The document that is “Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes is, undeniably, a complex and rather muddled piece of writing, which explores several ideas comprising a philosophy of literature. In order to make full sense of the piece, I have tackled it head-on, first highlighting words and phrases that stood out to me, and later writing separate comments on whatever came to mind when I read these over. For this blog-post-turned-book-report, I have decided to split the paper into the various interesting ideas that it begins to explore, and see whether through doing this I can make better sense of some of Barthes’ overall messages within his writing. I have a steaming mug of tea sat next to my computer, and a good playlist playing in the background – **how badly can this possibly go?**…
An author’s split personality:
First things first, Barthes discusses the idea of a narrator having multiple voices; professing alternative ideas additional to their own in order to portray a professional or societally-approved view of their content. Whilst using a quotation from a play written by the French playwright Balzac, Barthes points out that the entire idea of a work of literature is to explore and question different viewpoints under different circumstances, and thus it becomes impossible for a reader to ascertain quite what views belong to the author him/herself, and what is distorted in order to represent the perspective of a fictional character instead. Barthes goes as far as to suggest different possible sources for the subjective views on women professed by Balzac – namely “the author Balzac professing… ‘literary’ ideas”, “universal wisdom”, and “romantic psychology”. The idea that a passage about woman’s “sudden fears, her irrational whims her instinctive fears her unprovoked bravado…(and) her daring” could possibly cite ‘universal wisdom’, owing to the extremely subjective and generalised nature of the statement. So Barthes poses the question: are these views possessed by Balzac himself, or is he simply putting into words a generalised societal view of women at the time? Or both, or neither? Barthes points out that for any non-biographical voice within literature it remains impossible to “assign a specific origin” to the views or perspective displayed. However, Barthes then goes one step further than this statement, and claims that consequentially within literature “all identity is lost”.
A narrator as mediator:
Barthes’ next unusual point of view comes along only a sentence later, as he suggests that any action performed within literature is only ever symbolic, and through the inevitable “disjunction” between the origin of the action and its symbolism “the author enters his own death”. For this reason, Barthes explains, many “primitive societies” opted to assign all narrative within a tale or story to a mediating figure whose sole purpose was the “mastery of the narrative code”, and who otherwise remained entirely free of bias or purpose within the story being told. And yet, as Barthes points out the prevalence of empiricism within modern-day society, he disproves the option of a mediator figure within modern-day literature, as the knowledge conveyed by a narrator must have originated from experience also obtained by that same narrator, thus affording them a sense of “genius” which a mediator figure cannot possess. As Barthes points out (assuming I have understood this correctly), the modern-day narrator acts as the uniting of “(an author’s) person and their work”. And this seems true – as evidenced by Barthes, within any piece of creative literature the author imparts a piece of themselves into their work, in order to give their work authenticity and value. This idea makes sense; the voice of any character would not have been made possible without its author, and so must act as some sort of accumulation of the writer’s views, or understandings, or experiences, or perspective. Without this element of an author’s character, a work has little reason for exisiting.
The unoriginality of an author:
However, unlike any other genre or artist, a writer is limited by how they can convey themselves and their ideas to their audience. The author can only reach out to the reader through language, as he has no alternative means of communication (as oppose to other forms of media, such as film and visual art). And, leading on from the points of the previous paragraph, any abject attempt by an author to separate himself from his work is futile, for an author has no choice but to use their own tone within their work, perhaps with the addition of a filter (this, as well, is man-made by the author himself); any content which comes from the mind of the author remains as much a part of the author as their own body, for it is a product of their own unique processes of thought.
**to be continued**
I finished my tea a while ago, and have a small headache from squinting at Barthes’ writing for so long on my screen. So, for now it is time for my opinions on the three points made By Barthes that I have decided to attempt to decipher so far.
I enjoy the idea of a split personality occurring as a writer puts his own or another’s perspective into writing. In reality, how do any of us ever determine the originality of any of our thoughts; how unique are they to us and our mind, and how far have they been shaped by the surrounding ideas of the society around us? As for the suggestion of the necessity of a mediator to narrate a story, I can quite understand how the underlying principles of the Western culture undermine this as a possibility; however, isn’t this what creates the intricacies and potential for discreet psychoanalysis within all modern-day literature? These, in my opinion, add to the existence of literature as an art form; something to be engaged with and analysed. Finally, Barthes’ question of author originality brings with it the question of the nature of identity, and personality, and the impact these have on the thought processes of a person. It takes all kinds of psychological and philosophical theories to even begin to shed further light on this idea, however it remains fascinating even in its simplest form (as described in the paragraph above).
However, for now I have hit over 1,000 words, which suggests I should bring this blog post to a close before I continue to spin myself into TOK-related circles all night. All in all, Barthes’ writing may be confusing, however it remains hugely infused with deep philosophical questioning and analysis. It would take an army to decipher everything he incorporated into his short essay!