By focusing on works by well-known Spanish American authors—Cortazar, Donoso, Fuentes, Poniatowska, Puig, and Vargas Llosa—Kerr shows how the Spanish Americans have formed a radical poetics of the author. Her readings demonstrate how exemplary Spanish American texts, such as Rayuela, Terra nostra, and El hablador, call into question the author as a unitary or uniform, and therefore unproblematical, figure. Individually and together, Kerr's readings reclaim "the author" as a complex critical concept encompassing diverse, conflicting, even competitive roles.
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About the Author
Lucille Kerr is Chair of the Department of Hispanic Studies at Northwestern University.
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Reclaiming the Author
Figures and Fictions from Spanish America
By Lucille Kerr
Duke University PressCopyright © 1992 Lucille Kerr
All rights reserved.
Situating the Author
Notions Old and New
A discussion of the figure of the author in contemporary Spanish American fiction seems to require a recapitulation of some of the statements that have been made about the author, especially over the last twenty-five or thirty years. Indeed, it seems appropriate to remind readers of the commonplaces surrounding this figure and of the questions that might still be raised about it. To my mind, certain texts by Borges, Barthes, and Foucault have exemplary value for such a discussion, which would also need to turn, albeit in a schematic fashion, toward some of the ideas and terminology that have informed thinking about this critical figure over the years. Here, I would like to frame the readings of works by Cortázar, Poniatowska, Fuentes, Puig, Donoso, and Vargas Llosa with a review of some concepts, exemplary texts, and terms that might not only pursue but also anticipate the problematical turns taken by contemporary Spanish American fiction around the figure of the author.
"No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta pagina" ["I don't know which of the two is writing this page"] (808; translation mine). Thus ends "Borges y yo" ["Borges and I"], one of Borges's best-known texts and one that openly addresses the question of the author. In a characteristically perplexing (and recognizably Borgesian) manner "Borges y yo" remarks upon the complexity of that question instead of providing a definitive answer to the dilemmas of identity raised by it. Indeed, this text, first published in 1957, presents the author as a complex figure whose appearance and disappearance now as one kind of figure, now as another, would also embody the critical and literary vicissitudes of the author in recent decades. This text's ending, therefore, seems an appropriate place to begin to talk about the author. For, it opens up, rather than closes off, questions also associated with the work of other Spanish American authors who have pursued further the suggestive directions proposed by Borges.
The final sentence of Borges's text is problematical for a number of reasons. It closes off the rumination about the relation between the two figures of its title with a remark that would grammatically transform them from a pair both united and divided as two into a group of three ("yo" ["I"] and the two others, one of whom presumably "escribe esta pagina" ["writes this page"]). The sentence thus generates a proliferation of authorial figures (all, it seems, potential referents for the name "Borges") and sites of authorship. At the text's conclusion the problematical relation between the title's two differentiated but conjoined figures seems to slip beyond the control of any one speaker or author. This final statement of undecidability about the source of the text, and about its authorship, thus effects a disappearance of the author as a univocal and stable authority or origin. Yet, this dispersion of authorial subjectivity would also confer upon each of the figures in "Borges y yo" something of an authorial position. The suggestion that the author cannot be found in any single site potentially situates the author's figure everywhere. The seemingly final authorial disappearance in this last sentence also opens up the possibility of an inevitable return, and the eventual reappearance of the author.
Indeed, the final sentence proposes an undecidable question (the question of who is writing the text, of who is its subject and author). By virtue of being unanswerable, this question insinuates itself as a query that endures, as a question that insists upon returning. Though it may have come to be viewed over the last few decades as a question of limited urgency or legitimacy, it appears at the end of "Borges y yo" as a residual record of the persistence with which the author's figure asserts itself even in contemporary writing. The final question remains also as a question of reading which may be posed as much by the text's unidentified reader as by its anonymous writer. It may well be that one can't stop asking this question, as Borges's text proposes it. Indeed, it seems that, following in his path, contemporary Spanish American fiction has continued to pose it in ever more problematical ways.
Borges's final, and implicitly interrogative, sentence appears to conclude a brief but complex text that also effects a conflation, or consolidation, of authorial figures. In "Borges y yo" the figure of the author as a biographical person and private entity ("yo") is confounded with that of the author as a literary personage and public character ("Borges"). Much as those different figures would initially be distinguished in grammatical or thematic terms, they are finally drawn together and identified with each other. In fact, any talk about the one sounds like talk about the other, any identification of the one looks like identification of the other. It is precisely this dialectical, symbiotic relation of seemingly distinct figures of the author (grammatically figured by the conjunction "y" ["and"] in the text's title) that is proposed by the text and that its final sentence would also repeat.
