Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Raven, or The Death of the Author

Common Raven (and yes, they can be trained to talk)

The Raven (2012) features John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in a highly imaginative (i.e. no basis in fact) plot. Poe helps solve a series of murders based on his stories. As one reviewer described it, "It's like a grisly one-person interactive book club focused on one man's literary output" (Michael Phillips). The movie itself is mediocre. Cusack's innate charm, plus decent performances from Alice Eve as his love interest and Luke Evans as the police inspector, can't quite rescue the film from poor pacing and uneven tone. Still, I quite enjoyed it. I love watching Cusack in just about anything, and I was able to congratulate myself about all the Poe stories I had read.

What I thought most about, though, was the pleasure readers take in seeing their favorite authors on film. Becoming Jane is a prime example, though it's in a different category than The Raven, being 90% factual. Dickens' appearance in Dr. Who ("The Unquiet Dead") and Stephen King in Quantum Leap (The Halloween Episode) are other examples. People like to interact imaginatively with authors. They also enjoy learning more about their lives and personalities, to look at the wizard behind the curtain.

As a teacher, I'm ambivalent about the place of biography in studying literature.

I was educated in the formalist tradition, where what matters most is the text. I grew into a reader-response position, where what matters most is the meaning that readers make out of the text. I see the text itself as unstable and shifting, based a set of signifiers waiting for the reader to settle into the signified. One must avoid trying to figure out the author's intent, which is ultimately unknowable--if I intended this post to be brilliant and you read it as boring, is that your fault or mine? In this way (and several others) I align with Roland Barthes, who in his seminal essay, "The Death of the Author" (1967), argues that the identity of the author shouldn't be used to form meaning.

But on the other hand, isn't the speaker part of the rhetorical exchange? And doesn't knowing the context in which something is written affect the meaning? I concede that knowing more about the author and his/her time is one way of adding meaning to the text. I do include historical and biographical background in my classes. But perhaps I should do more. After all, in college I greatly enjoyed learning stories about the author's lives, not just the bare facts in the textbook overview. Having the sense of really knowing an author was part of the pleasure for me.

 It occurs to me that I know very little about the life of Poe.