Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, April 1, 2016

Afloat on the Ocean of Words

Every artist in every medium is in effect shouting out “Look at me! Turn to me from all other phenomena!” And consumers of art collaborate with the considerable ego implied by this cry. Certainly in literature, whatever the theme, the author is always the hero. The critics, indeed, all readers, acknowledge sufficient value in the writer’s moves to follow every decision recorded on the page with careful attention. The creative artist’s abilities are fetishized, often considered mystically resistant to analysis and attributed to talent or inspiration. Yet at times the figure of the author can seem suddenly a specter, an insubstantial illusion shimmering even as it threatens to vanish altogether.

If the proposition sounds incredible, that is because one if the most persistent of our Romantic received values is the celebration of individual Genius. Though that word is not attested in the sense of exalted intellectual power until the late eighteenth century this use seems now only natural. The nascent Romantic Edward Young celebrates the “man of genius” for his originality, comparing him to the less impressive imitator. According to Young only such an innovator “raises his structure by means invisible.” For him and for many today the genius “partakes of something divine” since “genius is the god within.” [1] In his best-seller titled Genius Harold Bloom refers with approval to Emerson’s description of genius using the very same phrase “the god within.” Bloom begins his book with the “unique” “supreme” genius of Shakespeare which he defines as evident from the poet’s “universality,” “the pervasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preternaturally natural.” The concluding oxymoron epitomizes the broader paradox that the individual most marked off from the rest of us has somehow earned that singularity by his ability to represent the lives of all.

Yet prior to the Romantic era the successful artist was more often regarded as the best trained, likely the one who had spent an apprenticeship emulating the work if a master and the models of earlier eras. Thus according to Winckelmann “the only way for us to become great, and indeed, inimitable – if this is possible – is by imitating the ancients.” [2] Here again the neat confidence of the formulation is offset by the self-contradiction. Only by imitation do we get free of imitation, that is, become inimitable. Little wonder that the great art historian felt moved to include the qualification “if this is possible.”

In more recent decades advanced thinkers have questioned the concept of the autonomous god-like creative author. A couple of generations ago Barthes declared “The Death of the Author” [3], citing Mallarmé as a predecessor and claiming that every "text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations," that every work is "eternally written here and now," and that the “meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader,” and not the writer at all. At about the same time, Foucault asked “What is an Author?,” [4] noting, as though it were an established fact, that “criticism and philosophy took note of the disappearance –or death - of the author some time ago” and concluding with the question “what difference does it make who is speaking?” The case against what might be called the authority of the author by these two and their fellow travelers is weakened by the fact that they mean to displace the artist as the creative fountainhead only to step into the same role themselves as enlightened post-modern critics, juggling conundrums for the amusement of their less celebrated peers or cracking the whip and exasperating their more commonsensical critics into growls and roars. Few readers are likely to be willing to trade Shakespeare for Derrida.

Long before the rise of deconstruction and allied theories, though, the artist’s status had been discounted or questioned. Most early poets and sculptors were anonymous. Homer does not emerge as an individual. Only after a certain date do we begin to see ancient Greek ceramic artists sign their work. We have no clue as to exactly which caryatids of the Erechtheum were crafted by Socrates’ father. Even in the Middle Ages anonymity is the rule in early lyrics and stained glass. In traditional societies the local carver is rarely celebrated as a “genius,” but rather is regarded as a craftsman like a carpenter or a potter. Folk songs and fairy tales are generally not attributed as original work by the person from whom they are collected. After all, according to the Grimm brothers’ dictum, the people as a whole compose (“das Volk dichtet”).

Indeed, who can name the author of the myth of Oedipus? Sophocles certainly, though Aeschylus and Euripedes both wrote lost plays on the same theme. But Oedipus appears as well in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Homer and as the tragedians had doubtless learned the story orally in childhood. It was the common possession of the Greek people. Though the view that authorship of folk works was in some mysterious way “collective” was championed by Francis Gummere among others, it had steadily lost favor and was finally supplanted by the careful and innovative work of Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. [5]

What Parry and Lord found was that the singers of epics in the Balkans in the 1930s were able to improvise oral poetry by using a set inventory of phrases, formulae, and lines, most of which were common to many “authors,” but that their performances varied widely in quality and content, even between successive recitations of the same piece by the same singer. The poet might say, and might in fact think that he is exactly reproducing his own version or the version of his mentor, but the texts invariably showed pervasive and significant differences. Though working in a genre in a way collective, some performers were talented and others pedestrian. The audience and the occasion always influenced the poem.

The insights of Parry and Lord allowed for the first time an understanding of previously obscure characteristics of Homer as well as proving useful in the study of Beowulf, Pentecostal preachers, blues, and other oral forms. These works are demonstrably shaped by an entire community and a tradition though any individual work is also the product of the skill and vision of an individual. Just as art regularly both questions and affirms received ideas, it can only arise from a social consensus but through a single subjectivity.

