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The Hidden God

One of the cleverest and funniest accounts of literary criticism in the twentieth century is Marxist critic Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction.[1] Eagleton's project is to discredit most of the major schools of twentieth-century literary criticism by exposing for each one the underlying, untested assumption that must be accepted on faith in order for the whole system to stand. Eagleton has an extraordinary gift for this kind of analysis. He shows, for instance, how T. S. Eliot's notion of a Tradition in literature is based solely on authoritarian judgments handed down by Eliot himself and then given the status of absolute, almost divine principles. Similarly, the critical program of New Criticism, with its intensive focus on the poem itself, starts by imbuing the poem "with an absolute mystical authority" (p. 49). Like Eliot's doctrine of the great Tradition, New Criticism is at bottom a religious system in disguise. Phenomenological criticism, with its habit of reducing everything to pure subjective consciousness, is authoritarian, too, because it depends heavily on intuition (p. 57).

And so it goes for virtually all schools of modern criticism: if you look closely at them, they all turn out to be authoritarian, mystical, religious. A moderately skeptical mind will find Eagleton's debunking easy to accept. But Eagleton comes close to wrecking his entire enterprise at the end of the book when having proclaimed with great satisfaction the death of literary studies, he proceeds with the blind faith of a true ideologue to outline for the reader the sole realms of criticism worthy of being practiced. These are ones that pursue the goal of "human emancipation,


the production of 'better people' through the socialist transformation of society" (p. 211). What exempts socialist and feminist criticism from the charges Eagleton levels at all other types of criticism is that they are categorically different, and this because they "define the object of analysis differently, have different values, beliefs and goals" (p. 212). In other words, once the activity of literary criticism rests on the solid bedrock of a political program dedicated to the destruction of social inequality, it is beyond reproach from any quarter because no one can possibly question the assumption that inequality is bad (and that the elimination of privilege and private property are the solution to it). Hence the need for humanists in our day to turn their attention to areas of cultural endeavor whose worth, Eagleton feels, cannot logically be disputed, areas, that is, where "cultural and political action have become closely united" (p. 215). And Eagleton lists these areas: the culture of "nations struggling for their independence from imperialism," the women's movement, the "culture industry" (culture of minorities), and working-class writing (pp. 215–216).

Eagleton has asked us to take the skeptical line throughout his book and decry the clandestine articles of faith in each of the systems he talks about. He then asks us to regard another system as not just another system but as something different in kind from all the systems he disdains. But isn't there an untested, authoritarian principle here, too? "Men and women do not live by culture alone; the vast majority of them throughout history have been deprived of the chance of living by it at all, and those few who are fortunate enough to live by it now are able to do so because of the labour of those who do not. Any cultural or critical theory which does not begin from this single most important fact, and hold it steadily in mind in its activities, is in my view unlikely to be worth very much" (p. 214, my emphasis). Does Eagleton have any more right to tell us what the "single most important fact" is than Eliot does to tell us which are the most important texts? Eagleton is asking us to accept on faith, first, that the humanities are tools of capitalism, second, that they have an intrinsic responsibility to devote themselves to political change, and, finally, that the form of political change to which they must devote themselves is the "socialist transformation of society."

So Eagleton has his untested assumption, too, and he has introduced it with the same slippery logic as his predecessors, hoping in the end that a universal sense of social justice will persuade his readers to accept principles that in fact are merely handed down by authoritarian fiat. The social-activist theory of literary criticism begins to look a little like


theology, as well. But social-activist literary criticism is not my subject. I mention Eagleton's ideas only because they leave us with the disheartening sense that no school of critical theory escapes the sort of mystical authoritarianism he talks about. After all, if a critic like Eagleton, whose basic motivating force is precisely a resistance to arbitrary expressions of authority, does not escape the cancer of mystical authoritarianism, then who can?

Eagleton says at one point that there is "no need to drag politics into literary theory. As with South African sport, it has been there from the beginning" (p. 194). This is one of his most basic beliefs. In fact, however, he has demonstrated the truth of another statement, a paraphrase of that one: There is no need to drag theology into literary theory; it has been there from the beginning, and it lives on in the theory of Eagleton himself.

That is the subject of Part II. If there is a hidden god in almost every species of twentieth-century literary theory, it is because the intellectual origins of the entire movement that has produced twentieth-century literary theory were more or less explicitly theological. Eagleton dates the beginning of this movement with the publication of Viktor Shklovsky's "Art as Device" in 1917. One could easily quibble with this choice: Shklovsky had already written other articles on literature before 1917 (we looked at some of them in chapter 2), and there were other writers, too, compatriots of Shklovsky who had already written similar things. Eagleton is certainly right, however, in saying that something is happening in this period that had not been happening, say, a generation earlier—what he calls "the transformation which has overtaken literary theory in this century" (p. vii). But we need to examine Shklovsky's predecessors and contemporaries to understand what sort of transformation had taken place. It rums out that the transformation was not so marked as we might think, that the origins of Shklovsky's type of literary theorizing go deep into the theological history of Russia, and that these origins are never entirely abandoned.

Yet even this is only part of the story, for there are two theologies. There is Russian Orthodox theology, which threads its way through a millennium of Russian culture and into the early twentieth century, when all the major Russian literary thinkers of the early modern period share its heritage. The Russian whose impact on succeeding generations was the most direct was not Shklovsky or any of the other Formalist critics; it was a linguist, Roman Jakobson. In spite of his reputation as a guiding force in the modern "science" of language, Jakobson operates in


an old system of religious language philosophy that in many ways has simply been dressed up in the more modern fashion of scientific terminology. The other theology is a Western, largely Catholic one. It can be seen in French writers like Mallarmé, although the content of Catholic theology is obscured by Mallarmé's constant urge to satirize and profane the same religious principles he surreptitiously adopts.

Theology has a great deal to do with language: it is, in its root sense, "God-talk" (theo-logos ), as the Heideggerian theologian John Macquarrie puts it in the title of his book on the subject; and, since Christian theology is talk about the Christian God, it is also talk about God's Word. In some ways this brings us back to the subject of Part I. But in this part we will move on from language to the question of artworks, specifically artworks made out of language, and see how the hidden god has affected our thinking about them in modern times.


Chapter Four—
How God Didn't Quite Die in France

A book by Sartre on Mallarmé came out in 1986, six years after Sartre's death. It includes a long, unfinished essay with the characteristically Sartrean title "L'engagement de Mallarmé" (Mallarmé's commitment) and a shorter essay called, simply, "Mallarmé (1842–1898)." Both were written in 1952.[1]

We don't usually think of Sartre as a funny man, but when he turned his attention to literary subjects, he was capable of being quite a joker. The first section of "L'engagement de Mallarmé" is called "Les héritiers de 1'athéisme" (The inheritors of atheism), and it starts out like this:

1848: the fall of the monarchy deprives the bourgeoisie of its "cover"; with a single stroke Poetry loses its two traditional themes: Man and God.

First God: Europe had just heard a stupefying piece of news, still contested by some today:"God dead. Stop. Intestate." When it came time to divide up the estate, panic reigned: what had the Deceased left?
(p. 15)

Sartre views the whole phenomenon of Mallarmé as essentially a late reaction to the recent "death of God." "Les héritiers de l'athéisme" paints a sweeping picture of European culture in the wake of this event. Sartre then turns his attention to Mallarmé, in a section called "L'élu" (The chosen one). With the same kind of licentiously creative psychological analysis that he was to employ in his later monumental work on Flaubert, L'idiot de la famille, Sartre picks through the spiritual world of Mallarmé, revealing to his eager readers all the exciting details of the


great artist's sexual and religious life. The sexual life need not concern us (it is largely the invention of Sartre, who was fond of doing that sort of thing). But what Sartre says about Mallarmé's religious life is extraordinarily clever, especially because it has a direct bearing on the philosophy of art that Sartre finds in Mallarmé.

Mallarmé's peculiar aesthetics, it would appear from Sartre, actually has a double source. There is the spiritual desolation in Europe caused by the death of God, something that allows Sartre to talk in general about what it means to be a poet in the late nineteenth century. And there is the personal desolation caused in Mallarmé by the death of his own mother (when he was five). The way Sartre sees it, both deaths produced in Mallarmé a strange cult of absence, negation, and nonbeing, which in turn produced a religion and an aesthetics that are intertwined.

The religion is a sort of obverse Christianity. Sartre describes Mallarmé's grief over yet another death, that of his sister, when he was sixteen. "It's the death of his mother all over again," Sartre says. "This mystery of the Disincarnation, the union of a myth and a ritual, seems to found a Christianity in reverse. It's not the Parousia, but Absence that is the hope and aim. What 'was in the beginning' was not the logos, but the vile abundance of Being, Vulgarity; it is neither Creation nor the passage of the Word into the World that we adore, but instead the passage by emaciation of Reality into the Word" (p. 113). For Mallarmé, religion had become an interrogation into being, and all the traditional absolutes had been replaced with negation and absence. The departed mother and sister become the emblems of this absence. "The young priest of the new religion does not address God; he reserves his prayers for a Great Goddess who will be the image of everything a woman can be for a man apart from carnal love, a white goddess of chastity mingling mother and sister in a single absence" (p. 114).

