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Author, Author

The title of this essay is not a reference to that enthusiastic but misguided shout from his friends in the audience at the St. James Theatre in 1895 that brought a reluctant Henry James to the stage at the end of his play Guy Domville, only to be greeted by whistles, shouts, and insults from the irate denizens of the gallery, one of whom had somewhat spoiled the dramatic effect of the actor’s climactic line—“I am the last of the Domvilles”—by shouting: “And a bloody good thing y’are!” My title is the rubric of an infuriating competition that appears every week in the pages of the London Times Literary Supplement; it offers three quotations, all dealing more or less with the same subject, and defies the reader to identify the authors. Since the fiends who concoct these puzzles have carefully avoided passages likely to turn up in anthologies, have, in fact, ransacked their authors’ lesser-known works for texts innocent of such clues as proper names, dates, or allusions to historical events, the reader unwise enough to take a hand in the game has to rely on indications of the personality of the author.

Not, obviously, the historical, biographical personality, but the literary personality: the characteristic attitudes and concerns, the rhythms, tones, and levels of discourse, the literary individuality that enables us to distinguish a paragraph of Jane Austen from one of Henry James, and either of them from one of Ernest Hemingway, or the epic blank verse of Milton from that of Keats or Tennyson. This literary identity is now the target of academic assaults from many quarters, of which I propose to single out two in particular—the Roland Barthes-Derrida denial of the author’s identity or even of his or her existence, and the New Historicism, which confines that identity to the stringent limitations of the author’s time and place.

The first aberration treats the author’s work as a “text,” material for the discovery of intertextuality, subtext, and—a word that I have not seen in print but that, if not yet born, is surely close to delivery from the womb of the goddess Terminologia—meta-text, which, on the analogy of “meta-theater,” would denote a text discussing its own textuality. In the deconstruction of the text the author disappears; Barthes in fact proclaimed the “death of the author.” But though such theories are usually thought of as French products of the Sixties and Seventies, their origins can be discerned in much earlier work done by Americans in the Forties, the years that saw the birth of that New Criticism which Norman Fruman recalls in his short history of our Association,1 reasserting its basic principle: that “there should be a primary focus on literature as literature and not as something else.” I am myself a child—an aging child—of the New Criticism; the first article I ever published had a title that sounds like a parody of the typical New Critical title—“The Serpent and the Flame.” The editors of the American Journal of Philology, who reluctantly accepted the article after several unsuccessful attempts to get me to tone it down, felt constrained to add to the title: “Patterns of Imagery in the Second Book of the Aeneid.”

But there was one aspect of the New Criticism that disturbed me: the influential idea, expounded by a formidable member of the Yale English department, William Wimsatt, called the Intentional Fallacy, which proclaimed that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” Though this pronouncement was hedged about with many limitations and provisos it still seemed to me to give rein to free-wheeling interpretations that eased the acceptance of the radical hijacking of the author’s work by Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, and hoc genus omne.

I was especially disturbed by this doctrine because, as a classical scholar, I had been very much concerned, as is every member of our discipline, with authorial intention at the basic level—the often vexed question not of what impression the author sought to make on the reader, but of what he intended us to read, of what, in fact, he actually wrote. For in the case of some of the greatest of our authors, the text has come down to us through two thousand years or so of handwritten tradition, some of it produced probably by slave labor, some by monks copying texts which became less intelligible for them as the centuries went by. When the texts of the Athenian tragic poets of the fifth century BC were finally printed in Venice early in the sixteenth century AD, they remained full of errors, sometimes of barely intelligible or even totally unintelligible passages, even after the editorial efforts of the printers. And sometimes the effort to establish the authentic text, the author’s intention, has involved more than technical matters of grammar, syntax, and meter, more than familiarity with the errors characteristic of the scribes of different times and places.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, as Antigone, condemned to death by Creon, stands silent facing him, her sister Ismene enters to remonstrate with Creon, pleading for Antigone’s life. She reminds him that Antigone is betrothed to his son Haemon but she is brutally rebuffed, told that “there are other fields for him to plough,” and that Creon hates “evil wives” for his son. At this point, according to all our existing manuscripts, Ismene exclaims: “Dearest Haemon, how your father dishonors you!” But the first printed edition, Venice 1502, gave the line to Antigone. We do not know if the printer Aldo Manuzio, to give him his real name, had manuscript authority for the change; in view of the unanimity of the surviving manuscripts, that seems unlikely. But many modern editors have followed the Aldine edition, among them Sir Richard Jebb, the great Edwardian editor of Sophocles. “To me,” he writes, “it seems certain that the verse is Antigone’s, and that one of the finest touches in the play is effaced by giving it to Ismene…. The taunt ‘I hate an evil wife for my son’ moves Antigone to break the silence she has kept since v. 560…. This solitary reference to her love heightens in a wonderful degree our sense of an unselfish devotion to a sacred duty.” And Jebb, of course, is not the only editor to feel that Antigone ought to mention her royal fiancé at least once in the course of the play.

