Against Description

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content to see the thing at all.”

– Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, 1964

sontagsmSusan Sontag, who battled with cancer throughout her life and wrote some of the most muscular and transparent prose of any critic, has always been my paradigm of the critical voice. She was able to maintain two opposing ideas at once and to pull off the rare feat of disinterested criticism that made her such a valuable voice. Although her work was ocassionally too stylised, camp even by her own definition, I was a precocious and pretentious 20 year old when I heard the news that she had died and I cried for days. That’s not something I can say about many critics.

Her ability in short, pugilistic sentences, to present her often controversial view on the world remains unique. In the two sentences above it seems to me that she strikes at the heart of the way wine lovers and writers communicate about our own works of art through the medium of the tasting note.

How do we, as wine drinkers, writers and (amateur) critics, cut back content to see the thing at all? Our superannuation of adjectives – blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry, vanilla, chocolate, toast, butter, cream, vanilla – seems like a lot of content in place of real perception, like standing in front of a painting describing the colours, the type of paint, the nature of the brushstrokes, and while appreciating the technical brilliance of the achievement, utterly failing to see.

On a day devoted to books and writing, Sontag’s thought-provoking criticism reminds us that the task of the critic, in any medium, is to describe what things truly are, rather than simply describing what we see.

Published by


Wine merchant at large.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s