Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Literature - Invention of the Self

Arto HAAPALA [ # ]


It is a well-established tradition in the philosophy of art to regard works of art as autonomous, independent entities. In particular, works of art are thought to be independent of their creators, artists. This theoretical trend has been very strong and influential in literary theory; not only Roland Barthes but a great number of scholars from different theoretical backgrounds, both before and after him, have declared the author dead. According to this tradition, when talking about an author one is often said to be referring to a principle  inside  the work, the  implied author , to use the term introduced by Wayne C. Booth. Once the author has been projected into the work, one can forget about the person who actually created it, one does not have to bother about the  real author .

It is surprising that scholars have rarely looked into the ontological foundation of this structuralist model. What is the  real author  and what is the work from which one should find the  implied author ? What is meant by  real ? Works of art are very real; why should one make a sharp distinction between the work and the real author? What are the ontological assumptions behind this distinction? How well are they established?

What I shall do in this paper is to sketch an ontological account of the author and his works. My theory, assuming it is on the right tracks, counters the ontological assumptions of the structuralist model. My claim basically is that the artist and his works are inseparable in the most radical sense. By creating works of art a person creates an artistic identity for himself. He creates himself quite literally into the pieces he puts forward as art. He exists in the works he has created. There are no strict boundaries; one cannot draw a line between the real author and the works.


I shall start by looking at the foundations of the structuralist theory. The point of departure seems to be that there are independent, separate substances. There is an author, and there are his works. It is, admittedly, tempting to draw a line separating the two: while reading a novel or looking at a painting, we do not see the artist in the same concrete way as we see and meet our fellow citizens in the street. And besides, works of art, quite obviously, outlive their creators. Artists come and go, works of art remain;  Ars longa, vita brevis.  And thirdly, there is an element of unreality in literary works: most works of literature are fictional. Real authors are not fictional.

The real artist is thought to be something which cannot exist in works of art. To put the matter in an another way: artists and works of art consist of different  matter , and this makes it impossible that the two could be ontologically tied together in more than a very weak sense. Real artists are biological and mental creatures, works of art something else. Art works may be creations or projections of the artist's mind and the artist may have used his body to create them, but they are always separate from him. There is a gap between the two.

One of the basic distinctions underpinning the model is that between man's inner world and the outer world of objects. Works of art belong to the world of objects. As a bodily being man is also member of the object world. This world is always defined in physical terms. Objects are substances in a space and so clearly separable from each other. We now begin to see the broader theoretical basis of the structuralist model - it is, in fact, nothing other than the Cartesian one. There are minds and there are physical objects, there is the inner world of man, and the outer world of objects. I have to stress that I do not claim all structuralist theorists to have explicitly put forward or defended the Cartesian theory. What I am saying is that the general theoretical framework of the structuralist theory - and many other theories of art - is the Cartesian one. There are exceptions, certainly, but as far as I can see, the background of many, I would say even of most, present-day theories of art is the traditional Cartesian theory.


Given this, we may try to shatter the theories of art by questioning their background. I shall do this by following some thoughts originally put forward by Heidegger. Similar ideas have been taken up by some post-structuralist theorists, but in this paper I shall rely on the originator of this line of thought. Time and again Heidegger criticises the Cartesian way of thinking - distinctions between the inner and outer, mental and physical, the self and other objects are misplaced. Rather than being an independent self-sufficient substance, man is a relational entity whose existence is characterised by relations to other entities. Man's way of being, what he finally is, is determined by different sorts of  liaisons . In this sense, man's  inner  is  out in the world . Man always finds himself in a world in which there are other beings. In Heidegger's terms, one of the basic features of man's existence is  being-in-the-world . This necessarily implies relations to other beings; man is always  together  with other beings. An individual is  thrown into  a prestructured inhabited whole. The world in which he finds himself is already meaningful - it has gained its structure and meaning independently of himself. The world has been there before him, and there have been a great number of other beings preceding him.

The world, the socio-cultural surroundings in which he finds himself, largely determine what a particular individual is. An individual adopts a language, customs, norms, values, etc. from the world into which he is born. He is a creature who cannot be anything other than  in-the-world . Man cannot be ontologically separated from the world. The Heideggerian concept of  being-in-the-world  must be understood in a definitive sense. As Heidegger emphatically stresses,  being-in-the-world  is not to be analysed spatially. The  in  is not the Cartesian  in  of objects and space. The  in  means exactly  to be  in relation with other beings in such a way that man's  nature  is to be found from these relations. I shall quote a chapter from Heidegger's lectures which gives a good idea of the relationship and which, at the same time, shows how difficult it is to formulate it without falling into the Cartesian way of thinking:

