The Death of the Author


William H. Gass

Popular wisdom warns us that we frequently substitute the wish for the deed, and when, in 1968, Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, he was actually calling for it.1 Nor did Roland Barthes himself sign up for suicide, but wrote his way into the College of France where he performed volte faces for an admiring audience.2

Many of the observations which Barthes makes in his celebrated essay are suggestive, called for, and even correct; but none of them quite drives home the stake. The reasons for this are complex. The idea of the death of the author does not match the idea of the death of god as perfectly as the current members of this faith may suppose, because we know—as they know— that there are no gods. The death of the author is not an ordinary demise, nor is it simply the departure of belief, like an exotic visitor from the East, from the minds of the masses. The two expressions are metaphors which are the reverse of one another. The death of god represents, not only the realization that gods have never existed, but the contention that such a belief is no longer even irrationally possible: that neither reason nor the taste and temper of the times can condone it. The belief lingers on, of course, but it does so like astrology or a faith in a flat earth—in worse case than a neurotic symptom, no longer even à la mode. The death of the author signifies a decline in authority, in theological power, as if Zeus were stripped of his thunderbolts and swans, perhaps residing on Olympus still, but now living in a camper and cooking with propane. He is, but he is no longer a god.

Barthes is careful to point out the theological overtones of his announcement.3 Deities are in the business of design; they order oftener than generals; the robes the painters put them in are juridical. God handed down the tablets of the law to Moses, and Jane Austen or Harriet Beecher Stowe hand down texts to us. While it is by no means necessary to put the author’s powers and responsibilities in religious terms, Beckett’s schoolboy copy books are tablets, too, and attract lawyers and legalese as though they were papers sticky with honey. When John Crowe Ransom, in clearly secular language, praises Milton’s Lycidas as “a poem nearly anonymous,” he means to applaud the degree to which Milton has freed the poem from its poet, and consequently from the danger of certain legal difficulties.

Anonymity, of some real if not literal sort, is a condition of poetry. A good poem, even if it is signed with a full and well- known name, intends as a work of art to lose the identity of the author; that is, it means to represent him not actualized, like an eye-witness testifying in court and held strictly by zealous counsel to the point at issue, but freed from his juridical or prose self and taking an ideal or fictitious personality; otherwise his evidence amounts the less to poetry.4

In this case the arrogance, the overbearing presence, of the author is at one with his disappearance. Joyce has Stephen Dedalus state the aim precisely:

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.5

The dramatist’s curtained disappearance is not complete enough for Barthes. He knows that “Madame Bovary—c’est moi!” remains true despite Flaubert’s celebrated detachment. He knows how the deity of tradition took delight in concealing himself. Hunt as hard as you cared to, he could easily elude you if he wished. Still, such difficulties did not dampen the desire of the faithful to find him, or weaken in any way their belief that he was there. Circumstances have kept Shakespeare’s life hidden from us, yet he has been hunted like a criminal. In volume after volume, his unknown character is cleverly constructed like a ship in a bottle. So Barthes wants to slay a spirit. He would bruise a bodiless being. It is the demise of that confident, coldly overbearing, creator—that so palpably erased and disdainful imperial person of the artist—that he longs for.

It is apparent in the quotation from Joyce that when the work of writing has been done, the essential artistic task is over. The freedom from himself which the artist has given to his composition is the indifferent freedom of the Rilkean Dinge, an object which exists like a tree, a hat, or a stream, and like the stream scarcely needs canoes or campers to complete it; yet it is a thing whose modulated surfaces betray the consciousness it contains, and which we read, as we read words, to find the hand, the arm, the head, the voice, the self which is shaping them, which is arranging those surfaces – this second skin—into a leer, a grimace, or a happy grin that tells us of the climate of life inside. In the old theological mode, we either thought to find god through his revelations in sacred scripture, or by studying his other world; we applied ourselves, that is, to natural or to revealed religion. Nowadays, when the artist deliberately disappears, he may wish it to be thought that his work “just came about” naturally; grew the way crystals collect to create a flake of snow, perhaps, or more slowly, as deltas silt, or suddenly the way islands rise up calamitously out of the sea; or, more ideally, in the manner a mollusk exudes a chamber about itself, or quietly from within, brooding as the old gods did upon a basin of dark cloud and wind, the way, with a cluck now and then like an errant clock, the chicken intuitively shapes a shell. To hide, in this case, is to represent skill as instinct, intellect as reflex, choice as necessity, labor as slumberous ease. Valéry writes:

Perhaps what we call perfection in art (which all do not strive for and some disdain) is only a sense of desiring or finding in a human work the sureness of execution, the inner necessity, the indissoluble bond between form and material that are revealed to us by the humblest of shells.6

For Joyce, of course, this writing from which its designer—the deity—disappears, seems authorless because there is no book to weigh in one’s hands, no print, no page, no poet’s voice: it is performed; the theater buries the text inside the bodies of its actors where their organs are. But we are also aware of the similarly scenic art of Henry James, of his effaced narrators and substitute selves, of various Ishmaels and many Marlowes, or of those poems which appear on parchmented pages as though scratched there by creatures long extinct.

