Monday, April 20, 2015

The Death of the Author

For quite a long time, many art critics and other professional interpreters have accepted the doctrine of the “death of the author.”  There are several related but subtly different notions—the “intentional fallacy,” or the “personal heresy,” for example—that all converge on roughly the same idea: the artist’s intentions, desires, personal history and so on are irrelevant to the meaning of the work, and hence access to the author (and his or her intentions or desires in creating the artwork) is not merely unnecessary, but is in fact a distraction to be avoided.

GK Chesterton wrote:

"The function of criticism, if it has a legitimate function at all, can only be one function—that of dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author’s mind, which the author itself can express.  Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots."  (Appreciations and Criticisms of Charles Dickens, 272)

One scholar made the mistake of thinking that this passage was an early statement of the doctrine of the death of the author.  (At this point, I must claim the privilege of operating here as a blogger rather than as a scholar.  I have recently moved, and many of my books and notes and such remain in storage.  I cannot locate who said this about Chesterton or where.  When I come across it sometime, I'll come back to this post and edit appropriately.  For now, though, you'll have to take my word for it that I read this....somewhere...  Now, to return to the business at hand....)

One scholar made the mistake of thinking that this passage was an early statement of the doctrine of the death of the author, but in fact, Chesterton takes altogether for granted the notion that grasping the author's intentions is crucial to grasping the meanings of his works.  What, principally, the critic can find in a work that would make the author "jump" is information about the state of the author’s soul:

All good writers express the state of their souls, even (as occurs in some cases of very good writers) if it is a state of damnation.  The first thing that has to be realized about Dickens is this ultimate spiritual condition of the man, which lay behind all his creations.

And it is here that the critic can tell the author the very things that would make the author jump out of his boots.  The author endows his creations with elements of his own soul, whether he means to or not.  As Jacques Maritain put it, “as God makes created participations of his being exist outside himself, so the artist puts himself—not what he sees but what he is—into what he makes.”  (If we take the "death of the author" in an extremely restricted sense--the sense that the author isn't necessarily fully aware of all the rich tapestry of meaning and symbolism and so on to be found in the work, then what I'm describing here is in fact a version of the view.  But I'm taking it to be the stronger notion that the author's intentions are irrelevant.)

Much of this, perhaps, he does fully consciously.  Some of it, however, he does not do consciously.  And it is this bit that the critic can dig out and surprise him with.  The other bit—that which the artist means to put into the work—is truly there (if the artist has been successful, anyway) in the work and hence at least potentially open to the discovery of the perceptive viewer, without recourse to, or any knowledge of, the artist.  As a simple example, consider a portrait of John F. Kennedy.  My daughter might not know who the portrait represents, but if it’s a reasonably successful likeness, that knowledge is potentially available to her.  She might see a picture of Kennedy in an encyclopedia and recognize that this is the same person.  Or she might ask me.  At any rate, she needn’t ask the artist.

Take another case, though—this one more complicated.  Once again, I’ll turn to Chesterton for help, this time from his book on William Blake:

"[“The Everlasting Gospel”] begins exactly as the modern humanitarian and essential Christian would like it to begin—

“The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.”

It goes on (to the modern Christian’s complete satisfaction) with denunciations of priests and praise of the pure Gospel Jesus; and then comes a couplet like this—

“Thine is the friend of all mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.”

And the modern humanitarian Christian finds the orthodox Christ calmly rebuked because he is the friend of all mankind.  The modern Christian simply blames the printer.  He can only suppose that the words “Thine” and “Mine” have been put in each other’s places by accident.  Blake, however, as it happens, meant exactly what he said.  His private vision of Christ was the vision of a violent and mysterious being, often indignant and occasionally disdainful….  You have to know Blake’s doctrine before you can understand two lines of his poetry."  (William Blake, 43.  For similar thoughts, see his work on GF Watts, 7.))

In other words, there can be a strong temptation for a viewer to think that something has gone wrong with a work, if the work appears to the viewer to not make sense.  But perhaps the work doesn’t make sense simply because the viewer is failing to be docile to the work. One way to help with this docility is to find out what the artist really thinks!  If you separate the artwork entirely from the author, you can completely miss the point of the thing.

Chesterton characteristically states this idea quite strongly, by saying we must understand Blake’s views before we can make any sense of his poetry.  That’s not necessarily true, as Chesterton’s continued analysis shows: in order to help us understand the confusing lines from Blake that he’s presented us with, he presents us with more lines from Blake, which help him establish Blake’s private vision of Christ.  So despite claiming you must know Blake’s doctrine to understand his poetry, Chesterton uses Blake’s poetry to establish his doctrine.

But, of course, Chesterton used more than just the poems: he had studied Blake and knew of him from sources other than just his artwork.  In bringing Blake’s biography to bear on Blake’s artwork, Chesterton demonstrates how the author’s intentions in making a given artwork, once gotten at, can help explain what is happening in that artwork.  Chesterton clearly rejects the doctrine of the death of the author.

In a recent post here, I argued that Rockwell's art--like all traditional art--is an expression not of himself, but of that which was to be expressed.  But I also asserted that, of course, Rockwell did express himself in his art, and I said I'd explain this in a later post.  I did some of this in my post where I argued that Rockwell's art all expresses the state of his soul.  It also expresses his own views or his more explicit opinions about things.  So he expresses both things that he is fully aware of, and things that he is perhaps not fully aware of.  Good criticism, if Chesterton is right, should aim at digging out the latter.

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