And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 28. juni 2012

Author or Anonymity

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
- Emily Dickinson

In 1967 Roland Barthes claimed that to give a text an author was an imposition to that text. This view was presented in his essay The Death of the Author in which he argued that it was the reader, not the writer, who gave the text its unity and that the writer was a thing of literatures past. Barthes also parenthetically reprimanded the earlier school of New Criticism for not having done away with the author, despire the school's focus on studying the text itself. This idea of a divorce between author and text has recently become very pertinent due to a relatively new literary trend, the autobiographical novel, or - should you prefer - the fictionalised autobiography. The emergence of such novels have caused reviewers and critics to prophesise that the border between fiction and non-fiction will not just be blurred but eventually completely erased.

My personal go-to figurehead of this trend is John Maxwell Coetzee whose autobiographical trilogy - comprising Boyhood, Youth and Summer - chronicles the life of John Maxwell Coetzee told through the voices of a handful of narrators. Although the books are autobiographical in the sense that they are written by the (living) author John Maxwell Coetzee, none of the narrators are Coetzee himself despite John Maxwell Coetzee being the protagonist of all the three novels, although he, interestingly, is dead in the last novel, Summer. In the first two books the narrator is an impersonal, third-person presence that reduces the protagonist to "him", while the last book features a range of narrators, most importantly fictionalised versions of persons who have been important figures in John Maxwell Coetzee's life.

Lately I have become increasingly fascinated with this particulary literary fiction: the creation of an eponymous protagonist who remains separate from the author. This in itself is of course not new. Marcel Proust's Remeberance of Things Past (or, should you prefer, In Search of Lost Time), is perhaps the most monumental work in the umbrella category under which "autobiography", "memoir", "pseudo-autobiography" and "fictionalised autobiography" all may be heaped, and naturally Proust has served as a point of comparison for this recent surge of fictionalised autobiography.

In this genre the author is proved to be very much alive, for the author lends not only his hand but also his name to the narrator or the protagonist. Consequently, however, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the author/writer and the narrator/protagonist as his or her persona, and despite the expressed independence between the two figures the exact nature of this independence remains elusive.

In addition to the resurrection of the author there is also another interesting consequence to be found in the wake of the fictionalised autobiography, namely that all pretension of anonymity - which is a natural consequence of the author's death - has been utterly abandoned. By writing books whose protagonists are eponymous the author can be more certain of being remembered by readers, reviewers and literary canonists, and their fame may have a greater duration than had their protagonists had more inventive names. It is not to say that this is the desired consequence of the authors - the reasons for writing such novels are as diverse as the novels themselves - but it is nonetheless a natural, if not sought after, consequence. To ensure one's fame in this very public manner is emblematic of our day and age when various forms of social media allows an individual to expose him- or herself to the chosen extent and claim a small spotlight somewhere in cyberspace, not entirely unlike Emily Dickinson's poetic frogs.

There is, however, another kind of fame, a kind of fame that has not taken up arms against the mutability of the world and the inexorable passing of the flesh, a kind of fame that requires dead authors and that to some minds is the preferable alternative. This is the anonymous fame. It may at first sound like a contradiction in terms but anonymity does not preclude a person from becoming famous, sometimes perhaps quite the opposite. To be anonymous means that you present your work and your work alone to be judged, leaving no embarrassing details from one's personal life to hamper the praise of peers contemporary or of ages hence. Anonymity also lends an air of venerability and age to a work since it can not be traced, and this is summed up very beautifully in a poem by Manuel Machado (1874-1947), translated by J. M. Cohen for Penguin Book of Spanish Verse:

Tal es la gloria, Guillén,                     Such is the glory, Guillén,
de los que escriben cantares:           Of those who write songs:
oír decir a la gente                           To hear the people say
que no los ha escrito nadie.              That no one wrote these.
- Coplas by Manuel Machado

There is a glory to be found in anonymity, perhaps a satisfaction derived from the fact that your work has endured without your name to aid it along, or that your work endures without you, that your shadow extends further than yourself. This line of thought is perhaps alien to our times where a name means quite a lot, whether it is your original name or one you have assumed. Interestingly enough, however, we find the same line of thought pursued by Machado in the dedication of a well-known Medieval historiography, namely Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain finished in 1136. In his dedication to the Earl of Gloucester, Henry I's illegitimate son, Geoffrey asks him to correct and embellish the work to the effect that "it must no longer be considered as the product of Geoffrey of Monmouth's small talent" (translated by Lewis Thorpe). Here, too, we see that what Geoffrey considers crucial is the fruit of his labours, not his own personal glory (at least that's what he states). For the benefit of his work Geoffrey is more than happy to relinquish the claim of authorship and recede into oblivion. As history turned out this did not happen, but it is nonetheless interesting to see that an author's zeal makes him willing to do away with himself as author, an end much in the vein of Roland Barthes' dictum.

What, then, is the favourable, most honourable course of action? To retain one's name or to pursue one's own oblivion? It is of course very tempting to praise the idea of receding "into the common being", to paraphrase Sir Thomas Browne, but as a historian I prefer very much to have a name - if only a fake one - to attach to a literary corpus. Personally I feel that a writer, artist, architect, musician or any other craftsman has an obligation to posterity to reveal his name, but in this day of self-exposure I would not mind if people were at least somewhat more conscious of anonymity as an alternative.

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