Authorship and the Individual

Interesting book review on questions of authorship as applied to Dante. The critical theorists have already shown that medievals treated Aristotelian philosophy the way we treat the rules of physics, not something that needs an author. And they showed how some medieval texts were written with the reader in mind- either as images on the side of the page or only giving allusions and letting the reader apply them on his own. Medievals also wrote as a form of revelation, and treated cosmologies as revelatory and they considered the bearers of the scholarly tradition as possessing an immanent truth. Not everyone who wrote was considered an auctores.

This opens up the question of what rabbinic Jewish author were doing? The Geonim and Nahmanides were writing with the a Divine spirit, or at least legal decisions were guided by the Divine. Some Kabbalistic works are seen as transmitting ancient knowledge or ascribed to older figures. And the Guide for the Perplexed is just that, a guide for the reader. But what were the “authors” of Pirkei deRebbe Eliezer thinking?

To consider the modern issues: Judaism never bought into the idea of the individual author and still has trouble with intellectual property of an author. In many texts, Torah is seen as possessed by the collective or as eternally given. So when a posek writes a teshuvah: Is it his own authorship? Does he write as bearer of a mesorah, like a medieval kabbalist? Is there a revelation granted to the community? We tend to frame these questions using the anachronistic modern contrast of autonomy and authority. We need to ask: what is involved in an act of religious writing? Does one write ex cathedra, with immanent truth, with revelation, or for the reader?

But then it becomes more difficult- what happens when the written opinions of a rabbi are involved in petty squabbles or personal interests or manipulated by politics? Ascoli’s book on Dante asks that question directly – If Dante claimed to write with revelation then how can he till be involved in his petty squabbles? What happens when someone writes with immanent divine truth and also acts as an independent agent?

Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2008. Reviewed by Jan G. Soffner (Zentrum Cr Literatur- und Kulturforschung) Published on H-Italy (December, 2009)

By Which Authority Did Dante Write?

If one happens to talk by chance about Dante’s fourteenth-century masterpiece _Divine Comedy_, one can observe a strange phenomenon.

Dante seems to misuse God for his political opinions, by letting the divine justice condemn his enemies, and for his personal
pride or arrogance, by having all the best dead poets honor him (see, for instance, Inferno IV, 100-102). Moreover, isn’t it already quite
presumptuous to “know” the divine verdict about everybody who has ever died? All this seems to be even stranger, since this work is
evidently a literary text, not an inspired prophecy like the Revelation. So how could Dante attribute this authority to himself?
And did he attribute this authority to himself after all, or did he “just” write fiction?

This suspicion arose as soon as the _poema sacro–_the “holy poem,” as Dante himself calls it (Paradiso XXV, 1)–was written. Nearly
seven hundred years of “Dantology” (to use Robert Harrison’s brilliantly provocative term)[1] have not convincingly resolved this
doubt. In the fourteenth century cosmological representations in the _Cosmographia_ of BernardusSilvestris (ca. 1084-1178), the _Anticlaudianus_ of Alanus ab Insulis (1120-1202) and the _Tesoretto_ of Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-94). They read the text either as a spiritual revelation and a dream, despite its literary construction and despite the claim to report a physical journey, or they interpreted it in a “modern” way, that is, as a fictional construction, despite the explicit claims of the _Commedia_to be a revelatory work.

Ascoli also has an excellent knowledge notonly of the works of modern theoretical thinkers such as Hannah
Arendt, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Mary Carruthers about literary authorship and authority, but also of the discursive
figurations of _auctores_ available at Dante’s time. Ascoli starts with an extensive analysis of contemporary concepts of
authorship, and of the manner in which Dante seems to be relating to them as a whole. Ascoli argues that the image of an author stemmed
from the trustworthy _auctoritates_ of the ancient and/or philosophical and theological tradition granting for an immanent
truth to biblical scribes and the true author, who is God. These traditional concepts refer to _auctoritas_ as both an individual and
impersonal power and knowledge. The _auctor_ thereby was not so much a creative agent, but rather a mediating power of knowledge. He was
one worthy of faith and obedience.

Hence Dante, modeled as an individual traveler in the _Divine Comedy_, “comes, paradoxically, to embody the canons of
impersonal authority” (p. 20). On the one hand Dante is thereby traditionalist and conservative, on the other, he is also provided
with the “transgressive desire to appropriate that attribute for himself, for the vernacular, and for ‘modernity'” (p. 20f).

How can a fictional work gain a revelatory truth? Ascoli shows convincingly how Dante assumes the traditional role of an
authoritative author without thereby relating to the pre-existing models of knowledge implied by these kinds of authorship.
The unease of us moderns when confronted with Dante cannot just be about the relation to an ineffable divine Being. Representationalist
modern authors work with a more or less Aristotelian concept of fiction, that is, with a concept of a poetic truth relying on
modeling possibilities and an emotionality that can be addressed playfully and without consequences. However, Dante tells us a
different story

Here is a sample of chapter one of Albert Russell Ascoli. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author.
Can we move beyond the dichotomies of authority/autonomy or submission/freedom and explain the act of religious writing or studying Torah or acting as a rabbi in terms of how they define authorship or role of the self in the process?

