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Cryptic Lit

Literature has been obsessed with its ability to confer immortality for millenniums. There are countless examples over time, including an ancient one in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the narrator quips about his own voice, "wherever Roman governance extends/. . ./my words will be on people's lips,/and if there is truth in poets' prophecies,/then in fame forever will I live."* Moreover Shakespeare assures his young, male lover in the Sonnets something similar, including in Number 17 in which he remarks that if his lover were to have a child, "You should live twice, in it, and in my rhyme." Perhaps one of the most direct references to the immortality-function of literature, though, can be found in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

That work operates primarily by self-referentiality. We learn about the poet discovering an ancient pot, perhaps in the British Museum or the Vatican Collection, painted with nuptial scenes on it. In particular we hear about the young couple on the verge of the wedding kiss, of a groom flamed with passion for his bride, hot for her lips. The poet comments, "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" The work points to the eternalizing nature of art, including literature, and more importantly Keats' own poem, the way it sets a narrative and its characters in stone, or fired clay as the case may be.

The Lede to Our Undoing explores in part that power in literature as well, that is immortality in death. The reader is told by the narrator, Molly, that she's been buried in a makeshift grave, and that a stone, the product of the age of glaciers, is pushing up into her, the way stones tend to rise toward the surface in the annual cycles of freezing and thawing. The rock is covered with lines, and Molly comments that it threatens to usurp her if she doesn't speak.

Realizing her time is limited, she tells her story, until later in the novel she returns yet again to the subject of the stone. She concedes, it's winning. That she's morphing into it. And that in the process her tale will come to an end. Then she adds, "I'm spinning my own death, the real kind and not the demise of the body, shifting me into another kind of body as though this web of words were my undoing. And yet though everything I say mortifies me, sets me in a sense in stone, I live still. Which is to say if you . . . [fancy] exhuming me, simply take to digging, unearthing where my heart once was until you track down this rock here, the one I leave behind, a mass of line­­­­­­s­­––just breathe into it and I'll spring to life."

Of course the line-covered stone is the novel itself, which is stone-like in that it's bare matter, a mass of lines. It can act as a doorstop or support the leg of a wobbly table; it can be chopped with an axe or ignited with a match; and unless it's a book that's considered sacred, something that can set people's sensibilities in a twist, anything can be done to it. But the fact is it acts as a grave or crypt, peopled with characters that spring to life only when it's cracked and read.

In a sense every literary work is a crypt, and libraries are cemeteries. It's a dead realm that readers breathe life into, reanimating the characters as though they were zombies, a version of walking dead; giving them breath so long as readers are interested. As long as a book survives.

For Ovid, Shakespeare, and Keats to promise eternity is to have a great deal of confidence about the status of their own work. I envy them. And yet it's not others they're conferring immortality to as much as themselves, which is something to contemplate in the wake of Roland Barthes' essay, "The Death of the Author" (1967), or Michel Foucault's "What is an Author" (1969), in which the latter reduces writers to an author-function.

I'm a fan of that discourse, I admit, even as I find fascinating the reaction against it, the religious-sounding school of the Death of the Author Fallacy. The notion that it isn't so much the writer who uses language but language that uses the writer, shapes and constructs her, works through her in the form of ever-morphing, changing cultures, is compelling to me. It's Western-capitalist cultures like the U.S. where creating gods, including writing-deities, is the soul of business and profit. In cultures like it the death of the author is anathema.

I would argue that the death of the author, whether you buy into Barthes or not, is not unrelated to the death of characters at the end of a novel when the flyleaves are shut or the reader exes out of the file. Authors and characters both are brought back to life and allowed to slay another day, as RuPaul might put it, only so long as there are readers to call them back to life, turn them into the talking, walking dead.


*Ovid's Metamorphosis, translation by Charles Martin

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