"Borges y yo" thus distinguishes and confounds different figures of the author. The text implicitly warns against confusing the biographical author with the textual author-figure. But it also appears to undermine the idea of the author as anything but a literary or linguistic construct. It seems that the biographical figure who "lives" ("yo vivo, yo me dejo vivir" ["I live, I let myself live"]) is absorbed into the literary figure who writes ("Borges ... [trama] su literatura" ["Borges ... weave[s] his tales and poems"]) (808/279). But at the text's end—if not already at its beginning, where the author virtually appears in the title of one of his own texts—the name Borges still designates, while balancing in dialectical identification, the one and the other figure.
(It ought to be noted that the word author does not appear in the text itself. It is inferred from the appearance of the name Borges and the identification of the figure to which it refers as the producer of literary texts. Indeed, it could be argued that the disappearance of the author is literally a verbal disappearance, but that, having left its mark, its figure continues to suggest itself everywhere, under both the proper name and the pronoun that would mark the place[s] of this text's confounding authorial subject.)
The competition, so to speak, between these initially disparate figures of the author is, moreover, refigured as a competition of reading. In reading "Borges y yo" one also reads different and competing ways of reading the author: either as a biographical entity or as a textual subject; either as an idiosyncratic and individual figure or as a figure identical to others; either as a disappearing figure or as a figure that returns and reappears. In fact, "Borges y yo" may be read as a critical parable about the difficulty of stabilizing the figure of the author, or of deciding on an unequivocal concept that the term author would designate or describe. It may be taken as a fable about this figure's resistance to either a singularly historical or uniquely literary existence—that is, as an allegory of the competing readings developed around the critical concept called the author.
Moreover, in "Borges y yo," Borges maps out notions with which his name has become associated and because of which his writing has been regarded as bearing as much of a theoretical as a literary significance. But Borges's writings about matters that might be called theoretical are not set apart from his texts that might be identified as literary. Borges's writing has come to be appreciated also for the way it questions such discursive and generic distinctions. Borges's formative position in the history of modern Spanish American literature, and his considerable influence in Western literary currents as well, result in some measure from such unsettling propositions and performances, for which other contemporary Spanish American authors continue to be recognized. Indeed, as we shall see, the questions raised by Borges's "Borges y yo" are questions that insinuate themselves in contemporary Spanish American narrative more generally. The poetics of fiction proposed by many of those texts resituates the figure of the author in ways that both complement and contradict theories about the author put forward especially by European literary critics. Though, on the one hand one may see in Spanish American fiction exemplary cases of the author's death or disappearance, on the other hand one may also discover how the author resists the declarations of its demise and how it returns, or is reclaimed, in a somewhat altered form perhaps, as a striking and vital figure.
Oddly, such a return of the author, or the refusal of the author to disappear, may well be evident even in some of the texts considered to be pivotal to any discussion of the author in modern literary studies—that is, precisely in those texts that would seem to dispose of the author as a viable critical category or concept. I am thinking, of course, of Barthes's "The Death of the Author" (1968), and "From Work to Text" (1971), and also of Foucault's "What Is an Author?" (1969)—texts for which Borges's "Borges y yo" may well be taken as a revealing "precursor." Indeed, in addition to serving as watershed texts, Barthes's and Foucault's essays also return to the question with which Borges's essay ends.
As we recall, Barthes's essays aim to dismantle a specific concept of the author, represented by the term in its upper-case form (that is, "Author") in the first of the two essays. The title "The Death of the Author" has already become a catch phrase that has functioned as both "a shorthand for a nonhermeneutic thinking about texts and as a label against which to react in the name of the historical subject" (Kamuf 5). Barthes puts into question not the existence of an empirical entity that would be referred to as the author but, rather, a certain way of reading the relation between such a person and the literary texts he or she writes.
According to Barthes, the concept of the Author would position the author as a privileged, paternal figure, as the authoritative "father" or divine creator in whom meaning would be seen to originate. His attack on the "reign" of the Author is thus also a critique of the grounding assumptions of a critical practice that would find in authors and their writing mutually reinforcing identities and expressions. His call for the "death" of the Author, and the concomitant "birth" of the reader ("The Death of the Author" 148), is thus a call for renouncing a model of reading associated with many of the historically or biographically oriented critical currents that prevailed in literary scholarship well into the current century.
As Barthes questions this traditional notion of authorship, his critique would also appear to disengage the author-as-person from the literary text as such. But if, in fact, Barthes's proposal produces such a disengagement it is not so much in the undermining of the Author as a valid critical trope or concept as in the characterization of writing itself as "the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin" ("The Death of the Author" 142). It is perhaps mostly in this latter characterization that the emphasis of Barthes's critique lies, as his two essays' terminological and conceptual substitutions ("modern scriptor" for "Author," "text" for "work") and ideological shifts (dethronement of the Author to empowerment of the reader) may well illustrate.
