Lot Less

by Gale Acuff

I’ll be dead before you know it, before 

I know it anyway and maybe then 

or I mean afterward I won’t know it 

at all, ditto death, I’ll be alive some 

-how and maybe waiting for another 

life-to-come, maybe another after 

that, but all I get at church is that we’re 

all in this for the eternal life of 

it, I guess by it I mean the life we 

know now which is at least one-half of what’s 

to be and probably a lot less so 

after Sunday School today I asked my 

teacher What if we die and there’s nothing 

hereafter but she just smiled and said Pray.

 

Mr. Acuff’s work has appeared in Ascent, Chiron Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Poem, Adirondack Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Florida Review, Slant, Nebo, Arkansas Review, South Dakota Review, and many other journals. He has authored three books of poetry, all from BrickHouse Press: Buffalo NickelThe Weight of the World, and The Story of My Lives.

Remarks On “The Death Of The Author”

In 1967, French essayist and literary hypothesizer Roland G. Barthes¹ published The Death of the Author (La mort de l’auteur), which takes, as its central aim, the delegitimization of “the Author” (capitalization his) for the prioritization of “the reader,” a point arrived at by Barthes’ through his belief that textual signification reached a point of coalescence only through the reader, and not through the author (even though they are also readers).

The essay’s title (not so much its contents) has become a popular slogan, deployed in literary circles as de facto justification for narcissistic misinterpretation. Under its auspices, if an author(s) expresses something, directly or through their work(s), which a member of their readership dislikes, then, under the auspices of the “death of the author” that reader may declare the author(s) intention(s) void, henceforth, and instead, declare their own “reinterpretation(s)” the valid one(s), even if the passage(s) is/are clear in intent, or, is/are clarified directly by the author(s).

When one declares biographical information and authorial intention irrelevant to a textual fictive work, it is pertinent to ask why such persons read a particular author? Within the framework of “death of the author” theology, they’re all the same, merely another jumble of text which can be extrapolated any which way one pleases. Indeed, one can rightly ask: why read any fiction at all? Why not read a instruction manual or a signpost, which can then be “reinterpreted” so as to make it amenable to the reader’s hermetic and fragile sensibilities?

In the observation of this practice, what one witnesses is not merely the death of authorial intent, but the death of art as a distinctive practice, for art, in any classical sense, can no more exist without authorial intention, and its evaluation, than it can without an audience.

§

… literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. (Barthes, The Death of the Author)

The pronouncement is made after a digression on Sarrasine, a novella by Balzac concerning a man who falls in love with a castrato disguised as a female who the protagonist describes (obviously incorrectly) as a near-perfect distillation of womanhood. Barthes declares that, in such lines, it is impossible to tell who is speaking, the protagonist or Balzac or “universal wisdom” or “romantic psychology” (though all of these “voices” would, of necessity, be under the direction of Balzac’s, yet Barthes, for a reason never stated, classes them as if they were distinct persons), hence his reference to the ‘oblique’ nature of literature.

Literature is indeed a composite, but it is in no way an “oblique into which every subject escapes” (the subject of desire—for the author, the successful completion and warm reception of his creation—cannot, de jure, vanish into itself) nor a “trap where all identity is lost” for literary style is every bit as distinctive as a fingerprint (ie. stylometry). Barthes is correct insofar as he realizes that there can be multiple “voices” within a work, but this in no way invalidates the stewardship of the author or authors (as in a collaborative effort). Indeed, upon the topic, Barthes himself writes “Balzac, speaking of a castrato…” as if he already understands and accepts what he attempts to undermine—that there is but a singular guide (a master “voice”). That admission, itself, undermines the whole premise.

§

Probably this has always been the case: once an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality — that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. (Barthes)

Intransitivity is a verb property (in distinction to transitivity). Intransitive ends, then, are those which exclude questions of what or whom, confining description instead to the where, when and how—already they are not “external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol.”

§

Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”

Narrative is, at its point of origin, always undertaken by a person, regardless of the character or stage of development of the narrator’s society. The reason why those who performed ancestral narratives did not claim (creative narrative) genius is rather obvious, they did not create the stories they communicated, and knew that others would know it—one would not expect to hear a modern playwright adapting Macbeth to claim (creative narrative) “genius” in the enterprise, and if one did hear such a pronouncement, he or she would likely be swiftly reproached for it.

§

…it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person” The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author…

His low opinion of authors is again clear in his encircling of person with quotation marks, as if the “person” of the author were merely an illusion, a view which is more elaborately expressed in Empire of Signs (1982), in which he speaks emphatically of undoing “our own reality” (page 6).

Returning to his essay—If one is speaking of literary history or biographies of writers then the writer should take center stage (particularly in the latter example). To say that “biographies of writers” should not be “centered on the author” is the same as saying that biographies shouldn’t exist. That, of course, does not mean one should not mention reader’s reactions and the change effected by the public reception of a text; consequently it may (or may not) be fair to criticize a historical (but not biographical) work concerning literature which sets out to cover a given period comprehensively, and yet focuses on an author (or set of authors) at the expense of all else.

§

Though the Author’s empire is still very powerful (recent criticism has often merely consolidated it), it is evident that for a long time now certain writers have attempted to topple it. In France, Mallarme² was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”…

There is little to be said of this passage other than that Barthes is confused as to the topic of agency. He deploys “speaks” metaphorically, of course, and yet, to consider his example in the literal register proves clarifying—for language cannot act or perform of its own accord anymore than a organ can play itself or a candle kindle its own flame.

