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Readers like William Blake and Percy Shelley opened the same poem that pious Christians had been enjoying for generations, only they discovered something surprising: The hero of the poem is not Adam, or Jesus, or God himself, but actually Satan, the incarnation of evil.Because all the other characters act out of obedience to a divine plan, they can’t be said to possess the characteristics of heroism — boldness, daring, pride. far superior to his God.” Yet how could it be that Milton, who was a deeply pious Christian and who explicitly said that his poem was meant to promulgate Christian truths, was actually, as Blake said, “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”?
Surely there must be limits to a text’s interpretability.
And of course there are — no one could finish “Paradise Lost” and claim that Satan was a minor character.
I regret to say that I kept up this approach for most of my time at college.
It was nonsensical, but it was efficient and left me with lots of free time to pursue other pressing interests, like lying around in bed.
For those who persisted in believing that authors were actual people — people who had used language to express specific ideas and sentiments and ways of looking at the world — the task of finding something sensible and halfway informed to write each week was quite arduous.
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(It required, for example, some minimal awareness of the historical circumstances in which writers had produced their works.) But for those who professed that there was no such thing as literary originality, that it was language that spoke through the author, not the other way around, that reading was not an act of exegesis but a kind of creative, semi-erotic play — essay-writing got considerably easier and faster.Or perhaps the Romantics were simply imagining Milton as they wanted him to be.Either way, they permanently changed the way later readers would approach Milton’s epic; in a sense, they rewrote “Paradise Lost.”The idea that readers could know an author’s intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature.Only Satan, who acts in opposition to God, has those traits, and as a result, he gets the best speeches — as when he declares, after he is hurled into hell, that “All is not lost; the unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield.”That is why, to Shelley, “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is . This could be possible only if the author was not actually the master of his own intentions.Perhaps Milton was ensnared by the false piety of his own time, and it took the antinomian insight of the Romantics to liberate him — to make him the poet of revolt that he secretly wanted to be all the time.My job, henceforth, was to produce my own meanings from the endless and irreducible play of signifiers that was literature.All of which made me want to lie down in a darkened room and cry.Zadie Smith notes that her doubts about the readerly freedoms bestowed by poststructuralist theory set in around the time she became a novelist.(She discovered that she did believe in writing as “an expression of an individual consciousness” after all.) For me, the disenchantment had more to do with the slow-dawning realization that I was not a very good or clever poststructuralist reader.For readers like her, who had always “walked into books boldly, without knocking or bothering too much about the owner,” the death of the author came neither as a great surprise nor as a cause for much mourning.I, too, read Barthes for the first time as a student, but my initial response was rather less insouciant than Smith’s.