From the absence of God (and mother) the natural place to turn to was poetry, which is how religion and aesthetics are connected for Mallarmé. But the connection is not what we might expect. After all, wouldn't it be natural to seek in poetry a replacement for the lost God (and the lost mother's love)? This is apparently what Mallarmé did, but he faced an irreconcilable contradiction. "After having killed God with his own hands," says Sartre, "Mallarmé still wanted a divine guarantee; Poetry had to remain transcendent, even though he had eliminated the source of all transcendence" (p. 152). So poetry, too, becomes a place where strange ontological impossibilities reign, just as they do in reli-


gion it becomes "pure Negation" (p. 141). It is "a hole bored into Being, the establishment and delimitation of an absence that, bit by bit, from one allusion to the next, turns out to be the world. Through the poem, on a single point in the world, the total absence of the world is realized" (p. 162). The poem "displays the world and everything that's in the world; not in order to give us things, but in order to take them away from us. . . . Meaning is a second silence in the heart of silence; it is the negation of the word-thing" (p. 160). Precisely because poetry could not be the replacement for religion, it became essentially the same thing as religion. But religion, after the death of God, had become a religion of absence, and so poetry became a poetry of absence.

There is much truth in what Sartre says. Not always, of course, in the sense of factual truth: how can Sartre pretend to know about things like Mallarmé's sexual habits? There is truth in Sartre's clever way of contextualizing Mallarmé's religious attitude, and there is truth in the way he links that same attitude with Mallarmé's aesthetics. He certainly tends to conceptualize the figure of Mallarmé in characteristically Sartrean terms (speaking of the engagement, or commitment, of Mallarmé, the emphasis on his existential "situation"), but he has refrained to a surprising degree from the kind of doctrinaire and heavy-handed treatment we might expect from him, especially in the early 1950s.

One comment about "man" and his situation in history, however, is worth citing. I have mentioned more than once Foucault's observation about Mallarmé's pivotal position in the modern history of the way language is seen. In an era when language was increasingly viewed as a functional system, as something with its own objectivity, Mallarmé had played a crucial role in leading thought violently "back towards language itself," Foucault said.[2] But an era for Foucault here means an entire episteme, which implies a certain universal way of understanding, and he credits Mallarmé with a major change in that universal way of understanding. Sartre, too, sees Mallarmé as a pivotal figure, and, like Foucault, he considers Mallarmé's view of language to be the critical thing. But Sartre is interested in it not solely for its impact on the way people think about language but also for its impact on the way people are . Mallarmé, as Sartre saw it, created a whole new man. "Ever since he decided to write in order to launch the Word [Verbe] on an adventure from which there is no return, there is no writer, no matter how modest, who will risk himself in a book without risking the Word [Parole] at the same time. The Word or Man: it's all the same thing. . . . With Mallarmé


a new man is born, reflective and critical, tragic, whose life line reveals a decline." This new man, Sartre continues, "surpasses himself and totalizes himself in the fulgurating drama of the incarnation and the fall, he cancels himself and exalts himself at the same time, in a word, he makes himself exist through the realization of his own impossibility" (pp. 144–45, Sartre's emphasis).

Perhaps Sartre is just indulging in rhetorical excess. It is one thing for Foucault to say that Mallarmé was responsible for a new conception of language. But can we really assert that Mallarmé gave birth to a whole new man? This is a natural way for Sartre to think, reluctant as he was to separate art from life, the artistic calling from one's calling as a man. These days people have grown tired of Sartre's pedantic ideas about commitment in art and the greater, human vocation of the writer. Maybe Mallarmé didn't create a whole new man. Maybe he just created—or helped create—a whole new critic and reader, a whole new way of thinking about literary texts. And maybe Mallarmé's inverse theology had a great deal to do with the new critic and reader he created.

In the Beginning Was . . . Nothing

In almost every Dostoevsky novel, it seems, there is an exchange between two characters in which one, often without warning and always without apology, bluntly asks the other if he believes in God (or if there is a God). Every Dostoevsky character is torn between the twin temptations of faith and faithlessness. Nonetheless, the answer is almost always as blunt and unhesitating as the question: Yes, there is a God, or No, there is no God. Period. Imagine Mallarmé, arch-ironist of French letters, the man who cultivated the art of politesse to the point where he lavished praise on the most tasteless rubbish written by his friends; imagine this man assaulted by one of Dostoevsky's shaggy, maniacal heroes with this question: Do you believe in God, yes or no, answer at once! What would he have said? Did he believe in God?

The question of Mallarmé's religious thought is complicated. The beginnings are not entirely clear. We read that his father and stepmother were both Catholic. His maternal grandparents continued to play an important role in the boy's life after his mother had died. His grandmother appears to have been religious, whereas his grandfather was something of a skeptic. Mallarmé was sent to a boarding school run by


a religious order, where he consistently received poor to passing grades in religion.

For a writer like Mallarmé, whose style is marked by such extraordinarily compulsive economy of expression, every document assumes tremendous significance. So anyone who is interested in the question of Mallarmé's religious beliefs has no choice but to examine a letter the fifteen-year-old Mallarmé wrote to his sister on the occasion of her first communion:

My dear little sister,

How could I let such a pretty day pass by without writing you a few words; I have very little time to myself, but in a case like this shouldn't I make the time? I have learned with great joy that you earned a medal for good conduct. That's proof of your fine preparation for one of the most important acts in your life. . . . I have no advice or exhortations to give you: for I am sure that you have had no lack of either these days, both from our dear mother and from those who have prepared you to receive your God.

The letter continues in this tone, largely about various trivialities that the adolescent future poet is already adept at discussing with great charm. Austin Gill, who cites this letter in his book about Mallarmé's early years, takes a dimmer view of Mallarmé's youthful piety. He thinks the letter is largely a joke on the kind of sentiments normally inspired in a Catholic culture by as important an event as a child's first communion. "The mimicry involved in these pious sentiments and their expression is patent," he says, "whether it is of standard practice or family usage." He mentions that Mallarmé sent his sister a "flurry of letters" in honor of her first communion. In Gill's opinion this "underlines" his mimicry.[3]

What Gill says may be true. Does it settle the question of Mallarmé's belief or nonbelief? Not convincingly. Another commentator, L.-J. Austin, in an article that presents a kind of spiritual biography of Mallarmé, says that Mallarmé was quite traditionally and sincerely religious as a child. He cites as evidence several of Mallarmé's juvenile creations in which the word Dieu is used.[4] Some undoubtedly see raillery where Austin sees piety and would conclude from this and other material that Mallarmé was a skeptic from an early age. I am not persuaded that the matter is so simple. To attribute great religious devotion or great skepticism to a teenager strikes me as placing undue importance on thoughts


that have not yet matured. As it happens, most biographers and commentators do not see things Gill's way and insist that Mallarmé was unquestioningly religious as a boy, just because he was raised to be that way.[5]

Some of the best evidence on the question of Mallarmé's religious attitude comes later. Every artist needs to have a metaphysical crisis at some point, and Mallarmé had his when he was in his early twenties. He made three related discoveries at that time: Nothingness, Hegel, and the idea for his future creation called the Book. His correspondence charts the progress of this strange episode. The central experience seems to have been an encounter with Nothingness (le Néant ), followed by a revelation about Beauty and the Absolute. "I will tell you that for the past month I have been in the pure glaciers of Aesthetics—that after finding Nothingness, I have found Beauty," he writes to his friend, the minor poet Henri Cazalis.[6] "I have died and been reborn," he exclaims in another letter.[7] Over and over again we find the word Néant in Mallarmé's letters of this period.

We also find a kind of popularized Hegelian vocabulary. There are in the correspondence references to the Idea and the Absolute. There are passages describing thought as it thinks itself out, suggesting vaguely the development that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit . And we read of "Pure Conception," of a "supreme synthesis," of a "Spiritual Universe" as it "sees itself and develops." Mallarmé, it seems, had recently become acquainted secondhand with Hegel's aesthetics and had appropriated some of the terms and concepts as he had understood them.

Once the crisis was over, Mallarmé wrote to Cazalis what was to become one of his most frequently cited letters. This letter is particularly valuable because in it, in addition to describing once again the crisis that he had been talking about for more than a year, in addition to revealing the resolution to that crisis more completely than he had done before, in addition to flaunting his Hegelian vocabulary, Mallarmé puts the whole experience in a religious perspective. The confrontation with Nothingness had apparently been accompanied by a confrontation with God, and in the end both had to be replaced.

I have just had a terrifying year: my Thought has thought itself out and has arrived at a pure Conception. Everything my entire being suffered as an aftereffect during this long agony is indescribable, but fortunately I died completely, and the most impure region where my Spirit may venture is Eternity,


my Spirit, that habitual hermit of its own Purity that even the reflection of Time no longer darkens.

