The Rebirth of the Author

My Dear and Idle Ernest,

What follows is a brief thought-piece that I humbly put forth as a response to Ronald Barthes’ infamous essay, The Death of the Author.  Let it be clear to everyone reading that I do not mean to suggest, by publishing this during such a fallow period in your output, that you are somehow dead or lifeless–in a literary sense or otherwise–but I rather intend this merely as a bit of ‘intermission-music’, as it were, something to entertain us all philologically and philosophically while we await, with a psychological eagerness, your next philomathological letter.  Pardon my Greek.

While I don’t think you have to read Barthes in order to understand and enjoy what follows, I have provided a link to his essay above for those who are interested.  If you get bored, skip to the last paragraph.

Your Servant,

TWM

The Rebirth of the Author

In any act of reading, listening, or conversing, there is always entailed, whether in the foreground or background of thoughts, an ongoing exercise of information management, a process wherein the raw material passed from orator to auditor, or from writer to reader, as the case may be, is instantaneously converted into something else, some extracted object of greater relevance to the personal interests of the receiving agent than the mere words presented—that is to say, an interpretation.  And it is this interpretive process that we rightly regard as the ultimate source of all human rhetoric, the faculty alone responsible for our capacity to assign any significance whatsoever to the language of other people—a faculty, without which, every external exchange of words would be utterly inconsequential, a futile production of sounds or symbols that has no effect on the observer beyond a mere stimulation of physical senses.  Indeed, if we imagine a world without this normative process of interpretation, we quickly see the greatest philosophical pitfall of strict Empiricism, finding ourselves in a place where all objects, persons, words, and sounds, deprived of their corresponding Platonic Forms, immediately lose their entire meaning upon entering the mind of an observer, for the receiver of all such information, if lacking in this capacity, will be unable to do anything more with it than to remember how it was presented ‘word for word’.

But it is the profound enablement of the true cognitive model, this inevitable habit of the human mind, that it allows for endless possible linguistic choices to express a single idea, so that the abstract object of an ‘interpretation’ may be realised in whatever one concrete manner is most fitting to a particular context.  As a result, a reader may discuss wisdom found in books without direct quotation, a teacher may instruct his or her pupils based on knowledge rather than on words, and a student may be properly equipped, by virtue of a purely normative education, to solve real-world problems that never even arose in the theoretical realm of the classroom.  This is all due to the remarkable and unequaled paradigm of human communication: any given exchange of words in any given context may bear future consequence precisely because, for all parties involved, the corresponding ideas transcend and stand apart from every mode of expression by which they are put forth.

But we must also appreciate the equally profound danger of this paradigm.  The moment one interpretation has been extracted from a text, countless other possibilities, along with all their corresponding ideas and consequences, have been lost.  If after such has taken place, a single reader puts forth his or her interpretation as ‘the correct reading’ or the ‘authoritative perspective’, that is to say, the precise meaning that the author has intended, he or she will utterly miss all of those other abstract possibilities, which stand, while perhaps not in contention with the reader’s own, at the very least, as an invaluable elaboration or extension to what a single person can interpret alone.  It only stands to reason that any object extracted from another is always but a subset of the whole, so that the whole meaning of a text is always larger and more complicated than that of any extracted interpretation.

It is in light of this enablement and this danger that I hereby propose ‘a verbatim doctrine of philology’, that is, most generally, a methodological philosophy of literature wherein the text is always preeminent to the interpretation.  Indeed, the text is held as a dictionary of its own meaning, such that any rewording of its ideas or translation of its content, while valuable in a particular context, is yet understood as something short of the full situation presented by the author verbatim.  As may be deduced from the doctrine’s carefully chosen title, I regard this methodology as itself an interpretation of the omnipresent axiom found verbatim in John i, 1 of the Latin vulgate: In principio erat Verbum.

By this philosophy, I mean to suggest that upon each reading of a text, its author is born again, becoming once more like a living person and speaking to the reader in a very intimate and humane manner.  The living author is able, thanks to the process of interpretation, to address the unique concerns of an individual reader or a foreign culture in a way that is deeply vivid, real, and novel, even without loosing all of the wonder and mystery that comes with a regard for authorial intent.  The full scope of a text, like the full scope of a human being, remains forever unconquered by analysis.  Just as a biography written of an author will never be tantamount to an encounter with the real person, so will no work of criticism ever suffice to substitute a work of literature itself—for the meaning of which one must always turn again to the source.  But both the immeasurable, personal influence that the Author yet holds over the reader, as well as the ongoing, universal consequence that He still bears on the future, remain irrefutable intimations that, in the mind of every reader, this so-called Author and Creator of all His work is indeed fully alive once again.

“Ζῶν γὰρ ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ ἐνεργὴς καὶ τομώτερος ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν μάχαιραν δίστομον καὶ διϊκνούμενος ἄχρι μερισμοῦ ψυχῆς καὶ πνεύματος, ἁρμῶν τε καὶ μυελῶν, καὶ κριτικὸς ἐνθυμήσεων καὶ ἐννοιῶν καρδίας·”

“For the word of God is living and working continuously; it is more sharp than any double-edged sword, piercing even as far as the partition of the soul and spirit, and of joints and of marrow.  It is critical of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

 

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3 thoughts on “The Rebirth of the Author

  1. “…upon each reading of a text, its author is born again, becoming once more like a living person and speaking to the reader in a very intimate and humane manner. The living author is able, thanks to the process of interpretation, to address the unique concerns of an individual reader or a foreign culture in a way that is deeply vivid, real, and novel, even without loosing all of the wonder and mystery that comes with a regard for authorial intent. The full scope of a text, like the full scope of a human being, remains forever unconquered by analysis.”

    This is particularly intriguing. All of this is pretty good. I’m surprised and a bit saddened that you don’t have more likes on it – it’s very good.

    I’m appreciative of your acknowledgement of the weight the idea brings – both the good and the dangerous — and why we should consider each of those sides carefully.

    • Thanks. I think the lack of traffic may be due in part to the academic nature of the tone and subject-matter, as well as the time at which it was published. But I agree, in my haughty, Ciceronian manner, it deserved more attention.

      Thanks for the thoughts; I know I can always count on your intellectual friendship.

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