Barthes then digresses, at considerable length, on a number of writers, including the previously mentioned Mallarme, as well as Proust. I’ll not dwell upon these passages, as they are merely reiterations of his previously mentioned belief that “language… speaks, not the author,” to which one might sardonically reply, “It is the coconut which uses amphioctopus marginatus, not amphioctopus marginatus which uses the coconut.”

§

… linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” end this subject, void outside of the very utterance which defines it, suffices to make language “work,” that is, to exhaust it.

A void, in any literal sense, would be void of any ‘process’ One may talk all one likes about what rocks are like in the absence of sensing apparatuses to perceive them, but it doesn’t fundamentally matter, for there would then be nothing for the rocks to matter to. They would be, but they would not, could not, matter. The case is the same with regard to language. Language does not know a ‘subject.’ Language does not know. Language is not an agent.

§

The absence of the Author (with Brecht, we might speak here of a real ‘alienation:’ the Author diminishing like a tiny figure at the far end of the literary stage) is not only a historical fact or an act of writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — what is the same thing — the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself). Time, first of all, is no longer the same. The Author, when we believe in him, is always conceived as the past of his own book: the book and the author take their places of their own accord on the same line, cast as a before and an after: the Author is supposed to feed the book — that is, he pre-exists it, thinks, suffers, lives for it; he maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child. Quite the contrary, the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.

One can see how ironically authoritative Barthes takes his own absence of authority to be by declaring his baseless assertion to be “a historical fact.” This assertion of simultaneousness is clearly untrue, for the simple reason that the author must think of what is to be written before he or she writes.

§

This is because (or: it follows that) to write can no longer designate an operation of recording, of observing, of representing, of “painting” (as the Classic writers put it), but rather what the linguisticians, following the vocabulary of the Oxford school, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given to the first person and to the present), in which utterance has no other content than the act by which it is uttered… the modern writer, having buried the Author, can therefore no longer believe, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that in consequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuate this gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin — or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.

If writing is, as Barthes asserts, “no longer… an operation of recording, of observing, of representing…” then he could in no way record, observe or represent any lack of representation and is saying that he can say nothing.

§

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them; if he wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum… Succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.

A text does consist of a line of words. That is all it consists of. Such a line may contain (and “release”) a single meaning (theological or otherwise) or a multiplicity of meanings; which it contains is dependent upon intention and the presentation and apperception thereof. Misinterpretation in no wise invalids this fact. For example, if an author writes a particular line with a single purpose, regardless of the interpretations of others, the originary meaning will always remain the same, that is to say, just as intended.

In his domain, the artist is absolute.

§

From this point he notes that since writing cannot be truly deciphered (since it can never mean anything definitively), literary criticism must also be done away with (curiously, he did not, after his essay’s completion, tender his resignation to the trade), along with god, reason, science and law.

… criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.

… to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.

The overthrown of criticism is a natural conclusion of the evacuation of meaning from authorship, and is just as mistaken for the same reasons. His railing against three hypostases in one ousia is shoehorned in suddenly, but isn’t wholly incorrect, for to refuse to “arrest meaning” is indeed to refuse reason, science and law, but it is not to refuse God, for one can easily apply reason, engage in science and construct and follow law, without any belief in providence whatsoever. All of this, however, is far afield of authorship and its supposed demise.

§

He then returns to Balzac, repeats the lines with which he opened his piece and concludes thusly,

… the true locus of writing is reading.

… a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted. This is why it is absurd to hear the new writing condemned in the name of a humanism which hypocritically appoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights. The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes. We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.

One of the reasons why “the death of the author” has become so popular is because of the high regard it supposedly has for the reader, which is taken up as a rallying cry—Barthes and his acolytes striking out against supposed ivory tower art snobs—and yet, consider his opinion of the readers in this last passage. For Barthes, readers are “without biography” and “psychology” merely a vector for the transmission of signification. This is well in keeping with the rest of the article, but it is completely out of step with the contemporary valorizations of the “death of the author.” Further, not only does there not need to be any antipathic bifurcation between authors and readers, there cannot be, for that is to propose a waltz without a partner where the loner refuses to box-step and the music plays itself. Or as Lamos of Films Lie put it,

The death of the Author is also the inability to create, invent, or be original. It is the spinning out of control into the abyss of multiple meanings and inevitable meaninglessness.

A declaration nullified by its very pronouncement.

In closing, I am reminded of a quote by Simon Leys, who, in his essay The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote, wrote,

Literary critics do fulfil a very important role… but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous.


