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,


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)


Are you alone?

If words didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to read this sentence.

Dear and Deliberative Humphrey,

In your last dispatch, through whatever form disparagement and flower diversion as is your wont, you seemed to make but one thing remotely clear, or at least very nearly verging on or flirting with the possibility of being intelligible to me.  I mean simply this: you are locked inside your own mind.  Aside from that I can’t say I made anything of the entire letter; the good Lord knows I can’t understand a word of your philosophical rambling and intellectual bereavements.  Furthermore, I can’t seem to truly understand even the small portion that I was able to interpret.  If you’re isolated in your own mind, then why on earth are you telling me about it?  It’s your mind, what am I supposed to do? Nonetheless, allow me to offer, in reply, a bit of ancient wisdom and a few spontaneous outburstings of interpretative fancy.  I ask that you begin by considering with me these words:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος.  I will not tell you what these words mean, because I am not sure of this; instead, I will write of them obliquely, and perhaps somehow you, by your honourable wisdom and scrupulous understanding, will discern my words and even these.

The LSJ, a Greek-English lexicon, defines λόγος as “I. the word by which the inward thought is expressed: also II. the inward thought or reason itself”.  This hardly explains anything.  It simply means that λόγος refers, whether indirectly or directly, literally or metaphorically, by definition or by metonymy, to some normative or empirical element, feature, or aspect of the real, imagined, or supposed universe, or to some such item—idealist or realist, specific or universal—that exists beyond the scope of the natural and supernatural universe as we define it.  So a λόγος is something that either communicates something else, or is a thing to be communicated by something else, or else it is the very action of communication, or the universal or circumstantial standard to which things that are communicated ought to be held.

Anyway.  It stands a worthy question for both of us whether thoughts precede words or words precede thoughts.  People often use the word circumlocution.  They talk of forgetting common phrases and being lost for words; as if words were independent objects sitting around somewhere in normative space like scattered buoys, long since set loose across the sea, and now waiting to be found anew or even discovered for the first time.  Neither is the thought often pilloried to fancy a man, at least intellectually, as a lost, normative pilgrim, wandering alone through that very same space, and looking, as it were, for external trappings, to satisfy his inner ardor for expressivity.  The mind is often conceived of as naked and independent agent, shameful and unfit for public exposure; it must be properly clad—by some nameless standard—in lexical decency before departing from the Platonian cave of knowledge.  But was Plato’s a cave of words or of thoughts?  If ever a philosopher thought of a word, did he not do so without using words?  What words could constitute the wording of thoughts?

Any philologist you ask will tell you that ἦν is a form of εἰμί, the ancient Greek ‘verb of being’.  Every language has to have one; you can’t talk about things without them existing or existing in a certain way.  And it’s no secrete, to anyone curious enough, that verbs of being are always among the most morphologically abhorred of lexical units.  They are used so much more frequently than any other word or idea that it’s simply disgusting.  And all those responsible for the existence of ancient Greek seem to have gone out of their way to make existence especially existentially challenging in that language, always to be confused with going or hastening, or beginning a conditional, or a relative clause (sometimes those particles hardly mean anything at all; still, that won’t stop us from writing massive books about them).  But as imperfect as ἦν is, or was, or was being, at least it denotes that much.  The Greeks never made an aorist form of existence; things existed in the past, but always progressively.  Perhaps the concept of instantaneous existence, some romantic, ephemeral beauty, is after all incompatible with the teleological nature of reason and human thought.  That which truly dies never truly was; such things are only beautiful in potential.  Hence, ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Nor, for the teleological Greeks, was seniority any different from sovereignty.  Few people question whether that which comes before is of greater consequence than what follows.  It’s vital for a man thundering away in the desert to make clear that the subject of his shouts precedes the actual words he uses, otherwise his words are worthless in themselves.  But perhaps even in the desert, where there is no one around to hear, the very sense of one’s words, the thoughts that they express, can hold value if the λόγος of them was existing ἐν ἀρχῇ.  Perhaps it’s hermeneutically irresponsible and academically barbaric or uncouth, but I consider it neither poetically offensive nor rhetorically dishonorable to offer a large number of equally authoritative translations: “Reason held sovereignty,” “Logic was in power,” “His word existed first as something separate but προς (beside) Him, but also existed first as the perfect μίμησις (representation, Aristotelian) of Himself, and therefore, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (God existed as the Word)”.

It is also curious that for the logically positive medievals, something already as physical as a verbum would have to become flesh.  It seems a λόγος must be something both transcendental and substantial.  It is not an omom isn’t a word.  That’s because om doesn’t mean anything.  I believe a λόγος, while perhaps not merely a word, is surely something that means something, or else is the thing it means.  If we suppose that all words are defined using other words, then there is an infinite web of lexical connections that never explains itself.  But perhaps the inclusion of the definite article to describe ὁ λόγος makes it something real, and as such, something of infinite meaning—it is a worthy consideration whether ὁ λόγος might be the ultimate explanation of the endless, tiresome lexical-web.  Perhaps this is the difference between ὁ Σωκράτης and Σωκράτης.  A λόγος may very well be just another thing—something that exists in a single context at a single point in history.  But then we could hardly doubt that ὁ λόγος must be more than this.  ὁ λόγος must be The Idea, The Universal Truth, Reason, or The Sacred Word, that, while real and physical as the very sounds of one’s voice, or as Socrates himself, yet exists in absolute sovereignty and seniority, standing to the end as it was in the beginning, as something a priory, significant, and personal to all that follows across all nations, tongues, and ages.

Lexically and Intellectually Yours, to Whatever Extent Such a Thing Were Metaphysically Possible,

R. P.