Death of the Author

finding and losing your voice

Do we ever find our voices? Or do we lose it as soon as we give them attention? 

The idea of the “voice” is truly intriguing; have you ever considered how your internal and external voice may not sound the same? Can you hear the subtleties between these voices, or are you too focused on listening to all of the voices around you?

There is so much noise in our world; both internally, and externally.
There is also much silence; both internally, and externally. 

Our voices, perhaps, exist in the liminal spaces of these realms: somewhere between the internal and external, the discernable and indiscernible; where healing is hearing and speaking is listening. 

In writing, you are told to “find your voice”, and perhaps this is the art of balancing the internal and external rambling and rumbling, the art of interpreting and understanding how we see – as opposed to how others see. We don’t base our voice on another’s, or else that isn’t really our voice, is it?

When we hear others’ voices, there can be an echo of familiarity with our own voice, a shared emotion or experience that can deceive us into believing their voice to be ours, or our voice to be theirs. No matter the similarity or familiarity, the limbic resonance or dissonance, there is no denying that others’ voices can influence how we see and receive sensory stimulation. The question is, do we lose our own voice when we give attention to others’ voices? Or are we never in possession of our own voices? Are we heard in an echo chamber, or can an echo chamber only be heard in us?

losing your voice: indiscernible voices

It is interesting to think of writing as this “special voice”, where there are several indiscernible voices. This creation or intervention of the voice contributes to all the noise in our world, raising a question of origin. Where does this noise come from? Who is in control of the noise?

Barthes suggests literature is a “trap where all identity is lost”. He focuses on this loss of the author’s identity and authority, the disjunction when “the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, [and] writing begins”. The origin of meaning in this process, the owner of explanation, is also a confounded concept. Who delivers the words, the final say?

Wherein lies the ‘power’ of the exchange? 

It is interesting to consider the different techniques of writers. Proust “undertook the responsibility of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilisation, the relation of the writer and his characters”. There is this idea of unrelentingly having subtlety in the exchange, where the radical reversing of communication and observation occurs. In this form of writing, there is a surrealism, as the power of the voice lies in her silence. The deconstruction of the author is, seemingly, a good thing, This breakage allows for the resurrection of meaning, as a reader finds their voice in this voice, in the creation and recreation of a text, in the construction and reconstruction of a world.

Here, the imagination is the key to unlocking the silence.

Arguably the absence of the author is the most magical vanishing act; not fictitious, but fact. This absence, this silence, creates a distance; it is a form of Brechtian alienation whereby the reader is active, aware, engaged, self-actualising.

silence and absence: the death of the author

As a Christian, there is a spiritual undertone to Barthes’ argument. If we ascribe God as Author of our lives and the world, the notion of the “death of the author” has new meaning; “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God is both Author and Word, Alpha and Omega, origin and destination. God speaks life into being, and then enters into his own creation, to become flesh.

We see Jesus, both man and God, as this divine knitting and embodiment of eternal life.
We see in Jesus the authority of the Author challenged and threatened to the point of death.
We see, as Barthes posits, the death of the Author.

We see this divine exchange foretold through the prophets, who heard the voice of God and foreshadowed this sacrificial act as necessary for there to be a resurrection of not just meaning, but life. This resurrection of the author enables the voice of God to be received and heard and understood through the gift of the Spirit.

Observe Paul’s reflection on his testimony, and where he assigns his voice and power:

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  

However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Cor. 2:4-16

Don’t you think Barthes’ and Paul are kindred spirits?! Surely they would have been great friends. Imagine the dialogue and depth of discussion! Paul’s account here reveals the role of the Spirit in understanding the internal and external, discernable and indiscernible realities of life. If we are to ascribe God as Author of Life, there is a place and purpose for Spirit-taught words. Paul even highlights how it is a lack of wisdom and understanding that contributed to the crucifixion of Christ, the divine death of the Author. So it is fitting then, in these eternal echoes, for the Author to bridge this divide through the redemption and revelation power of his resurrected Spirit.

If we consult Barthe’s position on the role of the Author, we see parallels with this relationship that exists with God and his creation, and our place and purpose in his Book of life: “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”

We see Jesus feed his sheep as the Good Shepherd of our souls (Ezekial 34:23), satisfying and sustaining us as our Bread of Life (John 6:35). We ultimately see this provision and preeminence in his Spirit of adoption, whereby we encounter this affiliation with fatherhood.

finding your voice: discerning meaning

As humans we are on a relentless search from the source, a soul that we relate to as an origin or our being. It is that our progression from Enlightenment is leading us back to the truth of Christianity? That there is a God, one who is relational at core, who desires to connect with us – if we would stop rejecting him? Afterall, the Greek word for messages of the Author-God is “theology”, this is a space of many dimensions. The rationality of modernism has led us into a dark room where we favour the natural, physical dimensions, instead of a true exploration into the light, where God reveals the supernatural, spiritual dimensions.

While we as writers are limited to language to express ourselves, trying to “translate” our internal “voice” from ready-made dictionaries and thesauruses, God is able to express himself across dimensions, externalising his character, imbuing his creation with the image of himself as Creator. In this sense, it makes it more true that man is not God, not able to know all, for as the Author is gone, who can claim to decipher? This is where we turn to Paul’s notion of the Spirit as the one who teaches us the voice of God. The Spirit is said to be God’s letter written on the hearts of those who love him (2 Cor. 3:2-3). We can uncover meaning by the Spirit, who gives us understanding.