Sources

  1. Alan KcKee. (2003) Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. SAGE publications.
  2. Eric Wayne. (2018) “The Death of the Author” Debunked. Art & Crit.
  3. Gemma Khaicy. (2013) Why hackers should be afraid of how they write. The Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. Honore de Balzac. (1830) Sarrasine. Project Gutenberg (2010-2016).
  5. Jane Alison. (2019) Beyond the Narrative Arc. The Paris Review.
  6. James Wood. (2020) What is at Stake When We Write Literary Criticism?
  7. Joris-Karl Huysmans, translated by Keene Wallace. (1891 French; 1928 Eng.) Las-bas. Originally published by Tresse & Stock.
  8. Jeanne Willette. (2013) Roland Barthes: Structuralism. Art History Unstuffed.
  9. Joseph M. Pierre. (2015) Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku and terrorist martyrdom. World Journal of Psychiatry.
  10. Lamos Ignoramos. (—) The Death of the Author: Roland Barthes and the Collapse of Meaning. Filmslie.
  11. Maddie Crum. (2016) ‘Fight Club’ Author Reflects On Violence & Masculinity, 20 Years Later. Huffington Post (USA).
  12. Michael Karlsberg. (2005) The Power of Discourse & The Discourse of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention. International Journal of Peace Studies, volume 10, number 1.
  13. Pierre Haski. (2014) The Death of Simon Lays, Fierce Opponent of French Maoist Intellectuals. Not Bored (English Translation).
  14. Roland Barthes. (1982) Empire of Signs. Hill & Wang.
  15. Roland Barthes. (1967) The Death of the Author. English: Aspen, no. 5-6.
  16. Simon Leys. (2013) The Hall Of Uselessness: Collected Essays. The New York Review Of Books.
  17. T. S. Eliot. (1919) Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Egoist (later published in The Sacred Wood).
  18. Tulipsandmondays. (2014) A Case Against ‘Death of the Author’ Theory. Ididn’twantanyflowers.

Footnotes

¹ Roland Gerard Barthes was a literary critic and scholar of semiotics educated at the University of Paris and the author of numerous works including, Writing Degree Zero (1968), Empires of Signs (1983) and Criticism and Truth (1987).

² Etienne Mallarme (pen-name: Stephane Mallarme) was a French poet and literary critic, a contemporary of Rilke, Yeats and Verlaine. Mallarme was highly regarded by Huysmans, who praised the poet’s writing extensively in his 1884 novel À rebours.

Fiction Is Not (Intrinsically) A Lie

In 1923, Pablo Picasso, for The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art, said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over his lies, he would never accomplish any thing.”

The filmmaker Jean Cocteau said something similar in Le Paquet Rouge (Comœdia, 1927), wherein he wrote, “I am a lie that tells the truth.”

On January 9, 2009, at the Rochester Jewish Community Center Book Festival, the journalist and novelist Abraham “Abe” Rothman, said, “Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.”

It would be Rothman’s reformulation of the sentiment which would prove out over Cocteau and Picasso’s and has since been widely circulated, in various further permutations, prominently and predictably by men and women of letters (such as John Dufresne, author of The Lie That Tells the Truth).

The persistence and popularity of this adage is curious, given its spuriousness (when taken literally).

All lies are fictions, but not all fictions are lies.

To lie (from the Old English legan) is to attempt to convince some person or persons that a thing or things is true, even though one knows the thing or things asserted are false. To lie is to communicate to one’s interlocutor(s) with deceptive intent.

Rothman defined the word at the end of his aforementioned speech, “a lie–that is, a made-up, imagined untrue creation.”

This is not an accurate description of the fiction author, nor is it an accurate description of a lie. A imagined untruth may be a lie, or it may be a mistake, or it may be madness; one cannot say with certainty, as Rothman’s description elides the centrality of intention. Further, it is erroneous to conflate the “made-up” and the “imagined” with the “untrue.” Consider this from Terrance Klein of America Magazine, “Pablo Picasso once famously said that art is a lie that tells a truth. He’s right. There is something artificial about a work of art.”

Klein is, I contend, mistaken.

To explain: All extant houses were imagined (made-up) before they were built and are yet as real as their creators. And so it is for the fiction writer. Huysmans’ Durtal is not a real person, but he is a real fictional person, and is only ever presented as such. Verne’s Nautilus was no more false than a draftsman’s architectural sketch. Yet, given that fiction writing is an art, it is artificial, and not “natural” which, due the squamous vitiations of contemporary philosophy, is, as if by providential decree, conflated with falsity / deception / inauthenticity, even though the acquisition of truth, of authenticity, requires the intensification and extension of artifice, not its minimalization; for one cannot attest to the truth or falsity of a phenomena which evades the congenital senses without first developing new senses (ie. telescopes, infrared cameras, Geiger counters…) and concepts to interpret, govern and implement them, and such apparatuses emerge only through the invention, or rediscovery, of grounding and controlling concepts, which fiction, in no small measure, can, readily and guilelessly, provide.


Sources

  1. — (—) Art Is A Lie That Makes Us Realize Truth. Quote Investigator.
  2. — (—) lie. Etymology Online.
  3. Abraham Rothberg. (2010) Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Edteck Press.
  4. Terrance Klein. (2012) The Assumption: A Lie That Tells The Truth. America: The Jesuit Review.

Venice In The Moment

By Dan Klefstad

Imagine painting a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. Your model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that absorb the light. As you sketch and fill in, the sun and shadows keep moving – revealing new details. Now you add tiny lines you didn’t notice around the eyes and mouth. As the sun begins descending, you become aware that the hair is two shades darker and seems to be uncurling. Now the flesh appears a little looser, and you realize: What you tried to capture at the start of this encounter no longer exists, and what existed five minutes ago also is gone. Your subject is still pleasing to look at, still distinctive, but when did this person begin… showing their age? Anxiety sets in as you imagine finishing your painting, not as a portrait, but a still life of ashes.

