BY SALLY STOSICH
Roland Barthes has called for the immolation of the author to the vitality of the text, and I hope in my feeble efforts to suggest that this death is not only necessary, but indicative of the sacrifice of Christ to the eternal life of His beloved. Death in the midst of eternity substantiates the present with a past and a future. Let us agree upon the immortality and breadth of textual Art as a living form resurrected in the mind of each reader. The author endures with the text, but is subsumed by it, as the text reverberates in its eternal presence outside and beyond linear time. Barthes, in his essay “The Death of the Artist,” insisting upon the infinite receptions of a text to the reader as opposed to the interventional guidance of the author, writes a line that for me turned the relationship of author and text inside-out and topsy-turvy: “he [Proust] made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model.” Now the text is larger-than-life. In this one line, Barthes proclaims both the eternity and the materiality of the word—it is written and bound, yet it transcends its own purpose. In a strange turn, it is the man that follows, imitates, reveres, and aspires to the text, a concept that suddenly alienates him from flesh and blood. The author, thus removed from his own context, both precedes and proceeds from his creation. He emulates and performs a larger Creation than himself—here he begins an active role in Eternal life. As the writer awaits the performance of the very paradigm that he creates, the future relentlessly scripts the present, and it redeems the past. What will follow promises what is, and has been before. In turn, what has been is, and will be, a stage rehearsal for the veritable act to follow. Let a text be an offspring of the author—yet which has begotten which? Both are separate and similar imaginations of the future. Through his text, the author lives (forever) for and through and by his multitude of infinite characters possessing pieces of this imagination. The author’s alienation from his text and reader is the point of death from which he remembers mysterious bliss and anticipates a fictional perfection.
Perfection is beginning and the end, and Perfect Death lies in the middle. If the author himself is an echo of his own words, a material extension of his own imagination, what then is he but a symbol of something greater? Just as a gold-leafed icon is a two-dimensional meditation upon the Divine, so the author carries an artful purpose in death. Barthes calls for complete annihilation of the author. (Augustine expands this annihilation to the universal and relentless modes of past and future. Even the present is undergoing death now…and now.) But Christ goes further than that: Perfection precedes and follows the act. The word must pull from a place beyond the powers of remembrance and imagination. This Perfect word must be embodied through it all. I think of the word prehistory. It implies a redundancy, an excess: before that which came before. It inevitably begins a series of propagation. Endless, bottomless, artful retrograde. This word, and its microcosm before, is a word as endless, and as hopeful (or terrible), as the word in the opposite direction: tomorrow. Who can bind Eternity and be bound to a body? Who can “bookend” Eternity, if I may? Augustine writes of One who opens and closes with this Perfect Word, in a language that literally bookends: “‘God who is with you God’ (John 1:1). That word is spoken eternally, and by it all things are uttered eternally.” Barthes, resigned to the grave as author, agrees: “…there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.” In this hum and blur of eternal animation, how is death made conceivable? How is it made imperative?
The Holy Word that precedes, proceeds from, and supersedes creation, is the Eternal Art, Mr. Barthes! It is a living performance larger-than-life. And the Author dies. This Perfect Death is the climax of the story. The proliferation of death concentrated in one body—in a singular moment in time—and an infinite, indefatigable resurrection would resonate as the text of the author proceeds from and through and to the author towards new life. The text of scripture as a story of promise, recurrence, and redemption is a story of infinitude in revolution. It is a nonlinear work of Art in its creation, reception, and return. It wonderfully requires man, and redeems him. Consider Jonah, a man whose beginning is his end is his beginning. “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah…But Jonah rose up to flee…from the presence of the Lord” (Jon. 1:1-3). Jonah cannot escape eternity. He is called to perform a fragment, a figure, of the Word incarnate that has called and presently calls him into being. As a fragment, Jonah enters and exits scripture in four short chapters. Jonah meets his end as he is flung into the sea with every thought of death and oblivion. His plunge to the dark abyss for three days and three nights both prophecies and expunges Christ in one breath. Jonah promises Christ (forward), and imitates Christ (backwards) in this revolution, as he is “swallowed up” by darkness, with “weeds wrapped around his head” (2:5). His drama of flight, repentance, and restoration is a performance and affirmation of the past and the future. Jonah’s fractured life is not obliterated, but preserved to its end in Perfection. For Jonah, it is the eternal enunciation, the rolling Word, that would deliver him from the stomach of the fish. In oblivion, the prayer of the prophet inside the belly wonderfully manifests his foreseen restoration: “I descended to the roots of the mountains…But Thou hast brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (2:6). The text of his prayer not only affirms his present predicament, but the words prepare for his drowned, hopeless condition, embodying the act of death: “Water encompassed me to the point of death. The great deep engulfed me” (2:5). His words imagine Jonah’s future: “I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me” (2:2). Not long after Jonah proclaims “Salvation is from the Lord,” the fish vomits Jonah onto dry land. The Word imagines and performs the act. The act is thus a consequence of the word, spoken through Jonah.
The word performs itself, and ejects its “dead” author from the abyss, as a promise of the future. In this way, the man is made alive “simultaneously with the text,” as Barthes proclaims. Jonah’s prayer is not finite, individual, or even temporal—it is Eternity itself. These words that flow from Jonah persist with the flow of God’s Faithfulness, Mercy and Love. They harmonize with the words of the psalmist hundreds of years earlier: “O Lord, Thou has brought up my soul from Sheol; Thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit” (Ps. 30). Barthes writes that the author must become nonexistent for the text to live for the reader. He may or may not realize that the death he orders is a Death of Redemption and Grace. Barthes requires a Perfect Eternity that requires Death, and it is only in this Perfect Death that Life comes and endures. In the greatest and most magnificent act of Grace, Christ the BookEnd, who “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” breathed no more. And out of this Death arose Eternal Life. A Death that could halt Eternity itself. And Eternity that would resume. Such a Perfect Death alone could bestow Eternity and then some to the author.
In my effort to explicate my title question, I will instead leave you with the embodiment and performance of the unfathomable William Butler Yeats: “Who can tell the Dancer from the Dance?