- The Most Overrated Article of All Time?
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of an essay you have almost certainly read, if you took any class on literary theory in the intervening half-century. The essay in question is “The Death of the Author,” by a brilliant French thinker named Roland Barthes. Barthes had wonderfully illuminating things to say about the structure of narrative, realism, Proust, Racine, photography, and billboards. When he turned his thoughts to authorship, however, his touch temporarily deserted him, and the essay that resulted is a huge mess, full of unclear claims, weak arguments, and logical contradictions. This generates a double mystery: how did a theorist so smart end up saying such silly things? And—even more inexplicable—why is everyone still being forced to read them? What exactly is it that cements a piece of writing in the canon of literary theory for five decades?
It isn’t always entirely clear what Barthes is trying to say in his essay, but one thing is certain: he wants us to stop thinking of writers when we talk about literary texts. If you imagine that a poem is a vehicle for a writer’s original ideas, he says, you need to wise up—there’s nothing new under the sun. (Texts merely stitch together recycled scraps of culture; the only originality lies in the organization.) And if you imagine that a novel is a vehicle for its writer’s self-expression, you should know, [End Page 465] first of all, that there’s no self for her to express and, second, that she couldn’t express it even if she had one. Any sentence she wrote in her own voice could easily be attributed to a character in her book; there could never be a way for readers to tell the difference.
It was a mistake, then, for Western society to invent the author—something we did, apparently, in or around the sixteenth century. And that mistake, far from being innocent, has ruined life both for readers and for society at large. “To give a text an Author,” Barthes explains, “is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”1 Every piece of literature generates multiple meanings all the time, and the clodhopping author is a party pooper, falsely convincing us we have to reduce them to just one. Or rather, since those multiple meanings set off “an activity that is truly revolutionary” (p. 147), authors are actually cops in riot gear shutting down the protest march. There go our chances of saving the world!
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with thinking that we should stop using biographies to explain the power of beautiful poems and glorious novels, or with thinking that writers are not always the best interpreters of their own works. (Amen to both thoughts.) But other scholars had made proposals of that nature long before Barthes, and with careful chains of reasoning. The arguments we find in Barthes are, well, not so great.
First, is it really true that there’s nothing new under the sun? Here’s the way Barthes tries to convince us of that: “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (p. 146). That’s a pretty sentence. But what does it mean that we know “now”? That rather makes it sound as if there was a time when we didn’t know. Someone, at some stage, must have written it down, just as Barthes is doing right here. Which means that there has been at least one piece of writing, in the history of humanity, containing a new idea. Which means that Barthes is contradicting one of his central premises in the very line that articulates it.
It gets worse, I’m afraid: “similar to Bouvard and Pécuchet, those eternal copyists . . . whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior...