Archive

Susan Sontag

I

In my youth, long enough ago that I cannot recall whether it was in my first, true childhood or my second, collegiate childhood, I dreamt of the contentless work of art. I saw the partiality of all plot and representation and imagined a work that would dispense with it altogether, a perfectly abstract work that through its rejection of content would achieve perfect, complete expression.

Thus I came to Susan Sontag’s essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” well-primed. Here Sontag attempts to characterize the role of silence in “radical” art. She considers two myths concerning the purpose of art. In Myth #1, art is the expression of consciousness seeking to know itself. Art conceived in accordance with this myth is essentially communicative. Silence finds its place as spiritual preparation for this communication, as an ordeal through which one gains the right to speak.

By contrast, in Myth #2, art is an attempt to fulfill the mind’s need for self-estrangement. It is an “antidote” to consciousness. Though (as Sontang stresses) it cannot escape communication with an audience altogether, it resents this and perpetually fights against it, antagonizing the audience and seeking, ultimately, silence. In this myth, silence is no longer mere means: it is the supreme end of art.

My own inclination is toward the first myth. I view my own poetic endeavours as essentially communicative. Nonetheless I find the resources for an attraction to the second myth inherent within me. If I would align myself wholeheartedly with the first myth (or in any case something in its vicinity), I must overcome those aspects of myself that pull me toward the second. In this I find Sontag a valuable antagonist: in characterizing the second myth explicitly and sympathetically, she makes it easier for me to identify just what it is that I must overcome.

II

In the second myth, art is the locus of a struggle between the spirit seeking embodiment in art and the frustrating, ineluctable materiality of the artist’s tools—materiality that is not perfectly malleable to the spirit’s ends. The gentle vision of Plato’s Timaeus, in which Reason “persuades” Necessity, has given way to a more antagonistic relationship. Reason would force Necessity into submission, and Necessity resists.

Nowhere is this more felt than in language, which drags with it a tremendous burden of historically accumulated meaning. “Language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.” Every word the artist uses is a reminder of some earlier achievement. There is then a struggle between the artist’s own, intended meaning and a “second-order” meaning that results from this historical accumulation. To escape this antagonistic second-order meaning, the artist dreams of a wholly ahistorical art. And it seems that only silent art can fulfill this role.

How different things seem from the perspective of the first myth. I think of Paul Valéry’s definition of poetry as the organization of fortuitous accidents. Words and their (sonic and semantic) relations are the accidents, mostly uninteresting. It is the task of the poet to find the felicitous ones (eg. the similarity between ‘Sophocles’ and ‘Sepulchre’, found by Geoffrey Hill) and to create a context in which this felicity becomes perceptible. Valéry’s conception recognizes the obvious fact that all meaning is second-order,” is the result of a history of usage. This is so even in the case of the coinages of Carroll and Joyce. There is simply no way for the artist to create his own meaning except via the manipulation of this historically accumulated meaning.

I am not accusing the adherents of the second myth of failing to recognize this obvious fact. Indeed, the very desire for silence in which that myth culminates is the product of recognizing this fact. But whereas the communicative poet looks on the historically accumulated semantic burden of words as the condition that makes his existence possible, and so celebrates it, the silent poet is wearied by it, finds it too much to bear. Words, the silent poet feels, mean too much: they have become unfit materials. The silent poet looks at the task before him, thinks it impossible, and so is discouraged.

Perhaps you will think it unfair that I have characterized the motivating impulse of the silent poet as a form of weakness, and perhaps you are right. I know only this: when I consider what in me inclines toward the second myth, it is precisely weariness and weakness, a kind of nihilistic disgust.

III

In viewing language in this way, the silent poet comes to see two possible relations to his audience. Either he flatters them by giving them what they know, or he is aggressive against them and gives them what they don’t want. Now this is a remarkably contemptuous view of one’s audience: they want only what they know; they do not wish to be surprised. It is made possible by viewing first-order and second-order meaning as opposed, for understanding must rely on second-order meaning, and of course an audience desires to understand. Thus, from this vantage, for the poet to insist on first-order meaning is to deny the audience what they want. It is, or should be, obvious that such contempt does not arise for the communicative poet.

This brings us to one of the central issues raised by Sontag’s essay: the question of the audience. I contend that the second myth is buoyed by an impoverished view of the audience. Once this view is left behind, the urge to contempt vanishes, and the failure of communication that motivates this myth is seen to rest on problematic expectations.