This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But increasing floods from climate change scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a day-old photo of people wading through knee-deep water near the Vallaresso Vaporetto stop. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, yes, if they’re not sitting on saltwater. The moment the brine started seeping into her brick and timber bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.

That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.

This must be why artists and those who chase beauty obsess over her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. The main attractions, such as the Bridge of Sighs and Doges Palace, reveal some if you’re not hurried along by the crowd. But those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard two years ago:

Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink, and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my 14th Century glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that beauty breaks the flow of time, compelling you to look now, and now, and now again – bearing witness to that fleeting space between what was and is.

If you hear this, and your heart breaks, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Hopefully, I’ll be in a nearby café, ordering grappa for you and me to mourn in silence.


 

(Dan Klefstad is the author of the short story, “The Dead of Venice,” and the forthcoming novel Fiona’s Guardians. He writes in DeKalb, Illinois, and Williams Bay, Wisconsin).

 

 

Experimental Archaeologist Wulf Hein’s Remarks Concerning The Hohlenstein-Stadel Löwenmensch

§00 The Löwenmensch of Hohlenstein-Stadel, discovered in the Lone River valley, in Southern Germany (which was occupied from the Middle Palaeolithic through the Neolithic), is the oldest known piece of man-made figurative art ever discovered. Given this, a considerable number of theories have been developed in a attempt to explain the statuette’s role in ancient Aurignacian society.
§01 Experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein of Archaeo-technik, who, in 2009 was commissioned to create a replica of the Löwenmensch, was, despite his busy schedule, kind enough to share his thoughts concerning the importance of the ancient work of art with me.
“Personally,” Hein remarked during our correspondence, “I believe that the LM [lion-man] was object to some kind of worshipping, most probably functioning as a hunting charme, because according to the latest research the mouth region of the statuette was frequently rubbed with some red substance, perhaps blood.”

Sources
  1. João Zilhão & Francesco d’Errico. (2003) An Aurignacian «garden of Eden» in southern Germany? An alternative interpretation of the geissenklösterle and a critique of the Kulturpumpe model. Paleo. Revue d’archéologie préhistorique.
  2. Thomas Wynn, et al. (2009) Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Evolution of Human Conceptual Thought. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19:1, 73-83.
  3. Wulf Hein. (2013) Ivory Experimentation. Companion book to the exhibition The Return Of The Lion Man: History, Myth and Magic. Ulmer Museum.
  4. Wulf Hein. (—) Tusks & Tools. Private research manuscript to be published in l´anthroplogie.

Art & Ancestral Decision

§.00 Artistry is nothing without technicity, for the artist is nothing without his tools. Given that all tools are, at the first, conceptual, the ontological enterprise necessarily subtends both. Philosophy (as mental technicity) determines by way of an analysis of the haecceity of one’s muse(s) and subjects(s), which thus determines the technical venue(s) by which pertinent qualia may be internally refined and externally expressed (in art).

§.01 What is interesting to me, in light of this realization, is the way in which the artist (and not merely the designer) as a general matter, takes ontologic assertions (the real purpose of art is X but not Y), as givens, without consideration. The horror writer considers the nature of his work, but does not consider the collective, inter-generational enterprise which brought the entire genre into being and so must fail to apprehend its previous purpose(s), and thus what previously worked in the genre (what linguistic tactics to deploy) even if he has a solid grasp of its present purposes[s]). The painter does not generally realize, or, at the least, does not generally remark upon, the fact that his art is based upon the primacy of a particular privileging of objects (i.e. Futurism’s privileging of speed and the machine), if the issue is raised, such a consideration is likely to be considered trivial, when it is anything but, as the ordering of objects in a fine painting is of central importance to the purpose (whether it is clear or opaque, even to one’s self) of, not just a fine painting, but fine painting as a distinct artistic practice. And so it is with the author, the sculptor, the illustrator, the actor, the dancer and any other type of artist. Implicit internalization and affirmation of this kind should, if recognized, be given to critical reconsideration, for failure to do so can result in a concretized implicit conceptual frame, born of unspoken ontological decision (decision is not, of necessity, the truth and most ‘ontology’ is merely psychological gratification and defense)—what we might call the ancestral decision—which vitiates the very pathways by which one’s desired or considered art would, in their absence, profligate.

Notes on Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature (1893)—II

† continued from part I


§.08—Our author continues, remarking upon material modalities.

“Unless an author takes the material on which he writes out of his own head, that is to say, from his own observation, he is not worth reading. Book manufacturers, compilers, the common run of history writers, and many others of the same class, take their material immediately out of books; and the material goes straight to their finger-tips without even paying freight or undergoing examination as it passes through their heads, to say nothing of elaboration or revision. How very learned many a man would be if he knew everything that was in his own books! The consequence of this is that these writers talk in such a loose and vague manner, that the reader puzzles his brains in vain to understand what it is of which they are really thinking. They are thinking of nothing. It may now and then be the case that the book from which they copy has been composed exactly in the same way; so that writing of this sort is like a plaster cast of a cast; and in the end, the bare outline of the face, and that, too, hardly recognisable, is all that is left of your Antinous¹.” (A. Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature, p. 6)

§.09—“… a plaster cast of a cast,” how perfectly apt is this description; how many stories of ‘chosen ones,’ or the ‘girl interrupted,’ wherein the distinctive attributes are merely cosmetic—a name, a setting, a hairdo, a historical reference—yet the form and function is essentially the same as popular narratives preceding it. However, I differ from Schopenhauer in holding authors who “take their material immediately out of books” in such totalizing contempt; what is of paramount importance in the question of textual information acquisition is the quality of the information contained and (as he notes) its verification (for whatever qualities). Given that the information acquisition and exploitation from a text is fundamentally no different than any other kind of information acquisition and exploitation, it is mistaken to vitiate information derived from a text and information derived from studying a tree or a stone (ie. one’s own observation”). That is to say that the writer is always writing “out of his own head” a distinction that may seem trivially semantic, but which is conceptually crucial.


