Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Deaths of the Author

Not long after I arrived at Harvard, in 2006, Jane Gallop gave a mesmerizing talk that revisited Roland Barthes' famous essay, "The Death of the Author." (Though it was a Comp Lit event, I remember thinking "where are all the English faculty?" Maybe they, too, had died ...)

That talk -- expanded now -- forms the first chapter of her elegant and powerful new book, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time. Gallop turns the poststructuralist move of decentering the author to fresh account here, going beyond the necessary evacuation of subjective privilege to a moving engagement with the afterlife of the author as a haunting presence whose shadow still fills us with desire.

This is a book about the author as ghost -- a specter who continues to speak to and inspire us. It thinks the gap between the theoretical concept of the author's dethronement and the personal experience of losing writers we hold dear. In the tradition of the best theory, it insists that we cannot consider these things apart, but must always "think them together."

My notes on the lecture took the form of a poem. As I think back on it, perhaps one of the reasons I found her talk so stirring was that I had just lost my mother. The perverse idea of desiring the dead, not in a necrophiliac sense, but in the melancholy register of keeping their departure open, struck a deep chord. As Sebald writes (and as my notes on Solaris take up): "And so they are always returning to us the dead."

Everything hinges on that "and."

The Death of the Author
for Jane Gallop

If I were a writer, and dead, then how bright the sky at evening when evening is a word for making other words.

And how I would love to be dispersed across the sky, ashes thrown to the wind and someone’s beautiful eyes reducing me to a few precious details. Travelling outside whatever my life had been, joining me to a future that cannot know me, except as a toy that resurrects the destroyed.

If I were a writer and no longer a part of my story, but given over unseen to the birds at evensong, returning to the same life, the very same and yet different. Speaking warmly with strangers at the gate, skirting the paths through the park, spying on the couples who are kissing in their sleep, a part of the larger night where everything has already happened without me.

If I were a writer, and dead, I would enter the room of sudden desires. The one with salty snacks and glasses of whiskey. The book there where I had left it. Your eyes, your voice.

Whatever pierces me. Speeches me. Even now, dead, writes me.

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