The Author and the Vase


At an inn in Kyoto, Noriko and her father, Shukichi, are lying down on separate futons and conversing before moving on with their new lives. Noriko is getting married reluctantly, and Shukichi is getting married for a second time. After Noriko tells her father that she found the idea of his remarriage distasteful, she looks over and sees that Shukichi is already asleep. She looks up at the ceiling and appears to be smiling when the film cuts to the shot above.

The shot lasts for six seconds, after which we see Noriko again, but her smile has turned into a frown. Then we get a ten-second shot of the same vase. Without any further explanation or direct follow-up, it is no surprise that this shot from Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring[1] has generated a myriad of interpretations. As Abé Mark Nornes wrote: “Nothing in all of Ozu’s films has sparked such conflicting explanations; everyone seems compelled to weigh in on this scene, invoking it as a key example in their arguments.”[2]

The shot is significant, as made apparent by its unusual placement, length, and repetition. The fact that a change (in Noriko’s expression) occurs in the background when all we see is this shot is also a reason to pay close attention. It’s an unnatural choice. What we would expect is for the shot to stay on Noriko’s face as joy morphs into sadness, but that transition is overridden by one of Ozu’s signature pillow shots.[3]

So what is the “real” meaning behind this shot? Is it a “container for our emotions”?[4] An expression of something “unified, permanent, transcendent”?[5] Is it “a non-narrative element wedged into the action”?[6] Is it a shot of an urn rather than a vase, thereby representing Noriko’s dead mother? Is it a deliberate use of a false point of view, since the shot is clearly not from Noriko’s perspective?[7] Or is it, as Gilles Deleuze thought, an example of a time-image: “The vase in Late Spring is interposed between the daughter’s half smile and the beginning of her tears. There is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself, ‘a little time in its pure state’: a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced. […] Ozu’s still lifes endure, have a duration, over ten seconds of the vase: this duration of the vase is precisely the representation of that which endures, through the succession of changing states.”[8]

To pose the question in the way presented above, as if the task of the viewer is to decipher the “correct” interpretation is to miss the mark.[9] Ask yourself this: for the readings above, “What difference does it make who is speaking?”[10] In other words, does the author’s—Yasujirō Ozu’s—original intention for the vase shot have any bearing on the value of the interpretations above? If, hypothetically, Ozu claimed that all he wanted to do with the shot was to confuse the interpreters, would this make, say, Deleuze’s reading “wrong”?

My intention with this essay is related to a certain anxiety. An anxiety that plagues me once I set out to close-read anything. Instead of defining what I mean directly, a concrete example will suffice: In Poems, Poets, Poetry, Helen Vendler argues that poets don’t approach the task of writing analytically, that is, they don’t begin with a conscious plan of what they want to convey and how they will do so: “A composer does not say, “I think this is the point for a diminished seventh,” or “Perhaps it would be effective to follow eighth-note triplets with a dotted quarter note.” No, the composer “hears the music” and writes it down; it is only later that analysts demonstrate the patterns that make the music seem intended, not chaotic. A poet, too, “hears the poem,’’ writes it down, and then further refines its visible patterns. Naturally, when a given pattern precedes the composition of the poem (“I want to write a sonnet”), much will be dictated by the preexistent formal requirements; but even then, the swift internal processes of composition organize the temporal, spatial, grammatical, and syntactic shapes of the poem more by instinct than by conscious plan. One could say that artists are people who think naturally in highly patterned ways.”[11]

If this were true—I thought—wouldn’t any in-depth analysis of a few lines of poetry be bound to go beyond the author’s intentions and thereby be “false”? I thought that what keeps one’s interpretations from becoming akin to those of Charles Kinbote/Vseslav Botkin from Pale Fire[12] is grounding them in the author’s original intentions. I no longer believe this, and there will be no good reason for you to ground your interpretation of this essay in my original intention for writing it.

I will argue, contrary to the habit of privileging the author’s original intent, that the value of an interpretation does not necessarily stand or fall with its proximity to it. My main point is that while considerations of original intentions may often be useful, our analyses and interpretations should not be bound by these: as Georges Canguilhem noted, philosophy is a type of reflection for which all matters, all topics are worthy of consideration.[13] Consequently, there are no necessary conditions (e.g., the existence of an author) that must be satisfied by a text, film, painting, etc. before it can become an object of interpretation.


“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”[14] People generally think of a text as a less-than-perfect lens under which we may grasp what the author “really” intended to convey.

It is possible to go beyond this approach. Barthes cites Stéphane Mallarmé as the original critic of this approach, who claimed that language itself speaks, not the author. This echoes in contemporary poets like Charles Simic, who writes that no one “wills” metaphors and poems into existence:

We may start believing that we are recreating an experience, that we are making an attempt at mimesis, but then the language takes over. Suddenly the words have a mind of their own.

It’s like saying, “I wanted to go to church but the poem took me to the dog races.”

