A BOOK published in 2008 carried the provocative title French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. The claim that any set of French thinkers since Montesquieu and Diderot has transformed intellectual life in the United States — as welcome as that proposition may sound to some — would not seem to bear serious consideration in the early decades of a century that began with a concerted attempt to establish “freedom fries” as the designation for potatoes in their most ubiquitously edible form. That is, one would laugh the title off the shelves were it not for the acceptance in university and college humanities departments across the country of assumptions about and attitudes toward literature that came to full flower in Paris contemporaneously with the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath. Those assumptions and attitudes reflected a deepening hostility to the conception of authorship that had prevailed in Europe and North America for at least two centuries, the conception of authors writing works intended to represent the world as those authors saw it, or to embody meanings of their choosing in what they considered the most appropriate language for those meanings.

Though these new assumptions are old hat by now, it might be worth laying them up succinctly, with the help of an authoritative source. In his essay “The Death of the Author,” which was published in English in 1967, Roland Barthes wrote:

[A] text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

Here the critic was elaborating a literary theory that had been gradually developing, and not entirely in France, for about 50 years, one that moved the center of attention away from the author — her personal history, her other writings, and her opinions — and toward the text as the sole site of meaning and importance. For Barthes, giving credit to an author for a work of imagination amounted to propaganda on behalf of capitalist ideology.

It would be unfortunate if the somewhat dry and retrograde title of John Farrell’s book The Varieties of Authorial Intention (2017) were to discourage the general reader from buying it — and anyone not discouraged by the title might be by its price, which on Amazon is $99. At that price, it ought, one may feel, to include four-color fold-out maps of every continent and island on the planet, along with variorum reproductions of every article and essay discussed. Lacking these attractions, it relies on Farrell’s ability to summon a persuasive account of how literary criticism has developed over the past century and to focus a sustained attack on the textualist school of literary theory, which has, as Farrell notes, so far triumphed in academia that it is unusual to find any professor of literature who has resisted it. If the textualists like Barthes deny the relevance of an author’s intentions to her work, Farrell, a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California, does not hesitate to investigate their intentions, which are, he believes, in part defensive:

For many scholars, the fact that a literary work is grounded in stable authorial intentions seems to portend the closing off of possibilities, and the fact that authors create the substance which later interpreters work upon threatens to devalue studies of mediation and reception.

In short, scholars who subscribe to the textualist credo betray an anxiety about having to follow the author’s lead. If the author’s intentions have to be, at the very least, considered, the reader’s (that is to say, the scholar’s) field of operation is accordingly narrowed, whereas if the author’s intentions can be ruled out of court as inadmissible, the reader may do as he pleases with the text. Indeed, the reader may consider himself to be as necessary to the text as the author, which amounts to a substantial advancement of the reader’s prestige and a concomitant devaluation of the author’s. If nothing else, signing on as a textualist assures the reader of an immediate boost in status.

As a historian of ideas, Farrell — whose previous books dealt with the history of paranoia in Western literature and the formation of some of the crucial concepts in Freud’s theory of the psyche — looks back to T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and the so-called New Criticism to descry the initial moves in the theoretical marginalization of the author. Eliot’s aim, Farrell says, was “to free art, and himself, from the ordinary life of emotions and practicalities.” The disenfranchisement of the author achieved fuller form in 1946, when William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley published an essay entitled “The Intentional Fallacy,” asserting that a poem, once it is published, belongs to the public, not the author. “It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public,” they wrote, “and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. What is said about the poem is subject to the same scrutiny as any statement in linguistics or in the general science of psychology.” Wimsatt and Beardsley argued that the “intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of art.”

Two decades later a few French philosophers and literary theorists carried this idea even further. Michel Foucault, in a lecture delivered at the Collège de France, proclaimed that “the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.” In his book, Farrell submits the textualist argument to rigorous scrutiny, building the case against it with meticulous scholarship. Underlying the textualist position is, he maintains, a hostility both to the rational bourgeois individual, the most public manifestation of which is the author, and to the common terms on which the bourgeois author and reader must agree:

Mistrust of language is a signature of modernity, but language does not have the autonomous power to shape reality that its theorists often claim. It requires the guarantee of intention behind it in order to license the interpreter’s remarkable powers of inference, and these inferences require common knowledge of the world shared by author and audience, the knowledge against the background of which their language developed in the first place.