Das Sein des Daseins ist nicht von der Seinsart der Welt (i.e. objects, AH), es ist weder Vorhanden- noch Zuhandensein von etwas, es ist ebensowenig das Sein eines  Subjekts  dessen Sein dann immer wieder unausgesprochen formal als Vorhandensein genommen werden müsste. Vielmehr kann man sagen, wenn man die Orientierung an Welt und  Subjekt  festhalten durfte: Das Sein des Daseins ist gerade das Sein des  Zwischen  Subjekt und Welt. Dieses  Zwischen , das allerdings nicht erst dadurch entsteht, dass ein Subjekt mit einer Welt zusammentrift, ist das Dasein selbst, aber auch wieder nicht als Eigenschaft eines Subjekts! Daher darf Dasein eben streng genommen aus diesem Grund nicht als  Zwischen  gefasst werden, weil die Rede von einem  Zwischen  Subjekt und Welt immer schon voraussetzt, dass zwei Seiende gegeben sind , wozwischen eine Relation bestehen soll. Das In-Sein ist kein  Zwischen  von realen Seienden , sondern das sein des Daseins selbst, zu dem eine Welt jeweils mitgehört, /- -/. Deshalb ist es immer, mindestens wenn man begrifflich streng sprechen will, verkehrt, menschliches Dasein as einen Mikrokosmos gegenuber der Welt als Makrokosmos zu bezeichnen, weil die Seinsart des Daseins wesentlich von jeder Art des Kosmos verschieden ist.1  

It is difficult to talk about man or Dasein without using the terms  subject  and  world . In my usage, as in Heidegger's, this is to be understood only as a façon de parler: it is extremely troublesome, almost impossible, to describe man's way of being without using the terms. Here it is important to understand that the Cartesian model has been abandoned. Man is a relational entity in a very radical sense: he consists of relations. Again I must refer to the quotation above: the term  relation  seems to imply that there are two distinct yet interrelated entities. But the same holds true here:  relation  is not used in its customary sense. If we think in purely physical terms, there are, of course, distinct objects: man as a physical body, and a painting or a book in a physical space. But neither man nor the work of art is properly understood if one sticks to the purely physical. What is important is their cultural identity, and what is cultural is always relational in the special sense I have referred to. I shall try to make this sense clearer below when turning specifically to literary works.


I shall use the term  art world  to refer to a particular cultural world. My usage comes quite close to the one developed by George Dickie, though I cannot go into Dickie's terminology here.2 The art world is, then, a specific domain of a more general world in which man lives. If we wanted to mix the phenomenological and the analytical terminology, we could say that the art world is a slice of the Lebenswelt, life-world. I cannot go into the issue here, but it appears that there are indeed interesting similarities between the phenomenological and analytical traditions in this respect. Husserl speaks of the  special worlds  (Sonderwelt) to refer to cultural contexts defined by a definite purpose. The world of science is one of his examples3 . Analogously, we can speak of the world of art.

The art world is the complex network of customs, practices, norms, values, and institutions of different sorts that have been established during the history of art. Here I am talking solely about the culture we could call  western . This implies, of course, that one should, in the final analysis, speak of several worlds of art. This is in fact the case: art worlds, like all specific cultural worlds, are bound to larger units, and just as there is more than one culture, there are several worlds of art. There are different sets of customs, practices and institutions.

An important feature of the art world is its historicity: the present of the art world has been formed by the past. And the past is present in the art world in a number of ways. Past is there through works of past eras, through activities now regarded as self-evident but which have gained acceptance only gradually over the course of time. The whole art world is a product of the past. All the innovations within the world are based on what is, and through what is, on what has been. the art world is indeed a web of diverse historic elements. These factors are interconnected in extremely complicated ways.

If we just think for a moment about the process of publishing a book, we shall get a glimpse of the complex nature of the procedures involved. To start with, an author delivers a work. He is tied to the art world in the most fundamental ways - he applies the rules of a specific genre, he writes for an audience whose expectations have been formed by the tradition, he uses a language that has been used by a number of writers before him, etc. Between the author and the publishing house, there may be other mediatory factors involved. The publishing house is itself an historic formation - not only in the weak sense of possibly being an old one, but in the strong sense that it is an instance of the institution of publishing houses, and of the custom of publishing books through publishing houses. These are all historic facts which have gained form through tradition. And so are book fairs, book shops, and similar institutions through which an audience can become acquainted with the works.

The art world is the bedrock from which individual artists and their works grow. Dickie divides the general world of art into subworlds. There is the world of literature, world of painting, world of music. Even these might, for some purposes, be split into subworlds. But this kind of analysis is not the aim of my paper. Every artist belongs to an art world. Even those who take no active part in the public life of art - exhibitions, concerts, publishing campaigns, etc. - or who live like hermits outside society, must have an idea of what they are doing, i.e. they do have a concept of art, and they must have acquired the concept by looking at paintings, listening to music, reading books, or by having been in contact with the art world in some other way. This is quite sufficient to form the bond between an individual and the art world.4 Everyone who has learned a language has a connection to the art world. If one creates pieces to be regarded as art, the connection to the art world is that of an artist.5 That he is an artist does not imply professionalism; a fairly small child can be an artist, as well as an amateur writer and a Sunday painter.


