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And as he came opposite Palodes, there was neither wind nor wave; so standing on the stern, facing the land he shouted what he had heard: ‘Great Pan is dead!’ Even before he had finished, there rose a great moan of sorrow and astonishment from not one but a multitude of voices. ⎯ Plutarch, ‘The Passing of the Oracles’ The great events in my life are my works ⎯Honoré de Balzac You must bear in mind that the language game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). ⎯Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §559 How hard we find it to bear, and how we wriggle and turn in search of either transcendental guarantee or a sceptical escape. ⎯Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, 177 The personality of the artist…finally refines itself out of existence. ⎯Stephen Daedelus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist
1. In the middle of his legendary essay ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes writes: We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. Of that Author he continues: Did he wish to express himself he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely. And on the seventh and last page he declares: Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature, and concludes, we know that to give writing its future it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. So. Just who is saying this? Is it Barthes the semiotician explaining a theory of writing? or a theory of reading? Or is it the literary theorist explaining a theory of style? Is it provocative originality with a touch of Niezschean exultation? or Gallic perversity? Is it the intellectual imbued with the spirit of ’68, the bookworm talking bookish revolution? The litterateur debunking the literary? The academic reader denouncing those over-indulged authors? Or biting their hand? Is it the herald of Postmodernism (or Poststructuralism, or Post-something-or-other) proclaiming its triumphant arrival in its newly coined vocabulary? Or perhaps in its jargon in embryo? We shall never know, wrote Barthes, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. The words we read are, strictly, those of Barthes’ English translator, Stephen Heath. For convenience though, I shall assume the quibble ends up in the rubble of the destruction, along with the quibble about Balzac’s translator too.
2. Years later people still like to share the satisfaction of ridiculing this annoying little essay for its inflated style and reputation and its debilitating influence on a generation of students. Writing in ‘The Essay’ (Sydney Mornings Herald Spectrum, 16th September 2006) Larry Buttrose summed up Barthes’ notion of an author’s work thus: once it leaves the author it’s just another “text” with no inherent or inscribed meaning, a tissue of quotation amid a gale of them, and the only meaning the one the reader gives: ergo, the reader writes the book.
He analyses Barthes’ theory: His argument is predicated on relativism, that no two readings will be exactly the same, that they will be influenced by historical and cultural factors. He offers this judgement of the theory: Barthes sledgehammers the walnut. Yes, a variety of readers will reach differing views on a work but to leap from there to the notion that the reader writes the book seems a wilfully ideological rather than a logical leap without proper justification or substance. But it was catchy, sensationalist, and it resonated because it appeared to give us new licence ⎯ to value our own opinions. And he caps the judgement with a coup de grace: if a reader had misinterpreted Barthes’ essay, Barthes himself might then have tried to lay claim to its ultimate meaning thus: “No, that’s not what I meant. Sacre bleu! Read it again and you’ll see what I mean. S’il vous plait!” Who is speaking thus? Is it Buttrose the academic defending authors? Or Buttrose the author trying to save the academy from itself? Is it the plain speaking of common sense defending modernity from Postmodernism, truth from relativism, learning from incomprehensible Theory, and writing from impenetrable jargon? Is it the public intellectual in weekend supplement mode? Or the op-ed commentator doing the Complaint Against Postmodernism? Is it the polemicist turning the tables on Barthes, misreading him for daring to licence misreading? The ironist using Barthes against Barthes, a tissue of quotations, French against those French, s’il vous plait, ‘text’ against text, logic against ideology, ergo, real irony against postmodern irony? We know, writes Buttrose, an individual is inscribed in every word of their writing; that it is an extension of their own mosaic of experience and of their very genes.
3. At the beginning of ‘The Death of the Author’ Barthes writes: “In his story Sarrasine Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: ‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’” Like Buttrose and like Barthes, Balzac uses received words and phrases that indicate typical attitudes. His words are about women and femininity, and they seem to be the words and attitudes of Sarrasine and his society, although none is indicated as such either by attribution, italics or quotation marks. For Balzac is not simply describing La Zambinella, the object of Sarrasine’s affection, he is also showing readers the way Sarrasine would describe her to himself and he is showing the kinds of phrases and attitudes that he has inherited from his society for doing so. Like Balzac, Barthes and Buttrose weave their selections of stock phrases and attitudes into works that do not in fact endorse the directly expressed sentiments of the separate phrases as their own. If one or other were to claim most of the phrases as his own, he would risk it being to his discredit, either be as a retailer of prejudices, platitudes or plagiarisms.
