The Death of the Author – Roland Barthes

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The Death of the Author is an essay by Roland Barthes which sets forth the argument that to analyse a text by examining the experiences and motivations of the author is an invalid action, and that by focusing on the identity of the author to derive the meaning of a text, we ‘impose a limit on that text’. He describes how any text is influenced by innumerable cultural factors as opposed to any single experience, or any single viewpoint.  Barthes argues that the meaning of a text is to be found purely in ‘language itself’ and that we can never discover a writer’s intentions since those are unique to the writer themselves and, at any rate, should have no bearing on the meaning of the texts as he argues that this is unique to the reader. Furthermore, Barthes believes that the purpose of an author is merely to narrate events and that it is from these events and the language used to narrate them that we should attempt to deduce the meaning of pieces of literature.

I would like to agree with Barthes in his interpretation of all texts, and indeed all art, being influenced by more factors than we can ever hope to comprehend and that there is, perhaps, a futility in trying to take the author’s experiences and apply them as a major factor in our interpretation of a text. We can never know the author’s mind, just as we can never really know the mind of anyone, and as such, it may be possible to observe key events in an author’s lifetime which may have influenced their work, we cannot be certain that this is the case, nor can we be certain how this has influenced them, in what way, and to what degree. The author is influenced by so may different factors that we cannot hope to understand their thought process, and as such perhaps it is true that we must rely far less on the author to influence our interpretations of a text as surely this is futile if we will never know if we even are remotely correct.

Instead, it seems that what we need to focus on in our analysis of texts is forgetting the author, as they seem to be a vehicle through which a narrative is told, and placing emphasis instead on a text’s impacts on the reader and what it means to us. This implies that reading and analysing literature should be a far more personal experience and that the ‘important’ party, so to speak, is the reader and not the author. Here I am in two minds over the issue. I see that Barthes is trying to suggest that the purpose of a text is to be interpreted by the reader and that we must put more emphasis on our own thought on the work and the way in which we react to it, especially since we are the only ones whose thought process we can begin to comprehend and suggest reasons for.

However, I would argue that to discount the author completely seems a little too blunt, especially when it is through them that we come to have the understanding of a text that we do. I am all for reading and analysing being more reader-centred and understand fully how this seems the more logical approach to take, but I feel that there may be some worth in trying to understand an author’s intentions, even if we cannot be sure such analysis is correct. I feel that there is something to be gained by at least trying to make an educated guess at what the writer may have intended, especially if we do so with the understanding and indeed, the expectation, that we can never be sure. If nothing else, surely trying to understand what the author may have meant encourages us to explore other viewpoints and ideas present within a text, as opposed to Barthes’ idea, which seems a terribly self-centred approach to take.

Saehrimnir – A Norse God

Saehrimnir is a creature from Norse mythology, in the form of a pig or boar, which is killed every night by Andhrimnir, the gods’ cook, and eaten by the Æsir (the Norse gods) and the einherjar (those who die in battle and therefore go to Valhalla – an enormous hall ruled over by Odin and located in the Norse equivalent of heaven, Asgard – when they die). After Saehrimnir is eaten each night, he is brought back to life in order to be killed and eaten the following night. Saehrimnir’s flesh is supposed to be delicious, and through his death every evening and subsequent regeneration by the following morning, he provides an everlasting supply of food to all of the Æsir and einherjar in Valhalla. Norse mythology was a belief system centred around the tales of the many deities, heroes and beings believed in by the North Germanic people, located in Scandinavia. Norse religion emerged from multiple influences and is commonly regarded as having developed from the beliefs of people from the Germanic Iron Age (which began in the first millennium BCE), but this was further developed in the Scandinavian Iron Age (400BCE). The religion then spread as the Viking people left Scandinavia and settled elsewhere in Northern Europe.

Belief in Saehrimnir seems, on the surface of it, a way to explain the feeding of the Æsir and the multitudes of einherjar and how this was sustained over an eternity, for ever increasing numbers of einherjar and to provide an answer to questions on the practicality of feeding these large numbers while also sustaining an element of the supernatural. The use of this pig which continuously regenerates to provide those in Valhalla with food is beyond the experiences of those in the mortal world it would have been told to and therefore serves to reinforce the idea of the great powers and supernatural abilities of their gods. More broadly speaking, however, belief in Saehrimnir may have come about due to a fear of food shortages in the Viking world, much of which was prone to a harsh climate. The idea of there being sufficient food, and good food at that, in Valhalla – a place which one must die in battle to reach – makes it seem both even more fantastical as well as having the practical application of encouraging people to fight for the Vikings in order to attain this ideal.

