Essays

It Has Always Been Thus

By posted at 6:00 am on October 2, 2013 8

covercoverThe debate between writers and critics over authorial intent is literally a life and death struggle. By literally, I mean figuratively. On the one hand, you have critics who have trumpeted “the death of the author” for several decades now, the view that holds that authors can’t be the true masters of their creations, can’t fully grasp the implications of language they pluck, seemingly, from a great assembly line of words and idioms. On the other hand, you have writers like those anthologized in The Story About the Story and The Story About the Story II, who argue, more often than not, that to read is to feel your mind, however fleetingly and incompletely, jacked into the mind of another, a connection that is perhaps more alive than even our relations with those we consider intimates.

The debate is preposterous on its surface. Of course the publishing industry, with its book packaging scandals and its ridiculous pseudonym play (I once met a man, an ex-convict, who claimed to have profited three-quarters of a million dollars ghostwriting a series of Little House books for a descendant of Laura Ingalls Wilder), undermines the sense that reading is interaction with another discrete life. But anomalies don’t founder what is intuitively true.  When I read, I read for what I think an author wants to be expressing. In this, I’m not alone. Many years ago, Henry James complained – a plaintive cry, really – that critics of his own time were “apt to stand off from the [artist’s] intended sense of things.”

Where does this impulse come from? There are many sources, of course: the new critics and the intentional fallacy, and T.S. Eliot would probably be in this camp, and maybe the surrealists, and perhaps someone like Mallarmé. I don’t claim to be a scholar of all that, and anyway “the death of the author” traces most directly back to Roland Barthes’s 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” a short piece that, pound for pound, may be one of the most influential texts ever produced.

And what did Barthes intend? That’s not entirely clear. “The Death of the Author” begins with a quote from Balzac’s story “Sarrasine,” a musing passage that Barthes reads as neither a character’s free indirect speech, nor the author “acting directly on reality.” From this he declares both the death of the author and the “birth of the reader”: an active interpreter of writers who are no longer authors at all, in the old sense of the word. Proust is Barthes’s best example of this new writer, the “scriptor” whose character is a depiction “of he who is going to write.” This “enunciation is an empty process,” and scriptors merely supply a “tissue of quotations.” “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I,” Barthes writes. It’s only in the mind of the new reader that words and images come to mean anything at all.

The old position of the author, Barthes claims, mistakenly demanded that we think of books as written in code. Hear, hear. Other than that, all Barthes really seems to mean is that reading has become a cooperation of imaginations. What he doesn’t recognize – couldn’t have recognized – is that the same electric jolt that he had used to execute the author would shock to life a correspondingly monstrous critic.

To back up a bit. What’s meant by the “literary canon”? Literally, a canon is any authoritative set of standards, but figuratively the literary canon most closely resembles the processes of Biblical canonization, by which Christian sects debated and decided which ancient scriptures were of divine origin, inspired. In other words, a bunch of folks got together to look at work they knew was written by a person, and they simply decided that whoever wrote it no longer mattered, because God wrote it. Those writers might as well be dead – and that’s sort of what became of Barthes’s essay. Literature is a secular revelation of a more earthly god, human consciousness, and all that was needed was a critic/theologian to interpret it for laypeople, for mere “readers” who would be less encouraged to read for themselves than compelled to listen to interpretations. That pretty much describes both the modern Ph.D. in English and the practice of teaching literature to children as a compulsory subject in the public education system.

But the demotion of writers to figures stumbling blindly through the collective unconscious falls to the same arguments that toppled B.F. Skinner’s, and behaviorism’s, simplistic claim that consciousness doesn’t exist (See Chomsky, Koestler, Carl Rogers, and others). More simply, Samuel Butler once refuted this same species of skepticism – the claim that matter itself was hypothetical – by pounding his foot on a stone and proclaiming “I refute it thus!” To the literary obstetrician Barthes attempting to midwife a new reader, one might feel compelled to proclaim, “It has always been thus!”

coverBecause he wasn’t saying anything new. And I don’t mean new critics or Mallarmé  For at least a couple hundred years, writers have understood that their work wouldn’t amount to much without the reader’s imagination percolating away on the other side of the page. It was there in 1837, in “The American Scholar,” when Emerson coined the phrase “creative reading” in the same sentence that gave us “creative writing.” It was there six decades later, when Henry James described The Turn of the Screw as a “process of adumbration,” a sketch the reader colors in with “his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy.”  And it was there a couple decades after that, in Barthes’s beloved Proust’s “On Reading”:

