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This article is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.

What About the Whats?
Michael Levenson, Modernism (Yale University Press) £28
Nick Liptrot
Among ‘A Few Don’ts’, ‘Go in fear of abstractions’ Ezra Pound had managed to caution the few readers of Poetry magazine in 1913. By 1964 cause for fear had reappeared – at least for the young Susan Sontag. Hoping for a cure, she ‘disburdened’ herself of her own ten commandments, ‘Against Interpretation’. Savvy to the rare fact of her critical-mainstream crossover (for whom, self-confessedly, ‘a bulky essay in Partisan Review becomes a hot tip in Time Magazine’), signs for their reception looked more propitious than Pound’s. ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’: thus armed with epigraphic licence from The Picture of Dorian Gray she launches her prescriptions for the cleansing of critical vision – for all their Sontagian sternness, not unlike those that Wilde appended via the ‘Preface’ to the second printing of his novel, or indeed those Pound had offered in that 1913 number of Poetry. Brushing aside modish shadowplays of critical speculation and extrapolation, codification and allegorisation, the new exegesis, Sontag declares, will return us, lustrated, to the elemental, the hard whats of the page. All commentary on art should be an effort to make that art ‘more, rather than less, real to us’. And as such, exhorts the emphatic ninth commandment, the function of criticism ‘should be to show how it is what it is’; the rub of discovering that the work scrutinised merely ‘is what it is’ one to which practitioners ...

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