Calm covers the peaks. Among the treetops a breath hangs like a leaf. In the deep woods birdsong sleeps. At the foot of hills slopes find their peace. Be patient. Wait. Soon, you too, will cease.7

Richardson slips onto the title page of Clarissa Harlowe disguised as S. Richardson, the simple printer who has collected and edited the letters which comprise her unhappy history; Defoe suggests that Moll Flanders is the pseudonym of a well-known lady who tells her somewhat unwholesome story in his book; Gulliver’s Travels is introduced by one Richard Sympson, an “ancient and intimate friend” of the author, and the man into whose economizing hands these papers have fallen (he tells us he’s cut out dull stretches of seafaring stuff); while The History of Henry Esmond is brought before us by that late Virginia gentleman’s daughter, Rachel Esmond Warrington, now, alas, a widow. These novels have authors, to be sure, but they are artificial ones, replacement pens or “dildoes.” Still, no one will imagine that Defoe or Swift or Thackeray felt that by placing these fictions in front of themselves they were risking their lives. No one is done in by a dildoe.

Actually, a volume of letters, however modestly brought before the public, inordinately multiplies “authors,” whose names appear, we suppose, at the end of every communication. These artful dodges (and it would be awful if they fooled anyone) strengthen the concepts of source and voice and purpose, control and occasion, which are central to the notion of a commanding creator, precisely because they call them into playful question. Thackeray pretends not to be responsible for The History of Henry Esmond, neither for writing it nor for bringing it to public notice, but Thackeray intends to accept all praise and monies due.

A few writers like us to believe that they are simply telling a story they have heard elsewhere; that they are therefore just “passing on,” somewhat as any gossip might, some juicy bits, and cannot be held accountable for the sad and sordid facts involved; but many authors accept their responsibilities calmly enough and make no effort to conceal themselves or minimize the extent of their powers. Trollope, for instance, is a comfortable theist who appears in page after page in order to sustain and continue and comfort his creation. He is invariably concerned and polite. “We must beg to be allowed to draw a curtain over the sorrows of the archdeacon as he sat, sombre and sad at heart, in the study of his parsonage at Plumstead Episcopi.” Furthermore, he will try to talk the reader out of what might be, perhaps, a too hasty judgment of character and motive. “He was avaricious, my readers will say. No—it was for no love of lucre that he wished to be bishop of Barchester.”

The appearance of the author by our fireside; his chatty confidential tone; his certainty that he knows what we think and how we feel; his slightly admonitory manner; the frequent comparisons he draws between our condition and that of his characters; the comfortable clichés he draws around us like a shawl: these devices more readily make his world and his people real; whereas deists like Flaubert, like Henry James, like Joyce, who are satisfied to kick their creations out of the house when they’ve come of age; who wind their works up and then let them run as they may, and who cannot be recalled to rejoin or revise or reconsider anything by any plea or spell of magic or sacrifice or prayer; who leave it up to us to calculate and judge: their world is far less friendly, far less homey, far less “real.” When Trollope comments: “Our archdeacon was worldly—who among us is not so?” he deftly implicates us in his activities.8 We are all together in this, he suggests; I am speaking of the world each of us lives and loves and suffers in—no other, he implies; whereas the brilliant opening of The Fifth Queen is so immediately vivid and pictorial we must be somewhere outside it, viewing it as we might a painting or movie screen. Trollope’s relaxed and slippered style is just as skillful in its way as Ford’s, but Ford’s world is unmediated and set adrift; we shall never find a path through its cold and passionate landscapes on which our feet can be set; we shall only be able to observe these historical figures connive and betray and ruin, and the light fall unsteadily on walls wet with the cold sweat of another age.

Pantheism is not out of the question as a possibility either. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge invent “another self” whose very name is a rhythmic echo of Rainer Maria Rilke; yet this other self, its almost unendurably beautiful and squalid encounters, these records of lonely reading and empty rooms and lovely yet lost objects, this static parade of exquisite perceptions that constitute the frozen frieze-like flow of the book, are so infused with the poet’s presence, the poet’s particular sensibilities, that Malte, his surrogate, cannot avoid surrendering his self to his author’s style, even when the outcome of his life appears to be different than his creator’s. We might permit Malte to possess the thought that Denn Verse sind nicht, wie die Leute meinen, Gefühle (die hat man früh genug),—es sind Erfahrungen, but the movement of the mind (from cities, people, and things, to animals, birds, and blooms), the music of the words (Um eines Verses willen muss man viele Städte sehen, Menschen und Dinge, man muss die Tiere kennen, man muss fühlen, wie die Vögel fliegen, und die Gebärde wissen, mit welcher die kleinen Blumen sich auf tun am Morgen9), the romantic innocence of the idea, are unmistakably Rilkean. As we read along, Trollope’s manner discreetly retires from sight and Mrs. Proudie or Mr. Slope are shortly there before us as plainly as two dogs in the yard. Malte feels, to be sure, yet what Malte feels can only have been informed and inhabited and carried to him by his ceaselessly zealous holy spirit.

When authorship is denied, it is often in order to extol certain sources or origins instead. It is easier for poets to pretend that they are merely an eartrumpet for the muse; that they have been so smitten with inspiration they scarcely recognize their own rhymes; because the creative pain of the poet can sometimes be measured in moments, especially if she scribbles; but the novelist cannot persuasively invent a spirit whose relief requires several years of sluiced transcendence, as if somewhere a spigot had been left on. Our author, in this unlikely case, is simply a conduit, or a place where the collective unconscious has risen up to refresh us like a bubbler in the park.

The Geist has been known to gather up unwary authors somewhat as Zeus used to do with fleeing maidens and plump them with proper thoughts and attitudes. If writers were not the instruments of history, as often princes and politicians were, they were at least a showcase, a display of the spirit, like a museum’s costumed effigies, if not one of its principal actors. Historical forces of this sort are as crudely imaginary as deities have always been, although probably not nearly as harmful since they cannot capture the imagination of millions the way divinities do. But of course the Geist can go behind a curtain and come back out as the Volk or the Reich instead of the Zeit. Taine’s version of this recipe would certainly have been familiar to Barthes, whose notion combines the concept of the author as a conduit with that of the author as focal point: that hot spot where many causal rays have been concentrated.