That dialectic is evident though less marked in non-oral work as well. Every writer shapes work in part with audience in mind. Each uses phrases, images, and conventions (sometimes twisting or altering them) learned from earlier texts. The concepts that populate a particular vision of reality are based on those borrowed from others. Even opposing sides of issues in a given era are generally founded on the same basic vocabulary and assumptions. The assumptions of one’s own era are virtually invisible, while those of earlier periods are more easily discerned. [6]

The notion of genius is fostered by the supposed opposition of tradition and innovation in literary production. In all periods art is produced by crafting altered versions of the inherited templates. While during many earlier eras past masterpieces provided the model the artist could aspire to equal, for two hundred years novelty has been privileged. The radical has been admired. Yet in fact the author who defies, opposes, or omits a recognizable convention makes use of it just as much as the one who repeats it. Each use of convention – in any of these ways -- allows for the more efficient expression of information. A writer who rebels against an established trope or other device by defying it is governed by the same code as the writer who employs it. No inherent value accompanies either use of conventions or defiance of them.

The themes in literature and the language people use to express them evolve over the centuries with their own dynamic, finding expression through the agency of people active in each era. Thus one might say that Doctor Johnson, rather than being the author of his poetry, is himself written by the eighteenth century English Zeitgeist while James Joyce is an inevitable product of the altered intellectual atmosphere over a hundred and fifty years later. Just as the leopard’s fur appears in a spotted pattern without conscious planning and the clouds assume a particular aspect in every moment of the day, people’s writing is generated by the entire population of thinking humans in a grand polyphonic symphony continuing now for thousands of years. [7]

Of course, the secondary symbolic elaboration of literature only intensifies the opposition inherent in all language. One can only make use of words and phrases which a listener or reader can understand. Every utterance is based on earlier listening experiences, yet each combines the pre-existing elements in a new way. A wholly original composition could only be meaningless gibberish. On the other hand a work that exactly repeats an earlier one like Borges’ Pierre Menard whose “translation” of Don Quixote exactly reproduces the original might seem equally otiose, but Borges insists to his readers that Menard’s Quixote is “almost infinitely richer” as it includes the new author’s own experiences. Surely he was only saying in a whimsical way that meaning accumulates, that a Horatian ode today is more meaningful than when it was written, though its increase in significance has nothing to do with Horace.

Borges’ playful fancy resembles T. S. Eliot’s celebrated insight about the whole of literary history changing with every new work. To Eliot “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it . . .the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted.” After complaining about the modern tendency to privilege “those aspects of [the poet’s] work in which he least resembles anyone else,” he insists on the contrary that “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” but rather that “his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” [8]

Finally, and perhaps most destructive to the myth of the semi-divine author, literature cannot be said to occur until the text is received by a listener or reader. Barthes was quite right in locating the consumer’s interaction with the text as the moment when significance arises. Thus the reader may well be said to be the actual composer of the work. Though some texts are comparatively rich in possibilities or may arrive already well-plowed with a history of past readings, the mere words are barren until they are read. In a sense they provide only potential arenas for constructing meaning; they cannot deliver it ready-made.

The problematics of authorship are then rather complex. The causes of literary works must be shared it seems by the writer (who might be called the “efficient cause”) with the uses of language that the writer has heard or read, the assumptions of the era of its composition, and the literary tradition preceding (and, later, following) its date. Add to these the interpretations, reactions, and allusions of others, all dynamically evolving from the work’s first appearance onwards, inevitably compounded by misunderstandings, the imprecision inherent in all language, and the data lost to noise in every transmission. Where then can the author be located?

Perhaps the choice between the multiple authors responsible for the text is a problem better transcended than solved. The identity in Buddhism between viewing the world as reality and as illusion or in Hinduism between the individual and the Whole may provide a model for that between the writer and the entire corpus of human words. [9] This link may provide the base for the scent of the divine which underlay the intuition of Young and Bloom when they imagine “the god within.” Hovering above the alternatives, the reader may embrace both or neither or may select the one with the greatest heuristic value in a given analysis.

As readers we float atop the ocean of words, each text a whitecap, briefly rising and then sinking into the vast body of language beneath, leaving it ever so slightly changed. From the perspective of an individual the whole is never in sight and one cannot even take exhaustive account of the waters in which one paddles, yet in every human society people engage artful language in a vigorous and ever-new interchange which by dint of constant effort keeps us for a time buoyant. Our babble goes on, though we know in the end that we and our words with us will fail and fall into the general ferment not to vanish but to suffer a sea change and later return reshuffled and refreshed.

1. Conjectures on Original Composition (1759).

2. Thoughts on the Imitation of the Painting and the Sculpture of the Greeks (1755).

3. Originally published as “La mort de l'auteur” (punning on Le Morte d'Arthur) in Aspen 5-6, 1967, reprinted in Image-Music-Text in 1977.

4. A talk originally given in 1969, the essay appears in Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977. pp. 124-127.

5. See Milman Parry, "The Making of Homeric Verse." The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 and Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.

6. The forgeries of Han van Meegeren, for instance, which fooled many connoisseurs and experts when they were new now can be seen to have obvious affinities with the styles of the nineteen-thirties.

7. A clear parallel exists with certain technological developments, such as the invention of automobiles, motion pictures, or nuclear weapons in which a number of researchers all but simultaneously develop what is fundamentally the same idea. The invention of the electric light need be attributed neither to the inexorable processes of impersonal history nor to Edison’s singular genius.

8. The concept of a sort of super-organism of literature resembles the Gaia hypothesis advanced during the 1970s. See James Lovelock’s popularization Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005) and Lynn Margulis’ The Symbiotic Planet (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

9. Perhaps the best initial texts for these views are Nagarjuna for Buddhism and Gaudapada for Hinduism.

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