A person is always thrown into a cultural maze which provides the tools with which he can start to build himself up. There is no way he can completely get rid of the fibres of his culture. The most important way by which someone can construe a literary identity for himself is to write pieces to be regarded as art. In creating works of art, he necessarily projects a view of art. As an artist, he makes certain artistic choices. He has to decide, to start with, what particular artistic media to use. An author writes a poem, a piece of prose, a prose poem, or whatever. He makes a choice. The process of creating a work of art is making artistic choices.

How, then, to define the term  artistic choice ? The question of definition seems to be unavoidable. To define  artistic choice  would inevitably lead to a definition of art, and that is an issue I cannot enter into here. I am well aware that what I shall say sounds circular, but I think it is ultimately possible to get out of the circle. For now it is sufficient to say that whatever choice an artist makes for deliberation in an artistic context, is an artistic choice. All choices that a person makes in order to be considered in an artistic context are artistic ones. A painter makes a great number of artistic choices when spreading paint on a canvas. At the same time he may make other decisions without intending them to be considered in an artistic context. He may, for example, decide to go and buy a pizza for lunch. This does not have an influence on how his painting looks when finished.

An author makes artistic choices while writing; besides the  principal  decisions which precede the actual writing process - such as choosing the language and genre - he makes  micro  choices all the time. These decisions do not have to be conscious in the sense that there is a thought process preceding them. An author possesses abilities, linguistic skills, which enable him to make decisions  automatically . Also an author makes plenty of choices that do not count as artistic. He may decide to use a particular word processing program, or decide to do the first draft by hand, etc.

What I am basically saying may be put briefly as follows: by making artistic choices, an author creates his artistic identity. He construes himself as an artist. Every artistic decision adds to his literary personality. The sum of all artistic decisions is an artist's style in the broadest sense. Style is a way of creating art, and it includes - if we want to stick to traditional concepts - features connected to the form of the piece as well as features connected to its subject matter.

To my mind, style and artistic personality are one and the same thing. Stylistic features result from a person's artistic choices and they constitute his artistic identity. Now, one could ask why one should make this identification. Are there any reasons for equating style and artistic personality? I think we do find a reason for this when we consider the following question: how do we find the features characterizing a person as an artist? We discover them by finding out the artistically relevant properties of his oeuvre. A person may also pose as an artist, as Oscar Wilde did, for example, and in this way create his artistic self. But it seems that the only necessary condition for someone being an artist is that he has created something to be regarded as art. That is, one cannot be an artist without having created works of art, and at the same time a style.

My view is expressly ontological: a person's artistic self is in his works. Physical outlines, the limits of man's body, are not the boundaries of his self. His cultural existence extends beyond his physical existence as well as his mental existence in the traditional sense. Why proceed into ontological considerations of this sort? Is it not sufficient to state that as an artist a person is such-and-such? The case is analogical to a well-known dispute in epistemology: when I look at a straight stick which is partly submerged, what do I see? One answer, popular in the first half of our century, is: I see something bent. As the physical stick is straight, it cannot be the direct object of my perception. As a solution, some philosophers offered the concept of the sense datum - not the physical object but the sense datum is the direct object of perception. Another answer is simply to say that we do not have to postulate a special class of perceptual entities. What I see in the case mentioned is a straight stick as bent.

Although there are similarities between the two cases, I would still say that they cannot be resolved in the same way. I would be tempted to reject the sense datum theory as unnecessary and still stick to the theory of man as a relational cultural entity whose existence cannot be restricted, either to the confines of his body or of the mind. I am not sure though, whether I can put forward any new arguments in favour of my account; but I could ask you to do some Wittgensteinian phenomenology:  look and see .


There are, of course, many arguments put forward in favour of the existence of cultural entities. Joseph Margolis, among others, has pointed out that properties we attribute to cultural entities, especially their intentional and expressive features, cannot be attributed to purely physical objects.6 Karl Popper's  third world objects  are cultural entities, and their existence is necessitated by the fact that they cannot be identified with anything purely physical (world 1) or mental (world 2).7 Roman Ingarden's considerations on  intentional objects  rely on the same line of argument: there are objects, such as literary works, which clearly cannot be equated either with physical or mental properties.8  

I have to say that I am not certain whether this is the type of question to be settled by arguments. I am rather tempted to take the existence of cultural worlds and their objects as a fact. The task of the philosopher is to analyse their particular nature. In my view, cultural entities are context bound, historically determined beings.

