Saturday, July 30, 2005
The Liebestod of the Author
"And it does no good knowing certain biographical and historical facts about Wagner, or facts about his sources and influences, or even about his own before or after the fact and outside the score comments."
"Our acts, you might say, are always improper in the sense that they are never our property."- Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition
Truffaut said auteur theory stopped making sense to him once he started making movies. And many critical homilies became doubtful to me as I became better acquainted with the process of fiction writing.
The solid ground of intentionality, for example, grows fuzzy and falls apart when we sincerely try to follow through and find that intention.
Most writers aren't particularly obsessive readers of their own books: indifference or disgust are more conducive to production of new material. When we turn to biography, we usually find it less effective as interpretation than as dismissal: "Well, she was drunk when she wrote it." (Or, in Jamesonian mode, "What do you expect from a bourgeois sexist imperialist?")
In a reminiscing mood, the writer may tell us they began a work with intentions that were overturned along the way. Characters speak for themselves. The form has a mind of its own. Something happened on the walk to the grocery store; it seemed to fit. Simple boredom incites revolt. And yet what we're given to interpret is a whole and entire object rather than the process of making.
Then there's "style", best defined as that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away. Our experiences and reactions aren't products of a sovereign will. At seismically active bedrock, the structures and accidents of our language are a given.
Tellingly, the writers most notoriously insistent on conscious agency also notoriously refuse help to critics: "But Mr. Hicraft, what does lie behind this passage if not subconscious compulsion?" "The page speaks for itself." "But Ms. Locraft, why that particular phrase?" "Because I have to make a living." These remarks aren't useful except insofar as they keep us from prattling nonsense, and at that they don't seem to have been very successful.
Even given access to the ideal — a perfectly conscious close writer who's also a perfectly articulate close reader — what do we hear when we press for the meaning of a passage? "As far as I can remember, I intended this effect on the reader, and this effect, and a nuance of that, and an echo of this previous effect, and a set-up for this later one and this even later one. [Pause. Politely:] Did it work?"
The problem, of course, is that a writer is not trilling sweet song direct from uncluttered soul to unpolluted air. The writer is trying to write. And so as we apply ourselves to realizing the author's intent, we move away from reading and towards the writing workshop. At Clarion '93, when Kate Wilhelm executed a one-on-one paragraph-by-paragraph line-by-line analysis of my most recent story, the experience was unforgettable, but it was the unforgettable experience of an expert mentalist act: "At this word you started trying to do this, but you gave up because you couldn't see a way out of the bind there, and so you tried to fake it with...."
Literature is art in language, and language is a medium in which we try to deliver messages. But literature is art, and only visible as art insofar as we perceive something other than message. (To take a simpler case, when we say "Programming is a art," the only people who'll understand us are its practitioners, because only practitioners of programming see anything but the results it delivers.)
I'm not saying "anything goes" in scholarly criticism. (Anything certainly does go in pleasure reading or utilitarian reading.) Although the literary experience can't be reduced to message, messages (intended or not) build the layers of tissue that make these bones live. We want to know the game we're in, a frame for the artifact. Some people seem satisfied to know its current context ("commercial junk" or "canonized profundity"); for others, alternative contexts add welcome nuance.
Dan Green, for example, can't find a position in his game for Middlemarch, which seems sad to me. I can easily find a position in my game for Lost in the Funhouse, but it's a far less rewarding position than in Dan's, which probably seems a little sad to him. Our difference may at least partly derive from the extents to which our preferred interpretive games include the deployment of multiple game schemes.
Found poetry, cut-up poetry, generated poetry, or mocking quotes in the New Yorker or Harper's aren't examples of non-intentional art, but they do help clarify the aestheticizing process. When we read appropriations, we usually don't feel fully satisfied until we're able both to guess at the original context and to guess at the point of the displacement: "Oh, I get it — it's a nonsense parody of Wordsworth!" But satisfaction rarely requires us to verify our guesses. Much.
We attempt some comprehension of authorial intention, and, if possible, put it to use. But that attempt comes from the same analytical toolbox as historicism or genre studies: a collection of opportunities to widen the constraints of close or sentimental readings.
* * *
On the other side of the critic-creator divide, I've encountered offended authors who believe that Roland Barthes's most cited title was calling a fatwa. At ninth- or tenth-hand, they'd gotten the impression that the Critic had been hoisted onto the pedestal from which the Author'd been dragged.
Well, Barthes was a French intellectual, and they do seem inclined to present even their most benign insights in a "Grr! Grr! I'm a paper tiger!" tone. Maybe it's part of showing up on TV more often or something. But as I understand Barthes (and what's he gonna do, say I'm misinterpreting, hyuck-hyuck?), he merely meant that authors have better people to talk to than critics, and merely asks (in a grating nasal voice) that critics not obscure a text with rude presumptions about the text's writer. In critical terms, such presumptions are "The Author," and that's why "The Author" should be buried and replaced (when necessary) by the dessicated-but-dignified "Scriptor", who I picture as looking like William S. Burroughs.
As for the juicy bundles of meat who write or read texts, they're still entitled to all the imagination and experience they can manage to collect. I don't wish my friends harm when I declare that their writings will survive them. What higher goal do authors express? What Barthes adds is that the work becomes posthumous even while the author's living. He may sound unduly cheerful about that, but very few ambitious writers would happily acknowledge that their success depends on a cult of personality. Our own (apparent) disappearance from the causal chain is what we labor at.
Having read too many biographies and critical works which insult the constructors of extremely skilled and subtle narratives by shanghaiing them into outrageously obtuse and trite narratives, I'm only sorry that Barthes's typical post-millennial tone was, as usual, unfounded. As long as Juliet Barker remains at large, The Author is alive and miserable and being force fed through a tube.
Whereof it goes without saying thereof it has to be said ... a fictive rendering:
I am terrified by the possibility that the author is using “disinterest” to mean “indifference” and will soon move on to using “comprise” to mean “constitute,” “overweening” to mean “dominating,” and “literally” to mean “undoubtedly.”
There being no shortage of terrors this season, I’ve taken the liberty of amending the entry as you suggested. Thank you for shuddering audibly rather than fainting dead away, Josh!
After Author & Critic have been silenced, who’s next to the guillotine? There must be some villain still blocking the ecstatic union of reader & text.
I highly recommend nnyhav’s story if you find this possibility as disturbing as all right-thinking people must. (Or if you’re interested in the metadata debates.)
"Our difference may at least partly derive from the extent to which our preferred interpretive games include the deployment of multiple game schemes.”
Somehow I think Barth would be ok with our regarding the reading of his book as an “interpretive game,” while Eliot would consider such an approach to hers as dismaying in the extreme.
Eliot’s life seems to have encompassed a wider range of experience than mine, and I’ve never seen evidence that she was stupider than me. (Or Barth, for that matter.)
At any rate, I’d welcome a chance to try to persuade her.
Ray, what do you think of Suzanne Langer’s (via Clive Bell’s) notion of symbolic form? I’ve always found this a great way to think about art in language. By moving away from the discursive, Langer argues that we might look at art as a system of relations. Which is to say, what’s important about *Middlemarch* or *Lost in the Funhouse* aren’t the “messages” we can uncover or the positive “content,” but rather the way that the novel or stories work as dynamic systems of related images, ideas, structures, sentiments, and so on. So that a novel isn’t “an idea” but rather a model for how ideas seem to occur; a poem isn’t an emotion but rather “the feeling of an emotion.”
I’ve always had a hard time actually using this idea, in part because I feel that we have no language for relations. We experience the world as a series of relations, but can only talk about it in terms of discrete atoms: the - cat - is - on - the - mat. To link up to the Theory argument going on elsewhere, I’ve always read Continental philosophy as an attempt to get at a language of relation: Hegel to Husserl to Heidegger to Hoo-ever. We need, more than a philosophy of language, a philosophy of prepositions: on-ness, about-ness, of-ness, with-ness. William James writes something about this in *Principles of Psychology*, and I think Stein took that idea and ran with it.
Having come to this blog by way of John Holbo’s philosophy posts, I am struck by how completely “literary” and “literature” are used here in the aesthetic sense only.
Is the sense of “literary” as being “learned” and having “knowledge” a term in an extinct language game that no one in the humanities today likes to play?
Luther, your summary of Langer is appealing, but I’m afraid if I’ve read her it was so long ago that all I carry are some appropriated ideas and some feeling of having met the book titles. “Communication without the possibility of negation” is certainly a pivotal concept in my own aesthetics.
After the brilliant start by William James, I found much in general to dislike in Anglo-American mainstream philosophy of art. I have no memory of how far Langer might have shared or discouraged these traits.
* Restriction to a late 19th century Eurocentric high art canon, with a little primitivism dragged in for confirmations.
