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Although I had heard and read a lot about “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) by Roland Barthes, I had never read it in its entirety.  I found it nice to be able to read and understand Barthes in French for once.  I know, I should be able to read in French, but I find literary theory more difficult to understand in French than in English.  As a result, it is such an effort for me to read French theory in its original language that I tend to avoid it.  However, this essay is easier to understand than other essays written by Barthes.

“La mort de l’auteur” was originally published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen and only appeared in its French version in 1968 in the journal Manteia.  Roland Barthes is a structuralist, and later post-structuralist, whose interest in semotics is evident in many of his works, including “La mort de l’auteur”.

“La mort de l’auteur” is probably his most controversial essay; however, the ideas he proposes in it are not as extreme as the essay title would suggest.  In fact, I think that most of what he argues makes a lot of sense.

Barthes’s essay can be seen as a reaction to critics’ and readers’ urge to find the author’s ultimate meaning in a text.  What Barthes argues is that the text exists in the here and now, that it is enunciated/read, and that there are multiple interpretations to a text.  The author as we know him is the one we construct through reading the text.  Barthes thus proposes that instead of deciphering a text to find the author’s message, we should untangle its various meanings.  When talking of a text, Barthes uses weaving metaphors, which actually lie in the latin origin of the word text.  He differentiates between the text and the work.  The work is material, whereas the text comprises many discourses and other texts that interact and result in our own interpretation.  The way we interpret the text relies on intertextuality.  The text is thus fluid and has infinite meanings.  Although he does not directly refer to intertextuality in “La mort de l’auteur”, Barthes’s argument points to this concept:

“un texte est fait d’écritures multiples, issues de plusieurs cultures et qui entrent les unes avec les autres en dialogue, en parodie, en contestation ; mais il y a un lieu où cette multiplicité se rassemble, et ce lieu, ce n’est pas l’auteur, comme on l’a dit jusqu’à present, c’est le lecteur”

“a text is composed of multiple writings, issued from various cultures that intersect through dialogue, parody, contestation; but the only place where this multiplicity is unified is not the author, as we have said until now, but the reader”

Therefore, according to Barthes, we should not try to explain texts by looking at their authors, but rather by looking at the language and how it speaks to us.  For him, it is the langage that creates meaning, not the author.  He notes that:

“l’écriture est la destruction de toute voix, de toute origine” 

“writing leads the destruction of the voice, of the origin”

Indeed, authors cannot control the meaning that will be given to their texts.  This so-called message of the author can only be a supposition from the reader.  Moreover, texts take on a life of their own by surviving their authors and being read year after year, century after century, by various readers who will impose their own interpretation on the text.

This is something important for Barthes because it enables us to resist the totality of the message from an over-controlling author, that is to resist ideology.

“un texte n’est pas fait d’une ligne de mots, dégageant un sens unique, en quelque sorte théologique (qui serait le ‘message’ de l’Auteur-Dieu), mais un espace à dimensions multiples, où se marient et se contestant des écritures variées, dont aucune n’est originelle: le texte est un tissue de citations, issues des mille foyers de la culture”

“a text is not composed of a series of words, giving a single meaning, somehow theological (which would be the message of the Author-God), but a site with multiple dimensions, where various writings interact and contest each other, none of which original: the text is a fabric of quotations, from culture’s thousands of sources.”

What seems to shock the most in Barthes’s essay is that he replaces the Author by a scriptor, someone mainly laying words on the page.  This is somewhat disturbing taken out of its context.  However, I do not think that Barthes rejects the author as such, but rather the over-controlling author and the possibility to find the author’s meaning.  All we really have is the work, those words on the page and we are ultimately free to interpret them the way we want, depending on our own circumstances.  He therefore concludes that the only way to liberate the reader is to get rid of the Author:

“la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur”

“the birth of the reader necessitates the death of the Author”

Although Barthes’s statement is radical, I think his argument is convincing.  How does it make you feel?  How do you read a text?  Do you always try to find out about the author or do you give more importance to the significance it has for you?

In my opinion, the author is one of the texts we use to understand the work.  I believe we can only guess what the author’s intended message is.  Each of us creates her/his own meaning of the text and the text will have a specific significance for each of us, depending on our own context.  As we try to interpret the text, we might consider the author and, by doing so, we create the author through the text we have read, but also by using other texts about the author.  Ultimately, the meaning of the text results from our own interpretation and use of the texts and discourses surrounding us and our reading.

All translations are mine and are probably imperfect.  You can read the English version here.

This essay is my first introduction to Adrienne Rich, a writer I have wanted to read for a long time.  It was written in 1971 for a conference and later published in College English 34.1 in 1972 (this is the version I am reviewing) and in Rich’s collection On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978.  There is also a revised version of this essay online.

What I know about Rich is very little.  Margaret Atwood describes her as a proto-feminist and, from reading this essay, I can see why.  Rich is one of these women who successfully managed to be both a writer and a woman in a society (the 50s) where the norm for a woman was still to change nappies and cook your husband’s meal. 

In this essay, she discusses how she managed to find her female voice.  She begins her essay by considering the exhilaration of living in a period of “awakening consciousness”.  This, she believes, can only come out of knowledge of the male-dominated structure of society and of literature.  She deplores the fact that too many women have adopted a masculine style of writing in order to be accepted as writers, men being the judging audience.  She argues that in order to find their own voice, women need to be aware of the myth of the woman as represented in past literature and need to then subvert these representations, what she calls “re-vision”.

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.  And this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”

It is therefore through this act of revision that women can affirm their place in society, not as submissive wives and muses for the male writer, but as female human beings able to express their own feelings and passion.  Women writers should not follow the tradition set by male writers, but should become aware of it, subvert it and create their own.

“We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us”

After discussing this need for re-vision, Rich takes as an example her own writing and explains the various steps she has taken toward finding her own voice.  She describes her own situation as a wife and mother in the 1950s and how difficult it was to write at the beginning. 

“But in those earlier years I always felt the conflict as a failure of love in myself.  I had thought I was choosing a full life: the life available to most men, in which sexuality, work, and parenthood could coexist.  But I felt, at 29, guilt toward the people closest to me, and guilty toward my own being.”

However, she explains that it was not until she decided to adopt her own style and be more experimental that she managed to find her voice.  She quotes a few of her poems and mentions others, some of which are reproduced at the end of the essay and illustrate the evolution of her poetics, such as her move from using the pronoun “she” to “I”.

“You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.  For writing is re-naming.”

At the end of her essay, she also notes the effect this “awakening consciousness” might have on men.  As women find their voices, men lose their muses.

“One thing I am sure of: just as woman is becoming her own midwife, creating herself anew, so man will have to learn to gestate and give birth to his own subjectivity – something he has often wanted woman to do for him.”

Indeed, time has shown that men have felt threatened by women’s affirmation of themselves as subjects rather than objects, as Robert Bly’s Iron John and the crisis of masculinity debate have highlighted.

I think Rich’s essay is an important text in the history of women writers.  It clearly emphasises the conflict in which many women found themselves as they were writing in a patriarchal society.  It also foregrounds the need for subversion of the masculine conventions of writing and the need to be experimental in order to find a voice of their own.  A technique many women writers have since used.