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6 responses to “Authorship and the Individual

  1. These questions fascinate me. I would certainly be more cautious than to claim that “Kabbalistic works are seen as transmitting ancient knowledge or ascribed to older figures.” Certainly not Abulafia, hes writing in a genre that blends manual and descriptions. And certainly not the zohar. It seems as though they are writing a text that is meant to awaken the reader (and the author?), to arouse one into affect and desire towards God, and its stylistic cannot be differentiated from this reader function. I certainly agree with you that these are such critical questions towards serious and insightful work in Medieval and Rabbinic studies.
    What is the up-to-date reading list in crit-theory on these issues? (After Foucault and Barthes)

    • Abulafia claims revelation and prophecy. On the Zohar, not everyone agrees with Melila- see Abrams below and his new article. What the “old-new words” of the Zohar means can use better conceptualization.
      You should definitely read Mary Carruthers and AJ Minnis carefully. And for the French see Roger Chartier.

  2. Fascinating topic. I wonder whether this sheds any new [charitable] light on the pseudepigraphic kabbalistic works. And still, despite my familiarity with the commonality of pseudepigraphic works in that genre, I still have trouble thinking outside the modern conceptual box of what authorship is supposed to be. I have gone so far as to tell authors of good halakhic treatises to IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS AUTHORS rather than just write an address for where the book can be ordered. My argument being that it is not irrelevant who wrote it.

    So, does this work shed new light on the genre of pseudepigraphic authorship? How the authors saw themselves in that process? How conscious they were that what they did might be perceived in a critical light? What was their theory of authorship? How would they claim they were mere transmitters when they included obvious chiddushim?

    Just one nitpick, you remarked: To consider the modern issues: Judaism never bought into the idea of the individual author and still has trouble with intellectual property of an author.

    Intellectual property is not germane here. It is a legal concept, a created right, an artificial monopoly for the sake of promoting the arts and sciences, of promoting the publishing of creative works. But while it depends on the modern concept of authorship (one can’t claim ownership if he isn’t claiming to have meaningfully contributed), the reverse is not true. The modern concept of authorship does not require intellectual property legislation.

    Thus, I don’t see in Judaism’s difficulty with intellectual property any reflection of what it thinks about authorship. Unlike many modern legislators, who bought Sonny Bono’s arguments (think Sonny Bono Ammendment, which was prompted by Disney’s fears of Mickey Mouse lapsing into the public domain – line hook and sinker, Judaism recognizes that intellectual property is about creating an artificial monopoly to promote innovation, and hence resorted to the much more appropriate cherem for a limited time against whomever violated the legally sanctioned monopoly.

    For our conversation, a different term would be more appropriate. Perhaps “the authorial attribution?”

  3. Rabbi Dr. JB Soloveitchik, although not immersed in the philosophical background, did try to deal with issues of the role of the author in Halakhic works, in particular Chiddush & Psak.

    His student Rabbi H. Schechter, (who I assume has not read any of these at all) does use these themes in his thought and argues that all writing including prophecy has an element of authorship. Interestingly enough, he has a very strong position for intellectual property.

    Of course this does not address the larger issues. But at least JBS did try to bring these ideas into discussion, if not in a formal philosophical way.

    When I read Dante, naively, I just assumed that the Cosmology was accurate, but his placing his enemies in various Hells was personal. They are examples. One could accept the Cosmology while rejecting Dante’s personal vendettas.

  4. “This opens up the question of what rabbinic Jewish author were doing?”


  5. 1) Upon reflection, I see in Halakhic writings that authorship is only attributed to a distinguishable or distinctive position. Everything else is seen as just quoting.

    Even if the author of a particular Halakhic work goes through the logic and sources and comes to the same conclusion, the position is generally attributed to the earlier author, with later authorities seen as jumping on the bandwagon.

    So generally, authorship is generally attributed to the earliest source (e.g a Rashbah, even if 10 later sources adopt the same position).

    2) Some recent moves in Brisker Lumdus strip all authorship from Halakhic authorities and (implicitly) argue that all legal positions are implicit in the original text/Halakha and that later writers are just making those positions manifest. E.g there are four ways to learn a Sugyah or understand a Halakha and then you find four Seforim who adopt those positions.

    They may be taking the position that within the Halakhic system authorship is not important because the system transcends individual authors.

    3. As a side note, this is also Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern criticism of Hasidei dekokhvaya’, “star-struck Hasidim,” that Gershon Scholem and his students viewed Jewish Intellectual History as the playing out of ideas implicit within Kabbalah.

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