Unfortunately, I got there by means of a horrible sensitivity, and it is now time for me to envelop that sensitivity with an external indifference, which will replace for me my lost strength. I am now at the point, after a supreme synthesis, of slowly gaining strength—incapable, as you see, of distracting myself. But how much more so I was a few months ago, first of all in my terrible struggle with that old and wicked plumage, now crushed, fortunately, God.[8]

Mallarmé goes on to talk about what has replaced God. He uses the word Synthesis (this time with a capital S ) again, saying that he has "marked out the opus [oeuvre ] that will be the image of this development." That opus will be a collection of poems, including "four prose poems on the spiritual conception of Nothingness." A little bit farther on he says, "I have made a rather long descent into Nothingness so that I can speak with certainty. Beauty is all there is—and beauty has only one perfect expression, Poetry."[9]

I mentioned earlier that Sartre saw the death of family members as having a profound impact on Mallarmé's spiritual outlook. He talked about the death of Mallarmé's mother and sister and the way it contributed to the poet's religion of absence and Nothingness. In 1879, more than a decade after his metaphysical crisis, another death intervened that once again forced Mallarmé into an evaluation of his spiritual "situation," to use the Sartrean term. Once again Mallarmé reacts in a way that shows the basic structure of religious thought, and once again a conscious effort is made to replace God with something else. This time it was Mallarmé's eight-year-old son, Anatole, who died. The father's memorial to his son was to be a work (oeuvre ) of some sort, a tombeau like the one he had written to Edgar Allan Poe in 1876. The tombeau for Anatole never got written, and all that remains is a project for the text in the form of manuscript notes, which Jean-Pierre Richard published in 1961 under the title Pour un tombeau d'Anatole .[10]

It's hard to make sense of these notes. Richard, in his excellent introduction, gives what interpretive insights he can on a collection of pages whose very status is ambiguous (are they plans for a poem, are they fragments of that poem, or are they something else altogether?). One thing is clear both from the notes themselves and from Richard's commentary, and that is Mallarmé's continuing flirtation with religion—not just any religion but specifically Catholicism, the faith in which he was


raised. Referring, for instance, to the various objects associated with the dead boy in the notes, Richard says that they are "reinterpreted by an entirely metaphysical imagination." The ritual gestures expressing mourning "find their complete meaning only as they are situated in a perspective of religious faith and transcendental salvation" (p. 51). All the traditional gestures, Richard says, maintain for Mallarmé their usual prestige in spite of the poet's rejection of God in 1866. Richard thinks all this represents an effort on Mallarmé's part to establish a "natural foundation" and a "human origin" for religious objects and practices, just as Mallarmé will later find a way of laicizing Catholic ritual by likening it to an ordinary Sunday concert. But the fact is that the impulse to respond religiously remains intact.

And so the death of Anatole is seen as a sort of theophany, Richard says, because it "humanly places in evidence the transcendence, present in him [the boy], of death" (p. 63). Mallarmé speaks continually in the manuscript notes of the survival of his son after death, but without ever using a word for "soul." As Richard points out, however, even though Mallarmé had for some time separated himself from the church and its beliefs, "all the images or expressions he uses to evoke the survival after death of Anatole represent little more than hesitating approximations of this word [that is, soul]." Richard sees other evidence of a Christian doctrine of resurrection in Mallarmé's notes, which show a faith in the process by which "bodily decomposition prepares the release of the spirit" (p. 72).

Mallarmé begins to look a bit more like a Dostoevsky character torn between the temptation to believe and the temptation to renounce. The solution he finds to his dilemma, however, is the same one he had found to his actual crisis of 1866. It is a solution that will allow him to live the resurrection myth, but without giving up the religious skepticism and doubt he had embraced twelve or thirteen years earlier. The only trouble is that the secular solution he envisioned was not realizable. In the crisis letter of 1867 Mallarmé had talked about a work of some sort that would reflect the new supreme synthesis he had arrived at. The solution to the new dilemma in 1879 will be the work I mentioned, a book that will allow the "spiritual essence of his son," as Richard calls it, to endure (p. 84). There is not much in the manuscript notes to specify what sort of oeuvre Mallarmé had in mind this time. As we'll see, though, the whole project of a work or a book for Mallarmé was always conceived from the outset as something that could not be actualized. All that we have of whatever Mallarmé thought he was going to create in


memory of his son is the two-hundred-odd sheets of virtually incoherent scribblings Richard has published. The same is true of another, much larger project for a book, which resulted in a similar pile of strange-looking notes. But we'll get to that shortly.


Mallarmé's characteristic procedure thus seems to be to move from religious crisis—brought on by the contemplation of death or Nothingness—to a religious structure in which the divinity has been replaced by an aesthetic quality or object. It may be a Hegelian term like Beauty or the Idea, or it may be a mysterious object like the "work" or "Book" that Mallarmé so often talks about. It thus makes sense to speak of a religion of aesthetics or an aesthetics of religion, as many Mallarmé scholars have done.

This brings us to a curious series of prose pieces that Mallarmé published between 1892 and 1895 and then grouped under the title "Offices" (Religious services). There are three of them: "Plaisir sacré" (Sacred pleasure), "Catholicisme" (Catholicism), and "De même" (The same [that is, the same subject as in the previous essay]). The theme throughout is Catholic rites, the liturgy specifically, treated in a mock-serious way. Mallarmé's conceit is that the liturgy resembles drama or any kind of performance, even a Sunday symphony concert. What is especially valuable about these pieces is that, better than almost any of his other writings, they show Mallarmé straddling the neighboring territories of religion and art. And his rhetorical device for doing so is the use of religious terms in a dual, religious-secular sense.

The cynical premise of "Offices" may be found in the piece called "Catholicism." Mallarmé says this:

A race, ours, to which has fallen that honor of lending the very womb to the fear that a metaphysical and claustral eternity, otherwise than as human consciousness, has of itself, and of expiring the abyss in some firm yelp into the ages, would be . . . ordinary, unharmed, vague; because not a trace remains, at a moment of posterity—when even life reconquered and born does not blossom.
(OC, p. 391)

What this appears to mean is that religion is born from the fear of eternity once that eternity begins to be perceived as something other than human consciousness contemplating itself (a very Hegelian idea).


Consciousness lends permanence to this fear by expiring (that is, breathing out) the abyss (eternity in its most fearsome aspect as Nothingness) into future ages. This process permits a race, like the French, to endure. Such a race would be ordinary and vague unless life, reconquered (as it is in the Resurrection), is allowed to blossom.

And so church ritual becomes mere show—or mere show becomes church ritual. Religion becomes aestheticized, and art becomes divinized. Religious words become secular, and secular words become religious. "Our communion or share of one to all and of all to one, thus, removed from the barbarous food that the sacrament designates—in the consecration of the host, nonetheless, the Mass, prototype of ceremonials, in spite of the difference with a tradition of art, asserts itself" (OC, p. 394). In the rest of the paragraph where this statement comes from, Mallarmé sets up a confusion between Catholic mass and tragedy. Liturgy fades into drama, participants become actors, and the presence of Christ becomes the presence of the pagan god. " 'Real presence': or that the god should be there, long-winded, complete, mimed from afar by the unobtrusive actor" (OC, p. 394), the poet says in a mocking reference to belief in the actual presence of Christ in the consecrated host.

What goes on in a church is described repeatedly in these writings as a mystery, and here, too, Mallarmé is being intentionally ambiguous. Does he mean mystery as divine truth concealed, or as a medieval mystery play, or in the ordinary sense as something obscure? The medieval mystery play had a liturgical structure, placing the actor-hero in the role of priest and the audience in the role of congregation. Mallarmé evokes this setting repeatedly. "Always that, in this place, a mystery is put on: to what degree does one remain a spectator, or does one presume to have a role in it?" (OC, p. 395). "Mystery, other than representative and [other] than, I'll say, Greek, Play, [religious] service" (OC, p. 393). But this "mystery" is clearly not a sacred event since the author continually makes us aware of a decor that is modern and very secular. We keep seeing the elegant finery of feminine toilette, and we keep being reminded that all we're really doing is going to a Sunday concert: "Performance with concert," announces the author in one paragraph, indulging his taste for desecrating art by imitating the style of an advertising poster (OC, p. 393).

"Let's penetrate into the church, with art," says Mallarmé (OC, p. 395). And to show just how much we are penetrating into the church "with art," he describes its interior, during mass, in a passage that cleverly blurs the boundary between art and religion:


The nave with a crowd I won't say of onlookers, but of elite: whoever can from the most humble source of his gullet hurl out into the vaults the response in misunderstood but exultant Latin partakes, between everyone and himself, of sublimity meandering out towards the chorus: for this is the miracle of singing, one projects oneself as high as the shriek goes. Say whether it is artifice, prepared better and for many, egalitarian, this communion, aesthetic at first, in the hero of the divine Drama. Even though the priest of this church is not qualified as an actor, but officiates—designates and repels the mythic presence with which one has just merged"
(OC, p. 396).

Read in one way, this passage is quite cynical. The "real presence" of Catholic doctrine is reduced here to "mythic presence," the priest becomes an actor, and the liturgy becomes a "divine Drama," That's if we read it as a comment on Catholicism. Read in another way, however, the passage has the effect of exalting drama (or whatever sort of performance Mallarmé is talking about). This is the source of Mallarmé's irony. Irony, after all, involves the clash of two meanings or systems of meaning in a single utterance, frequently where one meaning is serious and the other is not. I would be reluctant to say that anything here is entirely serious, but it's likely that Mallarmé is more serious in his comment on art (drama is like a religious ceremony) than he is in his comment on Catholicism (religion is like a Sunday stage performance).

But maybe it doesn't matter whether Mallarmé thought his reflections in "Offices" were a joke. The fact is that he exerts a great deal of effort in surrounding the ceremonies of art with the rituals of religion, so that the first resemble the second as much as possible. In "L'art pour tous" (Art for everybody) the young Mallarmé had likened art to religion and had sought to establish a sacred status for art objects (see above, p. 64). As in "Offices," Mallarmé had focused on the quality of mystery, although in the earlier essay he was a little less mysterious about what he meant by mystery. The tone there was almost as skeptical as in "Offices": "Every sacred thing that wishes to remain sacred envelops itself in mystery," the poet had said in a passage strongly suggesting that religions intentionally cloak themselves in mystery just so as to project a quality of sanctity. But if the young Mallarmé was skeptical about religion, he appeared to be quite serious about art, for instance, in his admonition to the artist to "remain an aristocrat" (OC, p. 259).

