Msnowe's Blog

Misguided Authority

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on August 10, 2007

Most of us do not enjoy deconstructionist discussions. Some understand what Saussure was saying about the signified and signifier. Many have contemplated Derrida’s differance more than they’d like to admit. No matter what you take away from their arguments, and whether you agree, or defer to another theory, they make compelling arguments about the incalculable properties of language and it’s power – and especially it’s power over us, it’s bidding minions.

Language is the “cornerstone.” Most have this notion drilled into us. Language is what connects us right now, as you read these words on this screen. It is what allows us consciousness. If you’re religious, you might reference “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” or some such quote. If you’re an atheist, well, language is possibly even more important. Despite what you think of Derrida, or deMan, or Barthes, they understood language as a placeholder for the things we cannot create, but only refer to. Naming is not truly naming- it is done by degrees of separation. We cannot be ourselves outside of language – and for that reason we are under it’s control, despite what we think as we type and scribble away. The only way we could be masters of language is if, by naming an object or an experience, it suddenly would appear as if called. Heavy stuff, admittedly, and not the true topic of this post.

It is where fiction and the power of language in the hands of a good author cross, that people tend to get confused about the power we can assert over language, and what language can do to how we approach certain authors.

In a way, fiction is a momentary loophole in the notion that language cannot create objects, or naming cannot bring forth an idea, etc. Because when fiction is written, especially good fiction, the reader is transported into the worlds they read about, and the perfect images, not unlike the ancient philosophical “forms” that are supposedly born in our imaginations. We may not physically be transported to the windswept moors of Wuthering Heights, or the mead hall of Beowulf, but we can see it, although it was never there in the first place.

So it’s understandable that people are easily confused, and think that their imaginative abilities to understand a fiction can spill over into the author’s own true lives. But that sin is what truly riles this blogger. And there are many examples to prove the validity of this anger.

Take Jane Austen as exhibit A. We know a scant few details about her actual life. What was given in later biographies (or hagiographies, more like) by her family can’t be wholly trusted, and her sister Cassandra carefully dispatched most of her sister Jane’s letters to the fire before anyone could lay eyes on them. But since her death, and even today, people have been projecting her fiction onto her life, and vice-versa. This isn’t all a mistake in imagination, some of it has to do with the fact that Jane was a woman, and most societies have/had some half-baked notion that women can only write about what they have experienced, as if their limited options in life translated into limited forms of fiction. No one would claim Stevenson became or met a Mr. Hyde. But somehow, Austen must have been jilted, or heart-broken, or in love to a devastating degree, because her fiction conveys such life-like experiences. The most recent assault on Austen is the movie Becoming Jane, which makes short work of discrediting her creativity by suggesting that Austen’s genius lay not in the stroke of her pen, but in her wild experience as a woman in love.

Henry James, in “The Art of Fiction,” a brilliant essay with the title that defines it, mentions that experience is not a precursor for the kernel of a story or that experience engenders the ability to create believable, complete fiction. For James, scenes in a novel rely on literary talent, and although experience can serve as inspiration, it can also be an impediment, and it is by no means necessary to write believably. The words work by themselves, and do not work backwards.

Jane Austen may have had an exciting life fraught with the kind of stories she told. But that is unlikely, and anything more than shaky conjecture on her true experience is worthy of the highest contempt. People label her as a love-story writer, and denigrate her unimpeachable ability for creating a solid narrative structure. They ignore the fact that she truly is the mother of the modern novel, with her first person narrative voice slowly dripping, trickling down into the stream of consciousness that was in vogue with heavyweights such as Woolf and Joyce. In fact, the idea that Austen is viewed as a “lightweight” in comparison is more comical than her best placed fictional one-liners. This woman, writing near the beginning of the Victorian era, created six heavy tomes that have been read with an unabated vigor since publication. Jane Austen doesn’t seem to go out of style, although everyone has their own interpretation of what her fiction means, and who she was as a person.

What surprises me is that Jane Austen “must have been an unhappy spinster” according to some who read into her life through her books, because of her lack of a veriable personal love story. Or she must have been witty and charming like Elizabeth Bennett, or pining away in secret like Anne Eliot, or stunningly contemplative and obedient like Fanny Price. She was not her characters, although they came from inside her. She birthed them out her brain like a fiction-writing Zeus producing Athena. Contradiction abounds, and we must reside in the state of limbo, excepting that the artist cannot be seen through her fiction, and anyone claiming otherwise is a myth-maker.

But let us also not forget that Austen’s comedies are dark as well as light, and although all her heroines end up married, the other marriages in her books, with very few exceptions, are all in a dire state of disrepair. Think if you can of more than a handful of happy couples. I can come up with two, possibly three, and they are questionable at the best of times. Austen understood audience needs and wrote to them, but it is too easy to end her musings with the weddings that inevitability close the books. There are ominous clouds, despite the happy endings, encroaching the fringes of the page like mistaken blotches from the pen, swelling ever so slowly. Austen knew her domain, and what she had the ability to explore and write well. She might have seemed like a tame “little” author, but her stories have become immortal, and tricked the readers into a lull of complacent frivolity. And perhaps her spell, with the aid of language, is the most conclusive evidence of her ability to deviate from the truth. It is our own folly as readers that hides the true Austen, and so we must spin stories. And perhaps that is what Austen would have wanted. But we won’t ever know.