4. Balzac does not write direct speech, e.g.: Our hero said, ‘This is woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility. Nor does he have the hero think these words or say them to himself. Nor does Balzac write indirect speech, e.g.: Our hero thought that this was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility. This would still be to attribute thoughts or words to the hero, and report those thoughts or words by dropping the quotation marks and embedding them in a clause beginning with ‘that’. Nor does Balzac write: Our hero observed in the object of his affection just the characteristics he and those of his times would have expected in a woman, not just those of any woman, but of one who, to a certain Romantic sensibility of the time, would have been deemed the image of femininity, and so characterised by display of what would have been appreciated as sudden fears, irrational whims, instinctive
worries, impetuous boldness, fussings and delicious sensibility. This would be to write in an indirect style, only even more so. The author reports thoughts ostensibly in paraphrase and writes about those thoughts ostensibly in his own voice. I use the first ‘ostensibly’ because someone may notice I am still using some of Balzac’s words, and the second because after the deconstruction of any author’s words there will be someone else’s words founds lying in the rubble. For his part Balzac uses phrases that are deliberately, recognizably those of others, not his own, and not necessarily those of the protagonist. These phrases are not explicitly attributed to others. Any implication to that effect, however imprecise, is for the reader to infer. This style, so typical of the modern novel, is well known by the name of free indirect style. Mikhail Bakhtin, Russian prose theorist extraordinaire, called this kind of prose polyphonic. It is several voices, echoes and quotations, woven into a string of prose. It is by writing at the opposite pole, in plain indirect style, that an author usually would claim ownership and authorship of every word and phrase, or to be an individual inscribed in every word of the writing. Such prose aspires to the condition of what Bakhtin called monologue. In the lingo of philosophers of language, the difference here is between the use of words or phrases and the mention of them. Mention amounts to naming a term rather than using it, and, except in free indirect style, words or phrases mentioned are as a rule framed in quotes or distinguished by italics. The trouble is removing quotations marks has an effect on the truthvalue of a sentence. Strictly speaking, that’s disquotation according to W.V. Quine, American philosopher extraordinaire, and ‘truth is disquotation.’ When we are talking about free indirect prose we are talking about playing around with prose. That’s why it’s called free. It’s not quite the kind of disquotation that Quine had in mind, but the free play of disquotation in modern and not so modern proses is in the service of truth. In the next sentence of Sarrasine Balzac writes: It happened that as they were wandering in the open countryside, the little group of merry singers saw in the distance some heavily armed man whose manner of dress was far from reassuring. This sentence corresponds much more to a plain indirect style, although, as with the global poles there is still the matter of degree. There is no direct or indirect speech in it, but that word merry, in modern English at least, sounds like a word copied from another time. It is marked by a slight echo of the past. In fact even the most authentic direct style, or the most plain, or the most clear, uses words, phrases, sentence structures and other stylistic features that betray provenance. These features have passed through many mouths, or across many pages, and while we now accord the words the status of sincerity to the point of complete openness and unobtrusiveness to the point of clarity and transparency, they are sure to signal some trace of origin other than the immediate author. There will be something quaint or opaque or otherwise marked, so that the words will be unable to avoid signifying to their reader, to Barthes’ reader, a period, a milieu, a genre or a particular form of life.
5. Barthes certainly did not discover free indirect style. The term itself was initially coined around the end of the nineteenth century to describe Flaubert’s style. The style itself, though typical of the modern novel, had been discovered much longer before, as ironic, parodic and satirical language serves to demonstrate. The analysis of such matters had occupied Plato. He was notoriously wary of the direct style ⎯ mimesis he called it ⎯ and also of the combination of direct with indirect style. They confused the issue of an author’s responsibility, which was only assured by using one’s own words. Yet free indirect style, which dissolves the distinctions beyond accurate attribution and therefore beyond the limits of authority, authorship and regulation, has become a norm of the modern novel, so useful for showing the language and attitudes of a society, whether that of the author, his characters or both. This same dissolution of the author’s precise point of view and identity has become a norm too of non-fiction, as Barthes and Buttrose demonstrate, and as may be discerned throughout the history of non-fiction, for example in the quality that used to be called wit.
Free indirect style has, even-and-especially, become a norm of that kind of non-fiction which adopts the most personal style and in which the author most scrupulously styles his own identity by means of the dissolution or multiplication of identity. It’s called the essay. Such is Barthes’ essay. Such is Buttrose’s. Since Montaigne and before him essayists have been enjoying the expressive freedom and avoiding the plod of having always to write otherwise. Barthes describes, and employs but does not name, free indirect style. His essay is a rhapsody in which his thought plays on some of the possibilities of its development. He does not quote St Beuve: Style is the man. The reader can supply that as a commonplace with which the essay also plays. ‘The Death of the Author’ is theory at play, not a textbook. Barthes’ had the gall to follow it though with a whole book on Balzac’s little-known short story. S/Z examines Sarrasine sentence by sentence in outlandish detail, brazenly terminologising. Arising from a seminar, it is a kind of textbook, but a textbook at play, and all the more revealing for it. Barthes’ devotees however, as much as his detractors, can be expert at ignoring this.