Guy Delfel, in his book on Mallarmé's aesthetics, talks at length of Mallarmé's "aesthetic religion."[11] "Aesthetic religion" is exactly the way Delfel wants to put it, not "religious aesthetics," because for him Mal-


larmé's aesthetics is a kind of religion. But what kind of religion needs to be clarified. As Delfel says, Christianity has accustomed us to the idea that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are necessary components of any religion. That is not true, he says; Mallarmé is a perfect example of a religious man who believed in neither.[12] And he did believe in neither, Delfel insists. Mallarmé remained a man of faith ("You can't do without Eden"); it's just that faith was a part of a religion that did not include God or personal salvation.[13]

What did it include? Delfel agrees with a great many other commentators on Mallarmé that one important ingredient was the notion of essences. He speaks of Mallarmé's tendency to renounce sensible matter in favor of the "transcendence of aesthetic essences."[14] In L'univers imaginaire de Mallarmé (Mallarmé's imaginary universe) Jean-Pierre Richard speaks of Mallarmé's belief in the possibility of discovering, by means of some sensible form of language, an "idea" inside an object. Richard renames that idea "concrete essence."[15] As he shows with many examples, Mallarmé frequently expressed a belief in essences, notions, and ideas. In a passage I quoted before, Mallarmé describes the process by which a "fact of nature" is "transposed" (through poetry) into its "vibratory almost-disappearance," with the result that the "pure notion" emanates from it (OC, p. 368).[16] The whole concept of poetic language that I described, with its strong endorsement of virtuality and vagueness, rests on the conviction that there is an essence to be discovered, through language, in things. Perhaps that is Mallarmé's Eden. A sentence like the following (which I cite out of context) could have been written only by a hardened essentialist: "The moment of the Notion of an object is thus the moment of the reflection of its pure present in itself, or its present purity" (OC, p. 853). Never mind what this statement means in its widest applications. What we need to keep in mind is the urge—call it Platonist, call it Hegelian—to see essences or absolutes in things and in language. It is yet another example of the mystification with which Mallarmé surrounds both art and the vocation of being an artist. Is the old joker fooling us again? What difference does it make? His successors seem to have taken him quite seriously, and that's all that matters for us.

The question remains what Mallarmé's mysticism has to do with literary works. What would a literary work—an actual book or poem—be like if art really were invested with the kind of religious essence that Mallarmé suggests? Mallarmé certainly wrote plenty of literary works, but they are no help at all. What we are interested in is his thinking


about what literary works are. The good thing is that Mallarmé wrote so much about this object called the work (I'oeuvre ) or the Book (le Livre ). The bad thing is that what he wrote is often indecipherable, and what isn't indecipherable leaves more questions than answers about what Mallarmé is saying. On that less-than-hopeful note, let's turn to the Book.

. . . And in the End Is the Book

"Everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book," Mallarmé wrote in a piece published in 1895 (OC, p. 378). Fine. But what is a book (or Book)? This question is one of the trickiest in Mallarmé scholarship because Mallarmé used the terms livre (book), Livre (Book), oeuvre (work), and Oeuvre (Work) in different senses at different times and in ways that indicate that he meant different things by them. His musings about this elusive something began in the context of his crisis of 1866, and they can be organized into about four stages. I already quoted the passage from Mallarmé's letter to Henri Cazalis in which he mentions the work (oeuvre ) he is contemplating and says that this work will contain certain of his poems. Toward the end of the same letter Mallarmé speaks of the heartache he would experience if he were to "enter the supreme Disappearance" without having finished his work, "which is The Work, the Great Work, as the alchemists, our ancestors, used to say."[17] The last phrase contains an example of an additional interpretive problem, one that does not come through in English translation. The passage in French reads, "ce ne serait pas sans un serrement de coeur réel que j'entrerais dans la Disparition suprême, si je n'avais pas fini mon oeuvre, qui est L'Oeuvre, le Grand'Oeuvre, comme disaient les alchimistes, nos ancêtres." The word oeuvre in French is normally feminine. Mallarmé uses it here in the masculine, which is reserved for two senses: the complete opus of an artist and, in the phrase grand oeuvre, the philosopher's stone of the alchemists (the stone that transforms base metals into gold).

In 1885, almost twenty years after his crisis, Mallarmé wrote a letter to the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine in response to a request for biographical information. The letter has come to be called the "Autobiography," and it, too, has a reference to the Work, or Book:

I have always dreamed of and sought something else, with the patience of an alchemist, ready to sacrifice for it every vanity and every satisfaction, just as


in the old days one used to burn one's furniture and the ceiling beams in order to stoke the furnace of the philosopher's stone [Grand Oeuvre ]. What? it's difficult to say: a book, quite simply, in several volumes, a book that will be a book, architectural and premeditated, and not a collection of chance inspirations no matter how marvelous they might be . . . I will go so far as to say: the Book, persuaded that, in the end, there is only one [ . . .] The Orphic explanation of the Earth, which is the sole duty of the poet and the literary game par excellence .
(OC, pp. 662–63)

Whatever it is that Mallarmé has in mind in this letter, there's no doubt that it's something different from just a collection of poems.

A decade after the "Autobiography" Mallarmé published a series of four essays under the title "Quant au Livre" (Concerning the Book). Once again, it is not entirely clear what Mallarmé means by "Book." In the first essay, "L'action restreinte" (The restricted action), he explores the mysterious nature of the act of writing: In the second, "Étalages" (Displays), he speaks of the commercial aspects of the Book. The third, "Le Livre, instrument spirituel" (The Book, spiritual instrument), examines the dialectic between the physical book and its spiritual dimension. The fourth is a meditation on language and reading (and other things).

By far the most interesting document is Le "Livre" de Mallarmé: Premières recherches sur des documents inédits (Mallarmé's "Book": Preliminary research on some unpublished documents), edited by Jacques Scherer.[18] This book itself requires some description. Almost half of it is a scholarly study, by the editor, of the other half. That other half is a printed version of some manuscript notes Mallarmé had made. Scherer thinks Mallarmé wrote the notes in the last few years of his life, although he may have begun them earlier. They certainly respond to ideas he had had since as far back as 1866.[19] Mallarmé had left instructions to have these notes and other loose papers burned after his death. Perhaps we would all have been better off if those instructions had been followed, but thanks to Mallarmé's disciple, Paul Valéry, who intervened after Mallarmé's death to preserve the notes, we now have at our disposal Scherer's pile of 202 sheets of . . . well, it's hard to say what they're of . Some pages do not even contain words but are filled instead with geometric designs and patterns. One page has simply a set of lines, points, and arrows arranged in an almost, but not quite, symmetrical fashion (74 [B]; see illustration). Others have elaborate mathematical calculations. Many pages contain writing, diagrams, and numbers. Much of


From Jacques Scherer,  Le "Livre" de
Mallarmé: Premiéres recherches sur
des documents inédits
Gallimard, 1957), p. 74(B)

the writing looks like instructions for a performance of some sort, while some of it consists of abstract terms and abbreviations arranged in complicated patterns. And some of it is just downright incomprehensible.

There has been considerable controversy over what this material means. Scherer is convinced that the sheets he has selected contain plans for the Book that Mallarmé had envisioned in his other writings. Other scholars are not so sure, some because they don't see the same themes that Scherer sees in these notes, others because they don't think there was ever any such thing as a Book that Mallarmé projected but never created.[20] But it's not absolutely necessary to settle the controversy over whether Scherer's notes have to do with the same thing that Mallarmé refers to in other writings when he uses the words book and work (or whether he always means the same thing in those writings). The notes are a fascinating document that shows, at some indefinable and prepublishable stage, Mallarmé's musings on some sort of book or work. There is much to be said about these musings, and I'm afraid I will have to say it piecemeal since the Book is central not only to religion, but also to the remaining two parts of this book. For now, let's talk about religion.

In the other writings about the Book there is not much to suggest that the concept was fundamentally religious. Certainly the idea of a Book with the kind of mystical significance Mallarmé associates with it conjures up, without much effort, the idea of the Scriptures. The title "Le


Livre, instrument spirituel" has a mystical, religious ring to it. At one moment in the essay of that title Mallarmé says that the crease in the page of a book (any book) is "almost religious" (OC, p. 379). The Book as the "Orphic explanation of the earth" is clearly a religious, if not a Christian, concept. The essays in "Quant au Livre" betray the same taste for humorous profanation as the essays in "Offices" (which, curiously, are placed directly after "Quant au Livre" in the Oeuvres complètes) . But the thing being profaned in "Quant au Livre" is not as clearly religious as in "Offices": in "Quant au Livre" it is more the commonplace idea of the sacredness of literature (which is characteristically profaned by its juxtaposition with the much more commonplace idea of the commerciality of literature).

But Scherer's manuscript notes are another story. I mentioned that many of the pages in that collection contain instructions for a performance of some sort. Mallarmé appears to have in mind an elaborately planned event that by the simplest description will just be a reading of his poems (or the Work, or the Book). The event is to be presided over by an enigmatic personage named the operator. There are repeated references to various elements of the event, including where it is to take place. For instance, we read of a yacht from time to time, and there is even a page that contains the rudiments of a narrative, something like a plot for the event (169 [A]).

