June 18, 2009

Anonymous Authors

This week's Times Literary Supplement was filled with articles which, though superficially about other themes, were really about one single issue- that of the relationship between authors and their works. Karl Orend for example argued that Louis Ferdinand Celine was an important figure in French literary history despite his collaboration with the Nazis and his anti-semitic conspiracy theories. Adam Zamoyski introduced a new biography of Adam Mickiewicz by demonstrating where Mickiewicz had been and what political movements and sexual piccadillos he had been attached to, but hardly mentioned the poetry for which Mickiewicz is justly famous. Peter Ghosh reminded us that in the world of ideas, 'Weber's extraordinary clear-sightedness in the analysis of major problems such as the epistemology of the social sciences and German foreign policy before 1914 is much more important than the torments he suffered because of insomnia and wet dreams'. This all strikes me as incredibly topical, given the fact that this week saw the exposure of an anonymous blogger in the UK and hence questions about the degree to which in order to know the work you have to understand the writer who wrote that work. If Peter Ghosh is right, and I happen to believe he is, then what use is it to know who wrote something- why do we want to know?

I think there are two reasons which are interesting for our curiosity in the lives of authors. The first is about credentials. As I browse my local bookstore I try and assess each of the books on the shelves- I pass over some and I purchase others. Obviously one thing that attracts me to a book is an interesting title and theme. Another thing which arouses my interest is my knowledge of the author's work- some authors (Orhan Pamuk and Chinua Achebe come to mind) are remarkably good and consistently so. A third thing though is the credentials and experience of the author. Someone who can demonstrate to me that they have published with a credible academic publisher, someone who can demonstrate that they have expertise in a subject (hold a post at a university or have received a doctorate) and someone who has a history of work in the area that they study is always going to interest me more than someone who does not. As I judge which pieces of information to examine more closely the identity of the person who created that information is a crucial piece in my analysis of whether it is worth my time to examine their work.

The second thing I think that is going on is described best by S here. What she suggests, correctly, is that there is a part of reading which involves making the author into your possession. In a sense in a fictional setting, you inhabit the author's imagination for a while, survey its circumference, distort it in your own image- but you are following his or her guide. It can happen in non-fiction too- for example Alexander Murray's recent history of medieval suicide is filled with the author's genial and gentle personality. The author in this sense is our guide through a journey, he is the Virgil to our Dante, and we are tempted to ask our guide, even as he stretches his hand out to the wonders he shows us, what he thinks of them and where they came to him from. In a sense therefore the curiosity that S displays about Salinger is a curiosity stimulated by the work- because learning about him allows her to learn why her guide selected this part of the country to view and not that. It does not alter the work as a perception of reality but it alters it her reasoning about why it was produced and where it flowed from.

Here we enter what historians of ideas have called illocution. Quentin Skinner and others have argued that if you are to assess a work of philosophy or history or literature, you have to assess it against a context. Its author meant that work to do something in the world as we know it: a work is supposed to fill a perceived gap, to persuade or show someone something. You can only understand it historically, in this view, if you understand the intentions of the author- and you can only understand those if you understand his or her point of view about their context. What were they trying to do- to get money to buy food, to impress a girl or boy, to change the world or just to fill the passing hour. In a sense the case of the anonymous blog is clearest about this: if I write about work, it is important to know whether I resent or like my colleagues and bosses, whether I enjoy what I do or hate it, and a thousand other considerations. There are good reasons to maintain anonymity, but as Skinner and others have suggested there are reasons as well to say that until you understand the context in which the author produced the work, you are unlikely to understand all of its meaning and purpose.