6. The ideas of Barthes, like those other French theorists, were sieved through a bureaucracy of academic translations and secondary sources. Some of the original theorists had themselves already employed terminology with a vengeance, devoted to serious philosophical purposes and not always with Barthes’ lightness of touch. After the thought and passion were strained out, a jargon remained, waiting to be mocked. If there is anything as dismal though, it is the jargon of the mockery. Smell a ‘relativist’ and denounce a ‘postmodernist’ and you are halfway to winning an argument. Don’t bother with habeas corpus though. It helps that exactly what either term might denote can be pretty vague. Buttrose says Barthes’ argument is predicated on relativism. Whatever it is, ‘relativism’ is seldom adopted or avowed as allegiance. It is usually levelled as an accusation, like blasphemy or heresy. I gather Buttrose is referring to a kind of semantic relativism, a view that a work has any number of meanings, none of which ⎯ including the author’s ⎯ may claim as privilege that of being the correct or the authorised one. However the term is usually employed to refer to analogous attitudes in other fields. In the theory of knowledge it implies obtuseness: that no knowledge has any special claim to validity over any other. (Divination is a good as empirical research). In ethics it implies prevarication: that no action has any stronger claim to being right or good than any other. (Hypocrisy or mendacity is as good as honesty.) Whether Buttrose is casting metaphysical, epistemological and ethical aspersions is unclear. Let the reader read them in. But Buttrose does imply that Barthes fits the relativist bill not only in semantic matters but in aesthetic ones as well: that no work has greater claim to artistic merit than any other (Balzac’s Sarrasine is as good as Balzac’s Lost Illusions is as good as The Bold and the Beautiful). From memory I think George Steiner is with Buttrose on this.
7. I don’t think any of these relativisms is actually advocated in ‘The Death of the Author’. Buttrose just lets us know what Barthes is really arguing: the only meaning is the one the reader gives: ergo the reader writes the book; and then he informs us that this argument is predicated on relativism. And relativism, we are supposed to just know, is bad; although, in knowing that, we will have to ignore the serious philosophical arguments for several of its versions, and, more importantly, the powerful arguments against guarantees of transcendental truth or reality. The term relativism could be applied to the predicament of meaning in human communication: that a sentence could be taken in almost any way. Meaning and its translation from one person to another is subject to the problem that the Quine, called ‘radical indeterminacy’. It is the condition of linguistic evolution, as the second law of thermodynamics is the condition of biological evolution: in the communication game, sense and understanding must play on the home ground of misunderstanding and nonsense. There is
no absolute semantic foundation that guarantees understanding. Communication has had to pick itself up by its bootstraps. There are similar ideas about the evolution of knowledge and morality. Knowledge achieves validity and strives for objectivity, even though ultimately the only means its has is that of human subjectivity. Morality must conceive and justify right action even though it has no ultimate ground as foundation. Such views are widespread in philosophy and the relativist charge is made against them ⎯ that is, against seeking valid knowledge by merely empirical means, morality without a god, meaning without dogma, and artistic merit without a canon. Barthes may well hold such views, although if he does he would probably be mordantly objective about them, as he is about English empiricism, French rationalism, capitalism, humanism, the human person, personal identity, authors and critics. This kind of thing appeals to readers of a philosophical bent. Such objectivity about esteemed human achievements and cherished notions is typical of philosophy. With its corrosive implications it is often taken for relativism. Maybe in his critiquing the notion of personal identity, the first postmodernist Theorist was David Hume. There were others before him though, others since.
