The Authority of the Author, the Reader and the Text in Julian Barnes`A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, E.P. Thompson` Witness against the Beast and Roland Barthes` The Death of the Author
Julian Barnes seems to be ambitious in trying to conclude the history of the whole world in ten and a half chapters, but if we understand that he is just using a literary way to express his historical view and the truth of human history he values, this length is enough for use. In Barnes` account, he raised a vital question of the authority in interpreting history, or the authority of interpreting the literary works, which are considered to bear history. Who has the authority to interpret the text, the reader or the author? What`s the responsibilities of the reader and the author respectively in bringing meanings to a text? Is there an absolute truth in the interpretation? Who should we trust if there is not?
By discussing about how novelists, El Greco, poets and prose writers produce their art , Barnes seems to argue that the authors are responsible for bringing the text to the reader, but they lack control of the interpretation to it, just like the metaphor of the lonely sea-captain directing a ship without engine-room and rudder, although he spares no effort to direct the ship, it actually listens to the winds and tides instead of him. The author`s effort to control his work will probably come to a similar result, as his process of producing the artistic work is influenced by the social ideology, his past, the economic factors and many other mysterious issues nobody could possibly know. The author may hold his own interpretations to the artistic work, as El Greco painted himself in his ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, he is showing his authority of production and interpretation of the work; however, the author could not master the reader`s interpretation to the artistic work, as the reader has his own interpretations basing on his life experience, world view etc., and he does not need to accept the author`s interpretation. It appears that the more flexibility the author has, the more control he has to turn his work into what he want, but at the same time more interpretation and ambiguity of the work are produced. The example of poets and prose writers has illustrated this point, as poets own the flexible ‘I’ and have the ability to turn bad love into good love poetry, while prose writers can only turn bad love into prose about bad love, poetry are less trustworthy than proses to the reader.
E.P. Thompson however, holds a quite different view towards the authority of the reader and the author. In his Introduction to Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, he tries to analyze William Blake in a historian`s way, which is, knowing who Blake actually was by ‘placing Blake`s thought within the political and cultural context of his times’ and ‘the very particular intellectual tradition which Blake formed his mind in’ . In his opinion, the academic way of studying Blake is too isolated and ex parte, the readers are welcome to bring meanings to Blake`s words, but at least they need to know what he really want them to discuss about. Therefore to precisely understand Blake`s poetry, proses and paintings, we should first know who he was and why he made his works that way, hence it is necessary to understand what tradition guided his reading and writing and painting.
In this essay Thompson is in fact arguing that the author has the absolute right to interpret his work, while the reader can only follow and should not have entirely different interpretations basing on their own experience, ideology etc. Thus a fixed direction of explanation has been set for all kinds of artistic works, as ‘Baudelaire`s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh`s his madness, Tchaikovsky`s his vice’ . At this circumstance the text becomes the very narrowed ‘unique one’ with no potential to be further explained or developed; for the readers, they have only got the right to accept or reject the text; therefore both the reader and the text have been restricted. To solve this dilemma, Roland Barthes (1977) suggested a solution at the cost of ‘the death of the author’. According to him, only by cutting down the natural relationship between the writer and the text and giving the readers the right to interpret can the text be given new lives.
In The Death of the Author, Barthes identified the relationship between the author and the reader as ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author’ . As stated by him, writing begins when ‘a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively’ , but it does not necessarily happen to the Author. In the ethnographic societies a mediator conducts writing, and the Author is a modern product of the capitalist society, as a result of the discovery of ‘human person’ . Consequently, ‘it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality to reach the point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’’ , and the author is removable. As a result of the removal of the Author, the text could be change. The Author, if believed in, will be considered father of his work in temporality, but if he is substituted to a position of a modern scriptor, he will exist at the same time with his text and writing can no longer represent a process of recording, notation etc. Hence he only writes for no origin, or if any origin, it is language itself. A text at this sense is ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.’ Thus, once the Author is removed, trying to decode a text will become meaningless. The Author puts limitations to the text and closes the writing, while reading can become the origin of new interpretations and give the text new life. The reader, who produces the space to hold together all the traces constructed the text, is the real solution to a restricted text.
In summery, Barthes is maintaining that to interpret a text only through the text itself by destroying the instrumental function of language (recording, representing etc.), denying the stability of a text (Author-God interpretation) and cutting down the author-to-text and author-to-reader approaches in the author-text-reader relationships, the diverse explanation of the text could be achieved. His opinion is completely opposite to that of Thompson`s, who claims that the author has the absolute authority to interpret his work, and the readers can only choose to accept or reject it. Barnes looks to stand in the middle, or maybe the side closer to Barthes, as he believes, although the author wants to keep control of his work, he cannot manage it. He may want to get rid of the sway from his past and the environment but could not handle it, and there are many other factors changing his direction while he does not actually know. Even so the author still has the right to put himself in his work, but the reader may not accept it. And the more flexible the work is, the more interpretations the reader may bring to it. Both the author and the reader give the work meanings, but neither of them are dominate, hence the text has large freedom to speak for itself, which is also one of the goals Barthes wants to achieve at the sacrifice of the author.
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Barnes, Julian. A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. London: Vintage, 2009
Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. London: Fontana, 1977
Thompson, E.P. Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. Cambridge: the University Press, 1994