Sources

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer. (1893) The Art of Literature. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.; MacMillan & Co.
  2. Elena Martinique. (2016) Is Consumerism Depicted in Art Relevant a Relevant Critique of Contemporary Society and Culture? Widewalls.
  3. Farooq A. Kperogi. (2016) Myth of the Decline in Standard of English Usage and Grammar. Nigeria Village Square.
  4. Ranulf Higden, trans. John Travisa. (1364; eng. trans. 1865) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Maonachi Cestrensis.
  5. R. L. S. (2015) Johnson: Language anxieties: A Long Decline. The Economist.
  6. Sabina Nedelius. (2017) The Myth of Language Decay: Do Youths Really Not Know How To Speak? The Historical Linguist Channel.
  7. Sarah Waters. (1995). The Most Famous Fairy in History: Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy. Journal of the History of Sexuality. University of Texas Press. 6 (2): 194–230.
  8. Steven Pinker. (2014) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century. Penguin.
  9. Stuart Henry. (1897) Hours With Famous Parisians. Way & Williams.
  10. Thomas Adajian. (2018) The Definition of Art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

End Notes

¹ Antinous (also Antinoüs or Antinoös) was a Bithynian Greek, friend and lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. After his mysterious death, the emperor deified Antinous and organized a cult in his honor. Schopenhauer, in the passage above, utilizes ‘Antinous’ as a metaphor for the artist’s creation.

Eckermann’s Instruction—Goethe On Aesthetic Valuation

“Taste is only to be educated by contemplation, not of the tolerably good, but of the truly excellent. I, therefore, show you only the best works; and when you are grounded in these, you will have a standard for the rest, which you will know how to value, without overrating them. And I show you the best in each class, that you may perceive that no class is to be despised, but that each gives delight when a man of genius attains its highest point. For instance, this piece, by a French artist, is galant, to a degree which you see nowhere else, and is therefore a model in its way.”

—Goethe to Johnann Peter Eckermann.


Biographical notes:

§.00 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a multifaceted German artist, scientist and statesman. He was the author of the influential novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction. The date of the first production of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin—August 28th—was chosen by Liszt in honor of Goethe, as it was the same date as the late-artist’s birth (August 28th, 1749).

§.01 Johnann Peter Eckermann was a German author, soldier, multi-linguist, artist, and close friend of Goethe and Soret.


Sources

  1. Johann Peter Eckermann; translated by John Oxenford (2010). Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann. HXA.

The Machine Of Wester Moorley (§.04)

§.04

Otto went to fill up his rusty autowagon for the drive out to the nowheres, leaving Albrecht by his lonesome outside the dingy lifeless building that served as the townhall. While he waited for Otto, Albrecht thought he might stretch his legs and have a look around town and turned of its porch of the mayoral building and headed across the street to the school, where a woman sat beneath the shade of its porch, surrounded by potted plants hung from the underside of the veranda. She was carving something in her left her hand with a knife of bone, thoroughly absorbed in the endeavour. To her immediate right stood a tall, lanky man, with thick bulbous hands, well-worn and gnarled like the roots of a great tree and rusty brown eyes that shone reddish with the midmorning light. A few feet away from both of the figures, to the left of the saloon-entrance, hunched a young woman, watching, with intense interest, a legion of black ants carrying a magnificent looking beetle, which twitched with vain indignancy, its few remaining legs scratching at the remorseless azure sky.

“Morning, ma’ams. Sir.”

The girl looked up fearfully. The gnarled man nodded slowly, without emotion. The old woman’s visage of worldly-detachment swiftly twisted into a fleshy scowl of suspicion.

“You’re not from around here.”

“No ma’am. Albrecht Brandt,” he extended his hand. The woman’s owlish gaze remained fixed upon his face.

“Mal Saunders.” She gestured to the lanky man and the girl, “This is Eddy and Martha. Eddy don’t be rude, say hello.”

Eddy frowned and tipped his mishappen hat.

“You’re here because of the mayor,” Mal stated, “To build that pipeline. That tower.”

Though the words were not spoken in query, he felt compelled to answer as such.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded, more to herself than to Albrecht. Her look of suspicion transmogrified to one of worry and sadness. A visage that bespoke betrayal.

“Do you enjoy your work?” Eddy queried.

“Oh yes. My father was a bridge builder. When I was very young—but a boy—his business took him to Africa. He brought me and my mother along to see it. Ever since, I’ve been interested in building, just ended up bringing water to people instead of helping them cross it.”

The lanky man looked to the old woman as if to measure her approval and then returned his attentions to Albrecht.