The manuscript attribution of the line to Ismene is not conclusive evidence; in such matters we can have little confidence in the tradition. There is for example a passage in another Sophoclean play, The Women of Trachis, where in all our surviving manuscripts the attributions are so plainly wrong that you wonder how anyone can have gone on copying them, not to mention printing them for so many centuries; the mess was finally cleaned up by an English scholar, Thomas Tyrwhitt, in the eighteenth century. The reason for the confusion is the ancient method of indicating a change of speaker. Instead of writing an abbreviated form of the character’s name before each new speech, the ancient editors used such an abbreviation only once, before the character’s first speech in the scene; after that a change of speakers was indicated by a simple dash ahead of the line, or, if a new speaker came in before the end of a line, by the sign that we use to denote a colon. The horrendous confusion that can result from a few mistakes in such a system—if indeed it deserves that name—is not hard to imagine, and when later the scribes changed over to the system we still use, old errors were retained and new ones introduced.

So the question of the author’s intention here has to be settled on the basis of his literary identity, his characteristic practices and procedures, his dramatic style. Does Sophocles elsewhere interrupt a dialogue between two actors by the unexpected and unprepared intrusion of a third?

It was Sophocles, we learn from a typically curt sentence of Aristotle—“Three and scene-painting Sophocles”—who added a third speaking actor to the dramatist’s resources. But he used this third actor very sparingly. Though he often has three actors on stage, a three-cornered conversation—Dreigespräch, to give it its convenient German name—is rare; the norm is still dialogue between two actors—speech and counter speech or line-for-line rapid exchange. When such an exchange is interrupted by a third speaker, Sophocles takes extraordinary precautions to make sure that there will be no confusion; the words he writes for his actors make it perfectly clear who is speaking, and to whom. He writes as if his audience were blind, as if for them, identification of the speaker can be conveyed only though the spoken word. And in fact, compared with a modern theatrical audience, they were blind. Not only did the actors wear masks, they were also, for most of the spectators, very far away.

For the size of the audience we have no reliable figures; Plato’s figure of thirty thousand for a performance of a tragedy of Agathon in 417–416 BC can only be explained as a flattering exaggeration (thirty thousand was the conventional number of the male citizen population). But when the theater of Dionysos was renovated by Lycurgus late in the fourth century BC it could hold, so archaeologists have calculated from the traces that remain, some fourteen to seventeen thousand. In the Opera House of the Kennedy Center in Washington the number of rows of seats from front to rear is thirty-two; in the theater of Dionysos, the rows of stone benches, farther apart than the folding seats of the modern theater, numbered seventy-eight.

In the Antigone there is no preparation for, no indication of, a sudden change of speaker, and the line is quite appropriate for Ismene. On this ground alone, the manuscript attribution seems to be the correct one. But there is another question to be answered, one suggested by Jebb’s phrase “this solitary reference to her love.” Could Sophocles create a female character so obsessed with her self-imposed heroic mission that she could be impervious to any other emotion, in this case, totally indifferent to Haemon’s love for her? (Jebb’s ambiguous “her love” suggests that she might be in love with him, but there is no support anywhere in the text for such a notion.)

Since we have only seven of the 120 plays Sophocles wrote (and one of them, Philoctetes, has no female parts) we have not much to go on, but it so happens that we do have one play, Electra, which presents us with a young unmarried woman who is as obsessed with her determination to avenge her father as Antigone is with hers to bury her brother, who denounces the mother who murdered her father, denounces her sister for not joining her in her resistance, and later, when she hears the false report of Orestes’ death, tries to enlist that same sister in a suicidal attack on her oppressors and, rebuffed, announces that she will do it alone. She finds relief from her heroic rage only with the recognition of Orestes, and even then her outpouring of joy is prompted by the realization that at last her avenger has arrived. And when she hears Clytemnestra’s cry inside the house—“I am struck!”—she screams to Orestes: “Strike twice as hard, if you have the strength.”

  1. 1

    The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. This essay is based on the opening address given at the Association’s first national convention in Minneapolis on September 22. Norman Fruman’s account of the association was published in the first issue of its newsletter, and also in the Times Literary Supplement of June 23, 1995.

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