Authorizing Ossian

By Jack Lynch

Delivered at MWASECS, Minneapolis, 5 October 1995.

So -- what is an author? "The author's name," writes Foucault in his famous essay, "serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse." This "certain mode" is paired with another, for it "must be received in a certain mode and ... must receive a certain status."1 This involved dynamic of author, work, and audience deserves close scrutiny, but Foucault -- notorious for paltry research and leaving insights frustratingly undeveloped -- does little more than gesture at the complexities of this relationship: "the word work and the unity that it designates," he admits, "are probably as problematic as the status of the author's individuality,"2 but ultimately confesses that "far from offering a solution" to these questions, "I shall only indicate some of the difficulties."3 I add no solutions myself, but perhaps we can elucidate these "certain modes" by grounding them in specific cases. Since many critics who draw on Foucault's considerations of authorship are bogged down in the morass he has left, I hope to look for a more concrete illustration of the status of the author. Closer attention to an actual case history of composition and reception helps bring to light some of the more useful aspects of Foucault's work.

Foucault holds that "There are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the 'author function,' while others are deprived of it."4 Much work on this "author function" has drawn on the works hallowed as canonical, but I suggest many insights are best tested in the border conditions of literature, the extremes, the literary freaks. If the author function is concerned with the authorizing force of the author's name on a work or oeuvre, what better place to examine it than in the doubtful cases, where authorship and work are somehow "unnaturally" severed?

One such case shows that, at least in terms of reader reception, the author's name is not a mere accessory piece of knowledge about a work, but an integral part of the work itself. Nor is merely identifying the existence of an author function sufficient. The author himself, his personality and historical circumstances, are (at least in what Foucault calls an author-dominated age) as much a part of the work as what we call the "text itself." The division of a work into its "historical" and "aesthetic" components is a convenient but ultimately indefensible strategy, for the two are inseparably entangled: aesthetic value is contingent on historical circumstance. This is nowhere more evident than where the identity, even the existence, of the author is called into question.

These ruptures sometimes occur through accidents of time -- the Homeric poems and their relation to a "Homer" are uncertain because the conditions of the poems' creation have long been lost.5 Others have more interesting circumstances, as when an oeuvre is improperly lent an authorizing name, sometimes (as with the Epistles of Phalaris) through accident, sometimes through fraud. Though pseudepigrapha are nearly as old as writing itself,6 the most illuminating cases come early in the heyday of the author's dominance, hazily identified by Foucault as some time "in the seventeenth or eighteenth century."7 The process in fact can probably be traced to the Renaissance and even earlier (as Roger Chartier does), but one especially interesting point in the rise of the author comes late in the eighteenth century, in what has been called the Age of Sentiment, when the person of the author assumed a new significance. This was also one of the great ages of literary fraud, and the most impressive example is Macpherson's Ossianic poems.

The crime for which Macpherson was convicted as history's most perfidious literary fakir was nothing more than the attribution of a group of poems to an author. The question, of course, is not whether the works called Ossian's had an author -- they obviously had either one (Macpherson or Ossian) or many (Macpherson and anonymous ballad-writers)8 -- but instead whether they had a particular kind of author, one with power enough to conjure the Foucauldian "certain status," the "certain mode of being of discourse." Macpherson's forgery amounts to a sin against the author function.

This literary iniquity, like many instances of fraud, has usually been considered with emphasis on the work and on its author, but Foucault's insight -- if it contributes anything to this discussion -- encourages us to turn to the third party in any literary transaction, the audience. The three possible answers to the authorship question (Ossian, anonymous balladeers, Macpherson) demand of an audience three different and apparently irreconcilable reading strategies, and Ossian's reception reveals that reading itself is impossible until one of these strategies has been settled upon. With the rise of the author function, the formal features of texts (texts as artifacts) become insufficient to allow one even to begin reading: only when the historical identity of the author is settled can a text be read with confidence. Reading in the age of the Foucauldian author simply cannot take place until the reader has been informed which set of codes to employ, and these codes depend nearly inevitably on the identity of the author. The aesthetic lapses into abeyance, awaiting a verdict from history.