When it first happened I was horrified. It took me years to admit that the poem is
smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants to go.[15]

Even without touching the question of determinism and free will, it is clear that we can analyze language without reference to who wrote it. The notion of the ‘subject’ is enough: “language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it.”[16]

Consider the following example: In the woods, the wind arranges fallen leaves in such a way as to resemble a readable poem in a language familiar to you. Unless you believe in divine intervention, you’ll think that this is just an unlikely chance occurrence without a conscious author. The wind did not intend to convey any specific meaning to you, yet nothing stops you from interpreting the poem of leaves. The only thing that’s different is that it would be wise to leave out any considerations of original intentions.

Let’s now say that you bring this poem to the attention of literary critics, who then come up with differing and sometimes contradictory interpretations. In such a scenario, the differing interpretations will necessarily be evaluated based on the text itself since, even if one believes that the poem was the work of a divine being, one knows absolutely nothing about its intentions.

The interpretation of one’s dreams functions similarly: There is no need for you or your psychotherapist to believe that your unconscious has the capacity for intentionality to interpret your dreams and get some practical value out of doing so.


Tied to this devaluation of intent is the question of originality. The author does not have the final word on the meaning of a text because the author did not create it ex nihilo: “a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” The author’s “only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.”[17] Cormac McCarthy made a similar point about literature when he said in an interview that “books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”[18]

In other words, Hume’s Copy Principle[19] and his idea that the “creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience”[20], may be extended to any endeavor, whereby no work of art is created without being preceded and influenced by a plethora of corresponding impressions. 


You may have already noticed that these arguments have an ethical dimension. In a sense, they liberate the text from its owner and challenge perceived authority. If you remove the author from the text, there is nothing to “decipher.” Viewing a text in relation to its author gives it an ultimate meaning and makes the reader’s work more akin to problem-solving than interpretation.

In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.[21]

What this reevaluation of the author’s significance for a work of art calls for is not the effacement of the figure. It asks new questions along with the old ones. Instead of viewing the text as a tainted lens through which the critic/reader/viewer/interpreter must try to decipher the “real” meaning of the work and check their results, like a natural scientist, against the “objective” criterion in the form of the author’s original intentions, we may analyze the work on its own and use it as the ultimate criterion. If one’s interpretation conflicts with the author’s original intentions, the conclusion isn’t that the interpretation is “false.” What may falsify one’s interpretation isn’t the author’s intention but the work of art itself.

Consider again our initial example of the vase shot and its various interpretations. None of these would be invalidated if Ozu’s intentions were entirely different. Instead of trying to answer questions like: “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?”, we may consider conflicting interpretations alongside the question: “What difference does it make who is speaking?”[22]


  1. Ozu, Y. (Director). (1972, July 21). Banshun (Late Spring). Shochiku.
  2. Nornes, A. M. (2007). The Riddle of the Vase: Ozu Yasujirō’s Late Spring (1949). In Phillips, A., & Stringer, J. (2007). Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts. Routledge.
  3. Richie, D. (1974). Ozu: His Life and Films. University of California Press.
  4. Ibid., p. 174.
  5. Schrader, P. (1988). Transcendental style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Da Capo Press. pp. 49-51.
  6. Thompson, K. (1988). Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton University Press. pp. 339-340.
  7. Bordwell, D. (1988). Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. BFI Pub. p. 117.
  8. Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 2: The time-image. Athlone. p. 17.
  9. Clearly, a film is not a product of a single author: one look at the credit sequence of a film is sufficient evidence for this. For a more in-depth discussion of the issues of authorship in cinema, see Wartenberg, T. (2015). Philosophy of Film. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  10. Foucault, M. (1998). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. The New Press. p. 222.
  11. Vendler, H. (2009). Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 29.
  12. Nabokov, V. V. (1962). Pale Fire. Putnam.
  13. Bonicco-Donato, Céline (2016), «Ville (GP)», dans Maxime Kristanek (dir.), l’Encyclopédie philosophique, consulté le …,
  14. Barthes, R. (1977). Image, Music, Text. Fontana. p. 143.
  15. Simic, C. (2015). Notes on Poetry and Philosophy. In The Life of Images: Selected Prose. HarperCollins.
  16. Barthes, R. (1977). Image, Music, Text. Fontana. p. 145.
  17. Ibid., p. 146.
  18. Cormac McCarthy in an interview for the New York Times (1992).
  19. David Hume’s Copy Principle refers to his claim that all our ideas are copies of our impressions: “all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of pure impressions or more lively ones.” Hume, D. (1907). An enquiry concerning human understanding; and Selections from a treatise of human nature. La Salle, Ill. Open Court Pub. Co. (Original work published 1748)
  20. Ibid., p. 16.
  21. Barthes, R. (1977). Image, Music, Text. Fontana. p. 147.
  22. Foucault, M. (1998). Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. The New Press. p. 222.

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