Taine wished to understand his subjects (whether Spenser, Lyly, or Milton), in the first place by recreating the so-called outer image of the man; by setting him out in the kind of clear hindsight which is the common sense and direction of history; and then to penetrate that picture to the moral condition which lay behind those features and animated them. Finally, he sought in race, epoch, and environment, the conditions which came together to create the local climate of his case. He fashions, in other words, a chain of authors: the public figure, the inner man, the milieu. It is the right pull upon that chain which brings the gush.

There is clearly considerable satisfaction to be had in the removal of the poet from his or her position in the center of public adulation. Taine maliciously observes that:

A modern poet, a man like De Musset, Victor Hugo, Lamartine, or Heine, graduated from college and travelled, wearing a dresscoat and gloves, favored by ladies, bowing fifty times and uttering a dozen witticisms in an evening, reading daily newspapers, generally occupying an apartment on the second story, not over-cheerful on account of his nerves, and especially because, in this dense democracy in which we stifle each other, the discredit of official rank exaggerates his pretensions by raising his importance, and, owing to the delicacy of his personal sensations, leading him to regard himself as a Deity.10

Indeed, it is no longer the painter or the poet whom the public looks for, talking or scribbling away in some café’s most prominent corner, but (after Cocteau, who taught everyone the trade), a Sartre or a Barthes whom we hope to catch a glimpse of—a Lacan or Foucault, or some other impresario of ideas.

Parlor games, in which a poem is composed one line at a time by inebriated guests, cancel out authorship by allowing too many cooks to stir the broth. Occasionally, for sport and in despair, fiction writers will alternate the writing of a novel’s chapters, and equally rarely, talents like Ford’s and Conrad’s will collaborate with a modest sort of success. In most cases, the schoolboy botches which result are so far from creating “a sense of a world” that no one would think to wonder about that world’s authorship anyway.

The renga, a chain poem which made its first appearance in Japan in the 8th century, is a more serious collaboration; it is more serious simply because the participants generally are. When contemporary poets turn to it, their feelings are not dissimilar to Barthes’:

In contrast with the conception of a literary work as the imitation of antique models, the modern age has exalted the values of originality and novelty: the excellence of a text does not depend on its resemblance to those of the past, but on its unique character. Beginning with romanticism, tradition no longer signifies continuity by repetition and by variations within repetition; continuity takes the form of a leap, and tradition becomes a synonym for history: a succession of changes and breaks. The romantic fallacy: the literary work as an odd number, the reflection of the exceptional ego. I believe that, today, this idea has reached its end.11</sup

When, however, the renga turns out to be a chain forged in four different languages, we can justifiably suspect that oddness, and difference, will be its most striking distinction, and that the four authors will neither hide themselves behind one another nor disappear into the collective anonymity of the text, but will sign their names to the poem, and write of the feelings they had while composing it in reports which remind one of the ecstatic early accounts of group sex.12

It is not that “authorless” work in any of the senses I have so far suggested can never be excellent, or that novels with a great degree of authorial visibility must always be romantic, bourgeois, and decadent, because fine work of both kinds exists; rather, it should be recognized that the elevation or removal of the author is a social and political gesture, and not an esthetic one. We can characterize art as anonymous or not, but this characterization will tell us nothing, in advance of our direct experience of the building, the canvas, the score, or the text, about its artistic quality. Furthermore, this “anonymity,” as we’ve seen, may mean many things, but one thing which it cannot mean is that no one did it.

Unless one imagines a computer which has been fed every rule of language, the principles of every literary genre, the stylistic tics of all the masters and their schools, etc. Then poem and story might emerge from this machine, to the astonishment, boredom, or ruin of readers, like race or market results; and it could say, if asked, as Polyphemus was, that no man did it.

So art can seem authorless to me because I don’t know who did it; or because I can’t tell who did it; because I don’t know who did it; or because it simply doesn’t matter who did it; or because it just happened and nobody did it. That is: there is the piece of sea wrack I pick up from the beach; there is “ding dong bell, pussy’s down the well”; there is your average TV serial segment; there is that tune I know from somewhere, but can’t remember, and can’t guess; there is that enigmatic couplet carved on an ancient rock whose author has vanished forever into the hard lilt of its cruel vowels.

It might at first seem that the effacement of the author was an act of modesty, and the familiar fatherly storyteller’s style of Trollope, and other writers like him, was authoritarian and manipulative, in as much as they gave nothing away to the reader, and took on the point of view of a tower; but the opposite is clearly the case. Trollope knows everything necessary to tell the tale, to be sure, and presents himself comfortably in that cloth; but Flaubert is not telling a tale, he is constructing a world; he is putting it together atom by atom, word by word. Trollope is merely inserting his characters into the well-known world of his readers, readers who take their daily life enough for granted that long ago they stopped looking at it; they scarcely any longer even live it, but use all their inner tubes to float on top; so that when Trollope looks and lives, his readers are surprised at what they see and feel. Flaubert, however, cannot count on the comfortable collusion of his readers to solidify his world through their inattention and neglect; it is not the reader’s funny bone he wishes to tickle, but the text he wishes to shape so securely a reader will not be necessary. Flaubert wants to expose his “readers” to their world of overpapered problems and bloated hopes by unupholstering their souls, lowering their ceilings to the true level of their aspirations; he wants to demonstrate to them that they are only devouring the world and making shit of their lives; he can hardly count on their help; their “help” would subvert his enterprise. Flaubert cannot ask for, cannot count on, readers in the old sense, then, for each is only too likely to be another hypocrite lecteur, however much each also is mon semblable, mon frère. Thus the author becomes a god, instead of someone’s garrulous uncle, because the author now disdains those lower relations, and has left home in disgust. Madame Bovary is not a chair for a fat burger’s Sunday snooze; it is the fat burger himself, breaded and greasy, and mostly buns. His home is a White Castle.