Belief in Norse mythology can be associated with certain Hindu beliefs. For instance, Hinduism considers cows to be sacred animals, which parallels with th idea of Saehrimnir being a divine being, however Hinduism decrees that cows are to be treated with respect while Norse mythology could be accused of perpetuating the idea of mistreating animals since Saehrimnir is killed and eaten every day. On the other hand, while it is far less common and much more frowned upon nowadays, historically, sacrifices have formed a part of Hindu religious belief and this can be compared to the manner in which Saehrimnir is killed every night in order to feed the gods and fallen warriors, just as sacrifice in Hinduism is intended to be an offering to god. In terms of the wider implications of the story of Saehrimnir, the idea of Valhalla could be compared to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Just as warriors who die in battle earn the right to go to Valhalla in Norse mythology, those who do good actions in Hinduism gain Karma which dictates their status once reincarnated.  The key difference here, however, is that Valhalla is eternal in Norse mythology, once there you remain there, but in Hinduism, reincarnation allows you to continue living over and over again in their world while taking on different forms.

I believe that all religions will reach a point when they have changed so as to be far removed from their beginnings but, particularly in this day and age, a large religion such as Hinduism would be very difficult to entirely erase. 900 million people practice Hinduism which makes it much more firmly rooted than a minority religion whose believers could just die out, and the fact that it is known about across the world would also make its decline far more difficult. Since the religion is also so large, and since it is highly unlikely that any event could force all Hindus to convert in the way that being invaded could in the past, there lacks the idea of the whole population converting in the same way that Pagans converted to Christianity historically. While adapting to the modern world may see major change in Hinduism and its practice, I believe that Hinduism, like the other major religions of the world today will not cease to exist so much as they will evolve.

Day in the Life of an Inca

I woke up at sunrise, as beams of golden light from Inti the sun god began to filter through the small windows of our adobe brick house and threw a long, shapeless dress over my head, yawning. I watched as the rest of the family began to wake up, stretching and mumbling as they did so. I stumbled outside into the light and grabbed two large clay pots, and which I handed to my eldest daughter, 6 year old Uqllu, to take down to the river to fill with water for cooking and washing. By the time she returned, I had already begun chopping squash, ready to be boiled to provide my husband and eldest son of five years old with hearty breakfast before they left to work the land owned by the government, growing beans, potatoes, pepper and tomatoes.

After they had left, carrying their small bags of coca for chewing and a few good luck charms, I washed the baby, Palla, and set her outside to crawl around in our family’s small plot of land with her older sister watching over her while weaving a red tunic from alapaca wool for her father on the loom outside the house. After folding away the family’s sleeping blankets and sweeping the floor indoors – since you never know when a government inspector may come to check if you are keeping your house clean and tidy – I dragged one of our sacks of corn outdoors and decanted some to grind into a fine flour over many hours of tedious work, and then took some of this flour to bake into a bread in the small clay oven. While the bread was baking, I sent Uqullu, carrying her younger sister Palla, to the state storehouse to collect our apportioned food for the week. I was hoping that night, while the meat was still fresh, to cook a stew of llama meat that evening. While they were gone, I sat outside spinning alpaca wool into yarn ready to be woven into a poncho ahead of the colder winter months. I remember, seven years ago, just before my marriage, for I am now 18 years old, my mother teaching me to spin yarn like this, sitting cross-legged outside out terracotta coloured home.

The children returned, and Uqullu returned to her weaving while Palla sat gurgling happily, playing with the dusty soil, scooping it into little piles. As night began to fall, my husband and little son returned, exhausted from a day farming the land and eager to devour the stew I had prepared before splashing their faces with  little water to wash off the dirt of the day and promptly retiring along with the rest of us to the inside of our little home to fall asleep under thick woollen blankets.

Does Christ’s Hospital Fail to Encourage Creative Thinking?

As a new student to Christ’s Hospital, I feel that the question of whether the school as a whole encourages creative thinking or not is a hard one to answer, however I shall aim to answer it from my own experiences and my impressions of the school so far.

Firstly, it is important to note that a stand-out feature of our school is its extraordinary facilities, many of which are designed with creativity in mind. The theatre, Art School, the Octagon and the extensive sports facilities are an integral part of the school both structurally, in that they take up a large portion of the school, and in that they facilitate a wide range of creative activities. In terms of creative thinking, while not necessary a sufficient condition, facilities which allow for creative activities and encourage such things provide wider opportunities as well as inspiration for students. Along with this, the provision of such facilities also makes them attractive to students and they are therefore more likely to enjoy spending time in such locations and therefore wish to engage with the creative activities on offer there.

The school has a broad extra-curricular programme on offer, with many creative activities available to students. The variety of options encourage students to explore many different forms of creativity and in many cases develop their ability to think creatively, and the termly changes of actives allow for greater freedom. The variety of creative options on offer also allows students to break away from traditional forms of creativity on offer in schools (drama, art, music etc) and to experience more diverse activities. However, it could be argued that the way in which extra-curricular activities are compulsory is perhaps a limiting factor in allowing creative thinking, since you are, to some degree, forced to attend.

In terms of teaching and curriculum, I feel that to some degree, the school’s hands are tied as they are forced to follow curriculum and teach to exam specifications. While, from what I have seen, classwork and preps appear to be more creative further down the school, certainly in older years creativity is reduced as teachers are forced to prepare students for exams, many of which unfortunately value academia over creativity. Further to this point, in terms of GCSEs, Christ’s Hospital, as any other school, must teach the compulsory subjects to students, none of which are based around creativity. I believe that, through no fault of the school, society also tends to favour traditionally academic subjects over creative subjects, and that this, combined with the fact that many exams in creative subjects require large volumes of coursework, often puts students off taking the creative subjects the school has to offer. That said, it could be argued that by offering IB, where creativity is compulsory as part of the CAS programme and creative thinking is an integral part of TOK lessons, Christ’s Hospital does offer students the chance to engage in a more creative, independent style of learning and examination further up the school, should they choose to pursue it.

Overall, while I have never studied a creative subject within Christs Hospital and am indeed new to the school, I think it is clear to see that the school makes excellent provision for creativity and thus the encouragement of creative thinking among students, however, in terms of curriculum it is difficult for the school, or indeed any school for that matter, to maximise creative thinking in a way that is compatible with academic achievement.

A Haunted Object: ‘The Hands Resist Him’

The famous painting ‘The Hands Resist Him’ is notorious for its supposed haunting. The picture depicts a young boy standing next to a doll, behind him many disembodied hands reach towards him from behind the glass panels of a door. The painting in itself is undeniably disturbing for the eerie scene it depicts and the expressionless faces of both the boy and the doll, as well as the ominous darkness around them, through which the owners of the hands cannot be seen, creating a sense of profound unease.

See the source image

However, what has convinced many that the painting itself is haunted is, in fact, the stories told by those who have come into contact with it. The painting was produced in 1972 by William Stoneham and put on display at the Feingarten Gallery in Beverly Hills before being reviews by Henry Seldis, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, and subsequently purchased by actor John Marley. A few years after the painting was sold, both Henry Seldis and the gallery owner died, followed in 1984 by the death of John Marley. After this, the painting mysteriously disappeared, and did not resurface until 2000, when its owners were trying to sell it on eBay, claiming it was haunted.

The owners of the painting claimed that their young daughter had witnessed the boy and the doll in the painting fighting at night and that after setting up a motion sensing camera, they captures the boy apparently leaving the image and entering the room.

I think, that while of course, the deaths of those with a relationship to the painting could be purely coincidental and the story of the painting’s previous owners could easily be fabricated in order to sell the painting at an inflated price, it is undeniable that the painting is nevertheless sinister and impactful and hence people are certainly far more likely to believe in its haunting than they might otherwise.


Initial Thoughts on TOK

Whenever I mention to people that as part of the IB we study TOK, I am always asked the same question: “what is that?”

The simple answer is, I have yet to really find out. I know that in Theory of Knowledge, we examine our thought processes and our concept of knowledge and contemplate how we know what it is we claim to know. But of course, that isn’t as simple as it sounds. You have, in essence, to deconstruct your thought processes and delve into the realm of exploring things you’d never previously considered, things you perhaps assumed to be a given or blindingly obvious, and disassemble and then rebuild your concept of knowledge.

Now that all sounds mind-boggling, frankly. And to some degree, it is. But once you get past the whole existential-crisis-every-lesson thing and the general bewilderment of having questions posed to you for which you have no clear answer, what you discover is a fascinating study of your thoughts and views, one that forces you to examine carefully things you’d previously never given a second thought to. Of course, it throws you a bit to discover that there is probably very little you know for certain and you find yourself frequently yelling “yes, but I just know!” or “but that’s just how it is!”. Despite this however, I am beginning to see how taking the time to examine our thoughts and how it is that we know what we claim to know will create more self-aware, rounded and less blindly accepting individuals who, by the end of the course will be far more prepared to go out into the world with a heightened knowledge not only of themselves, but of their thought processes and the ability to think as individuals.