Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Death of the Reader: An Epitaph

In the late 1960s, the renowned French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes articulated his highly-praised theory: “The Death of the Author”. The theory credibly argued that writing, in essence, is that neutral and complex space where all identity is lost and every voice of origin destroyed. Critics have hitherto sought explaining literary production by focusing their mental energies on the identity of the man/woman who produced it. Discovering the author, his psyche, history, society…etc was their prime key to deciphering the text. But this is a myth, Barthes maintained. It imposes an unnecessary limit on the text and fixes an ultimate - possibly inaccurate - meaning to it. Hence, assuming that the pessimistic tone in George Orwell’s masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was the product of the severity of his late illness, or that Ihsan Abdel-Qudus’s proficient novels are merely narrating the life experiences he - and his companions - went through in the clubs and resorts of Egypt’s decadent aristocracy is an unsound and sloppy method.

To Barthes, it is language, not the author, that speaks. Hence, in dealing with texts, particularly literature, the author should be entirely divorced from the text −in short, the author is dead. The death of the author, inevitably, leads to the birth of the reader, the party that had till then been ignored by literature.

But the theory that has lived and flourished everywhere never had the chance of breathing in Egypt, for the country, unsurprisingly, has grown accustomed to personalizing everything, from the way the political show is administered and the method by which business conglomerates are run to the way words and phrases are interpreted. Personal prejudice and bias have indeed controlled the nation’s psyche, and transcending the narrow confines of both seems like swimming against an indomitable current. So an outstanding tale by a female novelist is most often perceived as the outcome of the author’s ‘personal complexes’, like the memories of a tragic break-up with a mysterious lover, abuse inflicted by an ex-husband or anything of that deviant sort. Similarly, the logic inherent in a politician or intellectual’s arguments is often discredited by referring to the defects of his ideological affiliation; Marxists are using defunct theories to explain fresh phenomenon, Arab nationalists are hostage to the irretrievable past and members of the ruling party are merely trying to sustain the decaying regime. In all of these cases, the content of the argument is forgotten, overshadowed, as a matter of fact, by the individuality of the writer/speaker. In short, the text dies, and the author lives—a perfect reversal of Barthes’ theory.

The ostensible sophistication of Egyptian intellectuals notwithstanding, preoccupation with the author has become the norm that defies time and logic. A recent example could be borrowed from the verbal confrontation that took place in response to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni’s controversial remarks over women’s veil. During the war of words that followed, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Gamal Heshmat, had the nerve to say that he was not astonished with what Hosni said: “He is an artist and he is proud of it. He is liberated from all constraints and values. That is why I am not surprised by his comments.” Also, a number of Heshmat’s colleagues referred to his paintings, which they claimed are sated with nudity and obscenity. He is the “minister of porno”, they retorted to the questions of news reporters. To Islamists, Hosni is an artist, a label they promptly associate with liberalism, secularism and the West, everything that is at odds with their doctrine. Certainly, had Hosni’s exact words been uttered by a person with a different outlook, the answer to his views would have taken a different course.

More seriously, texts are often used as an evidence of authors’ unfaithfulness. Recently, Egypt’s intelligentsia was disturbed to know that the main premise of a doctoral dissertation granted by the prestigious Al-Azhar University was to charge with infidelity the lady who more than eighty years ago established a weekly magazine that carried her name: Rose Al-Youssef.

This is not, however, an unprecedented incident. In 1994, Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by a young man who did not contemplate about reading his novels first. He believed he was serving the cause, though. And Salman Rushdie, one shall not forget, is still hiding from the zealots who are eager to execute the ill-advised death verdict that Khomeini had issued more than fifteen years ago. The inauspicious list includes scores of Egyptian and Arab writers, poets and artists such as Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, Youssef Idris, Haidar Haidar, Nawal El-Saadawi, Adonis, Ahmed Abdel-Muty Hegazi and Youssef Shahin. Ironically, thus, the ‘death of the author’ reasoning was converted in Egypt to ‘death to the author’ roars.

Inescapably, feelings of disappointment and distress cloud the cultural scene today. Pity the nation that, once a beacon of enlightenment, became a graveyard for sculptors of art and beauty. Pity the writers who are weighed down from above by a Draconian state and from below by endless waves of discrimination, fanaticism and intolerance. And, last but certainly not least, pity the critical reader who has, by and large, died and not been re-born yet.

Nael M. Shama

* Photo: Roland Barthes
* This article was published in The Daily Star (Egypt) on February 16, 2007