“Thus let me live unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone;
Tell where I lie.”
– Alexander Pope, “Solitude”
Some of the best writers in history have written under pseudonyms, they have voluntarily used a pen-name, sometimes using a name that is suggestive of the opposite gender— to confuse and waylay any inquisitive reader who seeks to uncover the veil of secrecy. Or at times using strange initials or names that create an aura of mystery and suspense around the identity of the author. Some have purposefully adopted names to suggest or refer to a particular idea, belief or thought. There can be plethora of reasons behind the assumption of a false identity: personal reasons, to avoid censure, to counter social prejudices or even out of fear from punishment.
Being anonymous is however not the same as acquiring a plume de nom. Pen names or pseudonyms create an alter-ego, or a false identity, one that cannot be traced to a particular, known individual; yet it does help to keep the illusion of a person, an author, a mysterious creator alive. We know that a person with such and such views on a particular incident, or with such qualities of imagination exists, and though he or she cannot be traced to a historical figure, the writing is seen as indelibly belonging to that figure whether real or imagined.
The assumed name is an expression of the author’s desire to acquire and continue with a longed for identity, or subjectivity to be more precise; and every work finished under the pen name marks a movement towards that desired identity. Hence, in some cases the pseudonym can be considered to describe the person better than his or her own name or is better indicative of the individual’s sense of identity. Most people are defined not by what they have but what they lack, similarly while we may share similarities with other persons in what we possess, the sum of our lacks or desires, given the unique position that each one of us acquire dictate how we see our self and how the world sees us. In the most Lacanian sense, our desires construct our identity. We are not defined by what we own or possess, but what we long to own or possess. The alter ego of the writer then is more true and real than the known and perceived self.
The idea that the author once the work has been completed, becomes redundant—his role being that of the facilitator who only helps in assembling and bringing out a piece of work and hence in no way can be considered a figure of authority as far as a literary work is concerned; has been around for quite some time. The most famous proponent being the celebrated French critic and theoretician: Roland Barthes. The idea was also taken up by Michel Foucault, who then proposed his own theory of “author function” based on similar lines. The theory gained further currency in the late 20th century through postmodernist and poststructuralist schools of thought.
The idea that there can be no singular identifiable agential subject behind a work is not new, it dates back to myths and oral narratives of the ancient ages, where a particular tale or myth was inherited as a part of tradition. This continued over generations, and each performer who “performed” the narrative would introduce his or her modifications and interpretations of the story, continuously increasing the universe of the stories, at the same time proliferating different versions of the same tale. The banned essay of A. K. Ramanujan “The 300 Ramayanas” made a similar claim for the Hindu epic. In such a scenario it becomes difficult to gauge whose version is the most authentic, or whose contribution is most significant or even who told/wrote the original tale? There can be no questions of originality here, as those which exist are a product of certain material and historical conditions, shaped by the cultures and communities inhabited and brought alive by the languages in which they are performed.
Therefore, Barthes claims that it is “language” which performs and speaks in a text, not the writer and certainly not some other historical figure or perceivable subject figure. Barthes in fact, went ahead to proclaim “the death of the author” and identified the reader as the one, the figure who creates the text. This introduced a new line of thinking in literary theory called “the Reader Response theory,” acquiring its culmination in the practices of Stanley Fish, who’s essay “Is there a Text in the Class?” acquired cult status. It is believed that the text is pieced together by the reader, who encounters it and makes sense out of it, bringing in one’s unique experiences, prejudices, belief-systems and subject positions to interpret the work. Which again begs the question if there can be a unitary meaning behind any text? Certainly, not. This also helps to assess the identity of the voice speaking in a work—which does not belong to the author; the author is a redundant being, the writer is no more important.
Wimsatt and Beardsley, two early 20th century literary critics did much to identify the fallacy of interpreting a work by presuming to look for the author’s intention behind a work; which they called the “intentional fallacy.” It is precisely these attempts made time and again, by individuals, institutions or nation-states to link a particular art to a supposed “intention” or “purpose” or “meaning” by harping to verified/unverified affiliations, ideologies and beliefs of the writer/artist, which is “supposedly” manifested in that work of art; which readers must be wary of.
The name of the author, thus becomes the site of all such contestations, politics and power-struggles. Her or his sexual preferences, ethnicity, nationality, race, language, religion, caste, loyalties, etc to name a few are used as signposts to interpret a work. While all the details about the author might throw new insights into the work, they can under no circumstances be used to make particular claims about that work. All the insights or commentaries generated can only add to the increasing range of meanings or interpretations of a text, where no single meaning or interpretation can be privileged over another, or can delegitimize the rest.
What happens then, in the case of anonymous works? How do we approach these texts?
A name—even when it belongs to an unknown entity, is still the name of someone, harks back to some person, though unfamiliar and hidden behind a mask, it is very much concrete, very much real. On the other hand, works which have had no author(s), present an interesting point of investigation.
These texts or writings are free from the liabilities of claims and counterclaims, they can more easily resist appropriation and resist attempts at control of meanings and interpretations. Though other means can be employed to limit the meanings of the text or to promote the reception of the text in a particular manner, yet due to the absence of any author figure(s) to whom the text can be linked, or alternatively due to the lack of verifiable source of identification all claims and attempts to control the text or it’s meanings are rendered futile. Unlike works written under a pseudonym, anonymous works will even allow for the benefit of making arguments on behalf of the alternative identity or subjectivity of the author. It is as if it [the work] is its own master and creator, awaiting a reader to unpack it, at the reader’s own discretion and leisure.
So, why am I discussing literary theories on anonymity, assumed names and authorship here? Read below. And to repeat the oft repeated phrase of the Bard, “What’s in a name?”
The writer is a research scholar at JNU and words for The Informer. Views expressed are personal. Please direct any comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.