Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text"

Wherein Eco's dream title for The Name of the Rose was Adso of Melk, but Italian publishers dislike proper names


There is a postscript to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I did not know this. The novel was published in America in 1983 and the postscript was written in 1984. My beat up paperback, from 1985, did not have the postscript. But Borders had a nice looking trade paperbook version sitting on the "3 books for the price of 2" table and there it was, waiting for me to discover it. Read the postscript, bought the book, trashed the old copy when I got home.

The postscript is a study of narration, the creative act of writing, and reader interpretation. Being Eco, it's brilliant and a joy to read. Here's a sample:
Telling the process

The author must not interpret. But he may tell why and how he wrote his book. so-called texts of poetics are not always useful in understanding the work that inspired them, but they help us understand how to solve the technical problem which is the production of a work.

Poe, in his "Philosophy of Composition," tells how he wrote "The Raven." He does not tell us how we should read it, but what problems he set himself in order to achieve a poetic effect. And I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.

The writer (or painter or sculptor or composer) always knows what he is doing and how much it costs him. He knows he has to solve a problem. Perhaps the original data are obscure, pulsive, obsessive, no more than a yearning or a memory. But then the problem is solved at the writer's desk as he interrogates the material on which he is working--material that reveals natural laws of its own, but at the same time contains the recollections of the culture with which it is loaded (the echo of intertextuality).

When the author tells us he worked in a raptus of inspiration, he is lying. Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Talking about a famous poem of his, I forget which, Lamartine said that it had come to him in a single flash, on a stormy night, in a forest. When he died, the manuscripts were found, with revisions and variants; and the poem proved to be the most "worked out" in all of French literature.

When the writer (or the artist in general) says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules. A child speaks his mother tongue properly, though he could never write out its grammar. But the grammarian is not the only one who knows the rules of the language; they are well known, albeit unconsciously, also t the child. The grammarian is merely the one who knows how and why the child knows language.

Telling how you wrote something does not mean proving it is "well" written. Poe said that the effect of the work is one thing and the knowledge of the process is another. When Kandinsky and Klee tell us how to paint, neither is saying he is better than the other. When Michelangelo says that sculpture amounts to freeing from the block of stone the figure already defined in it, he is not saying that the Vatican Pieta is superior to the Rondanini. Sometimes the most illuminating pages on the artistic process have been written by minor artists, who achieved modest effects but knew how to onder their own processes: Vasari, Horatio Greenough, Aaron Copland...

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