Roland Barthes “the Death of the Author”

Topics: Literary theory, Literature, Meaning of life Pages: 5 (1923 words) Published: November 19, 2012
Barthes opens with a quote from Balzac’s novel Sarrasine where the author offers a description of a “castrato disguised as a woman” (142):
This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility. (Qts. in Barthes, 142) Stereotypes aside, Barthes’ concern here is with “W ho is speaking thus” (142) in the novel: the “hero of the story” (142)? “Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of woman” (142)> “Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity” (142)? “Is it universal wisdom” (142)? “W e shall never know” (142), he responds for “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. W riting is that neutral space . . . where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (142). When “writing begins” 142), he argues, the “voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death” 142). In other cultures, Barthes claims, the “responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his genius” (142). The concept of the author is historically- and culturally-specific, he argues, the product, that is, of a specific historical stage of a particular culture: the early modern period of Western Europe. The notion of the Author is “a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, em erging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism , French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’” (142-143). It is, he contends, only “logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author” (143) who continues to predominate in “histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, . . . in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs” (143). The “image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions” (143). Literary criticism, he argues, still consists for the most part in seeking an “explanation of a work . . . in the man or woman who produced it” (143). Such a view is predicated upon the assumption that a literary work is “always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (143).

Many “writers” (143), Barthes argues, “have long since attempted to loosen” (143) the stranglehold of this notion of Authorship. Mallarmé was the
first to . . . foresee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner. For him, . . . it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through an prerequisite impersonality(not at all toe be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realist novel), to reach the point where only language acts, ‘‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’ (143)

Valéry, too, “never stopped calling into question and deriding the Author” (144), stressing that “all recourse to the writer’s interiority” (144) was “pure superstition” (144). Proust, similarly, by means of a “radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, . . . made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model” (144). Likewise, Surrealism “contributed to the desacrilization of the image of the Author . . . by entrusting the hand with the task of writing as quickly as possible what the head itself is unaware of (automatic writing)” (144). Last but not least, linguistics (i.e. Saussure and his heirs) has “recently provided the...
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