Farrell distinguishes between three types of authorial intention: the communicative, the artistic, and the practical. The author’s communicative purposes are the most basic: they supply the meanings of the sentences and the work as a whole. Only after these meanings have been grasped does the reader begin to appreciate the work’s artistic qualities. Through these artistic maneuvers, the author conveys her mastery of language, imagery, metaphor, and narrative forms. The author’s practical intentions are those that lie behind her decision to write a literary work, and they may include elements of narcissism, egotism, financial need, or idealism. Literature operates, Farrell contends, in much the same way jokes do. “Jokes can fail because we don’t get them or because even when we do get them they fail to be funny. Mere recognition of the joker’s intention is enough for success on the first level, but the second level requires much more.”

Farrell denies that the text of any literary work is self-sufficient, having slipped away from the author and no longer under the sway of her intentions, whatever they may have been:

When we read literary texts it is people we are trying to understand — people under varying historical circumstances. It is their creative actions we are trying to appreciate, not mere collections of words. These actions come to us having already made their impact on many other people in intervening generations who have inflected them in their own ways. Dealing with people as historical agents is uncomfortable, difficult, exasperating; making judgments about them can be even more so.

About the time of World War II, philosophy began to rub elbows with linguistics — specifically, Claude Lévi-Strauss encountered Roman Jakobson at the New School for Social Research in New York, and the former found in the latter possible insights into the way concepts are formed. One of the lessons that philosophers drew from linguistics was that there is no necessary relation between the signifier and the signified. Some philosophers eventually satisfied themselves that language describes nothing but itself. It is language that speaks through literary works, not the person whose name is on the title page. Not surprisingly, Farrell rejects this form of Whorfianism: “It is one of the ironies of literary theory that the surface intentions of authors have been set out of bounds as inaccessible while unconscious intentions, though inaccessible to the artist, have become routine for theorists to decode.”

Farrell is also dubious about what he calls “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” the eagerness of scholars to detect subtle forms of coercion and oppression in literature. “For modern intellectuals,” he writes, “the very discovery that a belief can be questioned is often sufficient to discredit it. Perhaps our greatest credulity has been our reflexive openness to doubt.” Almost anything written about a literary work should, according to the textualist rules of criticism, look for evidence of its duplicity; the richest resources of hermeneutics are those that subvert the surface meaning of a work of literary imagination. But what drives this desire to subvert? It is rooted, Farrell maintains, in a fear

that if we cannot change the meaning of texts inherited from the past, we cannot escape their influence. We remain ruled by them. There is a deep metaphysical problem with this idea, for the implication is that if we cannot change the past we cannot act in an effective way regarding the future. But if we know anything for sure, it is that we cannot change the past.

Each generation, Farrell points out,

overthrows the theory about the secret of art provided by the previous one, and each finds itself overthrown in turn. All of the talk about the true nature of an art depending upon expressing emotions or corresponding with social realities, estrangement effects, or objective correlatives, was destined from its birth to be fodder for the literary historian, providing background for the explication of artistic intentions but without the explanatory force the author intended.

The author’s intentions, even when confidently known, do not wholly explain or justify a literary work, but they do more or less illuminate it, and to rule them inadmissible is perverse and foolhardy. “However difficult it may be to discover what the author intended, his intentions do provide a stable object for interpretation, and interpretations that do not accommodate that intention cannot be correct,” he concludes.

Readers of John Farrell’s books — Freud’s Paranoid Quest (1996), Paranoia and Modernity (2003), and The Varieties of Authorial Intention (2017) — may be surprised to find them largely innocent of the academic jargon. Literary theory, Farrell’s chosen field in Varieties, is especially choked with verbal snares and muddy patches where previous explorers have spun their wheels to little avail. Indeed, one might imagine that almost everything being written about literary theory today is intended for a select audience of Illuminati who are entirely unacquainted with the books ordinary people read on airplanes or in buses or in bed before turning out the light. The pages of Varieties are dense, but Farrell’s writing is consistently clarifying and straightforward in its presentation of ideas and arguments that are not, after all, difficult to grasp. In this, his writing style contrasts with the oracular prose of the “Death of the Author” school of critics as sharply as his conclusions differ from theirs. The Varieties of Authorial Intention is a timely plaintiff’s argument against the approach to literature and literary authors now heavily favored on most college and university campuses in the United States, and while Farrell’s case may be ignored in academia in the short run, confidence in the ability of sound thinking ultimately to prevail over faddish theorizing must be an article of faith with independent-minded readers.

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Robert Daseler is a graduate of Pomona College and the University of California at Berkeley. His poems have been published in The Cimarron Review, The Formalist, Hellas, and other literary periodicals, and his two plays, Dragon Lady and Alekhine’s Defense, were produced by the South Coast Reperory Theatre.