Apart from the wisdom of God, Barthes sentiment that deciphering is useless rings true. Who, otherwise, could claim with any certainty that their interpretation is “the” interpretation? In criticism, the task of discovery, when interrogating a work for intention and interpretation, we can question the status of Author and Reader, but Barthes suggests there is only fulfillment “once the Author is discovered, [as] the text is “explained””. Is this not true of God? Where man’s search for meaning and purpose in life will only be fulfilled when entering into the knowledge and love of God, a knowing-relationship with the one who is all-knowing. As the Spirit reveals God’s nature to those who believe in him, there is a discovery of meaning. 

When Barthes addresses the role of the modern writer in creating a decipherable text, he suggests the author no longer “designate an operation of recording, of observing, or representing, or “pointing”.” Instead, he starts to highlight a meaninglessness to the craft, where this certain death appears, as the author is confronted by the gap between thought and hand, forced to surrender to the impossibility of detailing their “inner voice” and turning their mind into a scribe. In this process of writing, he posits that we are more likely to opt for the alternative means of elaborating and accentuating the gap, detaching the hand from a voice, and removing one’s own mind from our writing, to create in their place: gestures of fabrication, inscripture, not reflections of expression but assigning emotion to the elusive.

As I reflected on my writing, I wondered: What of writing for writing’s sake? What of writing that flows from passion and evoked emotion? This other form, modern writing, Barthes says is to “trace a field without origin”. The only element of origin being the language, the words themselves – the very language that is forever a cycle of questioning origin. For Barthes, “…the space of the writing is to be traversed, not penetrated: writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it”.

the author is not dead: eternal meaning

In the ceaseless positing of meaning, writing seems fleeting. For Barthes, this is a freeing prospect:  “…literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret”: that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.”

Barthes, I don’t agree. There is something in this remark that doesn’t sit right for me. I can’t entirely put my finger on why…. but it helped me realise the author is not dead. For just as God is not dead, but alive (Jesus says he is the Way, the Truth and the Life for those who believe in Him; this is a resurrection life, an eternal life that is victorious over death, a Spirit-filled life); so too do Authors live on, their spirit alive in their words. We might suggest there is a place in the reader’s mind that keeps the words alive, but this excuses the heart. The heart holds a greater weight when it comes to meaning. In the heart, hope lives. Might this too be where our voice exists?

Arguably all the micro-narratives of the world, the spirit-breathed letters written on our hearts, are an echo of the macro-narrative of God’s heart. His heart is for his creation to not just know him (a conception, understanding, thought, connection); but to love him (to have the reception of the Spirit of adoption that makes us children). His heart is for our hearts to have a two-way exchange of power and meaning with him, that we may know his voice and find our voice in him; that he might speak into our lives, and be the Author of our stories.

Barthes argues that the source, the voice, cannot be located – only perfectly read. Herein lies his thesis, which points to the true locus of writing being reading. There is an insinuation that the reader is the origin of meaning, not the author.

I, however, would posit the notion of the locus being beyond this rational, physical act of writing or reading to a spiritual interpretation which comes down to our perspective on life. Do we perceive ourselves as authors or characters in our stories? Do we believe ourselves to be writers or readers of life? Is it us who invites God into our theses, or He who gives us a place in his thesis, his Book of Life? Are our lives stories of our making, or are we partaking in an eternal narrative?

Arguably, how we live our lives and answer these questions reveals where we assign the origin of meaning. Internal or external? As a Christian, I believe the locus lies with God; he is the source of life.

For the skeptic, I have a question. If there were a God, would he be ambiguous? Would he be a caricature of a Greed tragedy, where there is a double meaning and perpetual misunderstanding? Or, is it that we, the characters of his story, are trying to write our own destinies (“life is what you make it”, we hear touted), to decide and dictate the meaning of life as if it is ours for the making?

But are we confusing ourselves with the realms of being, forgetting that God is a supernatural entity and cannot be rationalised with natural entries, e.g. writing? Who are we kidding, trying to add and subtract the true meaning behind everything?

Barthes remarks that “the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination”. Maybe this holds more truth; for we, as texts, as created beings, are broken, and can only hope to be made whole, complete, when we are united with the one who made our being in eternity. 

For now, in the cosmic narrative of creation, we must not take lightly the voice of God, and his Spirit-taught words. There is a reason our Author has chosen to reveal his character to us. 

What does he want us to hear? 

I agree with Barthes last statement, for this testifies to the Christian faith: “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”. Just as the author’s death might enable the birth of the reader, Jesus’ death was a ransom for our life, that we may be born again through the living and abiding Word of God (Peter 1:22-23).

The author’s death must precede the author’s resurrection for there to be new life. Adrian Rogers said: “if you’re born once, you’ll die twice but if you’re born twice, you’ll die once”. Rogers is referencing death both in a physical and spiritual sense. So too must we reference our voice in this tension.

For the Christian, the death of the Author does not correlate to the birth of the reader, but rather, it is the death and resurrection of the Author that a rebirth; the salvation of our souls.

This is where we find more than our voice, but our life.

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:8

Respond from the Heart