When the author detaches himself from the text, he detaches the reader at the same time, then, and it is this unpleasant consequence which Barthes is responding to. Trollope is telling his story to someone, and even when, as in the case of the epistolary novel, the messages are not addressed to the reader directly, they are addressed to someone; they remain communications; and the three-term relation of writer-letter-recipient is maintained. But if no one is written or posted the word, then no one is addressed by the word. The letter is no longer a letter. A does not equal A. What would the sign, BUY BILGE’S BEER, mean or be, if it were carefully posted at one of the poles?

The author becomes a god at the moment he no longer believes in them, and just because the gods are dead; yet not because, as Taine implies, he suddenly sees a vacancy (although socially that might very well describe his motives), but because a world without god must be a world without true believers too. Yet this writerless, readerless world must be made by someone, a deity of the undivine kind, a god in lower case.

The moment god goes, the text becomes sacred (unalterable, revered, studied, paraphrased, guarded, handed on). Consider the deist’s contention. If god is on permanent vacation elsewhere, then this world is all there is; it is the entire text; only from it can truths be learned; and if this world is to run on successfully, it must run on by itself, on its own four wheels; while, finally, if god has given us a message when he made this world, he did not wait around for our understanding or reply, both of which become, if not irrelevant to us, certainly irrelevant to him (since he is out of hearing), as well as to the world itself (which is blind and dumb and deaf and thoroughly uncaring). It is not clear that it is a text in the traditional sense. Suppose that idling down an alley as is my wont, I pick up a scrap of paper which has blown from some pile of trash. Examining it I read:


strong clock for Aunt Helen 33 Bad Climate Road

Like the sign that said BUY BILGE’S BEER, these words have wandered away, even from one another. A reminder without mind, purpose or point, like works of modern art, they merely appear. Made of words, they are not now a message. What is there here to take to heart, to puzzle over, to believe?

The basic folly of Bouvard and Pécuchet (those two aforetime Beckettean clowns) is that, in a world like WILL’S WHEEL ALINEMENT SERVICE, they do, nevertheless, believe things; they believe them right into the ground; they sincere systems to death; they accept explanations like a crematorium its corpses. In Finnegans Wake a hen scratches a meaningless message out of a midden. Both world and work are simply here. No one asked for either. As far as the world goes, one can do X or Y, live or die, it doesn’t matter. John Barth’s Todd Andrews has enormous difficulties making up his mind which or whether.13 The world we’re in is one of authorless accident, comical suffering and confusion; it is the world of WILL’S WHEEL ALINEMENT SERVICE, while the Wake is entirely internal, its “nothing” signifying sound and fury. The Wake is a replacement for the world. Unlike the world, it is made of meanings. Like the world, it does not mean. If the author goes, taking the reader with him into some justifiable oblivion, he does not omit to leave his signature behind, just the same. Indeed, he not only signs every sheet, he signs every word. Erased, Flaubert’s care cries out, “me me me.” Removed, Henry James’ late manner maître d’s everything. The Wake calaminates, just before it doesn’t conclude: mememormee! Till thousands-thee. Here is a further example of pure signature prose:

… I felt acutely unhappy about my dutiful little student as during one hundred and fifty minutes my gaze kept reverting to her, so childishly slight in close-fitting gray, and kept observing that carefully waved dark hair, that small, small-flowered hat with a little hyaline veil as worn that season and under it her small face broken into a cubist pattern by scars due to a skin disease, pathetically masked by a sunlamp tan that hardened her features, whose charm was further impaired by her having painted everything that could be painted, so that the pale gums of her teeth between cherry-red chapped lips and the diluted blue ink of her eyes under darkened lids were the only visible openings into her beauty.

The “I” of this brief instructional tale14 is not that of the great Vladimir, Napoleon of Prose, but the style certainly is his. We are meant to be dazzled, humbled, tossed into awe as though it were a ditch alongside the road. The “I” is not Nabokov—no—yet this “I” teaches literature (French not Russian) at a girl’s college (not a woman’s college, not Cornell) in an Ithaca, N.Y., climate (no mistaking that upper New York snow and ice, icicles carefully described), so that we are led roundabout to wonder. Again, this sort of teasing is deliberate. Whether the scholar sees the genial Trollope seated comfortably in the text, or the irascible Flaubert skulking angrily behind his, critics continue to “tyranically center,” as Barthes puts it, “the image of literature on … the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions …” but they have reached their quarry by different routes: content in the first case, style in the second. Of course, Trollope’ s tone tells a tale as well as Nabokov’s does, but Nabokov’s arrogance is formal, relational, and his control is not that of a fatherly Czar but that of the secret police. The performative “I declare,” “I sing,” “I write,” does not, in fact, cut the text off at the point of the pen, as Barthes seems to think. Nabokov’s passage is a performance … and a good one. In this sense, Trollope’ s touch could only dull the master’s quill. The problem is not, I think, whether the author is present in the work in one way or another, or whether the text will ever interest us in her, her circle, her temper and times; but whether the text can take care of itself, can stand on its own, or whether it needs whatever outside help it can get; whether it leads us out and away from itself or regularly returns us to its touch the way we return to a lovely stretch of skin. Certainly some readers are anxious to be distracted, and arrive in a work like an anxious traveler at a depot. There are four winds, and four cardinal points of the compass, and four trains out of the text:

Screen shot 2017 04 21 at 1.38.42 pm

When Nabokov halts his “I” on its walk in order to render an icicle in full formation, there is no question that the world, with its notions about the proper procedures for freezing and thawing, is partially directing his pen. Is it, then, the artful author of this passage?