* Overstating the emotional component of art.
* Understating active aspects in favor of a passive receptor model.
* Preferential treatment of affective reactions (notably “beauty” over “interest").
* Distraction by ranking ("the greatest art is that which...”, “the best art achieves...”, etc.).
* Overeager collapsing of categories ("language is metaphor”, “language is music").
* Overeager abstraction from surface to symbol (most grotesquely when Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces spawned George Lucas’s faceless heroes).
* No accounting for taste differences or changes.
* Lack of attention to empirical evidence.
Between cultural histories, social psychology, and the cognitive sciences, there’s quite a body of the last by now. Unfortunately, the researchers and popularizers who focus most openly on aesthetics sometimes bring that sentimental Art Appreciation 101 groove along with them.
Common across several of these irritations is a lack of attention to context. That is, I agree that an artwork is experienced as a “dynamic system”. But that dynamic system requires a human being and a social context to become active. The artifact is only potential.
Given all that, would you recommend any of Langer’s work in particular?
Martin: Is the sense of “literary” as being “learned” and having “knowledge” a term in an extinct language game that no one in the humanities today likes to play?
I hope so, because otherwise this site will turn into Wikipedia.
Luther, Hoover did study Hegelian philosophy at Stanford, one of the reasons why he had the reputation as the most intellectual politician of his era.
For Langer, the one I’d recommend is *Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art* (1948). I’ve never read her other aesthetic work, *Feeling and Form*, but I’ve heard great things about it.
For Hoover, I recommend his materwork: *Cardboard Houses and Paper Tigers: Space, Time, and Being-for-Cash*.
I’m not sure whether your point is that Wikipedia is dull or just an impossibly high standard for an individual scholar.
So, if I am looking for “learnedness” and not “beautiful texts” are you saying Wikipedia beats this site?
If only you were right. I would definitely raise a toast to the The Liebestod of the Scholar and worship the God that is the wikipedia of the future.
Thanks, Luther. (I really need to look up Warren G. Harding’s response to Spengler some time.)
Martin, my point (an aesthete’s point) is that multiplicity is better than singularity. Why turn into Wikipedia if Wikipedia is available? Literary scholars and critics aren’t a source of universal learnedness, and usually at best we edit or otherwise point to beautiful texts rather than creating them ourselves. But let us cultivate our garden.
Although I read literature, I don’t run in literary critic circles (until now, I guess) so it was new to me to see literature read primarily as ART, rather than as a message delivered artfully.
In other words, people holding that the point of reading literature was to have an aesthetic experience, rather than to garner a particular kind of knowledge with the acqusition made pleasant by the artful delivery.
It seems to me that this issue of knowledge versus aesthetic experience cuts at different joints than does multiplicity and singularity. (Or am I just thinking with a singular simplicity?)
Furthermore, I am sceptical of “close reading”. Its seems to me well made literature should be more “fault tolerant” than a pre-occupation (or occupation in the case of professors) with close reading would suggest.
But I am willing to learn. Oops, I should say, I am open to new experiences.
So, another little question for you. Can you recommend a literary work that typically those with a well-developed aesthetic sense appreciate and those that are more inclined to see literature as a form of knowledge typically do not?
If you can, I will read it and attempt to find out what I am missing. If you cannot, then shouldn’t I be sceptical that literature really can be discussed primarily as art?
<a href="https://www.ashgate.com/shopping/title.asp?key1=&key2=&orig=results&isbn=0 7546 0168 4” title="Editing Keats’s hands">Bharat Tandon</a> has reminded me of two favorite examples of ambivalent authorial death wish, both from John Keats:
-- our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-material’d—seven years ago it was not this hand that clench’d itself against Hammond. We are like the relict garments of a Saint: the same and not the same: for the careful Monks patch it and patch it: till there’s not a thread of the original garment left, and still they show it for St Anthony’s shirt. [...] ‘Tis an uneasy thought that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again.
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of eanest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine heat own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is
I hold it towards you--
I’ve recently been playing with the notion that the “who is Shakespeare, really?” issue provides an oblique commentary on authorial death. Here the problem seems to be that, for some undetemined number of people, the Man from Stratford is not an adequate locus of the intentionality behind the Shakespearean texts. There’s some doubt that he could possibly have been sufficiently educated.
The anti-Stratfordians present a lovely case of The Murder of the Author. A crime of passion: they love not wisely but too well. Or maybe a crime of Passion: killing the mortal, the better to assert his divinity.