This was the Ossianic question from the beginning. At least one modern critic notes the historicity inhering in the aesthetic: "Disbelievers refused to grant any distinction between the historical authenticity and the literary worth of the poems. If they were not ancient, they had no value as literature."9 This dynamic operates in the Ossianic poems from their "discovery" through their dismissal as fraudulent, and has been the subject of nearly all subsequent criticism on the epics.10

What effect has this author function on the audience's relation to the text? Foucault suggests it lends a work unity and coherence otherwise lacking, and this proves the key to the dispute over Ossian's poems. Macpherson's first Ossianic imposture in 1760 did not attract the vehement response the later epics drew. Though the work claims the authority of antiquity, its title -- Fragments of Ancient Poetry11 -- confesses its piecemeal nature. There is no unifying author, merely anonymous "bards." With this disclaimer, Hugh Blair's advertisement that "the public may depend on the following fragments as genuine remains of ancient Scotish poetry"12 becomes somehow less egregious.

But even in the Fragments, Blair anticipates Macpherson's later course: "Though the poems now published appear as detached pieces in this collection, there is ground to believe that most of them were originally episodes of a greater work."13 Blair (doubtless acting on Macpherson's suggestions, since he knew no Gaelic and had no access to any "originals") shows the aesthetic sliding into the historical as he expects historical circumstance to unify and therefore to authorize the fragments:

Of the poetical merit of these fragments nothing shall here be said. Let the public judge, and pronounce. It is believed, that, by a careful inquiry, many more remains of ancient genius, no less valuable than those now given to the world, might be found in the same country where these have been collected.14
The "poetical merit," in other words, should remain in suspension until the "greater work" is "collected."

With the publication of the longer works (Fingal and Temora) under the name of a specific ancient author, the terms of the dispute change. When Blair defends the epics in his Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, he does so in terms of a single personality:

His poetry, more, perhaps, than that of any other writer, deserves to be stiled, The Poetry of the Heart. It is a heart penetrated with noble sentiments, and with sublime and tender passions; a heart that glows, and kindles the fancy; a heart that is full, and pours itself forth.15
It is no longer antiquity itself but an ancient personality that makes the difference. Literature, in the Dissertation, emanates spontaneously from personality, not artistry: "As their feelings are strong," he says of the ancient Scots, "so their language, of itself, assumes a poetical turn,"16 and Ossian's artistic distinction is due to his personal distinction: "This is such poetry as we might expect from a barbarous nation. ... But when we open the works of Ossian, a very different scene presents itself."17 Here we see a work gaining authority not from its antiquity -- that is dismissed as "barbarous" -- but from the individuality of its author, his transcendence of his own antiquity. This origin in a unified personality produces that artistic unity we attribute to the author function: he speaks of "such a large collection of poems, without the least inconsistency,"18 and for him this very uniformity testifies to its authenticity:
This representation of Ossian's times ... must strike us the more, as genuine and authentic, when it is compared with a poem of later date. ... In Ossian's works, from beginning to end, all is consistent.19
The unifying force of a single personality was central, if largely unconscious, in the reception not only of the Ossianic verse, but of many texts of doubtful attribution. Foucault mentions Jerome's construction of the author as "a field of conceptual or theoretical coherence," and notes that in the author-dominated age "the author ... serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge in a series of texts."20 Authenticity is contingent on consistency, and only the individual author can produce the indivisible text. This search into a work's provenance -- "We now ask of each poetic or fictional text: From where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design?"21 -- takes on a new significance in post-Renaissance reading practices. Antiquarianism now emphasizes the individuality and individualizing function of the author, an emphasis evident even before the appearance of the longer Ossianic epics, as in this letter of April 1760 from Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole:
I am so charmed with the two specimens of Erse poetry, that I cannot help giving you the trouble to enquire a little farther about them, and should wish to see a few lines of the original, that I may form some slight idea of the language, the measures, and the rhythm.

Is there anything known of the author or authors?22

A few months later the same situation obtains, both among experts -- "the Laird of Macfarlane," writes David Hume, "the greatest Antiquarian whom we have in this country, ... insists as strongly on the historical truth, as well as the poetical beauty of these productions"23 -- and among the reading public: "There is a second Edition of the Scotch Fragments," says Gray to Walpole again, "yet very few admire them, & almost all take them for fictions."24 This proximity of admiration and historical evaluation suggests the degree of their interdependence. Walpole is equally unable to dissociate historicity from poetic worth, for his ostensibly purely aesthetic complaint that "It tires me to death to read how many ways a warrior is like the moon, or the sun, or a rock, or a lion, or the ocean" is followed immediately by the more historical justification that "I cannot believe it genuine,"25 and in 1781 he finally dismissed the poems as "dull forgeries."26

What is significant about these examples is that authenticity and worth, author and authority, are inseparable: historical truth with poetical beauty on the one hand, or dull forgeries on the other, yes; but the category of poetical forgery is inconceivable. Beauty may not be Keats's truth, nor truth Keats's beauty, but beauty certainly cannot be expected to lodge with falsehood. The aesthetic faculty begins not with the first page but with the title page: it is the author's name and circumstances that activate the strategies required for reading, and reading cannot proceed until it has a foundation in historicity.