… I had stopped to watch a family of brilliant icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house. So clear-cut were their pointed shadows on the white boards behind them that I was sure the shadows of the falling drops should be visible too. But they were not. The roof jutted out too far, perhaps, or the angle of vision was faulty, or, again, I did not chance to be watching the right icicle when the right drop fell. There was a rhythm, an alternation in the dripping that I found as teasing as a coin trick

And are the laws of light and shadow determining this?

And as I looked up at the eaves of the adjacent garage with its full display of transparent stalactites backed by their blue silhouettes, I was rewarded at last, upon choosing one, by the sight of what might be described as the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast — a jot faster than the thaw-drop it raced.

And is the world of melting snow and forming ice our readerly destination? Do we want to stand in the snow, too, with this “I” which is soon then to be ourselves? But this “I” cannot be ourselves, for its observations are both beyond us, and the world.

This twinned twinkle was delightful but not completely satisfying; or rather it only sharpened my appetite for other tidbits of light and shade, and I walked on in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket.15

Physical phenomena clearly have a finger if not a hand in the composition of these passages, but the choice of event, selection of details, arrangement of elements, turns of phrase and pace of words, all the higher functions of relevance and association, imagery and implication: these are controlled by Nabokov and increasingly by the character of the little device he is creating; that is, a short story about two sisters, Cynthia and Sybil Vane (Sybil will be a suicide, Cynthia a victim of heart disease), and Cynthia’s belief in haunting shades and interfering spirits. As the text grows, its demands grow; but the text can make these demands only in terms of certain principles of composition which the author accepts: coherence, for instance, fulfillment of expectations, and so on. Actually, Barthes, while appearing to free the text from externals, is going to tie it rather firmly to two of them: the literary tradition and social usage, on the one hand, and the reader’s caprices on the other. He sees the writer as a kind of whirling drain sucking texts into itself and concentrating their fall upon her page. The text, Barthes argues, is

a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pécuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.16

Let us shape a situation to fit Barthes’ conditions. The lanky young man who bags our groceries has just dropped the flour on top of the broccoli. He hoists the sack into the cart, and says, with a vacant smile pointed vaguely in our direction: “Have a nice day.” Our young man is scarcely the author of this unmeant hope we have just now been commanded to realize. The English language provides its grammar and vocabulary; our present sales and marketing customs furnish the expression itself; the manager of the store supplies the impulse and determines its timing (so that the bagger does not utter his platitude and then bruise the broccoli). The carry-out boy (whose jacket says, “I’m Fred,” but this is a bit misleading since he’s borrowed the coat from a friend, having forgotten, in his habitual a.m. haste, to wear his own) is a willing automaton. Still, we can see his lips move inside that smile like a little wrinkle in a wrinkle, and we hear the words issue from him. Suppose they were written on his jacket?—that jacket whose name is Fred. In that case, there wouldn’t even be a cartoon balloon around the words, with a string depending from it toward his mouth. The expression would resemble our odd scrap on which WILL’S WHEEL ALINEMENT SERVICE was found—‘alignment’ spelled, we would have to observe, in a typically lowerclass way, obedient to the social code. As Barthes argues, writing removes the writer from her words.

Our author thinks, Orlando—Orlando was, and then writes “He” (to stand for Orlando, for there could be no doubt about his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it); writes that Orlando was in the act of slicing, in words which are transcribed by her secretary’s typing machine (losing the effect of that lovely swirling hand, so especially graceful at crossing tees), and subsequently mailed to an editor who will peevishly mark it up (wondering if our author shouldn’t write ‘blackamoor’ instead of simply ‘moor’ and a whole lot else in the same vein), only to pass the ms. on to a printer who, in due course, will produce new and original errors in the galleys. When the galleys are finally corrected, everyone within reach of the words will have had a hand in them. During this process it even might look for a time as if Orlando were going to be replaced by Rudolph at a copy editor’s suggestion, but, to the relief of literature, at the last moment a stet is put beside his name, allowing Orlando to remain. So now he can be seen (for there can be no doubt about her sex) at the top of the book’s first page, slicing at the head of a moor which is swinging from the rafters.

Office memos, guidelines, brochures, official handouts, architectural programs, presidential speeches, screen plays, are oftener in worse case because they are customarily constructed on assembly lines, by gangs and other committees, by itinerant troupes of clerical assistants. The Surgeon General warns us that smoking is hazardous to our health. Does he indeed?

Every step I have described has taken us away from the vocal source (if there was one, for perhaps she never said aloud or to herself, “Orlando,” since it is a name people are often embarrassed to utter), and removed its original maker from significant existence the way Will’s scrap of paper, which we fetched from the wind and took to the pole, was removed; yet this is hardly surprising because no one authors his speech; we simply speak it. It is necessary to say we author what we write precisely because what we write is disconnected from any mouth we might actually observe rounding itself for the Os required to produce Or lan dO; so that the question imperatively arises: who, indeed, has made these marks? Whose is the responsible pen?