The silent poet and the communicative poet disagree on three points concerning the audience. (i) For the silent poet, the audience is faceless, “an assembly of voyeuristic spectators.” The audience is an assembly, a crowd, only incidentally composed of individuals. By contrast, the communicative poet always speaks to the individual, to the (perhaps unknown) friend. I know for whom I write. I can see him, can imagine his responses, his delights and consternation. It is always an individual I see, and I speak to him directly. If I am lucky, and if I develop my nascent talents sufficiently to warrant such luck, perhaps I shall find multiple such readers, but they do not thereby form an assembly. I never reach out to the mass.

(ii) Because the silent poet performs before an assembly, the role of the audience is reduced to pure receptivity—“voyeuristic spectators,” again. The artist pronounces, the audience ingests, and that is the end of it. But the communicative poet, in speaking to a friend, is engaged in a fundamentally interactive project. It is speech in the sense of the Phaedrus: the friend may respond. This need not be a conversation strictly speaking, a back-and-forth between poet and reader, for the fact remains that the friends may never meet, need not even be contemporaries. The ideal nonetheless remains the Virgilian ideal of “song replying to song replying to song.” It is a bi-directional interaction.

(iii) These two differences point us back toward a more general difference. The silent poet aims at mass, impersonal communication and finds it wanting, partial. The receptivity of the assembly is never complete, the poet’s own, first-order meaning is never fully grasped, and thus the silent poet despairs of his art’s communicative potential. To the communicative poet, the problem arises at the level of the aim. Impersonal communication is doomed to fail, yes, but it is the wrong goal.

In personal conversation, one does not expect perfect understanding. It is the very essence of such communication that themes are dropped, or picked up but developed in new directions. Conversation does not wait for perfect understanding, but always moves on, content with its partiality. It circles around a topic, or jumps between them, never exhausting them, never completed, always ready for renewal. In the end, as a friend of mine once put it, it is a process only of “more or less understanding and being more or less understood.” But this “more or less” is not viewed as failure, but completeness was not the aim. (This is not to say that the communicative poet does not have a complicated emotional and intellectual relationship with this “more or less.” But this relationship is not the weary despair of the silent poet.)

IV

This misconception of the audience has at least two further ill effects. (i) Because the silent poet aims at perfect understanding, he sees human scrutiny as violating his meaning—for the scrutinizers always bring so much baggage, which distorts their understanding. Their role is to be purely receptive, but they fail at doing so. Silent art, as a reaction to this failure, is an attempt to create a work that is inviolable. Here the communicative poet simply asks: to what end?

(ii) Sontag also characterizes silent art as an attempt to create an opening for new ways of thinking, and as “providing time for the continuing or exploring of thought.” Why should silence be needed to open new paths of thought? Because “speech closes off thought.” This is a striking claim. What could justify it?

Once again, it grows out of the image of the audience as a purely receptive assembly. If there is a unidirectional relation between artist and audience, if the audience cannot respond, then the artist’s pronouncement becomes authoritative, definitive, unchallengeable. But only because the audience has been conceived so as to forbid responsiveness, which always upsets authority, always opens pronouncements to challenge. The communicative poet, who sees his audience as a partner in an ongoing conversation, is not driven to silence in an effort to allow his audience to think. He does not patronize them enough to think they need silence.

Indeed, to the communicative poet, it is questionable that silence is an adequate response to the problem, even if the silent poet is granted his conception of the audience. For all thought finds its origin in response, in reaction to some material—whether that material is found in society or in solitude. Silent art, in not wanting to close off thought, fails to furnish any materials for thought—just as, in rebelling against second-order meaning, the silent poet finds himself without any resources to express his first-order meaning. Of course, as Sontag notes, silent art is never really silent. That is an unobtainable ideal. Insofar as it fails to achieve true silence, silent art may indeed furnish materials for thought after all—but only by relapsing into a kind of speech.

V

Is it any wonder that the silent poet, with such a view of language and such a view of his audience, turns away from poetry in disgust and, insofar as he remains a poet, does so only under protest? Yes, there is something in me that inclines to Sontag’s second myth: something sickly and ugly: my weariness and my nihilism. It is the first myth, the myth of the communicative poet, that speaks to my life and my joy.