In the midst of these stage directions (or whatever they are) are words and phrases that suggest a religious ceremony. The phrase Messe en Musique (Mass in Music) occurs at one point (3 [A]), and passion occurs a few pages later. What sort of reading is it to be? We find this strange note:

I don't pretend to know exactly what this means, but Lect . is clearly an abbreviation for Lecture (Reading) or Lecteur (Reader). This curious little passage seems to have something to do with a reading of the mass. Among the directions concerning the location we read "cloister" several times. And included in the ceremony are two sacraments, baptism and marriage (168, 169 [A], 182). There is even a reference (crossed out subsequently) to "laicized priests" (7 [A]).


The most compelling evidence of the religious nature of the event is the numerous terms that suggest a mystery play. Over and over again we see the words hero, drama, mystery, hymn, theatre, usually abbreviated and arranged in patterns on the page (rarely as part of intelligible sentences). Mystery plays were originally performed with priests and clerics before an altar. They typically represented a biblical story, like the Passion story or some aspect of it, and, as I have said, they frequently had a liturgical structure. In France, during the sixteenth century, popular audiences were fond of seeing scenes with different settings in close succession. Advances in stagecraft made it possible to rearrange the stage quickly and show a variety of scenes in a short time. Mallarmé seems to have something like that in mind in his directions. In addition to the many references to drama, mystery, and hymns, we read of a complicated scheme that will allow the reader or operator of Mallarmé's event to shuffle and redistribute (for example, in little pigeonholes) pages from the Book in the place where the event is staged. He speaks at one point of "mobile pages" (112 [A]), and at another he says that "the volume is mobile" (119 [A]).

One has the impression that the entire set of notes is a plan for a mise-en-scène of the mysteries Mallarmé talked about so much in "Offices." Everything suggests a hieratic stage event, with the same combination of elements as Mallarmé had offered in "Offices": mystery play, mass, passion, tragedy. Even the irony is reproduced here because interspersed in the baffling array of stage directions are equally numerous and equally complicated calculations of the profits the author will realize from the sale of tickets and books. It's really quite astonishing how the sacred impulse was always so reflexively tied to the urge to profane.

Scherer's notes were not available to the public until they were published in 1957. So why talk about them? No one read them for more than a half-century after their author's death, and even then only a handful of Mallarmé specialists have shown much interest in them. The reason is that they show, in a form uninhibited by any concern for the response of a readership or audience, in a form that thus reveals the extremes to which Mallarmé's thinking reached, an impulse that did have a significant impact on succeeding generations. This is the religious impulse I've been talking about.

I've been careful to show all along how the serious and the sacred in Mallarmé are often subverted by the facetious and the profane, and I've said that this creates Mallarmé's special irony. But why pay so much attention to Mallarmé's humor when his legacy is so serious? That is


the whole point. In After the New Criticism Frank Lentricchia demonstrates how American literary criticism, when it imports theories from France, as it did so avidly in the last few decades, has consistently concentrated on the Platonic elements, ignoring other important aspects of the theories—for instance, their historical aspects.[21] The implication is that the American critical mind would insist on seeing the eternal and the essential even if the eternal and the essential were not there. When French structuralism caught on in the 1960s, Lentricchia thinks, it was "mediated" by American critics in such a way as to preserve one of the most important articles of faith from the era of New Criticism, namely that literary artworks are timeless objects containing eternal and unchanging values. Now I don't believe that structuralism is entirely free of this faith any more than the New Criticism was, but Lentricchia's point is that the Americans largely overlooked those elements of structuralism that were primarily secular, namely those that stressed historical change.

If what Lentricchia says is true—if it is true that the American critical mind tends toward the eternal and essential—then it makes sense that it should invent a Mallarmean legacy that includes only the serious, religious side of his aesthetic and overlooks the threatening, subversive element that always accompanies the religious one. And this invented legacy is entirely consistent with the notion of a flight from Eden. Not only is the religious element there in Mallarmé, but also American criticism has focused on it almost to the exclusion of elements that stand in opposition to it. With such an attitude it makes sense that American criticism continues to be bound by the urge to return to mysticism and essentialism, in short, to Eden.


Chapter Five—
Icon and Logos, or Why Russian Philosophy Is Always Theology

Russia does not really have a philosophical tradition in the same sense that other European cultures do. If you were looking into the subject for the first time and went to one of the English-language anthologies of Russian thinkers, you would be amazed to see, first, that almost no one who lived before the late eighteenth century was represented and, second, that most of the writers who were represented were not philosophers at all. If you had ever had a course in Russian literature, you would be surprised to recognize in the anthology the names of a great many writers you had heard of as either novelists—Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have earned the distinction of being considered "thinkers"—or literary critics. There would be political writers and social critics (which in nineteenth-century Russia often mean the same thing as literary critics), and there would be religious thinkers. But almost none could be classified as philosophers in the same way we classify, say, Kant or Hegel as philosophers.

Historians, in their search for themes and patterns, have not yet been able to decide whether the characteristic style of Russian thought is secular, religious, or a maddening, Dostoevskian hesitation between the two. For that matter they have not been able to decide which writers to include in books on the history of Russian thought (or philosophy, when they insist on using the word). The Polish scholar Andrzej Walicki, for example, has written a book titled A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, which, though it certainly includes sections on the important religious thinkers of the nineteenth and early


twentieth centuries, leaves the reader with the impression that the greatest contribution of Russian thought was in the area of social and political criticism.[1] The bulk of his discussion of the twentieth century is devoted to the evolution of political thought that results in Leninism. The reader would have a much different impression from reading another of the standard works on the subject, N. O. Lossky's History of Russian Philosophy .[2] Lossky was himself a religious man who emigrated to this country and spent the last years of his scholarly career at the Saint Vladimir Russian Orthodox Seminary of New York. Although he mentions most of the social and political thinkers that Walicki discusses, he devotes more than half his book to mystical and religious thinkers of the early twentieth century. One is likely to come away from Lossky's book with the idea that the religious current in Russian thought is central and the political current an aberration.

Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that either current, the religious or the secular, exists to the exclusion of the other. Russian culture contains a great many dualisms, and this is one of them. But it distorts matters to decide with Walicki that the early twentieth century in Russia is largely the affair of Marxism simply because Marxism triumphed in the end. As it happens, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were an extraordinarily rich period for religious thought in Russia. Naturally, few of the strictly religious ideas of this period caught on or had any obvious lasting effect in postrevolutionary Soviet culture, and many of the most important writers of this era, like Lossky, emigrated to the West shortly after the revolution. Nonetheless, this is precisely the period when a great creative upheaval took place in Russian culture, the brief interlude of freedom that produced many influential works in Russian arts and letters. It is the period of the transformation that Eagleton speaks of, a period that yields an uncanny number of isms in an amazingly short time: symbolism, Acmeism, Futurism, Formalism, and on and on. It is also the period that produced the young Roman Jakobson.

My own view is that the religious current in Russian thought is far more determining than the secular, political current, at least as concerns later developments in literary aesthetics in the West. There is no doubt that Marxism triumphed politically in Russia, even if we countenance the argument that Soviet Marxism is merely another form of religious faith. But the mass emigration of intellectuals who found by the late 1920s or earlier that the new regime had no place for them—and Jakobson was among these—brought to the West the legacy of centuries of religious thought, often in covert form.



A critical moment for Russian culture occurred before there was any such thing as Russia and more than two centuries before the country that later became Russia converted to Christianity. It has to do with the church father Saint John of Damascus, who led the theological battle in the eighth century against the forces of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. Images representing religious figures had been in use among Christians for some time before the days of Saint John, but there had been opposition to them among certain believers on the grounds that worshiping them meant worshiping false gods. Iconoclasm gained political force by the eighth century, and in 754 Emperor Constantine V convened a church council in Constantinople at which the veneration of icons was declared both heretical and illegal.

John of Damascus was a theologian who devoted much of his life to defending icons against the iconoclasts. Since he lived first in Syria and then in Palestine, under the protection of a Moslem caliph, he was free to write in defense of icons at a time when Christians elsewhere were having difficulty embracing that position. When the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was convened in 787 to condemn iconoclasm and reverse the position of the Council of 754, church authorities used many of the arguments that John had presented in his defense of icons.

The case for the defense of icons rests on the analogy between icons and the Incarnation. God is invisible, immaterial, immeasurable. By the Incarnation, however, God became visible in his Son and thereby partook of the flesh and blood of corporeal beings.[3] This meant that through Christ men were able to have a limited understanding of the intangible, since visible things serve as corporeal models of the invisible (DI, p. 20). The Son is therefore an image (eikon in Greek) of the invisible God, since an image is defined as the result of God's having become visible by partaking of flesh and blood (DI, p. 19; PG, 94:1240c). Images, or icons, thus stand in the same relation to God as does the Word made flesh, or Christ. "I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh, for if it is impossible to make a representation of a spirit, how much more impossible is it to depict the God who gives life to the spirit?" (DI, p. 16). To refuse to bow before images is the same as refusing to bow before the Son of God (DI, p. 28).

