In his piece, ‘The Death of the Author,’ Roland Barthes criticises analyses of texts which seek to ‘decipher’ meaning through knowledge of their respective authors. To support his claim, he explores the birth of the figure known as the ‘author’ in literature, its significance, those writers that have attempted to remove themselves from their works, and what a text is without its creator.
Barthes finds the restrictive presence of the author in literary analyses to be a relatively modern phenomenon – ‘…produced, no doubt…at the end of the Middle Ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation...’ Exploring previous ways of storytelling, spanning cultures and eras, he applauds tales told through ‘mediators’ of a kind, ‘shamans’ without personal connection or overt influence upon the narrative, praised at times for the quality of their delivery, but not for any part in its creation. For me, (perhaps slightly ironically, reading this), I was struck by the role of prophets and religious figures who record the wills of their Gods. The position of the prophet on the blurred line between impartial ‘mediator’ and religious figure or actor in their own right draws me, purely for its potential to, at the root of societies, not just theocracies, change everything. The level of awareness of author with which one reads a religious text varies, but they naturally can be analytically read. In a similar fashion, oral tradition results in often profound shifts in the narrative over time, the reasons for which I am inclined to believe are not always incidental, instead the product of bias, suspicion, and personal motivations. All in all, although the ‘birth’ (a reader’s vested interest and awareness of) ‘of an author’ can be seen, as Barthes asserts, to have taken place in the late Middle Ages, the power of the author, and awareness of such, to change narrative meaning came into being at a much earlier date.
Barthes recounts notorious examples of artists from whose personal lives we fail to abstract their work – Baudelaire, Van Gogh, but he holds these up merely as examples of the inevitable end for art which is interpreted in this manner. He expounds, however, upon the potential for analysis of the art of those who have tried consciously to escape such treatment. He mentions Mallarme first, whose methods ‘…restore the status of the reader…’ Limitations concerning time are put in place, Barthes states, when one includes the author as such a strong presence in the work; works are given a new and unnecessary expiry date, tied to their author, ‘(their) past…father…with his child.’ But writers attempting, in a similar vein to Mallarme, to give sovereignty to the reader, in doing so make the messages of their texts accessible, and fluid, over decades and even centuries.
This fluidity of interpretation, then, is explored further in the next paragraph in what, upon first reading, seemed to me to be a counter-argument of Barthes’. ‘…the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.’ This suggests, surely, that a richness of understanding can be the result of interest in the creator, their circumstances and time, all that which influenced them (I was thinking Nietzsche, and the social upheaval of the foundation of the German Empire during his lifetime.) The idea does appeal to me, the depth of this unconscious exposition a writer, according to such a theory, would be putting across of the world in its entirety up until the point of writing, all things in some way being shaped by what has come before them. However, Barthes sees, once more, limitations in this nevertheless romantic theory, and argues almost for an extension of this, the artwork taking on new meanings ‘succeeding the author,’ the ‘signs’ contained within it growing ‘infinitely remote.’ In short, Barthes recognises significance of words beyond ‘the vulgar patience of purely literary themes,’ and validates changing significance also, empowering the reader once more. This reader is, as Barthes draws to his conclusion, the only person who can view the collected ‘multiplicity’ of the work in front of them, ‘classical criticisms’ aside, and grasp the particular converging aspects as a whole.
All in all, having read ‘The Death of an Author,’ I would have to say that Barthes channels his argument, beginning in its slightly combative tone and ending with fine unpicking of the point at which the two opposing views of literature meet, before their paths diverge again, forever. In fact, one of these ends, that centred upon the author – it is only in the validation of new meanings for texts that the path Barthes advocates can be sustained. The reason I can accept this argument at all, however, is his late appreciation of the mutual meeting point of the two, this channelled argument. If I’m wrong about this, I suppose Barthes would have to uphold my take. That would be interesting to see.