The Death and Resurrection of the Author

He must have regretted it for the rest of his life, but J.D. Salinger perfectly encapsulated the deep affection a reader develops for an author. “What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield announces in the third chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, “is a book that, when you’re done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Herman Melville would certainly have known how Holden felt; his most famous piece of non-fiction, after all, is “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an effusive sixteen-page paean to the older writer that he was somehow able to parlay into a genuine and intense–though regrettably brief–friendship. Their relationship soured after a few years, for reasons that aren’t quite clear today, but the connection between Hawthorne and Melville was, while it lasted, undoubtedly the most important friendship in American literary history.

When it ended, Melville destroyed every single letter that Hawthorne ever wrote to him, so Hawthorne’s best and most interesting thoughts on the author of Moby-Dick come to us from his notebooks. (The best of these thoughts–and probably the most insightful thing anyone will ever write on the subject of Melville’s religious life, is, “He can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”) As it happens, however, Melville’s letters to Hawthorne don’t tell us nearly as much as “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” and almost everyone who wants to write about the relationship between the two men starts with this essay.

I am less interested, however, in what Melville has to say specifically about Hawthorne than in what he has to say about writers and writing in general. “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in-between its perhaps too eager praise for Hawthorne and its patriotic dismantling of the literary canon and Shakespeare’s place at the center of it, manages to hit the major notes of one of the biggest critical revolutions of the twentieth century. What’s more, Melville finds a middle ground between the two camps, decades and decades before one of them had even been founded.

The first major blow against the idea of the author as ultimate arbiter of the written text came in the essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” written by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in 1946. Wimsatt and Beardsley argue persuasively, if drily, that extratextual intent on the part of the author of the poem is beside the point in any act of interpretation. For one thing, those intentions are very rarely available to us as readers, but even when they are, they just get in the way. Instead, “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” To deal with biography or authorial intent is nothing but a romantic fantasy, part of “a discipline which one might call the psychology of composition” that must be kept quite separate from literary criticism proper.

Wimsatt and Beardsley–and the New Criticism with which they are associated–put the locus of authority on the text. As they put it, once a poet sends his poem out into the world, “The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge.” They do not mean by this that the public is free to interpret the poem however it wishes, any more than the public is free to assert with impunity that the sun revolves around the earth or that Portugal perpetuated the Holocaust. Rather, there are certain objective facts about the meaning of a poem, just as there are ostensibly certain objective facts about the natural world. Furthermore, we discover these facts by the same method: empirical observation. The scientist/literary critic must comb through the material world of the text without reference to the “supernatural” world of the author.

These religious metaphors are only implicit in “The Intentional Fallacy,” but they become central in the next generation’s volley, Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay “The Death of the Author.” Students of literature have traditionally encountered this essay during the first year of graduate school, and the effect is typically galvanizing; Barthes gives the literary critic carte blanche to do with the text as she pleases. “Once the Author is removed,” he announces, “the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” It’s a given that the author doesn’t matter; Barthes pushes it forward to the point where Wimsatt and Beardsley’s objective/scientific meaning is also lost. The power of the critic is simultaneously expanded and diminished: No longer must the critic bow to outside forces that would determine “correct” interpretation–but neither can she assume that her interpretation is binding for anyone, including herself. The death of the Author results in the birth not of the Reader but of readers, plural.

Barthes’ purposes here are rather explicitly (anti-) theological. The lack of a final or ultimate meaning in his system of criticism corresponds to a parallel lack of final or ultimate meaning in the world itself. And, as Barthes notes, “to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.” Barthes may ultimately merely take Wimsatt and Beardsley to their logical conclusion; to disregard the Author is, after all, to suggest a lack of teleology in the text; as Pope puts it, “Whatever is, is right.”

The limitations of the New Critical and poststructuralist approaches to interpretation are apparent with a little further investigation. The New Critics, for their part, collapse wholly into the body of the text, close their eyes, plug their ears, and refuse to look beyond the printed page. Wimsatt and Beardsley use mechanical language to describe what they do; John Crowe Ransom, who coined the term “The New Criticism,” says outright that “Criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.” Problem is, criticism depends on literature, and literature isn’t in any important sense exactly; it’s always written by a messy and unmechanized human being into a specific social and historical context that will pull the critic further down the rabbit hole so long as he is honest enough to follow the trail. A scientific criticism is possibly only if the critic pretends the part of the iceberg that touches the air is the only part of the iceberg.