And there, indeed, is one of the great and marvelous characters of beautiful books (and one which will make us understand the role, at once essential and limited, that reading can play in our spiritual life) which for the author could be called “Conclusions” and for the reader “Incitements.”  We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires.  And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach.  But by a singular and, moreover, providential law of mental optics (a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves), that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours, so that it is at the moment they have told us all they could tell us, that they create in us the feeling that they have told us nothing yet.

coverTo be fair, Barthes had his regrets.  Ten years after “The Death of the Author,” and shortly before he died, he kicked back at his own, “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I.” In its first pages, A Lover’s Discourse insists that “To that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I.

So how does the struggle end? Perhaps with simple statements, rather than melodramatic metaphors. Critics who have taken up the dead author standard would have us regard creative work as an elaborate Freudian slip: don’t read for what a writer is trying to say, read for what they’ve said in spite of themselves. That’s wrong. Literature (and all the arts, really) is the product of concentrated, intelligent minds to which we are granted intimate, but temporary and incomplete, access. We should embrace and not denounce that opportunity to comingle thought. Art is not an accident.





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8 Responses to “It Has Always Been Thus”

  1. PT Smith
    at 10:30 am on October 2, 2013

    J.C.,

    How do you think it works out though when an author insists in an interpretation of their work, or of an interpretation being wrong (Tolkein telling us LoTR is in no way about WWII)? Do the interpretations that go against the author’s statements need to be discarded? For me, that is the great liberation of the death of the author (not that that didn’t exist before Barthes), as is the ability to read a book like say a noir, in ways that the author wouldn’t be imagining.

    I think that without the argumentative pole that the author’s intention matters not at all, the idea that we must only read according to author’s intent would become stronger, so it is up to the rest of us to play the middle ground. I still carry shame over getting in an argument with a high school English professor because I couldn’t believe he cared about all the little interpretive details of The Odyssey that he cared about because “There’s no way Homer was thinking that. ”

    Apart from these questions, what comes to mind, particuarly from your last paragraph is the experience I’ve had with different authors, feeling to varying degrees how much of their intent is coming through stronger than any other interpretations. Nabokov is for me the greatest genuis in this respect. He bullies you into experiencing exactly what he wants you to.

  2. Josef Zeko
    at 1:24 pm on October 2, 2013

    “Literature is a secular revelation of a more earthly god, human consciousness, and all that was needed was a critic/theologian to interpret it for laypeople, for mere “readers” who would be less encouraged to read for themselves than compelled to listen to interpretations. That pretty much describes both the modern Ph.D. in English and the practice of teaching literature to children as a compulsory subject in the public education system.”

    Which you might add is then used as a marketing tool to trick idealistic young people into taking out gigantic loans in order to take worthless liberal arts classes taught by this posing priesthood. Like Nietzsche said, a priest is a great lover of Beefsteaks ($$$).

  3. deebee
    at 10:48 pm on October 2, 2013

    “Critics who have taken up the dead author standard would have us regard creative work as an elaborate Freudian slip: don’t read for what a writer is trying to say, read for what they’ve said in spite of themselves.”

    this is a profound misunderstanding; Barthes is not suggesting that we read a text to understand what an author is revealing things about him or herself in spite of him or herself, he’s trying to liberate interpretation from proceeding with an understanding of the author as its necessary end.

    take Gone With The Wind – a pre-Barthesian reading would have limited its interpretation to Margaret Mitchell’s intention, what did Mitchell “mean” by having Mammy behave in this way, and so on. the presumptive goal is a deeper understanding of a single person. Barthes was trying to push critics to use novels and poems as opportunities to observe larger cultural events, or significant departures from the culture norm. so now we can asked, what is the implied by setting a romantic novel on a slave plantation, and what do we learn about the novel’s popularity?

  4. Mark Olague
    at 1:48 am on October 3, 2013

    Very shabby summary of Barthes work.

