“Names and surnames are labels,” writes Elena Ferrante, the successful Italian author of the Neapolitan quartet, who has recently published Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a book of her letters, essays and interviews. Ferrante, who has chosen to remain anonymous by withholding her ‘real’ name from the public, continues to cause a stir in the world of letters and media. For over twenty years, she has operated under a pseudonym that conceals her true identity, instead writing under the chosen name of Elena Ferrante, a name resonant with that of her favoured Italian predecessor Elsa Morante.
In the interviews noted in Frantumaglia, Ferrante is repeatedly challenged to defend her decision to withhold her actual identity. Initially, Ferrante emphasizes her need for privacy and a truly anonymous creative space in which to write. For her, this privacy allows for the full expression of her ideas and the birth of her characters. She insists that for her, a writing space be “a hidden place without surveillance or urgency of any type.”
Later on, she supplements this argument by adding that “authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing his or her private life.” To discover facts and opinions about an author is simply to engage in “idle gossip.”
Ferrante disparages the critics, media promoters and academics who write psychobiography in an attempt to expose the identity of the writer behind the characters. In a tone reminiscent of the post-structuralist philosophers Roland Barthes (The Death of an Author) and Michel Foucault (What is an Author?), who argue that the author is a construct or ideological figure whose work must be interpreted by readers, Ferrante claims her texts stand on their own without need or requirement for further comment. Rather than embellish the image and opinions of the writer, she argues that “real books” need to be read and interpreted by readers. In other words, once published the text is abandoned by the writer and becomes the property of the reader, whose task it is to interpret and appreciate, or not, the text.
In spite of an author’s wish to remain private for personal reasons, is it not the case that we are fascinated by the mystery and private lives of many artists, especially those to whom we are most drawn? Do we not entertain a certain voyeuristic pleasure in digging into an artist’s personal life? And do we not attempt to discover some clues to their creative process by delving and probing into their psyche? Could it not be that we are attempting to identify with the lofty ideals and values of those whose work we cherish, while demonizing or invalidating those we do not? For many, it would seem that this curiosity about the person of the author becomes as important as the enjoyment and pleasure of the work.
It is also apparent that the commercial world, concerned about their own business and profit-making interests, persists in digging to find the “real identity” of Elena Ferrante. For those who are reading this article without any familiarity with this author and the media attention surrounding the quest for her identity, it is important to know that she was “unmasked” by an Italian journalist in 2016, to the outrage and consternation of many of her fans. Clearly her supporters were in favour of the media protecting and respecting her privacy. As a result, Ferrante temporarily withdrew from the public, and from writing, due to this betrayal and lack of respect, confirming the need she had to write in anonymity.
As I was writing this blog, I heard on the CBC a performance of a piece by Friedrich (“Fritz”) Kreisler (1875-1962), the Austrian-born American violinist and composer. In the introduction to the piece played, the announcer pointed out that Kreisler had originally ascribed many of his compositions to earlier composers, such as Antonio Vivaldi or Giuseppe Tartini, as he did not trust that his pieces would be well received. When I did a Google search to read further about this, I learnt that he subsequently revealed his authorship of these compositions to the loud complaints of his critics. Kreisler’s response: “The name changes, the value remains.” In pointing out that the works had already been deemed worthwhile, he was echoing the comments of Elena Ferrante regarding the merit of a work that stands without the need for its author’s name or identity to be exposed.
This enquiry into the identity of the author raises a related question regarding the actual moniker of the author and what it signifies. According to Ferrante, the author is purely a name independent of the creative work or text itself. As noted above, the writing is a creative product that needs to stand (or fall) on its own merit. We do not always know much about certain well-loved and honoured classical writers, such as Homer. With others, speculation regarding a writer or artist abounds yet uncertainty predominates, as in the case of Shakespeare. While we may not know something about an author (i.e., their private life, their likes and dislikes, etc.), how much weight do we actually attach to knowledge of the author’s name? Do we agree that names are merely labels affixed to artistic creations?
From the side of the writer, a certain degree of narcissism is associated with public recognition and the sight of one’s name on a book jacket. However, it is clear that Ferrante is an author whose ego is not caught up with fame and public admiration, and who, in spite of her overwhelming literary success, has no need to make her identity known.
On the side of the reader, one can also ask, how much weight and value do we attach to a book’s author? Do we pick up and read the book of an unknown author or do we consistently choose the work of an established name? Are we more forgiving of an author whose work we know than one who remains unknown? If names were eliminated from book covers, would we be more impartial and equitable in our judgments?
In my own field of psychoanalysis, journal submissions are typically sent blind to those assessing or evaluating the merit of an article before being chosen for publication. Once selected and published, the author of each article is given, as in all fields of study. However, in 1968, Jacques Lacan, the French analyst, founded Scilicet, the official academic journal of the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP). Established at a time of considerable creativity and institutional inventiveness, Scilicet adopted the editorial policy of publishing unsigned articles in an attempt to “overcome the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, the editors wished to undo the natural tendency of egoistic and imaginary rivalry and competition, expressed in the exposure of one’s name. Perhaps it was also intended to eliminate the influential impact (transference) be it positive or negative, that the name of a particular analyst might have on a reader. Lacan wrote this, so it must be worthwhile; Dr X wrote that and he is not worth reading.
However, in spite of this valiant effort to eliminate the printing of names that could prop up authors, as well as influence the opinion of the readership, this policy did not last. With the publication of the second issue, a list of twenty names of contributors to the first issue was printed, and subsequent issues acknowledged authors’ names.
So we can conclude that while one’s proper name is one of the most significant traits of identity within the symbolic order, the question of the attachment to a name and the accompanying identity of its bearer renders the popularity of works of art and scholarship an interesting point from the side of both the writer and the reader: the request or need for privacy versus the desire for recognition; the autonomy of the text versus the identity of the author’s person; public fame and recognition versus textual creativity and scholarship.
While one’s proper name is one of the most significant traits of identity within the symbolic order, the question of the extent to which the attachment of a work of art or scholarship to a name and/or identity might determine its popularity remains an interesting one, from the point of view of both the writer and the reader.