Ars longa, vita brevis
Elena Ferrante’s work is oceanic, and this is a stone thrown in it. This is important to remember, because ripples are splashy but fade away.
The reporter—and four newspapers, in four languages—that devoted “a months-long investigation” to doxing Elena Ferrante have done so because they think she is small and that they can diminish and comprehend her by asserting her real name and history. This is what makes it a violation, and a desecration. But this is also what makes them wrong, why it’s important to hold on to her story of herself, and to treat theirs with the contempt it deserves. They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it. But Elena Ferrante isn’t small because she isn’t real. She has written her books, and they remain.
The reporter who doxed her attempted to justify himself with this bit of weaseling:
“[B]y announcing that she would lie on occasion, Ferrante has in a way relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown. Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity.”
What logic is being expressed (or enfolded) into the words “in a way”? In what way? What “seems” to be the case to him?
The logic her is so shallow it’s transparent. He wants to pretend she had a right to disappear—which he would have respected, like the respectable person he is—and that she lost it (according to rules he just made up). What he’s actually doing is inventing the necessary rationale by which his invasion of her privacy is her fault. The accusation is that she wanted it. Her lies were her act of relinquishing “her right to disappear” (no matter what else she said); she and her publisher “seemed” to have deliberately interested the public in her identity, so (no matter what else she said) she has relinquished her right not to satisfy that public. She has no right to say no; she asked for it. She wanted it.
Meanwhile, Elena Ferrante has done anything but lie and hide. She has been very open and clear about why her pseudonymity was purposeful and necessary. She has explained. She has been vocal about her decision to say “no.” In the beginning, her decision was simple: she didn’t want to.
“Two decades are a long time, and the reasons for the decisions I made in 1990, when we first considered my need to avoid the rituals of publication, have changed. Back then, I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell. Timidity prevailed.”
Once she had written a few novels, however, her understanding of what her name meant began to change. “I came to feel hostility toward the media,” she said, “which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.” And she became interested, as she put it, in “testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media”:
“It’s not the book that counts, but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is very happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image…This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual—I’m talking about a manufactured image.”
As prescient as these words are, in light of what has happened–I mean!–her appeal for her privacy is devastating:
“What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me. Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”
What is staggering and infuriating about all of this is that Elena Ferrante has not only explained, carefully, why her she needed this privacy, she wrote four books and 1700 words about it. By the time she wrote (what I think of as) The Napoliad, that gesture of refusal had become central to her artistic project. What began as a defensive screen became a creative project, and her imagined, created persona was an important part of it. It’s why her protagonist is a writer name Elena. To be as blunt as possible: her greatest work is literally a novel about the persona she created to write it, and why. The Neopolitan novels are literally and directly and magnificently about female self-making, the importance of names, and the meaning of being a woman in public. They are about control over your identity, and about the specific hostility of the patriarchy for that project. They are about the men who will say things like this and write articles like this. They are about why not to do this.
It is, obviously, this that this journalist—and the four newspapers that enabled him—have attacked. To radically, violently transform the context in which her work is created—to insist that, NO, HER REAL NAME IS—is to attack her creation, her art, and her standing as a creative artist. To strip away her privacy is to destroy the fictional persona she created, and to attack the fictions of these books themselves. This is why it was done.
For these people, who believe themselves to traffic in truth, Ferrante’s identity is a “secret.” But it is not. It is a fiction.
A secret is something withheld, something denied to us; a fiction is created, an imagined artifice spun as such. If you think her identity is a secret—if you feel that you have a right to know, and you resent her for withholding what is yours—then you might feel yourself justified in piercing that screen. It “seems,” after all, like a lie; she deserves it, “in a way,” for flaunting her secrets in front of our eyes. It will be the only thing you can think about, and what you can see will cease to seem important. What you don’t know, but only suspect, will become the key to everything else.
But Elena Ferrante is a fiction, explicitly so: she literally told people that she would lie about herself. She was honest about it. Her identity is not deception; it is creation. It was performance art, if you want to use those terms. But it was what it was: a stance that her art required, clearly and plainly explained as such.
Given that, we should think about why it was so important to publish this story, what “public interest” flows out of piercing her privacy. If you think of the public as having an interest in her work, in the creative product of her artistic mind, then the last thing the public would be interested in would be removing the conditions of its possibility. But if you think of the public as being interested, primarily, in burying what she said about herself under what others—men, mainly—could say about her, then it makes a lot of sense.
Doxing her in this way was not inevitable—because nothing is inevitable until it happens—but she has written an epic novel about why this kind of shit is everything except unsurprising. That reporter doxed her because he could. He utterly disregarded her artistic reasons for maintaining artistic control of her persona, not just because he wanted a story—though basic venal selfishness is, no doubt, part of it—but because he does not respect or value her work. It is impossible to construe that article as anything other than an attack on what her work is, what it represents, and why it is loved.
It is also why this doesn’t matter. They are aiming small; she is aiming big. They want to play with individuals and dates, like speculating about who “Homer” was. Meanwhile, she wrote an epic.