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collateral tales

collateral tales

“‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes’s essay argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but to disentangle authors from their work is a good thing in principle.

Yesterday, in Not Lovecraft’s Providence, Geoff Pullum quoted a most odious (and that’s an understatement) paragraph from H. P. Lovecraft’s personal letters, concluding:

[I]n much of his life, having drunk deeply from the well of early 20th-century political and anthropological pseudo-science, Lovecraft was a raving foreigner-hating racist nutball.

Just go and read for yourself. As one commenter remarked, Flaubert once said « L’œvre c’est tout; l’homme c’est rien ». Of course, we have to be careful here—Flaubert was particularly cautious to eliminate even the tiniest detail liable to betray the author’s voice. All the while not only advancing the new style, or rather genre, of “realist fiction” pioneered by Balzac, but also managing to escape charges of “obscenity” with regard to his 1856 novel Madame Bovary.

Although Lovecraft’s rampant racism delivers an especially spectacular example, we have developed quite a few sensitivities over the last couple hundred years, each of which inspired rethinking and reevaluating on a massive scale. If we dismissed every artist’s œvre who held convictions that grate on our contemporary sense of human and civil rights, freedom and equality, we had to dismiss virtually every artist’s œvre ever treasured. Think about slavery, for starters. Or antisemitism. Or homophobia. Or misogyny. Or unspeakable cruelty, perceived as a commendable and wholesome pursuit, against fellow human beings and/or our cousins from the animal kingdom.

Should we tear down the paintings of Caravaggio because he was a murderer who escaped jurisdiction by means of state borders and powerful friends? Should we rip Gesualdo’s madrigals from our digital music libraries because he murdered his wife and his wife’s lover and made a public spectacle of their mutilated bodies, before he possibly proceeded, for good measure, to kill his second son and his father-in-law too, while having the good luck of living at a time and place that made him, as a nobleman, immune to prosecution?

Certainly, words are more cognitively accessible than paintings and music, and are much more likely to spread abhorrent and detestable ideas. But much depends on context even with the latter, and Wagner’s music, Breker’s sculptures, or Riefenstahl’s film aesthetics are still able to evoke a brutally visceral response and powerful emotions scaling from idolization to hostility: which they wouldn’t in the same way or on the same scale—as brilliant as they might be—without their respective contexts.

That doesn’t mean we should let artists off the hook in principle and treat and savor their respective œvres as if they were utterly author-less entities. There is no such thing as “pure art.” To dismiss the author’s intentions, interpretations, and interpretations of his or her own intentions as authoritative is certainly something we must do—think of all that unadulterated nonsense the later Hemingway advanced on his ealier work, with “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber” as a stark example. But dismissing the author’s intentions and interpretations as authoritative doesn’t mean and must not mean to dismiss them as an important part of the work’s context. And when we build our models of what and how a text means, the personality, attitudes, and convictions of its author are part of its history that gives us a framework for what the text can and cannot mean. Because of its dependency on context, a text’s meaning can never be arbitrary: anything does not go. But by virtue of this same dependency, a text’s meaning can never be fixed either: the context-that-was can never be fully reconstructed, the context-that-is—with our new and exciting ideas, thoughts, experiences, and insights that we bring to the text—makes it enjoyable, meaningful, and productive for ourselves individually and for our time, and the context-to-come will keep the text fresh and alive and relevant through brand new knowledge and perspectives, and a rewarding read for future generations.

It is this context from which springs our evidence. On all fronts, after all—from what a text possibly means to how it produces meaning, from its history and the conditions of its production to the history of its reception, from the emotional and cognitive reception of literature in general and its place and usefulness in the human endeavor, from psychological effects to social functions, from shaping personalities to establishing myths and ideologies—good literary criticism does what every good scientific endeavor does: it builds models and checks how well these models stack up against the evidence.


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