The late Roland Barthes
The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes was published in 1967, and in this controversial essay he criticises the tradition of interpreting text through the author’s history, personal views and actions.
Barthes argues that the text is not the sole product of the author, but rather it is the sum of society – every sentence is the quotation of a previous work and the author merely the channel it is expressed through; they are the “Scriptor”, not the creator.
A text is made from a multiple of writings, that is built upon every generation and drawn from many cultures; but there is one place where this multiplicity comes together, the reader.
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origins but in its destinations.
If we follow this argument, than it becomes irrelevant for us to search through biographies and dusty letters in order to unlock the meaning of texts, because as the reader we already have the necessary tools at our disposal.
No more should we should be attempt to understand the text by first endeavouring to ‘know’ the author; the author is a distraction from the text, too much knowledge of the author is a barrier to our true understanding and enjoyment of the text.
The works of Shakespeare are undeniably the most beloved in the English language, and yet what do we know of the man? That his son died young and that he left his wife the second best bed in his will? He is a mystery and I for one am glad. Shakespeare the man never interferes with that incredible body of text that has been left to be constantly reinterpreted by the next generation of reader.
Death of the Author is very French. On one level this reflects the French intellectual tradition which, as an Englishman, frequently moves one to amused bemusment. The French seem to revel in intellectualism for its own sake whereas we ‘rosbifs’ have always had a pronounced practical streak. Harold Macmillan said it was the difference between an English intellectual approach which reasoned a posteriori “in the tradition of Bacon and Newton” and a French intellectual approach which reasoned a priori in the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas. We invented the industrial revolution, they invented literary theory.
On another level it reflects the essays central place in French intellectual life in the twentieth century. The bedrock of Barthes work, and the subject of his best known book Mythologies, is the idea of language as a system of socially constructed ‘signals’ which builds on the earlier work of Ferdinand de Saussure. This, which also lies behind the Death of the Author, points towards Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ which argued that everything was essentially without inherent meaning and ultimately to Jean Baudrillard who famously deconstructed the Gulf War out of existence.
But what of its argument? It is hard to avoid the idea that, like much writing of its kind, Death of the Author is an exercise in stating the bleedin’ obvious as impenetrably as possible (possibly a Brechtian distancing technique?). It is, of course, tedious to crawl through every nook and cranny of a text and try to find a corresponding biographical point in the author’s life. There are also limits to the usefulness of this. You can buy a biography of JD Salinger that is longer than everything he ever had published put together.
But neither can we completely banish the author from their work. You can enjoy the James Bond books perfectly well if you know nothing of Ian Fleming or his times. But when you think that he had been a spy, that he was frequently very publicly humiliated by his wife, and that he was writing his fantasies of British potency at the time the Empire was evaporating, the books take on new depth, new light and shade.
Rather than the death of the author or domination by them, the act of reading is, rather, a meeting between equals, author and reader, in the process of bringing the text to life.
For me the most important part of Barthes argument is the freedom it gives readers; yes influences on the author are interesting to know and can illuminate the text in surprising ways, but it can also limit the reader’s interpretation and experience.
I think the way we are taught Literature puts far too much emphasis on context, particularly at GCSE and A Level, when we should be concentrating on the actual words.
Reading should be between the reader and the text. For example, Jane Austen wrote books of incredible enduring popularity, and yet very little of her life is in those books and I think that is a chief part of their charm. While her work was inspired by her observations, they are not influenced by her own love affairs, and despite researcher’s best attempts to uncover secret romances, very little is know about her private feelings or experiences. Therefore there is no distraction from the text, you do not read Northanger Abbey or Emma and imagine the ‘real life’ scenario that occurred between Austen and X, and therefore there is no filter between the text and the reader.
I agree that we do not want to be tyrannised by the author but neither should we be tyrannised by literary theorists.
Your example of Jane Austen is a good one. I would add Stephen Crane author of The Red Badge of Courage, one of the most vivid descriptions of war ever written. Crane was twenty four years old when the book came out and he had never seen a battlefield or an army on the march in his life. The book is a pure product of the writer’s imagination and there is nothing in Crane’s life of particular interest from an interpretative point of view. There is no author to kill.
So it is in the power of some writers to write pure imaginative fiction and render pointless any autobiographical baggage. Of course, some, like the Beat writers, make autobiography the centre of their literature. What is On the Road if not a travel diary with the names changed?
So we are, as Barthes argued, free as readers. Not only to kill the author if we so wish, but to judge for ourselves how well we want to get to know them and to choose how far they come with us on our creative journey as readers. Just as we can choose how free we wish to be from the author we are free just to read unencumbered by the self-serving intellectualism of much of literary theory.
This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine