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Monday, 23 March 2009

Paradox: the Diminishing Increase of an Author


A curious thing to consider is an author.

This is commonly the writer of a book, &c.; or the originator of an event, policy or state of affairs. The term derives from the Latin augeo, to increase or promote. There is thus a natural inflation built into an author.

From this extends authority, a power, or right, to enforce obedience. The root is auto -- from the Greek autos: self, own, of or by oneself. Related, then, in Greek is authentes: one who does something by himself. Thus our authentic: trustworthy, entitled to acceptance (of a statement); genuine, not forged (of documents, pictures, etc.).

Johnson, in his Dictionary, calls an author "the first beginner of a thing; the writer of a book, opposed to a compiler." And he gives the related terms:
authentick: genuine, original, provable.
authenticate: to establish.
authenticity: authority, genuineness.
authoritative: having authority.
authority: legal power, influence, role.
authorize: to give authority, to justify.

Your author, then, is someone who produces himself as an authority, by puffing himself up, or bigging up, as is sometimes now said.

What he produces would thus naturally be trustworthy, as it is he who has produced it.

There is perhaps something a bit circular in all this, one murmurs. And the author replies firmly: just trust me.

But a very few of the better authors (most of them are dead, of course) say it with a conspiratorial wink that for a moment takes you into the joke.

Johnson was an author and an authority. He was to be trusted. Yet one wonders. Alone, Johnson suffered terribly from strange guilts that seem to have caused him to do physical harm to himself. It may be thought the burden of his own authority was terrible for this great author. He is to be trusted, perhaps, because his example teaches us that the most solid exterior often conceals something that should not be completely trusted.

The poet Horace--a noted author--put the problem thus:

Nil fuit unquam
Sic impar sibi

or: Surely such a various creature -- as an author, Horace means -- never was known. That is: There never was known a creature less worth trusting.

The author lies to tell the truth and tells the truth to lie, flatters to deceive and deceives to flatter, yet is widely received as wise and thought good.

There is the letter Milton wrote to the learned stranger. The visitor had come from afar to meet Milton, the formidable author. In his letter Milton remarks on the fact that, though the visitor's expectations had been high, they had not in any way exceeded the reality that had been found: Milton in his actual person was at least as great as the learned stranger had imagined, perhaps indeed even greater, as Milton helpfully reminded him.

Nevertheless those brilliant and intriguing features the public habitually attributes to an author often evaporate upon contact with the atmosphere of planet Earth. Loving an author, one has pressed a ghost to one's bosom, it is too often found.

To write better than one lives is patently easy. Consider virtually any author up close and the truth of this will be observed.

Still authors run deep. The seas are smooth, the wind fair for the author, like one who, upon land, teaches the art of navigation.

Authors have secluded themselves in well-appointed towers and luxuriant caves, on remote islands and atop cloudy peaks, as well as in private offices, studios, and writing-dens. An authoritative pied-a-terre from which to launch one's author appearances, reading tours and book-signings is considered by some a virtual necessity for one of the authorial tribe. Any locus in which one remains essentially disengaged from the common cares of mankind, however, may prove sufficient for an author.

Were an author, in his works, to be suddenly thrust into the cold seas of actuality, where the first harsh wave that washes over him may be expected to bring panic and a swirling descent toward unconsciousness, the profession might attract fewer eager candidates than at present.

Théodore Duret: Edouard Vuillard, 1912 (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
Samuel Johnson: Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1772
John Milton: William Blake, c. 1800-1803



Tom Raworth said...

Morte d'Author

Thanks Tom,


Anonymous said...


And thanks to you. And a lovely day for a funeral of Authorship, at that.

Tom Raworth said...

I guess it should be Morte d'Auteur to be truly Cahiers. Ça-y-est.

Marten said...


a few things. First, I have been reading you carefully (I hope) lately, beginning with Light & Shade, marveling at the wonderful selection (kudos to T & A), a work and an animal in itself, and then going back through some of my favorite Clark's not included therein; poems from Sleepwalker's Fate, Easter Sunday, Disordered Ideas, Fractured Karma, White Thought, the books I have lying around. This one conclusion I have made; your authorship is as genuine a phenomena as any I've ever observed in nature or the laboratory. So, as much as this post is a knowing wink from you as well as a telling commentary, I propose that your authorship deftly deals with all these issues, and the record of it is such that I am truly impressed that one man (with the aid of a beautiful woman), calm seas aside, slick easy poetdom aside (sic), could produce such a body of work so consistently rigorous, lyrical and frankly, completely badass. I would personally be much "poorer" a person and reader had I not encountered them, yr works, occasional sleight of hand or tricks of the trade included. Plus, I'm pretty sure you're not holding out on me about owning a second home on the left bank.

As a man of letters, I think you would dig an article in Harper's recently about your beloved Hazlitt, that examines in detail a lot of the issues you bring up. Blast it, I am away from home, and can't access the online archives, but I will post the link when I can. Sorry to leave you hanging...

What I have been thinking most, lately, and dude, I am not intending to deceive with flattery, is that you are the finest lyricist in the English language the last 50 years. There it is. I might put Wieners second, but that is honestly a personal preference and not a reasoned selection.

So, I think in conclusion, rather than being confined to Tennyson's poetry room, you have, more than any other "author" of English in the last 50 years, left no stone unturned in the examination of what it means to be an author, following your own dictum to write with emotion, to move out, from movere, (I note with pleasure that the Latin emovere, is parsed in my dictionary as “move out, remove”, and thus the tension you highlight is nicely provided in the root; perhaps from a remove one moves out?) to try and improve the world; the effort is greatly appreciated no matter the potentially mixed results, so I see your post and raise you with some praise,

your gentle Hagiographer,

PS Man, the Vanitas posts about Empire of Skin have been some serious brain juice, and I am way into the book right now, from my new Northwesterly location it is a godsend, thanks so much man. I love Ed Dorn's preface, "And of course the richest man in the world is not a buccaneer capitalist underwriting the explorations of a Captain Cook, but is yet a son of the Puget Sound, whose skin looks as thin as a microchip." Talk about a badass.

PPS Did you see the Portland Timbers are getting bumped up to an MLS franchise? Looks like the Sounders scored big with pin up boy Freddie Ljungberg. Perhaps "Teddy" Sheringham will come out of retirement for us.

(Italics not working.)

TC/BTP said...


What can one say? Other than "Author's Friend"?

Here's a blogger who picked up on the Hazlitt-in-Harpers:

Frequency of Silence on Hazlitt

And as to new kids on the MLS block, I like Freddy Montero, a Colombian a long way from home up in Vancouver:

Freddy Montero scores two for the Ravegreens

Marten said...

Brilliant. Freddy's first was my favorite, as he seemed to make a statement, tucking the ball between the defender's leg into the far post from a sharp angle: "stop dithering about in the 18."

Those fans are incredible. There was a NY Times article about them two days ago.

How about Jozy going for three yesterday? England could use a healthy target man like him.

(I'll otherwise try and contain myself with the football chatter.)

Thanks for the links, I should have mentioned Terry E as the author of the review...

human being said...

i know some authors who rarely write... and many compilers who are awarded and praised as original writers...

really like the subjects you bring in..

TC said...

Oh yes, authors have such busy schedules, with their appearances and appointments, it's a wonder they find time even for compiling... but of course, deadlines call. The table is booked. And the plane is on the runway.