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In my most recent review here on Lambda Literary, I considered the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s posthumous book The Weather in Proust and mourned the loss of one of our greatest queer scholars. In hindsight, I wish I had come across Jane Gallop’s latest book The Deaths of the Author (Duke University Press) beforehand, because Gallop meticulously yet gracefully analyzes the complicated relationship between a devoted reader and the author that inspires them. After reading these essays on Jacques Derrida’s memorial to Roland Barthes, Sedgwick’s elegies for two writers dying of AIDS, and Gayatri Spivak’s writing before the specter of Karl Marx, Gallop has given me a new language with which to speak about the passing of queer writers.
Amid the political turmoil and cultural revolutions of the late 60s, two gay French philosophers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, forever changed the study of literature by proclaiming the death of the author. Much like Nietzsche’s announcement that “God is dead,” Barthes’ statement sought to demystify the “author-god” as a social construction and to emphasize the reader’s own interpretive powers. Gallop uses this statement as an inspiration to consider not just the figurative death of the author once we view him as a mere conduit of tradition and culture but also the literal death of an author when we are forced to reconcile the real life of the person with the literary persona they left behind.
At its heart, Gallop’s book is a work about mourning. In the first two chapters, Gallop explores how Barthes mourns the death of the figurative author in his subsequent works and then how Barthes’ literal death in 1980 was mourned by his own literary colleagues. Citing Barthes’ 1974 work The Pleasures of the Text, Gallop examines the erotic impulse of mourning. Barthes declares, “the author is dead but I desire the author,” which Gallop argues is indicative of the perverse nature of erotic fantasy—we desire what does not exist and what we cannot have. For Barthes, gay authors like Genet and Proust succeed because they figure into their works like a character and as the reader identifies with erotic elements of the story, they come to desire the aura of the author, even though this author is a fantasy construct like all figures of erotic desire.
It’s one thing to mourn the figurative death of already dead authors like Proust, but what about the author’s literal death? For this question, Gallop turns to Jacques Derrida’s memorial essay on Barthes’ passing in which he declares that elegizing an author who was also a friend is “impossible, indecent, and unjustifiable.” Focusing on the connotations of “indecency,” Gallop deconstructs the words of the philosopher who invented deconstruction and teases out Derrida’s ethical dilemma—how can we speak about an author without speaking for him?
In her most poignant chapter, Gallop raises the stakes of writing ethically about an author’s death by situating that writing in a time of crisis—namely the AIDS crisis. Analyzing Sedgwick’s memorials written for Craig Owens and Michael Lynch, both gay authors whose lives were claimed by AIDS, Gallop calls upon the concept of queer temporality:
The context of queer theory in the early 1990s—trying to affirm perverse, stigmatized desire in the face of AIDS and death—made it not only possible, but crucial to articulate at one and the same time both desire and loss, both radical perversity and grief.
Sedgwick had to balance the exigency of acting in the present crisis while simultaneously pausing time to preserve the memory of her friends. While Sedgwick wrote her essay “White Glasses” for Lynch in anticipation of his passing, she learned that she had cancer—a twist (as Gallop calls it) through which Sedgwick had to confront how the anticipation of death skews the temporality of the present and grants new meaning to how writing merges the past, present, and future.
Right before noting that Sedgwick had died while she was finishing writing the book in 2009, Gallop ends the Sedgwick chapter, “While the writer may go about revising and updating, the printed word is the province not of the writer, but the author. The printed word, necessarily anachronistic, is where the writer confronts her status as a dead author.” This is Gallop’s most stunning revelation, that Barthes’ initial criticism that the author is an out-of-date concept was not a new discovery, but in fact an eternal condition of authorship. Authorship may be the death of the writer, but it is also how the written becomes preserved. Gallop’s impressive close reading breathes new life into these dead authors and fittingly pays tribute to the man who killed the author and liberated the reader by practicing what he preached at a level of insight and clarity on par with Barthes himself.
The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time
By Jane Gallop
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822350811, 184 pp.