John's purpose was specifically to refute the iconoclasts' notion that venerating icons meant venerating false gods. The iconoclasts wanted to


prohibit the worship of icons because they regarded such worship as idolatry, and idolatry (eidololatreia ) implies the adoration (latreia, a form of respect due only to God) of idols (eidola) . Adoring idols thus meant considering them as gods, in the view of the iconoclasts. But venerating icons is different from idolatry, says John. For one thing, the form of respect is not the absolute adoration that should be reserved for God alone; it is, literally, a bowing down before (proskynesis ), a form of obeisance that one makes to people or things to whom honor is due. But more important is that images are not held to be gods. One cannot make an image of the invisible, immeasurable God, says John, and it is therefore absurd to suppose that in bowing down before an image one is bowing down before a god different from the one, immeasurable God.

The consequences of this doctrine are incalculable for Eastern Orthodox theology. The fundamental idea is the act of condescension or humiliation by which God became flesh in his Son. The Greek word for this act is kenosis, which means an emptying and refers to the way in which God emptied himself of his divinity to take on the form of man in his Son. The condescension is seen in many different realms of being and is thus essential to the broadness of the doctrine that John outlines. Christ is God made flesh and represents a humiliation of God the Father. Images are visible things, and "visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things"; so images, too, are a humiliation (p. 20). In fact, all creation is the result of the same kind of humiliation, and thus, says John, to prohibit the veneration of images is to assume that matter itself is despicable. But matter is not despicable, for it was created by God, as were men and their human practices (pp. 60—61):"You see that the law and everything it commanded and all our own practices are meant to sanctify the work of our hands, leading us through matter to the invisible God" (p. 67).

If the iconoclasts were afraid that Christians were worshiping inanimate objects with pictures drawn on them, John felt he could allay their fears by pointing out one of the most important facts of icon veneration: the honor given the image is transferred to the prototype, to what the image stands for (p. 40). God himself is never represented in icons; icon painters had at their disposal a limited number of subjects, usually Christ, the Mother of God, and a few saints. But by the doctrine of God's condescension an image of any of these subjects is an image of God incarnate, and so the prototype of an icon is ultimately the divinity. The essential thing about icon veneration is that the image is an incarnation and that one venerates the image not as God but as the image of


God incarnate (p. 40). "We see the invisible made visible through the visible representation," in the words of Simeon the Great, as John cites them (p. 104).

This is the doctrine that was adopted in the final definition (horos ) of the Council of Nicaea in 787, and it is the one that has been in force ever since. That definition begins by recognizing the two natures of Christ—one divine, one earthly. The two natures are united in one person, or hypostasis. We make iconographic representations, the council members said, "for the purpose of ascertaining the incarnation of God the Word."[4] "He who venerates the icon venerates the hypostasis of the person depicted on it."[5]

There is thus an implicit epistemology in this doctrine of icon veneration, if epistemology is the right word. The doctrine of prototypes means that the worshiper has to see the icon in a different way from that in which he or she sees other objects. An ordinary act of seeing an object is not accompanied in most people by an idealist sense that the object they are perceiving is not physically real, that it is merely an intuition of an object that can never really be known in itself. But the perception of the icon apparently must be accompanied by such a sense because the physical object, the piece of wood adorned with colors and lacquers forming a picture of the Mother of God, is understood as a mere facade for the grace that stands behind it. One has to look through the wood and paint into the invisible and immaterial, into something beyond that cannot be seen. The icon is like Christ: it has two natures united in one object. Christ's two natures meant that through him mere mortals could participate in the grace of God the Father, in a limited way, because they shared with Christ at least his physical nature. The icon performs the same service: it allows the worshiper a limited contact with the immeasurable through the intermediary of sensible matter. So icon veneration has a kind of idealism built into it that operates in the mind of the ordinary worshiper.

Plenty of things happened in the history of Russian Orthodoxy to insure that this doctrine would subsist and that it would be intuitively accepted by as many people as possible. For instance, the Orthodox church required that icon artists work anonymously. The main idea was that they were to work for God's glory, not their own. But the requirement was also founded on the belief that the icon artist contributed nothing of his own to his pictures. Every iconic image was meant to be an imitation of a previous image, which was itself an imitation of a previous image, and so on, back to an image based on an actual physical


view of the person represented. Icons were thus never designed to be appreciated for their beauty. The "aesthetic" posture of the viewer was discouraged by the prominent sense that the picture was authorless and not "real": it always pointed back either to a tradition or to an invisible prototype. The principles of icon theology were destined to become widely known as icons themselves became increasingly common. By the sixteenth century they were already frequently displayed in private homes, and thereafter they became a fixture.


In Christian theology the expression Word of God refers to the Second Person of the Trinity, or Christ. Christ is the Word (Logos) made Flesh. Icon and Logos are thus closely related concepts, since the nature of the icon derives from the Incarnation of the Word. Logos is a complicated term. In Greek it refers to a whole range of things, from spoken discourse in general, to narrative, to thought, to the New Testament Word of God. In theology the chief ambiguity of the Logos is between its sense as Son of God and the ordinary sense having to do with language. Theology, I said earlier, is God-talk, or God-word. In Russian it is bogoslovie, from bog, "god," and slovo, "word." The very term for the discipline is meaningfully ambiguous.

Because of the intimacy of the concepts icon and logos, because of the hesitation of logos, or word, between theological and other meanings, philosophy of language in Russia has generally been explicitly or implicitly a kind of theology. The late nineteenth century brought a revival of theological thought in Russia together with a surge in philosophical activity. But philosophy and theology were characteristically not entirely distinct in this period just as in others, and one result of the revival of both disciplines was the appearance in the early twentieth century of an Orthodox philosophy of language.

Naftali Prat, a Russian scholar now living in Israel, has investigated this often-neglected episode in the history of the early modern era in an article titled "Orthodox Philosophy of Language in Russia."[6] Prat identifies several sources of this trend: Platonism as it traditionally dominates Orthodox theology, German idealism, Husserlian phenomenology, and Russian poets. The dominant source, however, is Platonism, and Platonism implies the doctrine of the logos. Prat shows that logos in this tradition has to do with the unity of thought and language and the


notion of adequately expressing a thought by means of the word. In the Russian philosophico-theological tradition the message of Plato's Cratylus is not the conventionality of language but rather that part of the name that is given by nature. Names express the essence of named objects through the eidos, or idea, of that object, Prat says (p. 3). In a strictly religious arena, in the early years of the twentieth century, language and the nature of names were the subject of an intense debate. At issue was the doctrine of imjaslavie, or glorification of the name, according to which God is immediately present in his name. Prat believes that the dispute over this Christian Platonic doctrine gave the "decisive impulse" to establishing an Orthodox philosophy of language in this century (p. 2).

If the logical origin of icons is in the doctrine of the logos, then it is not surprising that the two concepts should have analogous natures or that the logos should suggest an epistemology similar to the one we saw in the icon. The icon contains its reference to an invisible prototype. The logos contains its invisible essence or idea, whether by "logos" we mean the Second Person of the Trinity or simply a name. Icon and logos require a similar act of seeing, one that goes beyond the physical object toward an immaterial essence, idea, or grace, and thus they come together in the notion of idealism. Neither concept can exist without the ultimately Platonic sense that the physical thing stands for, or points to, something purely ideal.

Early modern literary aesthetics in Russia is completely dominated by this kind of thinking. I have not been able to find any important thinkers of that age that escape it. Even the most "scientific" writers, like Jakobson and his precursors the Formalists, perpetuate the idealist assumptions underlying Orthodox theology and language philosophy. Russian literary aesthetics in this period and the related disciplines that have fostered so much of our subsequent thinking about literary texts in the twentieth century are really an iconology, a logology, an Orthodox Christology, if only in disguise.

But sometimes it is not in disguise at all. We have an entirely false picture of the intellectual climate of turn-of-the-century Russia because all we ever hear about is the ostensibly secular and scientific thinkers that have been adopted by later twentieth-century schools of criticism. There is a whole range of immensely important and influential thinkers who unabashedly used the language of Orthodox theology. Some were genuinely religious; others were not (or were less so). Some continued to write until well after the revolution, although for those who had not


emigrated it became difficult toward the end of the 1920s to write anything that sounded like theology. If we take a look at what some of the more overtly religious writers were saying about art and language, then we can see that they did not form an obscure, deviant branch of philosophy in an otherwise secularized age. On the contrary, they are the ones that set out the terms of the discourse; the "secular" thinkers appropriated those terms. There is a great deal more coherence in this age than we might think. After all, was it merely an accidental combination of words that Shklovsky, the great Formalist, hit upon when he titled one of the central aesthetic proclamations of the day "The Resurrection of the Word"?

Vladimir Solov'ev

It makes sense that the best (some might say the first, or even the only) Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century should be as deeply a religious man as Vladimir Sergeevich Solov'ev (1853–1900). Like so many other Russian thinkers, Solov'ev was not only religious but fundamentally ambivalent about Russian Christianity, flirting at various stages of his life with Orthodoxy's two greatest temptations, atheism and Catholicism. He was staggeringly precocious, beginning his mature writing career when he was in his twenties. He was astonishingly versatile, writing philosophy, poetry, and humorous theatre. And he was enormously influential: the whole symbolist movement in Russian letters finds the source for much of its essential thinking in him.

The root of Solov'ev's thought is the same as for John of Damascus and the same as for the entire Russian kenotic tradition. It all goes back to Christ, the Word incarnate: two natures, one person. Solov'ev's Lectures on Godmanhood, which he began writing at the age of twentyfour and which contain many of the principles he was to write about for the rest of his career, take their point of departure in the notion of Christ's—and consequently man's—dual nature.[7] Duality underlies everything for Solov'ev, who is an idealist in virtually every sense of the term. There is God and his creation; God and man; Christ's divinity and Christ's humanity; the world of ideas and the world of matter; the absolute, permanent, objective idea in the individual and the purely subjective, personal idea; and on and on.