Suddenly a burst of applause which shook the house greeted the prima donna’s entrance, Balzac writes,17 after carefully collecting the correct clichés, for applause always bursts; when it does so it always shakes the house; it invariably greets an entrance, which, of course, is what actors and actresses make. No wonder Barthes uses “Sarrasine” as an example of the dead hand of the author, for it would be hard to compose a more dismally anonymous sentence, except that Balzac has had practice, and this one is succeeded and preceeded by hundreds of others its equal. The Marquis went out at five, Paul Valéry’s bête noir (it was certainly not his bête bleu) is, by comparison, inimitable. Balzac creates strangeness out of phrases which his readers will be completely used to. As they sail along through the story, they will not have to think or realize or recreate or come to grips with anything. Nothing can trouble this salve-like surface. “Sarrasine” is a story whose merit is to seem not to be there, and one can imagine Balzac removing originality from it like unwanted hair.18

Virginia Woolf no doubt changed many things while she wrote, adding images, crossing out details, removing words, exchanging paragraphs, perhaps pages, reconceiving the entire enterprise, falling into foul moods, later climbing out of them, altering herself when she mooned over Vita Sackville-West and remembered Knoll, somewhat as her hero progresses from one sex to another. Was Joyce the selfsame man who began Finnegans Wake when, fifteen years later, he woke from it? Certainly Malcolm Lowry’s bout with Under the Volcano (begun when he was a much younger and certainly less well-formed writer than Joyce was when he began the Wake) involved more than one personality and bears witness to different levels of skill and conception. Malte Laurids Brigge is many things, and one of them was to be a course of therapy for a deeply troubled Rilke so that he would not become “his other self.” It is unlikely that one inflexible self wrote Orlando, nor did it spring into being all at once as it does when we open its covers now.19 We know how all the other Orlandos influenced her; how she researched the Great Frost before she composed that amazing description of it; how faithfully she frequented the British Museum, and how much she loved memoirs, biography, and other historical texts.

A poet’s life, like Chatterton’s, may be no longer than a mayfly’s, and yet many poems might be appended to his name, because poems can occasionally be blurted, but works of prose, as I’ve pointed out, involve time in an essential way, and can have a single author only in the traditional metaphysical sense that they possess (as even the saddest of ordinary mortals does) an enduring, central, stubbornly unchanging self, that “me” that is the permanent object of the “I”, perhaps within the child as a state of lucent potentiality, and translucent to the point of invisibility when past its prime, but an unshakable unity nevertheless.

It is commonly felt that a unified work of literature should seem to have a single author (unless, like the style of much of “Sarrasine,” the work is so undistinctive, bland, and featureless—so collective, so corporate—as to suggest a corporate, collective style), so that what any actual author must do, divided as she often is into whore and housewife and shrew and mum and cook and clothes horse and eardrum off which the brags of men bounce—sissboom, boomsiss—girlscout, nannie, and nursemaid, left breast and right, choirgirl and choregirl and cheerleader and hash slinger and Model C and Gentle Annie and Madame La Mort and La Belle Dame Sans Merci and eye in whose loving gaze great men grow up from little lads and finks and fat louts into troubadors and totem designers and business thieves and all that … and all that … is to infer, is to construct, contrive, the ideal author of her text, and then try to accommodate, corset, constrict, her multifarious nature to that less variable but often more reliable and likeable though artificial being. From the poem the reader projects the poet, too—not a person—but the poet of the poem.

Hume has warned us that if we wish to infer a creator solely from the evidence of a creation, we cannot attribute to it any other character, qualities, or power, than would be strictly necessary to produce the thing, the song, or world in question. Nor can we forget (when we are busy imagining the author of Waverly or Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The World as Will and Representation or The Life of Reason) the silly, incompetent, or wicked things the work accomplishes as well; the insane mix of planning and chance, absurdity and design, incompetence and skill, which is the rule in most cases; just because we wish to bring “good ole glory” to a name, for the name will no longer designate the necessary author or the less necessary personality behind the art, but still another kind of slippery fiction.

The intention of the author is only occasionally relevant, but if we believe at all in the Unconscious, or in the impossibility of literally nothing escaping the author’s clear awareness and control, then the artificial author (the author which the text creates, not the author who creates the text) will be importantly different from the one of flesh and blood, envy and animosity, who holds the pen, and whose picture enlivens the gray pages of history. Strictly speaking, Scott is both more and less than the author of Waverly.20

In certain cases, further complications arise. When an author devotes a great portion of a writing life to one work, as Dante did, or Spenser did, or Proust, then the likelihood that the work itself will begin to overwhelm and almost entirely occupy the arena of ordinary life grows great, because the writer will surely have imagined marriages more interesting than her own, deaths more dismaying than that of Uncle Charley, or invented characters with more quality than her children, who simply sniffle, skin knees, and fail in school; she will not carry on her fictional affairs like boring conversations; she will have fallen in love with a rake of her own devising. Proust’s book became a second cork-lined room around him; Flaubert’s letters reflect the fact that his writing desk is both board and bed; the nighttime life of the Wake compensates for a failing sight. That is, works not only imply an artificial author, they profoundly alter, sometimes, the nature of the historical one. God, himself, I suspect, has been made worse by the world.

