6 Pages

Some Ideas about Language and Poetry in Sixteenth-century Spain

ByElias L. Rivers

As I understand it, one of the more useful concepts of recent French critical theory is écriture, or ‘writing’, as an autonomous, self-perpetuating system for producing texts. The emphasis in this term is not upon the author as a creative individual, or upon the literary text as an aesthetic object, but upon ‘écriture’ as an established institution which controls the writer’s encoding activity, and the reader’s activity too, as a decoder. As in the oral performances described by Albert Lord in his Singer of Tales, the basic function of écriture is not to produce an individualistic style: it is, rather, a collective and traditional set of rules for textual composition, rules which are more or less unconsciously followed by all performers within the tradition. But the written text is different from the oral performance, because with the latter, the audience is in the presence of the performer, and communication is relatively immediate; with the written text, on the other hand, the composer absents himself, and the reader must know how to perform alone, as an interpreter or decoder. According to this French theory, the reader cannot really reconstruct what some speaker, at a hypothetical moment of utterance, ‘had in mind’ as he wrote, for there was never any moment of utteraace, or full presence of the spoken word, but rather a protracted process of writing and rewriting designed to eliminate the need for a presence of consciousnessness as ultimate authority. In Derrida’s words, the written text has been ‘orphaned and separated since birth from the support of the father’, that is, from a personal responsibility. We could, I think, read Borges’ story ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’ as an ironic commentary upon such a concept of écriture: the trick, in that story, is to try to imagine two different systems of écriture, one from the early seventeenth century in Spain and one from the early twentieth century in France, which could both produce exactly the same written text; but the reader who belongs to one system of écriture interprets this same text quite differently from the reader who belongs to the other system.