“You don’t have no problem with uprooting the land?”

“Everyone needs water.”

“Theys other ways a gettin it.”

“Not out here there isn’t.”

“Theys always other ways.”

Albrecht was silent a moment, confused by the lanky man’s vexation.

“Well I don’t know what to tell you. I was hired by your mayor. If you’ve an issue with the watertower, take it up with him.”

The lanky man grimaced and spit as the old woman shot him a disapproving glare. He feel silent, as if shamed. The old woman then raised the finished carving and held it up for all to see.

“What do you think?”

The lanky man gazed upon it admiringly.

“Its lovely, Ma.”

The little girl smiled and clapped her hands.

Mal Saunders turned the statue round for Albrecht to observe. The effigy was small, only slightly larger than his own fist and depicted a vaguely humanoid female, bloated and monstrous.

“Halloween come early round these parts?”

“No,” Mal responded, “Not Halloween. Please, take it. A gift to welcome you to our town.”

She held out the effigy with a pleasant expression. Reluctantly, he took it.

*

Pen & Pedagogy

“Very Dadaesque.” Elliot Moss cried, gesturing with his half-empty wineglass at the thin, nondescript mechanical pen laying upon the floor at the northeasternmost corner of the rectangular, low-ceilinged art gallery.

“Indeed,” Sabrina Vesora agreed, adjusting her scarf, studying the artifact as a crowd of journalists and local social climbers moved by. It was situated such that its nib faced the northern wall, a black sole-scuff-mark moving out in a slender arc from the nib to the right of the device, trailing off to nothingness.

“Highly abstract, yet, even still, the message is deftly inscribed.”

Moss nodded hesitantly, vaguely, uncomprehending, “Yeah,” He set his glass upon a nearby table and knelt, removing his phone and snapping a few shots of the pen, “Its great how imaginative the students have become with their art—shaking off all that stodgy hyperformalism.”

“I know! And look what they’ve come up with when they’re unconstrained—all that they’ve been able to say without speaking a word.”

“I’m not sure I get it,” a old man to Vesora’s immediate right remarked flatly, stroking his beard with his champagne-less left hand.

She cast the man a withering look and gestured to the pen.

“Its pointed towards the wall—to declare that most of our communications are superfluous, doomed to fail, fated to run into obstruction, into a wall. Yet, the scuff mark, moving away from the tip, out towards the center of the room, which compels us to turn our attention away from our own ‘writing’—from ‘the wall’—back to the lives of others, then, true communication is possible, but only if our instruments, and our empathy, move counter to our instincts.”

The old man furrowed his brows and tilted his head to stare at the pen from a different angle.

“Yeah,” piped up Moss, removing himself from the floor, phone photo-filled, “Its a metaphor. Social commentary—but subtle. Doesn’t beat you over the head with the message.”

The old man turned, addressing a finely dressed man with a custom-tailored black coat, tipped at the collar with white fur, “Oh. Hello, Mr. Partridge.”

“Salutations, Mr. Cramm. I was just speaking with Mr. Wakely, he tells me you’re planning something at the docks; but more on that latter—how’ve you been enjoying the gala?”

“Marvelously. As per usual. But I could use your expertise on this piece… not really sure what the artist was going for,” he replied, gesturing with perplexity to the pen by the wall.

Lynder Partridge’s keen eyes moved to the pen and lit up with recognition.

He then strode between the trio, knelt and gingerly plucked the pen up off the floor and examined it in his leather gloved hands.

“You’re ruining the installment,” Vesora exclaimed befuddled, “What are you doing?”

Lynder smiled opaquely, “Returning Mr. Wakely’s pen. He lost it around an hour ago.”

Notes on Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature (1893)—I

Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature is a brisk, engaging consideration of many of the central questions pertaining to literary craftsmanship. The first question tackled is authorship (On Authorship serves as the title of the book’s first chapter). Schopenhauer begins his endeavour by defining two types of authors; those who write for the subject and those who write for “writing’s sake.”

“There are, first of all, two kinds of authors : those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.” (Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature, 1893, page 3)

§.00—Schopenhauer then delineates the motivations for these two authorial modes: artistic expression on the one hand, and the route desire for money on the other.

He allows no room for doubt as to where he stands on which is the higher type, writing,

“While the one [the former type] have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others [the latter type] want money; and so they write, for money. Their thinking is part of the business of writing. They may be recognized by the way in which they spin out their thoughts to the greatest possible lengths; then, too, by the very nature of their thoughts, which are only half-true, perverse, forced, vacillating; again, by the aversion they generally show to anything straight out, so that they may seem other than they are. Hence their writing is deficient in clearness and definiteness, and it is not long before they betray that their only object in writing is to cover paper.” (Schopenhauer, p. 3)

§.01—This is a overgeneralization (for which Schopenhauer has a decided proclivity). There are many commercially motivated writers who write clearly and definitely and many non-commercially motivated writer’s who are dense as dirt and who simply lack the proficiency to write enduring works, but one which contains a kernel of truth, in that, the dedicated writer, the man of letters, writes not chiefly to acquired money, but to communicate a message (as is the point of art, or was, before its Warholesque redefinition (“Art is what you can get away with.”); the title of the piece is, after all, The Art of Literature, not, The Mercantilism of Literature and so consideration must be given to the task of the artist, not the businessman (nor the dilettante). It should not be thought that art and mercantilism (by which I simply mean endeavouring for financial gain) are intrinsically opposed, as Schopenhauer believes, but rather that a author cannot be one if thought is given only to the other.