Those cultural entities that are brought into existence by a certain individual or a specific group of individuals bear the hallmarks of their creators. It is not a distinguishing feature of art in general or literary works in particular that people create their cultural existence in their works. This applies also to other human activities: a scientist creates his scholary self in his scientific works, publications, lectures, courses, etc. A designer creates his  designer self  by carrying out his work and creating, for example, chairs.

I should perhaps point out, however, that the concept of the artistic self or identity is not the same as the concept of the implied artist. Literary theorists who have introduced the concept of the implied author, or related concepts, have always stressed that the author within the work cannot and should not be identified with the real author. So, there is the distinction between art and reality. My claim is exactly the opposite: the real author exists in the works. There could not be anything more real than the artistic personality someone has created in creating a work of art. There is no ontological gap between art and reality.

Creating oneself through one's deeds and creations is a continuing process. As long as an author is productive, he adds new aspects to his identity. From time to time he may take a new turn, and put forward pieces not previously seen in his oeuvre. His artistic self may finally be many faceted. A person's artistic identity is open until his physical death. There is always the possibility of him putting forward new pieces. More broadly speaking, a person's general identity is complete only in death. This is, of course, the existentialist doctrine of existence preceding essence. By existing, by doing, man construes himself as a human being. An artist forms his essence by creating works of art.


I hope it has become clear what I mean by the anticartesian basis of my account: the totality of what is does not consist of independent substances, but of interrelated  open  beings. In as far as these beings are cultural entities, they grow from a cultural network, from a life-world. They carry in themselves the cultural heritage of the background. In fact, even the word  background  is somewhat misleading; it might suggest that the network is somewhere at the back, whereas it is present all the time. Also the different aspects of time are there: the past is present in our life world. Even the future can be present. The art world we live in, is a complex mixture of different layers of time.

In this complex world even the distinctions between physical and mental become blurred. When something is cultural in nature, these kinds of distinctions loose their significance, and are, at best, misleading. Also the question of whether works of art are something purely physical or mental, is deceptive. A piece of sculpture is not an entity definable in purely physical terms. There is, of course, a concrete, tangible object in front of us. What I mean by saying that the physical vs. mental distinction is misleading, is that we easily interrupt our considerations of the physical body. It is as if the tangible object blocks our view of what is important in understanding the nature of art works. If we stick to the merely physical, we do not see the context into which it fits, we do not see the constituent relations.

This applies to literary works too. The view I have suggested holds that all works of art are ontologically of the same kind. Were we to start from the traditional distinctions we would embark on speculations which would lead us off the point. Are literary works something  in the head , to use an expression by Collingwood? Are they Platonic objects? They are neither one nor the other. They are cultural objects, which exist and perish with the context to which they are bound. The fact that they are not concrete physical objects does not make them any less real.  Reality  is by no means emptied by the notion of physicality, nor by the notion of ideality.


One of the important consequences of my account is that art and reality are much closer together than commonly thought. I would go as far as to say that there is no sharp line here either. In many ways, literature and art in general are ways of creating new reality. As cultural objects, works of art are as real as any other objects of our world. They play a significant role in our culture. They affect people's lives in a number of ways; they are, for example, emotionally very effective. Literary works typically also give us new ways of looking at the world; they have a cognitive role too.9  

And most importantly, art is one of the ways in which man can construe himself. Works of art are not something over and above man's everyday existence. They are part of man himself and, at the same time, of the environment in which man lives.


1. Heidegger, Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Zeitbegriffs, pp. 346-347, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1979.

2. Dickie, The Art Circle, A Theory of Art, Haven Publications, New York 1984.

3. Cf. Werner Marx,   Vernunft und Lebenswelt. Bemerkungen zu Husserls 'Wissenschaft von der Lebenswelt' , Vernunft und Welt: Zwischen Tradition und anderem Anfang, Den Haag 1970. Husserl, Husserliana, Band VI, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie. §§ 8-9, 33-34. Hrsg. von Walter Biemel. Nijhoff, En Haag 1954.

4. Cf. Dickie, ibid., 80-82.

5. Cf. Levinson,  Defining Art Historically , The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 19, 1979.

6. Joseph Margolis,  The Ontological Peculiarity of Works of Art , Philosophy Looks at the Arts: Contemporary Readings in Aesthetics, revised edition, ed. by Joseph Margolis. Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1978.

7. Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, p.36-50, Springer International, Berlin 1977.

8. Roman Ingarden, Das literarische Kunstwerk, dritte durchgesehene Auflage, p.388,Tübingen 1972.

9. Needless to say that also the distinction emotive vs. cognitive is very qustionable. We often learn from literature by being deeply emotionally involved in the fictional world of a work. Literary works often learn us  big emotions  - deep sorrow, anger, love, hate. But also concepts that are less emotionally charged such as friendship, loyalty, virtue, etc. Literature does this most often by creating fictional persons who exemplify these features.

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