Roundheads v Cavaliers: 'The Death of the Author'

A reflection on the essay by Roland Barthes

I was recently reminded by a friend of Roland Barthes’ essay, “The death of the author”. His thesis had been supported by other members of his book club, although not by my friend. I am only a reader of books and not a theorist of literature, but I have re-read the essay both in French and in translation and I have to say that, from very little raw material, Barthe draws an extreme and blinkered conclusion.

He tries to say that the author, his life and times, his influence upon the words used, the text created, are and should be of no consequence. The author is dead to us. Now this may all be a reaction to a claim at the other extreme that one cannot possibly understand a work of literature without knowing all there is to know about the author. This is what book festivals now rely upon to draw the (paying) crowds, although when Barthes wrote his essay, they were not nearly so much in vogue.

Of course, at some level, he may have a point about the irrelevance of the writer. After all, an author’s description of some action such as: “he picked up a pebble from the sea shore and threw it into the sea”, does not in itself require a knowledge of the author’s psychology for it to be clear as to what is being said. It may be, though, that an apparently banal act may have been more than that in the author’s mind when he wrote about it. In that case, a knowledge of the author’s life would tell us that such an action, when carried out by the author, or someone important to him, had overtones of joy or sadness, playfulness or misery. We would not otherwise understand this unless the author made some allusion to it in his writing. On the other hand, if he chose not to tell us about those circumstances, then it may be because those associations had no relevance to that particular plot or character.

One may say, therefore, that to know something about the author’s character and personal story may enlighten us or it may mislead us in terms of understanding more profoundly what he has written. The author when discussing his book at one of those book festivals may, of course, be able to enlighten us as to what he meant, but Mr Barthes would have us do away with all knowledge of the author, indeed celebrate his non-existence, because the words used alone matter.
He does so based on a reference back to an alleged time in our history when, according to Mr Barthes, people did not create stories, but merely passed them on:

"In primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”.  The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person”."

Well that’s one take on how things were in the past. It seems to me, however, to be a view rather reminiscent of the that of another Frenchman, Rousseau, who put forward the concept of the “noble savage” - someone living a simple life unbound by the trappings of society and benefiting immensely from that freedom. But this was in itself a fiction, as we know that ‘noble savages’ tended (and tend) to have life-spans averaging around 30 years and die not very pleasant deaths after lives spent trying desperately to find enough to eat. I could go on.

But here we have Barthes who has, without any evidence, re-imagined the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and indeed any time before the Renaissance, when apparently no new stories were being created, but only passed on as performance art by his Shamans, maybe through the medium of dance. Or perhaps he meant that the Shamans deliberately hid their creative ability in order not to appear to be rational or too self-centred – apart of course from during their performance.

Later in his essay he says that the writer is in any event irrelevant in that he is merely the conduit for pre-existing thoughts and ideas. The writer apparently has no role except as the holder of pen by which writing somehow comes forth. He has no independent input as a person. So much by way of royalties paid for so little. Of course, if I were Laplace’s demon, I may well be able to see every word of literature as the inevitable product of the chain of cause and effect, as Barthes seems to claim, and so ignore the author. But I do not have this over-arching view of the universe or even a 100% knowledge of the author's mind, and so the influences upon him, as he was engaaged in writing. Like most other people, I see events after they occur and look for every bit of help I can find to know what they signify.

He is, of course, right to say that everything results from what has gone before, but this is something which was recognised centuries ago and is applicable in every field of thought. For example, Newton famously said: “if I have seen farther than others it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. Maybe the literary world is just catching up with what ought by now to be a self-evident truth, but if so they can perhaps learn from the fact that the inventors and the makers of scientific discoveries have not yet been declared dead and their names expunged, but are instead lauded for their work and given Nobel prizes for outstanding contributions.

Granted his argument, I find it curious that he cites in support of his views two named authors - Mallarme and Valery. Their words alone, had they been unattributed, were not apparently enough to support his case. Perhaps he felt the need for impressive company in his essay. Indeed, granted his conclusion, is it wrong to ask why he did not publish his essay anonymously? Did he perhaps want to use his reputation as a writer to persuade people to accept his thesis? Or maybe in his mind there is a distinction to be made between the works of academics and mere writers of fiction.

But of course, when it comes to understanding or appreciating literature there are no absolute, God-given, rules. Barthes may assert that his view is the right one and complain about the prominence given to the writer, as distinct from his words, but all he is doing is expressing a preference. The many literature lovers who attend events at which the writers are interviewed or give talks, obviously have other preferences. One is left therefore looking at things on the basis much hated by Barthes and many fellow French intellos – that of pragmatism. What does each approach achieve?

If we ignore the writer altogether, then it saves a lot of time and trouble. You have the text, presumably written by that well-known author ‘Anon’. It is up to you to make of it what you will without extraneous assistance, particularly from the author. Perhaps it gives the reader a feeling of communing with the latest outpouring of the collective wisdom of aeons.

But in a practical sense, the identity of the author is actually very important. We read books by authors we like and we don’t buy books by authors we don’t get on with. Why is this, if the words alone are of significance? Well it is because the words used are used by an author. They do not in fact magically appear on the page. Each author has a style and often a stable of characters and the writer’s name is a shorthand for their identification. And life is too short to read books indiscriminately. We can go further and say that each writer has views about life, and so a knowledge of his or her views can inform us as to the extent to which we should be on guard against being subtly swayed by good prose, rather than by reason, into accepting a set of views. Those who are familiar with an author will often be able to read between the lines to appreciate things not apparent to the casual reader.

It is also the case that the average writer will not be able to say everything he wanted to say in his work. Filling in the background sometimes has to be curtailed in order to make the work publishable - whether in terms of length or getting it to the publisher on time. Listening to the other ideas which the writer had at the time of writing can help to fill in gaps and so make the work “a better read”.

Again, if I am reading a work containing allusions to specialist subjects, such as science, I want to know how competent the author is in these fields. Do I have to check what he is saying or can I trust him? Or again, what is his philosophical background? For instance, a book by the renowned French author Michel Houellebecq – “La carte et le territoire” - contains a schoolboy howler. He characterises Karl Popper’s methodology of science as requiring ‘verification’ of a theory, when it is the opposite – falsification – which Popper requires to be possible, denying that verification of a scientific theory can ever take place. A vital difference.
So is he trying to say something clever or subversive? If so, it's passed me by. But knowing that Houellebecq is French means that we may reasonably think that he shares the typical French intellectual distaste for pragmatic philosophical ideas from the Anglophone world and is no expert on Popper. It may be therefore that he's just ignorant on this point.

So then, there are opposing views on the death or life of the author and neither is ‘right’. I though see this difference as a latter-day battle between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. The Roundheads were puritans who were concerned, not with outward show, but just the word of God as revealed in the Bible. The new Puritans are the followers of Barthes, those who wish to confine themselves to the words on the page. The Cavaliers looked at life in a rather more eclectic manner, willing to benefit from whatever was there. These are they who are willing to ask authors for their insights into their own works. Perhaps we should bear in mind that after an impressive victory, the Roundheads ultimately died out through a lack of joy, leaving the field clear for the Cavaliers.

Paul J Buckingham


th October 2016

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