  5. J.C. Hallman
    at 7:05 am on October 3, 2013

    PT — Well, yes, if an interpretation is wrong is should be discarded, shouldn’t it? The problem with that, of course, is how you define wrong. A work of art cannot mean anything at all. It is finite. Therefore, it’s possible to produce a reading of a text which falls outside its, say, range of possible meanings. This is more or less what happened with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, incorrect readings of which led to a whole critical tradition based on a read of the story that was antithetical to what James himself said he was doing. If art, as I’ve said, is in fact communication with another discrete mind that is intent on expressing something finite or at least specific, then yes, we should strive to avoid the kind of tortured logic that would lead us to think that contradicting an author is not only acceptable, but perhaps even what we should do.

    Josef — You’re even more cynical than me! But you’re right to suggest — if I’ve got you right — that dollars play a role here. A lot of academic criticism does what it does because professors are desperate for publications and tenure, and that’s ultimately more about their salaries than whatever animating vision they might have. The peer review system is at least as problematic as the profit motive that is said to beguile publishing.

    Deebee — You misunderstand what I wrote. I think Barthes was, in fact, trying to say something profound and important (and I emphasize that he was repeated what even the writers he admired had been saying for a long time). The problem is not Barthes, but with what happened to him when others decided to stop listening to exactly what he was saying — perhaps because they were now able to regard him as “dead” and irrelevant to what he’d written. Your example of Gone With the Wind gets at the heart of what I’m saying. If you want to write a semiotic analysis about beer advertisements or celebrity addictions to perform cultural analysis, great, go ahead. Those things are created with the sole intention of appealing to mass sensibilities, so they can, to my mind, be used to extract a sort of collective meaning. But art is not executed with that goal in mind. It’s created by people, we hope, who as individuals feel compelled to express a vision of some kind. It’s those individuals that we communicate with through the medium of their work — and how can we not do damage to the whole endeavor if we eliminate them? And let’s not forget that critics who rely on the popularity of phenomena — art or no — to establish semiotic relevance are ignoring that a whole range of phenomena are “popular” only because some marketing department decided to pump a bunch of money into something. That kind of analysis is a mine field of potential mis-readings.

    Mark — I think you missed the point; and there’s nothing shabbier than a one line broadside that reveals, ultimately, that you haven’t read the thing you’re criticizing. I suggest reading Barthes again. And again. I did.

  6. Michael
    at 5:02 pm on October 3, 2013

    Correction — it was Samuel Johnson, not Butler, who kicked the stone and said, “I refute it thus.”

  7. Donna
    at 7:22 pm on October 4, 2013

    “More often than not…to read is to feel your mind, however fleetingly and incompletely, jacked into the mind of another.”
    Vs
    “Barthes was trying to push critics to use novels and poems as opportunities to observe larger cultural events, or significant departures from the culture norm.”

    There is this struggle going on, at least I’ve observed it on the path to an M.A. In English. Maybe there isn’t such a privileging of the latter p.o.v. (dead author) in M.F.A. programs? I personally don’t see these views as a dichotomy.

    For example:

    “Henry James complained – a plaintive cry, really – that critics of his own time were “apt to stand off from the [artist’s] intended sense of things.”
    AND
    “Henry James described The Turn of the Screw as a “process of adumbration,” a sketch the reader colors in with “his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy.”

    Critics have their own agenda. But readers have an agenda as well, and that, quite often, is simply to connect. One semester away from an M.A., and I’m less certain than ever with the contributions that critics have made to the study of literature.

  8. J.C. Hallman
    at 9:14 am on October 12, 2013

    Donna — you make a couple of good points here. To respond, at least, to the latter:

    Henry James once remarked, too, that a recent political sex scandal in the news at the time of his writing a particular book (I’m not sure which) was of particular value and use to him. This was because, I think, he had some sort of insight into the kinds of thoughts, images, and associations that his readers were likely to have in response to his work. In the case of The Turn of the Screw, James knows, I think, that when he suggests (as he suggested in his preface to the book) the “utmost evil conceivable” (not a direct quote), his readers are likely to infer homoerotic liasons between the ghosts and the children. The book has not said it directly — part of it comes from the reader — yet James is still quietly tugging the strings of we, the reader-puppets of the book. This, to my mind, is what is meant by co-creation. As a reader, I want to be that puppet — and in this way, a writer can begin to reveal to me what some of my associative tendencies might be. But this does not happen as a result of my choosing to leave his or her intent behind — in fact, just the opposite. It means acknowledging that their intent, in part, lays behind even those things that seem to come entirely from me.

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