We remember that Barthes not only questions the model of textual filiation, and thus the temporal logic (the author as anteriority), that empowers the notion of the Author. He also proposes an alternate way of conceiving of the author—that is, as a figure within and simultaneous with, rather than outside and prior to, the literary text. The proposed shift to a set of critical notions that might substitute for (but not erase entirely) some of the Author's traditional supports suggests an essentially textual relationship. Moreover, Barthes's use of the term "scriptor" ("The Death of the Author" 145-47), and also his reference to the author as a "guest" or "paper author" ("From Work to Text" 78), not only depersonalize the concept of the author. They also seem to weaken, if not destroy, the authority of any kind of position that may be understood as authorial.
One might consider that to redefine the role of the author as that of a modern scriptor is to preempt the author's original authority and responsibility—that is, to deny him or her the position of a modern auctor. The author's role as a scriptor, like that of his medieval or ancient counterpart, would be that of a writer who holds little, if any, authority. For such a writer would not "inspire," "found," or "originate" anything, but would merely repeat, by writing or reinscribing, the text into which he also incorporates himself. Moreover, this text, which "is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue" ("The Death of the Author" 148), would become the site in which "if the author is a novelist, he inscribes himself ... as one of his characters, as another figure sewn into the rug" ("From Work to Text" 78).
Barthes's shift in terminology, then, dislodges the Author, or the idea of the external author-as-person, and instates the author-as-textual-figure. The shift to the phrase "modem scriptor" would seem to detach the author-as-person from the history associated with the concept of the author, whose evolution is tied to the question of authority and traditional (that is, filiative) models of authorship. For the use of the word scriptor in the oppositional role suggested by Barthes evokes a model of writing within which there seems to be no place for the writer as author-person, and therefore no space for the concept of the Author. And in this model, the new term would turn the reading of literary texts not so much against the idea of the author as a person, as against the idea of the author as a person who becomes identified as the origin of and, consequently, the authority on the work's meaning. Moreover, the terminological shift constitutes a transfer of authority from the Author to the reader. The figure of the reader thus has a new importance and privilege conferred upon it by Barthes's essay.
The revised critical vocabulary proposed by Barthes places the author in an apparently unoriginal position, where the one who writes is but the one who repeats, quotes, and filters the discourse of others. This shift in terminology would also propose that one reconsider the kind of authority that may be exercised by any author, that one shift one's thinking about the author as an authority. At the same time, however, it leads one to consider the ways in which a text inscribes within itself the figure of the author, which in practice, as we shall see later, may oddly solidify as well as subvert its own position of privilege. The matter of disentangling the one notion from the other, or even the one term from the other, may, however, present some problems.
Indeed, it could be argued that, while this reading of the situation proposes to undermine both the privilege of the author's biography, intentions, and interpretations and the authority of the author's name, it does not entirely dispel the personal image of the "new" author—that is, the author-turned-scriptor. Either notion—that of the scriptor as well as that of the author—may well retain within itself, and thus reinforce, the idea of a person engaged in an activity of literary production that also sustains the author's personal identity and image.
In fact, near the beginning of his well-known attempt to answer the question "What Is an Author?" Foucault suggests that, in spite of the developments in thinking about writing generally, certain "notions [for example, the 'work' and 'writing'] ... intended to replace the privileged position of the author actually seem to preserve that privilege and suppress the real meaning of his disappearance" ("What Is an Author?" 143). As we recall, Foucault's review of the special properties of the author's name leads to the proposal that such a name "characterize[s] a certain mode of being of discourse" (147)—the "author-function," which is "characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society" (148).
Foucault's discussion of the author-function takes up the situation not only of authors of individual works but also of authors in "transdiscursive" positions (for example, Marx, Freud; 153-56). Foucault's consideration of the problems surrounding the concept of the author both retains the figure of the author as a person and resituates the author's activity as a function of discourse. The author, though an historical subject, is no longer to be viewed as an originator but rather as a "functional principle" and "ideological product" (159). Arguably, questions about authenticity, originality, or authorial identity and meaning have no place in such formulations about the author (160), which articulate further the features and possible consequences of the Author's not-so-recent death.
Excerpted from Reclaiming the Author by Lucille Kerr. Copyright © 1992 Lucille Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
Situating the Author,
Notions Old and New,
In the Name of the Author,
Reading Around Julio Cortázar's Rayuela,
Gestures of Authorship,
Lying to Tell the Truth in Elena Poniatowska's Hasta no verte Jesús mío,
On Shifting Ground,
Authoring Mystery and Mastery in Carlos Fuentes's Terra nostra,
The Dis-Appearance of a Popular Author,
Stealing Around Style with Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical,
Turning Around the Author with José Donoso's El jardín de al lado,
Facing the Author,
Telling Stories in Mario Vargas Llosa's El hablador,