Barthes’ poststructuralist alternative, which seemed so promising and exhilarating when I was 23, leads to a different sort of philosophical dead end. Instead of disappearing into the ink on the page, Barthes-as-Critic slides into himself. His 1973 book The Pleasure of the Text demonstrates the endgame of criticism without teleology. The joissance referred to in the French title is the pleasure of orgasm, and Barthes seems to conceive of literary interpretation as a sort of intellectualized auto-erotic asphyxiation. “The pleasure of the text,” he says, “is like that untenable, impossible, purely novelistic instant so relished by Sade’s libertine when he manages to be hanged and then to cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss.”

Pleasure, by its very nature, belongs to the individual, so Barthes’ moving the act of reading and interpretation from the realm of truth and ideals into the realm of pleasure (“the whole effort [of the book] consists in materializing the pleasure of the text, in making the text an object of pleasure like the others“) is ipso facto a retreat into utter solipsism. Interpretation is a form of masturbation, performed not to get at any grand or even small truth but to bring pleasure solely to the interpreter.

I’ve come a long, graphic way from “Hawthorne and His Mosses”–or maybe not. Melville is famously fond of ambiguously sexual imagery–Barthes must have loved him if he ever read him–and this essay is no exception. As Melville puts it toward the end:

But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.

The orgasm metaphor remains, but it is the author’s, not the reader’s, and it is not at all masturbatory. Clearly we’re dealing with something quite different from Barthesian joissance here.

But neither would Melville be interested in joining those who would claim–even after Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and the others who in their various ways pronounced the Author dead–that authorial intentionality is the most important ingredient in literary criticism. (These folks do still exist, though maybe not in large numbers in the actual Academy.) Early on in the essay, Melville wishes aloud “that all excellent books were foundlings, without father or mother, that so it might be, we could glorify them, without including their ostensible authors.” He sounds an awful lot like Wimsatt and Beardsley here, eager to put biographical criticism to bed once and for all, eager to praise the text and nothing but the text.

But the subjunctive mood in that sentence says it all. Melville would like to live in a world of texts without authors, but that world does not exist–or at least it is not our world. He is drawn throughout the essay to Hawthorne the man, at times almost the extent of fetishizing his physical body. He says at one point that Hawthorne is “content with the still, rich utterances of a great intellect in respose; and which sends few thoughts into circulation, except they be arterialized at his large warm lungs, and expanded in his honest heart.” At times, he takes a proto-New Critical turn in his skepticism about the ability of biography to aid literary criticism. (“Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to him, a touch of Puritanic gloom–this I cannot altogether tell.”) But then he turns around and expresses better than anyone until Salinger the reader’s deep-seated need to know the author: “No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind.”

Melville’s combination of draw toward the great author and skepticism that the author can say anything the text doesn’t creates a tension, one that we might productively compare to a more traditional tension in American literature: that between the personal/individual and the universal/social. For if the New Critics are right, the text is an objective sign that anyone with the proper training can read correctly. If the romantics and biographers are right, the text is a pure expression of a great individual genius, who controls the interpretation and meaning of it. (If Barthes is right, of course, all interpretation is at best the blind leading the blind.) At times, Melville seems to think meaning is personal; other times, he leans toward a universalist interpretation.

In the end, I think, he affirms both by rising above the dichotomy. Shortly after he longs for a text without an author, he makes the following statement:

The names of all fine authors are fictitious ones, far more so than that of Junius–simply standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all beauty, which ubiquitously possesses men of genius.

Melville very nearly affirms Emerson’s Over-Soul here, with the caveat that it is essentially hierarchical, that only “men of genius” belong to it. But it allows him a way out of the quagmire of author-text/individual-universal divide. To praise the text is, in this line of thinking, to praise the author, and to praise the author is to praise the “Spirit of all Beauty” off in the ether somewhere. The author’s biography, like his visage, is encoded into the text, so whether you seek it in other places scarcely matters; it’s coming out, and you’re drawn to it because to be a human being is to be drawn to other human beings. At the same time, the text connects to that higher Spirit of all Beauty and thus moves far beyond authorial intent. One may feel free to say more than the author could have imagined–and simultaneously to avoid the worst excesses of the New Critics and the poststructuralists.

1 thought on “The Death and Resurrection of the Author

  1. See J. C. Carlier’s ‘Roland Barthes’s Resurrection of the Author’, which shows that Barthes, a biographer who signed his work and claimed copyright, was (in his essay ‘The Death of the Author’) satirising the old-fashioned notion that the author should be disregarded. If you take the essay literally, the reader is its author, and so can take it to be satiric; if you take the essay ironically, it is a satiric attack on the notion that the author should be ignored. Either way, the author is reinstated. People who refer to the essay as one by ‘Roland Barthes’ are thereby confirming their trust in the tradtional notion of the importance of the author.

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