a single definite meaning, but is “a chameleon, in which not only various shades, but even various colors arise with each usage” (Tynianov 60), conceding his idea of the “oscillating sign” in which meanings and nuances jostle for position (70) in a signifier, which can even slip away from its signified (Ward 19). Thus writing, and even more so reading, becomes an exercise not in teasing out any fixed or intended meaning, but in allowing thought-associations to form freely with words, and further “where one once sought a vocabulary for ideas, one now seeks ideas for vocabularies” (Hejinian, Language of Inquiry 27). This is an interpretation beyond bald interpretation, a deliberate invitation for the reader to take part in the creative process, adding other dongles to the Swiss-Army-Knife:

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality.

This is a wonderfully liberating attitude compared to Sontag’s, an ‘anything goes’ attitude to reading or observing or hearing a work of art, closer to my idea of ‘chaotics’ perhaps. Not without its problems, of course, it is no more a definitive view than Sontag’s, and the world has moved on since all these statements were made.

Where does this leave us? Sontag’s essay remains a major work of influence, a ‘must read’ item for all those who want to study literature or contemplate any genre of expressive art. However it is not, of course, graven on tablets of stone.


I hope you have enjoyed reading the above. Of course it can’t have covered everything – it has touched on areas about which whole books have been written. If you would like to enter into discussion about this post, please use the comments box below, or email me at taxonomydomine{a}, and I will transfer your remarks here. Vigorous counter-arguments are welcome; flames, however, will be doused.

Here’s an interesting digression: why did I pick those particular photographs of the women I quoted here?


Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol.40 No.4, 1988, pp.519-531.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Vintage, 1988.

Tynianov, Yurii. The Problem of Verse Language. Translated by Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey. Ardis, 1981.

Ward, Geoff. Language Poetry and the American Avant-garde. British Association for American Studies, 1993.

Walter Benjamin on History

 Angelus Novus

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
den blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Gluck
– Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The above paragraph is the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968, pp.257-8).