8. Let me dispense with that eternal present tense that we use when we talk about Writing and the Author (e.g. See the first sentence of this essay, and many others heretofore, fewer hereinafter). Barthes’ essay and the response to it, the pre-history of postmodernism, postmodernism and anti-postmodernism are all now history. For the student of literature, this essay, either in its time or at a certain time in the life of the student, probably revealed possibilities beyond the narrow and unsatisfying theoretical tools and insights on offer. Received modes of criticism, among them ‘biographical’, ‘archetypal’, ‘structuralist’, ‘genre’, what once was called ‘new’, and the ‘deconstruction’ of the no longer recent past, modes whose failure to explain the wonders of literature had and still have all been acutely felt, may themselves be objectified, and summarily explained and dismissed. A for instance: in one flash Barthes offers an insight into the relation of Proust’s narrator to Proust the author, an insight precisely in despite of the necromancy, hagiography and gossip of biographical criticism: Proust made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model. Overall, and behind the heraldic gusto, Barthes’ essay was just a modest demonstration of some of the surprising implications of a very useful theory of prose. And perhaps, if there is anything much wrong with the essay, it is that the gusto hasn’t delivered much ⎯ just given an old idea a pitch and a subeditor’s title. Mikhail Bakhtin had already developed much the same theory with enough care and detail that it could serve as a good practical guide to students of writing. Many a writer has learnt it by the seat of her/his pants, comic ones in the school of parody, serious ones in the school of imitation. The journeyman author Stephen Daedulus states the thesis, with a biographical nuances different from Proust’s, in a famous passage from Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist. Stephen euphemises Barthes’ metaphor of death into refinement ‘out of existence’. Barthes’ readers were just given a taste of a theory that might explain literary wonders or at least be worthy of them, a light to shine into the obscurantism of so much hackneyed literary arbitration. If the project of theory was afterwards corrupted so that the jargon of ‘objective correlative’, ‘dissociation of sensibility’, ‘pathetic fallacy’, and ‘point of view’, was replaced by the jargon of ‘binary opposition’, ‘deferral of meaning’, ‘deconstruction’ and ‘texts’, then blaming Barthes for this is liking blaming Darwin for Social Darwinism or Marx for Stalin.
9. I should report that some authors seemed to take offence at ‘The Death of the Author’. The idea was almost taken as personal attack ⎯ as if Barthes were saying ‘Down with authors!’ I was surprised by this reaction when I first heard it, I believe from the novelist Rod Jones. Although Barthes mentioned talk about having buried the author and deriding the
Author, I had thought he was anything but personal. Wasn’t his aim to assert what is supremely impersonal? Then again perhaps Barthes’ mordant critique of the personal is just what makes persons take it personally. I would also have thought that the essay and its attack had a good measure of the reflexive: surely it was both Barthes the author and Barthes the critic who declares that the historic reign of the Critic (and criticism) is today undermined along with the Author. Could this self-objectification not have been noticed? Or could it have been seen as a pose of self-deprecation, which succeeded only in making his attack hypocritical and so more offensive still? Flouncing at an attack on cherished ideas of authorship, seems to have inspired readings that are uncharitable or obtuse. Buttrose implies that Barthes wanted to dispossess authors of their words, their meaning, and thus their responsibility, and their credit, and hand the loot over to a gaggle of readings. He is too pleased with himself though, thinking all he need do to refute Barthes is to refute his own reading of Barthes. He seems to think that even if he is misreading Barthes, Barthes, by his own argument, cannot defend himself by claiming he is being misread. Barthes only deserves to get what he gave. Unfortunately, like rebutting relativism by accusing it of not being relativist about relativism itself, this licensed misreading belongs to a kind of criticism that does not engage with the real strengths of what it is criticising. It might work in a op-ed, but it’s pretty pat. So too is the argument that blames Barthes for the misdeeds of his descendants, reading them into Barthes by claiming that they are all there in embryo. And likewise the charge of relativism, made simply by asserting that the essay is predicated on it.
10. I have to repeat that relativism of whatever feather has little if anything to do with Barthes’ essay. Barthes was writing about the production of meaning. As far as what he said on prose stylistics and the philosophy of language, he was drawing on or reflecting the classics, not only known suspects such as his French contemporaries and De Saussure and Nietzsche, but even those analytical philosophers and ‘ordinary language’ philosophers who are usually supposed to be on the other side, the non-postmodernist side, of philosophy’s old culture wars. Though taking the risk of writing with gusto, rather than pernicketiness ⎯ call it catchy and sensationalist if you wish ⎯ the logical leap to saying the reader writes the book was certainly not Barthes’. He took care to be precise about this: It is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of reader’s rights. He was not one for the privatisation of meaning: meaning is not private property with the author its owner and master. It is a commonwealth and writers serve it. The method of writing, in which the author assembles given words, phrases, meanings, attitudes, quotations, imitations, and echoes ⎯ the commonwealth of a language ⎯ into a synthesis that cannot be paraphrased or preserved in summary admits of no authentic meaning of the author other than that of the whole tissue of quotations. Authors, especially novelists but also essayists, are free to make a virtue of writing’s having no easily defined meaning or origin or point of view, and, when asked to state their own unique and definite meaning, they are usually for good reason wary. If they could reduce their work to a paraphrase, why not publish the paraphrase? Wisely, authors point to their work and say: read that. Like Barthes, they would leave it to the reader.
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