Why Shakespeare, Cyrus and Foucault are a Bunch of Tools
I’ve been listening and re-listening to an introductory course on Literary Theory delivered by Dr. Paul Fry at Yale University in 2009 that will likely be the impetus for many forthcoming posts on this site. Having arrogated the role of “Founder of Discursivity” by creating this site, the least I can do is begin an earnest penance for floating through my theory classes at BYU.
In this post, I’ll let Dr. Fry do most of the heavy lifting. Most of the references are lifted directly from the transcripts for the course’s second lecture. I hope to synthesize, with the aid of LDS doctrine, what Fry presents as opposing arguments on the subject of authors and authority.
Samuel Johnson’s words struck a resonant note that cascaded into what I’m about to write, so we’ll start there:
There is always a silent reference of human works to human abilities, and as the inquiry, how far man may extend his designs or how high he may rate his native force, is of far greater dignity than in what rank we shall place any particular performance, curiosity is always busy to discover the instruments as well as to survey the workmanship, to know how much is to be ascribed to original powers and how much to casual and adventitious help.
In other words, we praise the genius of our progenitors because we aspire to be heirs of a nobel birthright. If there is a native force of genius in persons of historical significance, then maybe that force has tricked into our blood and will allow us to transcend happenstance. Or, as Dr. Fry put it:
What Johnson is saying is: well, it’s all very well to consider a textual field, the workmanship, but at the same time we want to remind ourselves of our worth. We want to say, “Well, gee, that wasn’t produced by a machine. That’s not just a set of functions–variables, as one might say in the lab. It’s produced by genius. It’s something that allows us to rate human ability high.” And that, especially in this vale of tears–and Johnson is very conscious of this being a vale of tears–that’s what we want to keep doing. We want to rate human potential as high as we can, and it is for that reason in a completely different spirit, in the spirit of homage rather than cringing fear, that we appeal to the authority of an author.
While Johnson views a masterful author as worthy of homage, and even a position of authority, Barthes and Foucault have a decidedly different view of an author. Quoting from Barthes, with Fry’s interjections in brackets:
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism [and criticism is a lot like policing, right--"criticism" means being a critic, criticizing] very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyché, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”–a victory to the critic.
Dr. Fry continues:
In other words, the policing of meaning has been accomplished and the critic wins, just as in the uprisings of the late sixties, the cops win. This is, again, the atmosphere in which all of this occurs–just then to reinforce this with the pronouncement of Foucault… “The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”
And so we reduce authors to functions and founders of discursivity: organic machines who are born and die at the opening and closing of each text (if I understand correctly) who are only revered by those who fear the proliferation of meaning within a single text. Right?
I think there’s some truth to that, though I join Johnson in his reverence for past masters. It may not be a view exclusively available through the gospel lens, but LDS doctrine has lead me to believe these two views aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m reminded of Walt Whitman, who write “I contain multitudes,” and Ralph Emerson’s discussion on the “Oversoul.” I don’t know enough of Emerson, Whitman, or those respective texts to analyze them at this time, so maybe you can do that in the comments below.
For now, I’ll stick with Isaiah and Cyrus the Great.
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying:
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. [Ezra 1:1-3]
Jeremiah, Isaiah, Josephus, Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith, Ezra Taft Benson, and others all affirmed that Cyrus the Great was stirred up by the Lord God of Israel to set captives free and rule with great dominion on the earth. When such a proclamation appears to be authored by God through one of His prophets, we readily accept it as fact, and rightly so. When a decree issued by Cyrus declares divine investiture and bears witness of the God of Israel, we may be tempted to take Cyrus’ words at face value. But Cyrus was a “master of propaganda” who also feigned revelation from false gods (including Babylon’s Marduk), claiming they “had elected him to rule” (Hoerth 382), so did he really believe he sent the Israelites home to rebuild their temple under the charge of Jehovah? It’s possible, but not altogether certain. Dr. Victor Ludlow wrote:
Although Cyrus may have felt that he was the Lord’s servant in restoring the Jews in their land, he did not worship only Jehovah. He remained a polytheist throughout his life, at least as far as any available documents indicate.
Suppose Cyrus wrote with the intent to deceive to secure political allegience. Suppose he wanted a loyal nation standing between him and the Egyptians, a nation of human shields? This wouldn’t be such an issue if his words did not match those written by ancient and modern prophets alike. If Cyrus did not believe he was the Lord’s servant, were the prophets wrong?
Two years before his death, Joseph Smith wrote:
If there was anything great or good in the world it came from God. The construction of the first vessel was given to Noah, by revelation. The design of the ark was given by God, “a pattern of heavenly things.” The learning of the Egyptians, and their knowledge of astronomy was no doubt taught them by Abraham and Joseph, as their records testify, who received it from the Lord. The art of working in brass, silver, gold, and precious stones was taught by revelation, in the wilderness. The architectural design of the Temple at Jerusalem, together with its ornament and beauty, was given of God. Wisdom to govern the house of Israel was given to Solomon, and to the judges of Israel; and if he had always been their king, and they subject to his mandate, and obedient to his laws, they would still have been a great and mighty people; the rulers of the universe–and the wonder of the world. If Nebuchadnezzar, or Darius, or Cyrus, or any other king possessed knowledge or power, it was from the same source, as the scriptures abundantly testify. If then, God puts up one, and sets down another, at his pleasure–and made instruments of kings, unknown to themselves, to fulfill his prophecies, how much more was he able, if man would have been subject to his mandate, to regulate the affairs of this world, and promote peace and happiness among the human family. [Times and Seasons, 3:856–57 (July 15, 1842)] (emphasis added).
Unknown to himself, man has often been guided and inspired by the God of truth. In the discussion of literature, wouldn’t one who, unknown to himself, wrote under the inspiration of heaven be more of a scribe than an author? Couldn’t we call him an author function when he is an unwitting tool of Providence? Shouldn’t we?
Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;
I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:
And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.
For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.
Why would I insist on the belief that God works through men despite their ignorance of him? Because I am ignorant. Because I long to give voice to truths greater than I now know without the obstruction of self-awareness, in what Thoreau might consider “useful ignorance.” Because it encourages us to embrace the proliferation of meaning, not to fear and police it. Because I believe incomprehensible power may be bestowed upon the writer who pays homage not to man–as Samuel Johnson’s quoted preface may inspire–but to God and God’s ability to endow man and the works of men with greater genius, power, and glory than His mortal instrument may comprehend or even apprehend. And because I believe the best way to speak to every multitude contained in every soul is to allow the only Soul who fully comprehends our inner multitudes to speak through us.