22 Dec 2011

Finding Meaning Susan Sontag’s Way

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How far beneath the surface of a novel does the reader have to plunge to find its meaning? Susan Sontag, preeminent woman of 20th century letters, says not far at all. In fact, she rails against excavating fiction and writes, “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys: it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text…To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.'”

If we agree with Sontag, then how is a smart woman and  a competent reader to explore a novel, understand its meanings, discuss its qualities, and form judgments about its style and content, without excavating it?

This is a question we often face in book club conversations when it becomes easy to drift from the novel and impose our own interpretations.

Let’s approach this challenge through one of Sontag’s own novels, In America, which we are now reading with our book clubs. In America, is not only about an actress and her art form but also the attitudes of the new, burgeoning “America.” Actually, it is only in America that our Maryna could be both an actress in her life and on the stage.

First, Sontag delights us with her remarks about America, and these observations require no interpretation:

  • In America no one could refuse the often unlovely imperatives of progress.
  • I give thanks to America, a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right.
  • The American is someone who is always leaving everything behind.
  • America never disappoints.
  • What is paramount in America is the personal calendar, the personal journey. My  birthday, my life, my happiness.  (Indeed, this is the perfect creed for Maryna and why she loves America.)
  • Yes, I am becoming quite American: I would much prefer to have  a happy ending.
Second, and more complex, is understanding the main characters.  Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, all seek to define themselves and struggle with authenticity. The only one who seems to conquer this quest is Maryna, since she is unapologetic about her choices. However, this is where the problem of ‘excavation’ arises. How much of Bogdan’s repressed sexuality are we supposed to factor into our understanding of his behavior? And, with Ryszard (the writer), are we to believe he is ‘living’ or ‘observing’ to gather material for his work?
This blogger enjoys the questions and plays with the answers. In the end, there is only one thing to say: It is what it is!

And on that note, www.whatsmartwomenread.com wishes all of you the happiest of holidays and  a new year filled with great reads!


written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.
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