“As soon as the reader perceives this [that the author’s object is to ‘cover paper’], let him throw the book away; for time is precious. […] No one writes anything that is worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject. What an inestimable boon it would be if, in every branch of literature there were only a few books, but those excellent!” (p.3-4 )

§.02—What a boon that would be, indeed and up to this point, I am in agreement with his central assertions; however, he suddenly takes a dramatic turn (again, towards overgeneralization) when he declares,

“It seems as though the money lay under a curse; for every author degenerates as soon as he begins to put pen to paper in any way for the sake of gain. The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little. And here, too, that Spanish proverb holds good, which declares that honour and money are not to be found in the same purse — honra y provecho no caben en un saco. The reason why Literature is in such a bad plight nowadays is simply and solely that people write books to make money.” (p.4)

§.03—Ah, we’re at the bottom of it—Money, the death of art. How convenient it would be if that were true, but clearly, it is not. Whilst it certainly tracks that the author whose work is chiefly and protractedly motivated by (financial) gain is diminished, of necessity, it does not follow that the ‘The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little.’ Lovecraft wrote his greatest works at the peak of his career, at the point where his reputation and revenue stream were greatly expanded in relation to the pittance he had formerly made from his fiction writing. Whilst he certainly was not making a great deal of money it was not ‘very little’ in comparison to what he had previously been making. One could also consider the account of Huysmans whose La Cathédrale (1898) was so financially successful that it allowed the novelist’s early retirement. The novel was a commercial endeavour, to be sure, but it was also, in essence, a intensely autobiographical work and it was from this essence (as well as its painterly detail) that the work derives it power. There are plenty of other reasons for literature (as a general matter) to become mired in a ‘bad plight’—anti-art sentiment, could be one; a culture which prioritizes and promotes short time preferences, another. Financial gain alone (and recall Schopenhauer writes in no uncertain terms that a lust for money is ‘simply and solely’ to blame for the ‘bad plight’ of literature) is insufficient to explain the totality of the aesthetic degradation of an age. To assume the contrary position is to reveal the outline of the cage—one’s own idée fixe. Everyone judges from a cage, yet, the size thereof is variable.

He goes on in a similar vein to remark upon the general public’s literary receptivity,

“A man who is in want sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it. The secondary effect of this is the ruin of language.” (p.4)

§.04—Certainly, if a man wrote a book soley because he thought he could make money from it, anyone who knew this fact before purchasing the book who chose to buy the book anyways, would indeed be very stupid. It is not obvious, however, that this is even possible since all writing, of whatever variety, but especially of the artistic variety, is infused with the author’s personal qualities and charged by their experience. A book which communicates nothing would not be a book. Even a blank book, judiciously considered, can carry a message. Consider Michael Knowles’ Reasons To Vote For Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide (2017), a book containing only a table of contents, chapter titles and a bibliography, but no other words. Though the joke book is devoid of substantive content it still manages to communicate a message by the very omission of said contents through contrast with its title. Not La-bas, but mildly amusing.

§.05—His secondary claim concerning the ‘ruin of language’ is smuggled in without explanation. I do not contest that a language can be ‘ruined’—extensive and prolonged word-loss or modulation towards decreasing nuance are expressions of linguistic regression—what I do contest is that writers who are motivated in large part by monetary profit are generally to blame for the ruin of language (though they certainly can be) at any given point in time where such actions are possible (post-printing press). It should also be noted that the aesthete is apt, more so than his less linguistically sensitive fellows, to bemoan the death or ruin or otherwise regression of a given language. A cursory glance back through the historical record reveals that there does not appear to be a period in time when someone, somewhere was not complaining about new slang, emerging idioms and flippant, informal word use (a proclivity that Steven Pinker, in his The Sense of Style, terms “The graybeard sensibilities of the style mavens”). Consider that some of the earliest writing, clay tablets of ancient Sumerian, contain the complaints of a teacher bemoaning the precipitous decline of his student’s writing ability, noting, “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger. He does not pay attention to the scribal art.”

Then there is the case of William Langdon (c. 1332–c. 1386) author of Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman (1370–90), who, in the 1300s, wrote, “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”

A year after Langdon’s death, the benedictine monk, Ranulph Higden, in his Polychronicon (sive Historia Polycratica) ab initio mundi usque ad mortem regis Edwardi III in septem libros dispositum lamented what he perceived as linguistic perversion of English due proximity with Normans and Vikings.

“…by comyxtioun and mellynge firste wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in meny thynges þe contray longage is apayred, and som vseþ straunge wlafferynge, chiterynge, harrynge, and garrynge grisbayting.” (Higden)

Translation: “…by mixing and mingling, first with Danes and afterwards with Normans, in many cases the country’s language is impaired, and some use strange stammering, chattering, snarling, and grating gnashing of teeth.”

Here Higden commits the very linguistic commingling which he rails against through his use of comyxtioun a word which descends from the language of the Norman French.

In 1478, after the invention of the printing press, William Craxton declared, “And certaynly our langage now vsed veryeth ferre from what whiche was vsed and spoken when I was borne.”