That characters get out of control, that the uncompleted text takes over its completion, was a commonplace long before E. M. Forster complained of it, or Flann O’Brien made it a compositional directive.21 And Vladimir Nabokov’s little story about the Vane sisters doubles the dialectical interference of text with intention, intention with text. Cynthia’s death provokes in the narrator the expectation of her ghostly appearance. His sleep is soon troubled by a dream about her, but this is hardly the apparition he hopes for and fears. Though the narrator puzzles himself about it, the dream yields him nothing. He and the story conclude:

I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.22

Nabokov, however, has not concluded his fun, for the first letters of the words which make up that final paragraph provide a message: IciclEsbycyntHiameterfrommesybil; that is: Icicles by Cynthia, meter from me, Sybil. If the author had not waited until the 20th century to pass on, but had gone off more quickly, rather like fish, Galileo wouldn’t have had to publish his work anonymously and in another country far from his own place of residence; neither would all those amiable works of erotica have had to hide their heads, but they could have ridden out happily headless, written simply by a raunchy world; Charlotte Bronte wouldn’t have had to give birth to Currer Bell or die as C. B. Nicholls while trying to carry her baby; neither should we have seen originate a distinct species of posthumous writing, a genre practiced so perfectly by Kafka, and one to which some work of Descartes, and the Dialogues of Hume, belong. The pseudonyminal pranks of Saki, Kierkegaard, and Brian Ó Nualláin (a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan, Myles na gCopaleen, John James Doe, George Knowall, Brother Barnabas, the Great Count O’Blather, and Flann O’Brien) would not have been necessary.

If Roland Barthes had been interested in radically simplifying the final solution to the Author Question (and I’ve tried to indicate and describe, here, some of the members of this rather heteronomous race), by removing these authors who come to claim every fresh text like red ants to a wound, he could have adopted the “single author” theory, either as it is alluded to by Borges, or proposed by Gertrude Stein or implied by Hegel. Then, with this plurality of persons—both real, inhuman, artificial, and imaginary—reduced to manageable proportions, a single stroke across the top of the word would have been enough. An author can’t author anything.

Stein distinguishes (to consider her version for only a moment)23 between what she calls human nature, on the one hand a physical existence which established for the writer a notable identity in time and a visitable locale in space; the person whose likeness is taken up to put on postage stamps, who cashes the checks, and whose character can be counterfeited if one gets hold of the appropriate documents and facts; the “I am I because my little dog knows me” borderpatrol identity, and the human mind, on the other a universal level of creativity and thought which moves evenly between Kant-like entities; that elevation we refer to when we speak of the way a work may transcend its Oxford, Mississippi milieu, for instance, its Colombian quaintness, the author’s alcoholism or mushy obsession with mom, to achieve a readily understandable meaning and an immediately shareable emotion; the “I am not I any longer when I see” en soi.

Every author has an identity, but masterpieces are written by the human mind, not by human nature, which only lends them their common smell and color, their day to day dust. The implication is that readers differ in the same way. A masterpiece can be read as if it were by James Michener (it is the principal way Proust suffers from his society - swallowing fans), but the works of the human mind are really addressed to other human minds. That ineffable persona which a poem implies will be “the human mind” if the poem achieves greatness; however, the fatuous little New Yorker story will fasten the reader to a rock in Westchester and leave him to be eaten up by trademarks and localisms and proper names. It will flatter his determinate and causal—his chemical—self. The anonymity which the superb poem or fiction presumably possesses, according to some theories, may consequently be a kind of spiritual consanguinity.

Because we borrow, beg, buy, steal, or copy texts; because texts enter our eyes but remain in the blood; because we are, as authors, plagiarists and paraphrasers and brain pickers and mocking birds; because of these and other like habits we are, in effect, translating texts from one time to another and one context to another and one language to another. If, instead of repeating, “have a nice day,” we suggest to strangers that they “lead a good life,” we have simply rearranged a slightly different little cluster of clichés. But all that any author works with, in the beginning, is given her by one corrupted magi after another: the language, the life she leads, the literary tradition, schools she attends, the books she reads, the studies she has undertaken; so she cannot lay claim to some syntax or vocabulary, climate of ideas or custom of entertaining, as hers, and hers alone, and therefore as special as she is. Neither is that inadequacy she is supposed to feel at the close of her office hours the feeling of a freak. Of course, all of this wisdom and experience, this shit and sublimity, is shared, and of course a great deal of what we all do and think and feel and write is no more uniquely had or imagined than the balloon of the bagger; the stream of life is rarely more than a pisser’ s trickle; and literally millions of sentences are penned or typed or spoken every day which have only a source—a spigot or a signboard—and not an author24; they have never been near a self which is so certain of its spirit and so insistent on its presence that it puts itself in its syllables like Mr. Gorgeous in his shimmering gown.25 When all that was was fair, Joyce writes, describing Paradise, and in that simple rearrangement of the given and the inevitable and the previous, he triumphs, making something new, in Pound’s sense,26 and breaking through the circle of society, transposing a him- and a herself into the mode known as authoring.

The Goethe poem, which I quoted earlier with deceitful intent, is scarcely his any more (nor would he claim it).27 None of the formalities match. The idea may still be there like an ancient tree in a neglected park. But that’s what we do: for good or ill we incessantly transmute. What I am emptying my bladder of, behind that tree in that neglected park, was once a nice hot cup of green tea.

Balzac never betrays the bourgeois, never breaks through the circle of society, because he employs forms which they understand and use themselves [for instance, the step-ladder like structure of life in school (1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and so on), the step-ladder like structure of life in the family (birth, bawl, crawl, walk, speak, etc.), the step-ladder like structure of life in the church (birth, baptism, confirmation …), in business, in society, and so forth, each of which points the way and evaluates all progress, not from cradle to grave, but from birth to bequest]; Balzac relishes their stereotypes and pat phrases and vulgar elegancies;28 his taste is that of the turtle which has found itself in a robust soup; he, too, would flatter the reader, the public, the world which receives him until it receives him well and warmly; and Roland Barthes, for all his fripparies like lace on a sleeve, for all his textual pleasures, which imply a more courtly era, is no better, accepting a pseudo-radical role as if it were the last one left in the basket. Balzac’s revelations, however critical and “daring” and suggestive, pet the bourgeois to the purr point because they are revelations which remain in their world and language like dummies in a window. Though more perceptive than most, more sensitive, even more moral and upright (let us grant), and undoubtedly a genius, Balzac is more moral the way more money is more money; his is the ultimate hosanna of utility; however hard his eye, his look will land light.