History is the dynamic process of the unfolding of the world spirit, which Solov'ev defines as the "tendency toward the incarnation of the


Godhead in the world" (SS, 3:145). The Incarnation of the Word is the last link in a long chain of physical and historical incarnations. It is the crowning event in history because through it Christ abdicates his divine glory, thus simultaneously divinizing his humanity and humanizing his divinity. With the Incarnation it is no longer a question of simply a transcendent God: we now have the God-Logos, the personal incarnation of God. The Incarnation points up the duality of man's own nature and makes possible Solov'ev's dream of Godmanhood, by which he means an assertion of the divine and absolute that inheres in each of us (as it did in Christ through the miracle of the Incarnation). Solov'ev's dualism is thus not the dualism of radically separate entities; the whole point of Lectures on Godmanhood and the underlying doctrine of the Incarnation is to show the original unity and the continuity of God and nature. God inheres in nature; the ideal inheres in the material.

This is how we get to Solov'ev's doctrine of beauty and art. Beauty in nature and beauty in art are not different in kind for Solov'ev. Art is not an imitation of nature or even a mere duplication of nature's work; it is rather a continuation of what is begun by nature. What is begun by nature is the same kind of incarnation we found in the Godman. Beauty in nature is "the transformation of matter through the incarnation in it of another, supramaterial principle," Solov'ev says in an essay called "Beauty in Nature."[8] Thus beauty in nature is ultimately the expression of a purely ideal content. It is the "incarnation of an idea" (SS, 6:43) or, as Solov'ev puts it later on in the essay, the "sensible incarnation of a certain absolutely objective, completely single idea" (SS, 6:73), A diamond, for example, is an object of beauty because it represents an almost perfect embodiment (incarnation) of an idea, namely the idea of illuminated stone. The beauty of a diamond resides neither exclusively in its substance (coal) nor exclusively in the light it reflects and refracts, but in both. The substance provides a means for embodying the supramaterial, ideal agent of light, and this very embodiment embodies the idea of illuminated stone.

In an essay titled "The General Meaning of Art" Solov'ev shows where nature leaves off and art picks up.[9] "The beauty of nature," he says, "is merely a veil cast over evil life and not a transfiguration of that life. Man, therefore, with his rational consciousness, must be not only the end of the process of nature but also the means by which an ideal principle can exert an inverse, deeper, and fuller influence on nature" (SS, 6:78). Man enhances and furthers the work of the ideal in nature by creating artworks, and this act of creation consists precisely in the


type of incarnation whose result we see in diamonds and other objects of natural beauty. Beauty always represents the incarnation of an idea. The artistic activity of man incarnates an idea by uniting "a spiritual content and a sensible expression"; thus, through the "mutual penetration" of this content and this idea, "a material phenomenon that has truly become beautiful, that is, that has truly incarnated in itself an idea, must become just as enduring and immortal as the idea itself" (SS, p. 82).

The repeated use of the word incarnate and its various related forms in this essay is sufficient to show the theological character of Solov'ev's thought. The root notion is always condescension or kenosis, which translates, in aesthetics, as any process by which something that is not physical gets expressed in something that is. The triple task of art, says Solov'ev, consists in "(1) the direct objectificarion of those deepest internal determinations and qualities of the living idea that cannot be expressed by nature, (2) the animation of natural beauty and, through this, (3) the immortalization of the individual phenomena of that beauty" (SS, 6:84). It is almost senseless to speak of an iconology in Solov'ev, if by iconology we refer to a separate science of icons. Everything is iconic for him. All creation is pervaded with the ideal, and almost everything would seem to invite the kind of perceptual act I just described. But artworks are even more iconic than other things because in them the work of the ideal has been enhanced by man. More than other things, presumably, artworks highlight their own iconicity.

Andrei Bely

Bely's most ambitious essay from his symbolist period is "The Emblematics of Meaning."[10] It is terribly long, maddeningly digressive, and absurdly disorganized. There is little likelihood that many of Bely's contemporaries (or successors, for that matter) bothered to read through and understand the whole thing, and so it is equally unlikely that one can speak of any direct impact the essay had on subsequent thought. And yet the essay contains perhaps the essence of Bely's whole doctrine. That essence is hinted at in the way the fields of language theory and theology usually overlap in Bely's thought. In "The Emblematics of Meaning," however, Bely has stepped back from language theory to confront a more general area, one that subsumes language theory. His concern in this essay is meaning, understood in its broadest sense. Mean-


ing is involved in virtually every realm of human endeavor, so Bely's essay of logical necessity takes account of not only language, art, and artistic language but also many other fields. His approach to meaning amounts to a kind of formalistic, secularized, twentieth-century version of Orthodox iconology.

There are two broad categories of meaning, as Bely sees it: symbolic meaning and emblematic meaning. Symbolic meaning is meaning presented in images; emblematic meaning is meaning presented in concepts. Symbolic meaning corresponds to creation, emblematic meaning to cognition. But the formal process by which both types of meaning are apprehended is identical, and since Bely could find no generic term to cover the two species symbolic and emblematic, he simply used the word emblematics in his title. "The Emblematics of Meaning" means that meaning is emblematic, which means that it comes into being by the formal process Bely defines in his essay.

Bely calls that formal process symbolization, by which he means something very similar to incarnation. Symbolization starts with an ideal quality and embodies (incarnates) that quality in some intelligible medium (an image or a concept). The result is a symbol or emblem. Bely was so pleased with his description of the logical origins of all meaning that he made a diagram of the various fields of human endeavor to show how they stack up in relation to one another. The diagram is a large triangle subdivided into many small triangles, each standing for a field of human knowledge (S, p. 639; SE, p. 145). The schema is hierarchical: the closer a field is to the ideal, which appears at the summit of the triangle, the farther up on the triangle it is located. The farther it is from the ideal, the lower down it appears. "Higher" fields are thus characterized by meanings with a greater ideal component, lower ones by meanings with a lower ideal component, which is to say that their meanings are more concrete. Any field on the triangle is in a sense derived from the one immediately above it by the same process of symbolization that yields all objects of meaning, and thus it stands in relation to that superior field as an object of meaning stands in relation to its ideal content. The higher field supplies the ideal for the lower field, and the lower field then "symbolizes" that ideal.

What is peculiar about Bely's system is how he appropriates the fundamental terms of Russian Orthodox iconology and logology but corrupts them by integrating into his system a set of godless philosophical concepts taken from some of the neo-Kantian thinkers then in vogue in Russia. I said earlier that the honor given to an icon is transferred to its


prototype, which must ultimately be understood as the divinity. What is the prototype for Bely? We can find it by looking at the summit of his triangle since the summit shows what is symbolized by everything beneath it. The highest small triangle on Bely's diagram bears the inscription Value . At the summit of this triangle, which is also the summit of the entire diagram, are the words Symbol Embodied (or Symbol Incarnate —there is no distinction in Russian).

The term value comes from the epistemological system of Heinrich Rickert. Rickert had reformed the Kantian theory of knowledge by asserting that values are the true objects of ordinary acts of cognition (see above, p. 51). Values are apprehended by an act of the will because for Rickert ordinary cognition has come to be based on a kind of ethical affirmation of truth. In connecting the ethical element with the will, Rickert was simply following Kant, for whom the will is the faculty that comes into play in our decisions of right and wrong. But for Kant the will connects us with the realm of freedom, and freedom is a transcendental idea (like the idea of God or the idea of immortality), something we cannot "know," something metaphysical that is not accessible to ordinary knowledge. Oddly enough, however, Rickert was antimetaphysical and saw his theory of knowledge as entirely scientific. His whole system was meant to reject the Kantian notion that there is a suprasensible world existing beyond the world of appearances. In fact, the modern notion of value philosophy, something that had just come into fashion at the end of the nineteenth century, represented an effort to provide secular and relativistic answers to traditional ethical questions. So when Bely jumps on the value bandwagon, he is for all intents and purposes committing himself to an antireligious philosophy.

But the structure of Bely's system is the structure of Orthodox iconology, and Bely is not in the least troubled by the easy mingling of religious and nonreligious terms that characterizes his essay. The summit of the value triangle, I said, is labeled Symbol Embodied . Bely often refers to this supreme term simply as the Symbol (with a capital S to distinguish it from ordinary symbols). What he appears to mean by it is the prototype of all symbol-forming activity, together with the reminder that such activity is a type of incarnation (embodiment). The ultimate, prototypical principle of value, and thus of everything meaningful, is the Symbol. How does the Symbol come to be expressed? Bely uses the example of the three triangles situated immediately under the value triangle: metaphysics, theosophy, and theurgy. "The Symbol is expressed in symbolizations," he says, "and, in the present case, metaphysics, the-


osophy and theurgy are such symbolizations" (S, p. 101; SE, p. 160). What is symbolization? "The Symbol cannot be given without symbolization. This is why we embody it in an image. The image embodying the Symbol is called a symbol only in a more general sense of the word. God, for example, is such a symbol, when seen as an existing something" (S, p. 105; SE, p. 164).

