Art is a Horcrux: On the Death of the Author

Picture of Voldemort from Harry Potter

I was rereading Felix Ever After, an amazing book written by Kacen Callendar about a transgender teen who is grappling with identity and self discovery. As I read, an excerpt gave me pause:

What might’ve started as a joke feels a little more serious to me now. “He won’t even recognize himself when I’m done with him.”

“You’re such a Slytherin.”

“I know,” I say, grabbing the second bottle of Chardonnay, “but, you love it.”

I paused because I thought about the work of “she who shall not be named” — who has consistently doubled down on her transphobia — being included in a book about a trans teen. I paused because I’m wondering if an author can ever be removed from their work, especially in a time when we are so connected to each other.

In 1967, Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled, The Death of the Author. In it, he argued against the practice of incorporating the intentions or even the biographical information of the author when interpreting a text. He rejects the method of reading and/or criticism that asks readers to rely on the author’s identity to find meaning. He says, “literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” Ultimately, in order to truly read a text, readers must separate the literary work from its author, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author.”

Book Cover for “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes

I get what Barthes was saying. Once a work is in the world, it takes off on its own. Every reader will have a different experience of the text, and the author can’t control how it’s interpreted. As Barthes argued, “We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions…” Basically, the author is not the god of the text who bestows meaning upon the masses. The people make the meaning and the author has no control.

But what happens in a world where we have more access to authors than Barthes did during his time? What happens when the author is not a god, but a transphobic person who continues to exact psychological and spiritual violence on the trans community? Can we love the work and simultaneously hate the artist?

This line from Felix sticks out to me:

“…isn’t all art a piece of a creator’s soul? If the creator is an evil piece of shit, doesn’t that mean we’re being influenced by evil in their work?”

This is what I’m thinking. Specifically, if HP was a piece of art from the soul of She Who Shall Not Be Named, then doesn’t it mean that her work will be tainted by those views? Can readers engage with her work and forget all about the transphobic things she’s said even when her name rests on the cover of the book? Can a book ever be neutral, devoid of authorial or cultural context? Can we remove morality from a work of art?

I personally don’t think we can. As Felix says, “Morality, at its essence, defines what is human… Keeping questions of morality out of art suggests keeping humanity out of art.” The human… the author… can not be removed. An author’s tweets, commentary, websites, etc. are part of the cultural interpretation of a work. The author doesn’t die for the birth of the reader; instead, the author’s views are entwined in an intricate web that is hard to untangle even if we try our hardest to do so. Art is like a horcrux, an object that contains fragments of the author’s soul. Thus, the art and the artist can never be separated, no matter how hard we try.

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