Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Shakespeare, Asimov and the Death of the Author

I had planned to write this post for a long time - about an interesting science fiction short story that I had read: The Immortal Bard by Isaac Asimov in Isaac Asimov -- The Complete Short Stories, Volume I (Read my earlier post on Isaac Asimov's Jokester: Where do all the Jokes Come From?).

In the The Immortal Bard, a scientist brings William Shakespeare to the present. After Shakespeare enjoys himself for a few days, he enrolls (of course, under a different name) for an university course in Shakespeare.

He enjoys analyzing his own works and motivations -- after all he has all the "inside dope" on Shakespeare's thoughts.

The professor fails him. The professor fails him for not understanding what Shakespeare meant when he wrote all that stuff.

It is not a great story but it is a nice read. And it raises a few pertinent questions:

  • What is the role of the author (Is the author "dead" after s/he finishes a piece of work, as claimed by Roland Barthes)?

  • What is the role of the critic? To what extent should a critic analyze and "read between the lines?"

  • How valid are these interpretations drawn by readers and critics?

  • Can we really ignore the author and study the work itself -- "to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text" -- as Roland Barthes has claimed?

  • What happens if the author has placed a different interpretation (from that of the readers' and of the critics' ) on his work?

  • What happens if the author rejects an interpretation (or a label; I will come to this presently) made by his readers? In such cases who has the final say -- the author, or the reader/critic?

Reportedly Asimov was once asked, "Just because you wrote a story, why does that make you think you know anything about it?"

What happens if authors reject "labels" applied to them? I have an interesting anecdote to narrate:

This happened when I was studying for my M. A. at the University of Mumbai. We were discussing Salman Rushdie in the class and our professor kept talking of Rushdie as a "post-colonial" writer. Rushdie hates being slotted into the post-colonial bracket and prefers the label "postmodern." I pointed this out to the professor and asked if it was right to impose a label on an author when the author has rejected it.

Her reply was along these lines:
"What does Rushdie know?" She said, "He has done his work; written the book and got it published. It is up to us students and critics to label him and his work."

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