“Sarrasine” is corrupt in both its art and its attitudes, and this is the one thing Roland Barthes’ extensive commentary neglects to point out.28

Rodin’s statue of a nude and arrogant Balzac is a bother, but not Balzac, whose arrogance is the arrogance of the best men of business, and who deserves to be wearing at least a hat. That is why we need authors: they refuse. Readers, on the other hand … readers … readers simply comprise the public.



  1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image, Music, Text, transl. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), pp. 142-148.

  2. Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1983), p. 119.

  3. Barthes, op. cit., p. 149

  4. John Crowe Ransom, “A Poem Nearly Anonymous,” The World’s Body (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 2.

  5. Stephen says this during a one-sided conversation with Lynch in the middle of the final chapter of A Portrait. Lynch shortly follows this with the joke that God must have hidden himself after perpetrating Ireland.

  6. Paul Valéry, “Man and the Seashell,” The Collected Works in English, Aesthetics, Vol. XIII, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Pantheon, Bollingen Series XLV), p. 27.

  7. Adapted from Goethe.

  8. These quotations are, of course, from the opening chapter of Barchester Towers.

  9. “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” From Bk. I, Sec. 14; “I think I ought to begin to do some work …” Stephen Mitchell’s translation.

  10. History of English Literature, Hippolyte Adophe Taine, vol. 1, trans, by Henry Van Laun (New York: the Colonial Press, 1900), p. 2.

  11. Octavio Paz, “Introduction,” Renga: A Chain of Poems, Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguineti, and Charles Tomlinson (New York: George Braziller, 1971).

  12. Ibid. Paz speaks first of a “feeling of abandonment,” then a “sensation of oppression,” followed by a “feeling of shame,” a “feeling of voyeurism,” a “feeling of returning.” It is all very operatic. They are only writing a poem, after all, these poets; but they must pretend they are having a religious experience. The fiction is that the poem is all important, when only the fact that they are writing it together really is.

  13. In The Floating Opera (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, Inc. 1956), Barth is not to be seen. Andrews is writing his own story, but he immediately points out how limited his powers are: he is stuck with the truth. I look like what I think Gregory Peck, the movie actor, will look like when he’s fifty-four … (The comparison to Mr. Peck isn’t intended as self-praise, only as description. Were I God, creating the face of either Todd Andrews or Gregory Peck, I’d change it just a trifle here and there.) When a fictional character speaks to the reader the way Trollope spoke to him, and as Todd Andrews not infrequently does, he intends the reader to become a fiction. How else will they hold a conversation?

  14. Vladimir Nabokov, “The Vane Sisters,” Tyrants Destroyed and other Stories (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), pp. 222-3. The balance of “between … lips” and “beneath … lids” is particularly artful, as is the repeated use of “small,” and the music of passages like “the diluted blue ink of her eyes …”

  15. Barthes, op. cit., pp. 143, 119, 120.

  16. Barthes, op. cit., p. 146. These views are the consequence of Barthes’ work on S/Z, and his disclosure of all the “codes” which come together in “Sarrasine,” the example he has taken from Balzac and quotes again in this essay.

  17. (216)*ACT.: “Theater”: 6: entrance of the star, in Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. by Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), p. 111.

  18. Every attempt at something striking, such as the features of a beautiful woman where each pore has a special brilliance, is catastrophic, Ibid., p. 34.

  19. I make some similar points about “Sarrasine,” Roland Barthes, and style in another context: “The Habitations of the Word,” The Kenyon Review, forthcoming.

  20. For example, consult the little parable, “Borges and I,” in Labyrinths, edited by Yates & Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), pp. 246-7. Borges writes: I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.

  21. In Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1927), p. 102. At Swim-Two-Birds (London, 1939). O’Brien is a text weaver, his novel is “a book-web,” and he even uses a pseudonym, yet few novels belong more completely to their maker.

  22. Nabokov, op. cit., p. 238.

  23. Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America, intro. by W. H. Gass (New York: Vintage, 1973). This book develops, perhaps at unnecessary length, ideas contained in her somewhat earlier essay, “What Are Masterpieces, and Why Are There so Few of Them?”

  24. (439) This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility. * SEM. Femininity. The source of the sentence cannot be discerned. Who is speaking? Is it Sarrasine? the narrator? the author? Balzac-the-author? Balzac-the-man? romanticism? bourgeoisie? universal wisdom? The intersecting of all these origins creates the writing. S/Z, op. cit., pp. 172-3. In “Death of the Author” (op. cit., p. 142) this condition is suggested for all writing.

  25. On putting the self in syllables, see “The Soul Inside the Sentence”, Salmagundi, No. 56, Spring, 1982, pp. 65-86.

  26. Make It New (New Haven: New Directions, 1935).

  27. Über allen Gipfein ist Ruh, in allen Wipfeln spürest du kaum einen Hauch. Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde. Warte nur: balde ruhest au auch.

  28. See Richard Howard’s benevolent description of this phenomenon in his introduction to S/Z, op. cit., pp. x, xi. I find now that when I go to get a book off the shelf, I pick something I’ve read before, as if I didn’t dare try anything new.

  29. Although the typically faithless quote from George Bataille, which is included in S/Z as an appendix, suggests that “Sarrasine” is more than ok.