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Helen Gardner on Annihilating the Author

Milton, it appeared, was totally deluded when he wrote that books ‘do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’. On the contrary, properly regarded, they are ‘absolutely dead things’. Persons, like myself, who had thought when reading a poem that through the medium of the printed page a man, although long dead, was speaking to them, are misguided. … A written text is merely black marks on a white ground, emitting an infinite play of significances in which the critic may sport like a dolphin. He is the real artist, responding to this play of significances, liberated from ‘the obligation to be right (a standard that simply drops out)’ and concerned only to be ‘interesting (a standard that can be met without any reference at all to an illusory objectivity)’. The critic from which I am quoting, Stanley Fish, goes on: ‘Rather than restoring or recovering texts, I am in the business of making texts and of teaching others to make them by adding to their repetoire of strategies.’ This makes the study of literature sound like a highly sophisticated war-game with the object of annihilating the author on the field of battle of the text. Hostility to the authority of the author as creator of the text was expressed by other terms: Deconstruction, which makes it the critic’s duty to unmake what the poet, or maker, has made, and Antithetical Reading, which, applying the insights of the latest psychological sage, finds in the poem the opposite of the meaning that the ‘naive reader’ finds and that he has assumed the author intended him to find. Words such as these, and negating verbs such ‘de-idealize’, de-mystify’ and ‘de-normalize’ used to describe critical activity, suggest an underlying destructive urge, like that of a child who with glee knocks down a pile of bricks which his playmate has with great pains built up into a house.