Samuel Johnson "thought [Macpherson's] book an imposture from the beginning, [and] upon yet surer reasons an imposture still."27 His first public declaration of disbelief gives his reason: "The editor, or author, never could shew the original,"28 and to Boswell he acknowledged he would admit as contrary evidence "the sight of any original."29 This appeal to origin as an authorizing and unifying agency is significant; it seems to be the factor that will settle whether Macpherson is "The editor, or author." Johnson's earlier work on the Dictionary and his edition of Shakespeare in the preceding decade -- especially his effort to seek out early editions and contemporary testimonies -- gave him an uncommon insight into the importance of origins and testimonial evidence in belles lettres. It is not surprising, therefore, that he sees the author function as a unifying principle more acutely than most of his contemporaries:
The poem of Fingal, he said, was a mere unconnected rhapsody, a tiresome repetition of the same images. "In vain shall we look for the lucidus ordo, where there is neither end or object, design or moral."30
Without an author, the poetry is unconnected, lacking an ordo. This explicit relationship of author and work shows up in Johnson's next great scholarly task, the Lives of the Poets, the original title of which -- Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets -- shows the interrelation of author and ordo.

Johnson was far from alone in his emphasis on origins, though he was the most vocal and most perceptive of Macpherson's antagonists. Blair, Gray, and Walpole take the unification of the author function for granted, but Johnson makes it explicit. Johnson, a master of reading practices and possessed of a keen insight into the darker corners of psychology, recognizes the role of the author function in the creation of "end or object, design or moral." This recognition of the nearly unbreakable bond between origin and ordo, in its limited way, anticipates Foucault, and reveals the degree to which the reading process depends on the historical information Johnson devoted so much energy to revealing.


1. "What is an Author?", in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 107.

2. Foucault, p. 104.

3. Foucault, p. 105.

4. Foucault, p. 107.

5. It is worth observing that one of the most important studies of the so-called Homeric question appeared at just this time, Wolf's Prolegomenon.

6. See Mark Jones, Fake?: The Art of Deception (London: British Museum Publications, 1990), and Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990). The author function, as it happens, provides a means to distinguish "literary" deceptions from other forgeries such as wills, land grants, the Donation of Constantine, and so on, for as Foucault observes, "A private letter may well have a signer -- it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor -- it does not have an author" (p. 108).

7. Foucault, p. 109.

8. The actual circumstances of the creation of the Ossianic poems has been discussed countless times in the last two centuries. A convenient but often over-zealously revisionist synopsis of recent scholarship is Ossian Revisited, ed. Howard Gaskill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1991), especially Gaskill's Introduction, and deGategno's volume in the Twayne series (see note 9).

9. Paul J. deGategno, James Macpherson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), p. 5.

10. The dismissal may be an over-reaction. See Gaskill's Introduction to Ossian Revisited for a discussion of the degree to which Macpherson has been accused of things of which he was innocent.

11. Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Galic or Erse Language (Edinburgh: 1760).

12. Fragments, sig. A2r.

13. Fragments, p. v.

14. Fragments, p. vii.

15. A Critical Dissertation, p. 438.

16. Dissertation, p. 418.

17. Dissertation, p. 427.

18. Dissertation, p. 436.

19. Dissertation, p. 431.

20. Foucault, p. 111.

21. Foucault, p. 109.

22. Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), II, 664-65.

23. David Hume to Thomas Gray, in Gray's Correspondence, II, 1227; and quoted with slight changes in Gray's letter to Mason, Letter 319*, in Correspondence, II, 695.

24. Gray to Wharton, Oct. 1760, in Correspondence, II, 704.

25. Walpole to George Montagu, 8 December 1761, in Selected Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), p. 103.

26. To William Mason, 5 February 1781, in Selected Letters, p. 247.

27. Letter to James Macpherson, 20 January 1775, in The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992-94), II, 168.

28. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, ed. Mary Lascelles, in the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1971), p. 118.

29. Letter of 7 February 1775, in Letters, ed. Redford, II, 177.

30. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), II, 126.