April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
October 11, 2016
Words are good enough. It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.
— Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
Last week, after many years of purposeful anonymity—this in spite of the recent commercial and critical success of her four-part series, the Neapolitan novels—the Italian author known as Elena Ferrante had her identity exposed in a piece published by the New York Review of Books.1 As Claudio Gatti, the investigative reporter responsible for the unmasking, notes at the beginning of his article, speculation about the true identity of the author behind the pen name has turned a near constant rumor mill since the publication of Ferrante’s first book in 1992. It is, indeed, difficult to tell the story of her success, especially over the past two years, without considering the allure of her pseudonymous status. Here was a quartet of books, the breadth and brilliance of which we simply had not yet seen in the new millennium, and we did not even have a real name to praise or a definitive biography to study. There was no body on which we could append our accolades and prestigious medals of artistic acclaim—the makings of a literary mystery.
But it seemed difficult, at times, not to experience this anonymity as lack—not that Ferrante was somehow obligated to reveal herself or that we the readers were having our rights infringed upon by being barred access to the intimate details of her life. What this absence prompted was, rather, something more like the desire to thank the donor of an anonymous gift, or maybe like that feeling Heidegger discovered when he realized we could never catch a full glimpse of Being before it receded ever further behind the beings it gives. Or perhaps it felt something more like how Gregory of Nyssa describes Moses’s yearning after only seeing God’s backside—the romance of concealment. Like all beautiful gifts, though, there was of course something of the giver imbued in the very words of the Neapolitan novels themselves. “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their creator,” says the writer of the Book of Wisdom (13:5 NRSV).
This is true of Ferrante’s novels even if the eponymous heroine of her stories is not the exact literary incarnation of the author herself. I know Elena Ferrante, as I know any of my favorite authors, through the texture of her words, the cadence of her sentences, the rhythms of her chapters. I do not need the corroboration of the signified to trust my intimacy with these signifiers. This is to say something about what books are and what they are not. It is to say something about what these books are. To think of Ferrante’s novels as artifacts that obscure their author is to miss the point. It is to actively avoid what we have been given. A book, like a word, is an expression of its author. It cannot help but be an expression of its author. A book, to put it more strongly still, expresses its author, extends her along its pages, carries her beyond her intentions, reveals her to the new worlds its pages create. If you want to know an author, there is nowhere else to look but the words she has written. Wittgenstein would call this a grammatical remark.
That this should be so—that this cannot help but be so—is what makes Gatti’s painstaking attempt to uncover Ferrante’s identity seem so misguided. One wonders at what expense his own reading of the book suffered because of it. There is surely something approaching sacrilegious about reading these four masterpieces of modern prose as ledgers against which to judge financial records. But whatever his reading habits, it appears obvious that Gatti missed Ferrante’s many blistering stories of the power of capital, of the seizure of human flourishing by capital, and of the reduction of life itself to capital—like the reduction of a book to pay stubs. (Painfully obvious, too, is Gatti’s failure to notice Ferrante’s many examples of the manifold ways in which self-deception is something of an occupational hazard for the journalist.)
But that Gatti’s procedure is misguided, and perhaps pitiable, makes it no less reprehensible. To think of an author’s words as so many masks behind which she hides is not without ethical consequences. Such a perspective registers a kind of skepticism with regard to what words can do and what language can actually accomplish. It marks a certain disappointment with the body of an author’s text. It suggests that the text must be surpassed—gotten behind, gotten under, pulled aside, pulled apart—in an effort to find its true source, the author, as she existed in the fullness of that moment before her thoughts gave birth to the bastard offspring of words. The main problem with this particular picture of language is that, inevitably, it bears violent fruit. And this happens every time a reader mortgages the meaning of an author’s words to the intimate details of the life that produced them and so binds the body of the text to the hands that wrote it.
As Aaron Bady put it in his essay on the Gatti article at the New Inquiry, for readers who hold this kind of a skeptical stance, the type “who believe themselves to traffic in truth, Ferrante’s identity is a ‘secret.’ But it is not. It is a fiction.” I take Bady’s use of the word fiction here to trade outside the positivist parameters that would have it posed in semantic opposition to the word fact. For in a very true sense, one that moves outside the binary opposition between fact and fiction, the identity of Elena Ferrante is real and expressed in her novels. That is, Ferrante’s identity, to quote Bady again, is not somehow surreptitious:
A secret is something withheld, something denied to us; a fiction is created, an imagined artifice spun as such. If you think her identity is a secret—if you feel that you have a right to know, and you resent her for withholding what is yours—then you might feel yourself justified in piercing that screen. . . . It will be the only thing you can think about, and what you can see will cease to seem important. What you don’t know, but only suspect, will become the key to everything else.2
Bady here describes well the costs of thinking that the body of the text obstructs some authorial essence. The words—and in Ferrante’s case, the exceptionally beautiful words—lose out to the more significant question of the secret they supposedly hide. But Bady also captures the violent ends toward which such skepticism can tend and the justifications that often follow. What we can see, the screen on which the words are offered to our gaze, must be pierced and penetrated if we want to know the truth.
In the particular case of Gatti’s article, it is difficult not to notice that this violence has a specifically gendered edge. Like his unwitting inattention to her critiques of capital, in his attempt to unmask the pseudonymous female author Gatti also apparently failed to notice Ferrante’s sharp and at times painful meditations on the seizure of women’s work, intellectual and otherwise, by men. Instead, he unwittingly writes himself into that story. The following words from Gatti read like the sort of defense often heard from perpetrators of sexual violence: “By announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.”3 The last line, in particular, smacks so clearly of the “she was asking for it” argument against victims of rape that the comparison seems banal, but it is certainly no less apt or appalling.
Bady’s comments on the folly of imagining Ferrante’s identity as a “secret” hidden from view recall, for me, a passage from J. M. Coetzee’s devastating novel Waiting for the Barbarians: “How natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other!”4 Coetzee’s line here, like his novel as a whole, is about a specific historical moment in which the colonial myth—that particular bodies, particularly different bodies, were an impediment to recognizing an other as human—took such deep roots that its script is still being read, and written, today. Central to this story is a sense of being shut out by the body of an other, an impression of feeling exiled by the seeming opacity of an other’s flesh. When we buy into this narrative, violence waits in the wings. Once this myth takes root, we will assume there is something hidden and withheld from us, something the surface of the body cannot provide. We will be conned into thinking that we must pierce the other’s surface in order to confirm our suspicions.
We live in a time when the connection between our habits of reading and our life with others has been largely obscured. Too often, we ignore the ways in which our response to the books we read and our habits of response to others around us can bleed in to one another, cutting across the neat boundaries we erect between mind and will. We forget this at our peril. Or, rather, we forget this at our neighbor’s peril. Literature, at its best, can remind us of this connection. But it does so precisely by asking whether we can be satisfied with the body of the text, whether we can be satisfied with this body of words alone, whether we can learn to love our words, like our bodies, without grounding their worth in some hidden depth. In this regard, the books of a pseudonymous author like Elena Ferrante only underline something true of all works of art. If we experience the anonymity of the artist as lack—if we find her words, her canvases, her films not enough on their own—then we have only ourselves to blame.
Taylor C. Ross
Taylor Ross is a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. He writes at the intersections of patristic theology, theological aesthetics, and philosophy of language. He is also earning a graduate certificate from the Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature at Duke University.