“Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes

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!

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A Day in the Life – Ancient China

I woke up and gazed around me at my surroundings, which were as beautiful as ever. The Yellow River Valley – I was so lucky to love in such an advanced society, full of life and culture. I thank the first the gods and then my ancestors for such a privilege.

Acknowledging the ever-present spirits around me is an important part of my morning routine, as it allows me to pay my respects and act responsibly, in a fashion that might please such holy powers. In particular, I honour the female deities of our valley – here, it is the matriarchy that rules, and one day perhaps the deities will grant me a daughter who could take her place amongst the priestly class of women who govern this great region.

After I don my everyday fur atop my hemp tunic, I wander into the heart of Banpo. The small cluster of huts around me have been my home for as long as I can remember, however the region is growing now – into big cities, the first of our time. I am neither of lowly status here, nor a noblewoman – my husband is a merchant, and I spend much of my time studying, in order to try and pass the Imperial Examinations and receive a place working for the government. This task is very difficult – to pass, I must perfect my literacy and memorise nine books: the Five Classics and the Four Books.

After a time studying outside in the sun, I return back home in order to cook. I bend over the ding placed over the hearth, and add in the necessary ingredients. Next, I will use leaves gathered a few days ago in order to brew a potent tea that will surely keep me and my family strong and healthy. It is a long time until our next Tea Ceremony, but these are always my favourite occasions within a year, as it is a time when I can honour others in an elaborate ritual of respect that pays compliments better than I could ever say them.

Our house is probably my favourite place in the village, and our prize possession. Made sturdily of wood, it borders a few others around a square courtyard, in which there is a communal garden that never fails to soothe and relax its occupants – the leafy shade provides balm for any of life’s worries or displeasures.

I meet up with a few friends to play mahjongg, which is a game of immense skill and concentration. How I envy those who find it easy – I have been learning my whole life and still have a lot to learn. In the evening, I feed my husband, and we sit together in the living quarters reading ad listening to music, our pet cat at our feet. Before bed, I carefully polish the family shrine, saying my prayers and wishing for fertility and prosperity.

 

A Haunted Item: the Basano Vase

For this blog post, I was tasked with researching a haunted item to write about. My object of choice: the Basano Vase.

Legend has it that this ornate and beautiful vase was crafted out of carved silver sometime in 15th-century Italy, made for an Italian bride in a village close to the northern city of Napoli. However, when given to the young bride the night before her wedding day, it proceeded to work a curious and fatal charm and left her dead; she was found that night dying and clutching the vase. Some records suggest that just before she died, the bride-to-be vowed to return and seek vengeance. However, the family of the first victim remained naive and unsuspecting, and passed on the vase shortly after the first young woman was interred. They also perished soon after taking it into their possession. The cycle continued down generations, every owner dying their own short and suspicious death. Eventually, the Italian family made the all-important decision that these deaths were more than just coincidence and proceeded to hide the vase away, reportedly in a “secret location” (and possibly by a priest).

 

Either way, the vase was rediscovered in 1988, and its resurfacing brought yet more hardship and death. A young man dug up the vase, finding inside it a piece of paper with the message “Beware… This vase brings death.” Nonetheless, the man auctioned the vase (without the note), passing it onto a pharmacist for a grand total of 4 million Italian Lire (or just over USD$2,500). It was only three months before the curse took its toll, and the vase’s new owner met his own end. The family sold the vase to a prominent surgeon, only 37, who himself died a matter of months afterwards. Once more, the vase was passed on; this time to an archaeologist and collector of artefacts. Needless to say, he died quickly (this time of a mysterious infection).

The vase had begun to develop a reputation, and so became harder to sell. When it was eventually shifted, it was for far less than it had been bought for, and when this new owner died as well it became unsellable. The townsfolk now believed firmly in the curse the Basano Vase supposedly carried, and so it was thrown out of a window in an effort to escape its deadly powers. However, when thrown it hit a police officer on the head, who fined the family for littering. The family refused to take the vase back. When the Polizia di Stato tried to place the vase in a museum, no institution would accept it. Legend says that an officer finally decided to bury it after claiming he could “feel” its negative energy – many sources suggest that this time, it was buried in a lead box and it has never been re-found.

My First Experiences of TOK

When put critically, a class in over-thinking is the last thing I need. However, in reality it could actually be a beneficial experience; after all, what teenager doesn’t already feel doomed by existentialism by this point in their lives? At least now they’re making it a subject.

Last year I attended a lecture by Professor A C Grayling, founder of the New College of the Humanities. It had been a long day (what day isn’t at a full-boarding school), but needless to say he caught my attention almost immediately, and I spent the next hour or so trying hard to follow strings of complex terminology and head-spinning concepts that made me feel dizzy. But how complicated does TOK actually have to be? Whilst I have no doubt I will find out as I progress through the course, I wonder whether there could be a different approach. After all, any exploration into the theory of anything in life is really just another attempt at trying to understand the intricacies of the world we live in; an attempt to improve our perception of life so that we can live it in a richer, more meaningful way. These perceptions are built by who we are and what we have experineced ourselves; is the theory of knowledge simply another opportuity at self-exploration?

The mind is one of the most valuable mechanisms we have in life; it works in (near) perfect synchrony with the brain, in an inexplicatable pairing similar to that of body and soul. Therefore, using TOK as a means to develop my thinking and to become more familiar with my perceptions of life must make it a worthwhile asset of the IB programme. Yet I can see that I’m going to have to be quite careful not to become overhwlemed by the subject matter, and to take ideas in their purest sense without overcomplicating them. Challenge accepted.

Can double TOK be double fun?

“We know accurately only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases.” — Goethe (1749-1832)