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The results of my grim-faced, slash-and-burn treks through the “polysemy” of canonical texts were infinitely duller and cruder than any of my naïve high school efforts to figure out what authors actually meant.
For those who persisted in believing that authors were actual people — people who had used language to express specific ideas and sentiments and ways of looking at the world — the task of finding something sensible and halfway informed to write each week was quite arduous.
(It required, for example, some minimal awareness of the historical circumstances in which writers had produced their works.) But for those who professed that there was no such thing as literary originality, that it was language that spoke through the author, not the other way around, that reading was not an act of exegesis but a kind of creative, semi-erotic play — essay-writing got considerably easier and faster.
Those works were not, as my teachers had led me to believe, stable, determinate entities, encrypted with their authors’ intentions.
They were boundless “texts,” to which no fixed or final meaning could be assigned.
By Zoë Heller In her fantastic essay “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” Zadie Smith recalls coming across Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” as a college student and being puzzled by its reputation as a radical polemic.
Barthes’s celebration of the reader as producer, free to cut his own path through the plural and diffuse meanings of a literary work, seemed to Smith eminently reasonable and even obvious.
Readers like William Blake and Percy Shelley opened the same poem that pious Christians had been enjoying for generations, only they discovered something surprising: The hero of the poem is not Adam, or Jesus, or God himself, but actually Satan, the incarnation of evil.
Because all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan, they can’t be said to possess the characteristics of heroism — boldness, daring, pride. far superior to his God.” Yet how could it be that Milton, who was a deeply pious Christian and who explicitly said that his poem was meant to promulgate Christian truths, was actually, as Blake said, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”?
At some point, during my first semester, I hit upon my critical template: Whatever the novel or poem under consideration, I sought out its internal contradictions, its fissures and “aporia,” in order to show how it subverted its own ideological assumptions about gender, or class, or the representational capacity of language.
In this way, I managed to reduce everything from “The Canterbury Tales” to “Ulysses” to an illustration of literature’s self-deconstructing properties.