In 1672, the poet, John Dryden wrote with exceptional melodrama on the linguistic decline as represented by those second-raters, Fletcher and Shakespeare, “It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both […] [M]alice and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read diligently the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech [an impropriety, mistake, or incongruity], or some notorious flaw in sense.”

It is remarkable how similar the expression of language anxiety has remained across time (always the words are getting too far away from the familiar, despite their ready apprehension) and attests more to certain deficiencies of psychological introspection than any palpable degradation of language. Consequently, I wax intensely skeptical of those who treat linguistic novelty as likely, or intrinsically lesser, than its antecedents.

It is upon this subject that Schopenhauer next directs his powers, writing,

“A great many bad writers make their whole living by that foolish mania of the public for reading nothing but what has just been printed,—journalists, I mean. Truly, a most appropriate name. In plain language it is journeymen, day-labourers!” (p. 4)

§.06—What value rests in journalism is to be found in the skillful dissemination of pertinent information, both good and ill (with minimal injection of opinion). When journalism eschews the informational needs of the public at-large, or some portion of the public, in favor of sensationalism and propaganda, it trends always to incite ‘foolish mania.’ The journalist often attempts to wear also the hat of the social critic, the public intellectual, moral philosopher, and so on, yet often lacks the requisite mental resources, and, being ever constrained by the nature of his industry, lacks also the time necessary to study his subject, rather, he must churn copy swiftly as he is able and, in so doing, diminishes his intellectual nimbleness. In summation, the problem is not that they are ‘day-labourers’ but that they are pretending that they are not, that they are a special type of man, who are possessed of some arcane insightfulness which escapes the lowly commoners.

After this brisk treatment of the journalist class, our errant author swiftly pivots, laying out what he perceives to be the three principal genres of authorial motivation.

“Again, it may be said that there are three kinds of authors. First come those who write without thinking. They write from a full memory, from reminiscences; it may be, even straight out of other people’s books. This class is the most numerous. Then come those who do their thinking whilst they are writing. They think in order to write; and there is no lack of them. Last of all come those authors who think before they begin to write. They are rare. Authors of the second class, who put off their thinking until they come to write, are like a sportsman who goes forth at random and is not likely to bring very much home. On the other hand, when an author of the third or rare class writes, it is like a battue [a hunt where bushes are beaten to flush out game]. Here the game has been previously captured and shut up within a very small space; from which it is afterwards let out, so many at a time, into another space, also confined. The game cannot possibly escape the sportsman; he has nothing to do but aim and fire—in other words, write down his thoughts. This is a kind of sport from which a man has some thing to show. But even though the number of those who really think seriously before they begin to write is small, extremely few of them think about the subject itself: the remainder think only about the books that have been written on the subject, and what has been said by others. In order to think at all, such writers need the more direct and powerful stimulus of having other people’s thoughts before them. These become their immediate theme; and the result is that they are always under their influence, and so never, in any real sense of the word, original. But the former are roused to thought by the subject itself, to which their thinking is thus immediately directed. This is the only class that produces writers of abiding fame.” (p.5)

§.07—It is in these psychological interrogations of authorial methodology where Schopenhauer (in my personal opinion) is strongest in his discourses on literary art. His remark on ‘having other people’s thoughts’ laid before the writer as a source of stimulus is particularly interesting to me as I have found great distraction upon heavily reading book after book by a single author while at the same time trying to write my own. The distraction assumed the form of unconscious replication of the recently-read author’s style, which would bleed through into my own in sporadic bursts that were only evident upon later consideration (as during the editing process). Borrowing terminology or particular structuring techniques from other authors is something which I highly recommend; its extremely instructive. However, that is very different from copying (consciously or unconsciously) a style wholesale, which near-invariably serves to generate nothing but a lesser facsimile of the original author’s prose and consequently, derail the flow and coherency of one’s own laboriously developed style. Whilst each of the authorial types which Schopenhauer mentions is indeed a apt description, they should not be considered wholly static and binding, but rather fluid, as I find, in attempting to place myself, falling into every single category, depending on my mood and the happenings of the day. That being said, I agree with Schopenhauer’s assessment that the latter category (the third type) is the one for which the serious author should (if possible) strive; a subject will invariably emerge (if given sufficient time whilst working by way of either the first or second modes), but it were better, at the outset, to have some conception of a given work and also to find in its development and exploration, a source of yet further inspiration and excitement.


† continued in part II


Sources

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer. (1893) The Art of Literature. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.; MacMillan & Co.
  2. Elena Martinique. (2016) Is Consumerism Depicted in Art Relevant a Relevant Critique of Contemporary Society and Culture? Widewalls.
  3. Farooq A. Kperogi. (2016) Myth of the Decline in Standard of English Usage and Grammar. Nigeria Village Square.
  4. Ranulf Higden, trans. John Travisa. (1364; eng. trans. 1865) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Maonachi Cestrensis.
  5. R. L. S. (2015) Johnson: Language anxieties: A Long Decline. The Economist.
  6. Sabina Nedelius. (2017) The Myth of Language Decay: Do Youths Really Not Know How To Speak? The Historical Linguist Channel.
  7. Steven Pinker. (2014) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century. Penguin.
  8. Stuart Henry. (1897) Hours With Famous Parisians. Way & Williams.
  9. Thomas Adajian. (2018) The Definition of Art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.