Here we can see how closely bound Bely is to his theological tradition. Remember that "embody" translates the Russian word that is used for the theological sense of "incarnate." Symbolization is the same sort of thing as incarnation. The last sentence of the passage I just quoted should leave no doubt about the analogy. How does God come to be "seen as an existing something"? Through his creation, or through his Word—that is, through the condescension that occurs in the act of Incarnation. A few sentences after this one Bely says, "The reality created by God is a symbolic reality" (S, p. 106; SE, p. 164). Thus symbolization is like God's creation, which is like the Incarnation of the Word.

This brings us back to the epistemology of icon worship. Bely chooses to call his objects symbols instead of icons, but the posture of the perceiver is the same in both instances. Like the Christian worshiper venerating icons, the perceiver of symbols is always looking through a level of concretion to something invisible beyond, and Bely has seen fit to call that something value (or the Symbol Embodied). Symbols can be all sorts of things, associated with all sorts of fields of endeavor. If they are associated with art, then we have a theory of aesthetics that is clearly traced on the original of Orthodox iconology. Has Bely theologized aesthetics or aestheticized theology? It doesn't make much difference. Even if the result of his efforts is an entirely faithless and formalistic system—in the sense that Bely isn't claiming a personal belief in God or literally suggesting the presence of God as a prototype behind all objects of meaning—the structure of his thought is clearly theological. And when we apply it to aesthetics, the possibility for confusing aesthetic reception with faithful adoration is very great indeed.

Sergei Bulgakov

The twentieth-century thinker who most successfully blurred the boundary between language philosophy and theology was probably Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871–1944). Bulgakov's impact on later generations in his own country is difficult to assess exactly, but it is certainly


not great. His most important work on language, Philosophy of the Name, was written in 1919 but not published until 1953, after his death.[11] Bulgakov was forced to emigrate in 1922 since his religious views were clearly out of step with the views of the new Soviet state. A chapter of Philosophy of the Name was published in German translation in 1930, but it could not have been widely available in the Soviet Union.[12] Bulgakov's importance lies not so much in the degree to which he may have influenced other thinkers, Russian or not, as in the way he exemplifies overtly a tendency that is often only covert in his contemporaries, namely the tendency to approach language philosophy as Orthodox logology.

Bulgakov is a Platonist in the grand tradition of Orthodox theology. "What is the Word?" is the title of the first chapter of Philosophy of the Name, and the answer has to do with essence. The essence of a word is its eidos, says Bulgakov. As usual, Bulgakov gives an Orthodox coloring to a Platonic notion. The idea or eidos of a word is the same as the "inner word," the "sense" of the word (FI, p. 21), and this gives rise to a peculiar property of words. "Logos," says Bulgakov, switching freely into the Platonic-theological idiom (and using the actual Greek letters, too), "has a double nature: in it the Word and the thought, the body and the sense, are inseparably and unamalgamatedly fused" (FI, p. 19). If we didn't know this was a book about words we might simply think Bulgakov was explaining the Orthodox doctrine of the Logos. The Logos is Christ, and Christ has two natures in one person. In Christ the fleshly and the divine are inseparably united, just as body and sense (which is the same as the inner essence or Platonic idea) are united in Bulgakov's word. Christ is the Word incarnate, and Bulgakov naturally resorts to the Orthodox concept of the Incarnation to describe things that initially appear to have to do only with language. Meanings, he says, are ideas that become incarnate by means of words (FI, p. 21).

Bulgakov's subject is ambiguous from the outset. By calling his book Philosophy of the Name, instead of, say, Philosophy of Language or even Philosophy of the Word, Bulgakov is placing himself squarely in the same theological tradition that generated so much speculation about God's presence in his name. When Bulgakov comes to talk about language in an apparently grammatical context, he plays on the possible confusion between linguistics and theology by using the Russian word for "name" as the central term in his discussion. He can do so because several of the Russian words for parts of speech contain the word "name" (imja ), instead of the word "word" (slovo ). The expression for


"noun" in Russian, for instance, means something like "essential name" or "being-name" (imja suscestvitel'noe[*] ).

The transition from word to Word and from word to name is thus an easy one for Bulgakov. So, for that matter, is the transition from word to icon. Bulgakov is one of the few thinkers of the era to give explicit formulation to the analogy of word and icon and to locate the source of the analogy in the doctrine of kenosis. "Every icon is a name that has taken root and sprouted," he says (FI, p. 182). God's name is a "verbal icon of the Godhead" (FI, p. 184). The name of God "reveals itself in the word, our human word made up of sound," and this human word, declares Bulgakov, is an icon (FI, p. 190). God comes to be present in his name and in the names of human language through precisely the same kenosis as allowed for the Incarnation of the Word of God in God's Son. There is an implicit hierarchy in Bulgakov's conception, not unlike the one we find in Bely. At the top is God, in the sense of the idea of God, who is present in his own name. Next there is Christ, the humiliated divinity. The name of Jesus reflects this status, Bulgakov says; it is the name of God, but with a human element. At the next level down we have the words of human language. God's name reveals itself in these words, as I said a moment ago. Each new type of name, from the name of God down to the names, or words, of human language, represents an additional stage of concretion, of condescension, just as it had in Bely's pyramid. All names or words ultimately have a prototype, as they do for Bely. For Bulgakov this prototype is God, not value, but that does not alter the basic model. The same epistemology is implicit in Bulgakov's scheme. In Bulgakov, as in Bely, the act of apprehending an object of meaning is the same as the act of worshiping an icon: it means looking through and beyond to something that cannot be apprehended by fleshly beings.

Earlier I said that iconic thinking was so pervasive in Russia that even the apparently scientific thinkers like Jakobson did not escape its clutches. Jakobson will have to be considered as part of the same tradition as the more overtly theological thinkers I have just been talking about. The most curious thing about Bulgakov in this regard is that he is part of the same European linguistic tradition as Jakobson and all other early twentieth-century linguists. In the notes and appendixes to Philosophy of the Name we find references to Humboldt, Max Müller, Heymann Steinthal, Michel Bréal, and a host of other nineteenth-century philologists and linguists. So it is not true that Bulgakov was a theologian and nothing more, approaching the study of language from the per-


spective of a tradition buried in the recesses of Orthodox church history. On the contrary, he was quite a modern man, almost as much of one, in fact, as Roman Jakobson. Nor is it true that Bulgakov took his modern linguistic heritage and gave it a surprising and ungainly twist to make it fit his theology. Bulgakov's view of language is not substantially different from the prevailing Russian view of language. The theology that appears to the Western mind to be artificially superimposed on modern linguistics fits in a way that is completely natural for the Russian tradition of language philosophy. The proof is that we find the theology in Jakobson, too.

Pavel Florensky

The last figure I will talk about in this context is undoubtedly one of the most amazing intellectuals ever to have lived. It's worth saying again how tragic it is that history in the twentieth century intervened to eclipse the careers and reputations of so many Russians who would otherwise have been celebrated for astonishing achievements even beyond what they were able to accomplish before being condemned to oblivion—or death. Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) was so many things that it would be hard to decide which to list as his principal occupation: theologian, priest, mathematician, scientist, inventor, or philosopher. He wrote on art, language, organic chemistry, mysticism, Kant, sculpture, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Aegean culture, arithmetic, idealism, iconography, electromagnetism, microscopy, carbolic acid, asbestos, Pythagorean numbers, Aleksandr Blok, ecclesiology, and an absurd variety of other topics. After the revolution he was one of the few intellectuals with conservative views to be permitted to remain professionally active in the country, at least for a time. His training in science made him useful in the early years of the Soviet Union, when he applied his expertise as an electrical engineer to various public-works projects. It is a testimony to the enforced, selective blindness of Soviet history that until recently the achievement for which Florensky was perhaps best remembered officially in his own country was his invention in 1927 of a noncoagulating machine oil.

Before the revolution, in a climate that was more receptive to the full range of Florensky's interests, he was not obliged to concern himself with asbestos and machine oil. His most important writing is a monstrously large book called The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, an attempt to elaborate an entire Orthodox metaphysics based on the ideas


of love and friendship.[13] Florensky was also a leading figure in the cult of Divine Wisdom, or Sophia, a movement initiated by Solov'ev. Sophia was seen as various things: a kind of supreme prototype in the universe, a fourth member of the Trinity, the church, God's love, and another expression for the Mother of God.

The point of departure for Florensky's thinking shows what a Platonist and essentialist he was. The basic truth for Florensky is the existence of two worlds, a visible one and an invisible one. The first chapter, or "letter," of The Pillar and Ground is called "Two Worlds," and Florensky's long essay on icons, "Iconostasis," begins with reflections on the division of the world into visible and invisible. I have referred repeatedly to kenosis, the condescension of God in the Incarnation. Florensky describes kenosis as the entering of God into flesh, of one "I" into another "I" (SU, p. 92). This then serves as an analogy for a number of fundamentally related concepts: love, too, is the entering of an "I" into another "I." The condescension of God into human flesh thus becomes an act of love linking the invisible with the visible. Human cognition bears a significant analogy to love and kenosis because it consists in "the real going-out of the cognizing [subject] from himself or—what is the same—the real entering of the cognizing [subject] into the cognized [object]—the real union of cognizing [subject] and cognized [object] " (SU, p. 73). This means that cognition has to do with truth, which is the subject of Florensky's big book. "The essential cognition of Truth," he says, "that is, a communion with Truth itself, is, consequently, a real entering into the depths of the Divine Triunity . . . Therefore, true cognition—the cognition of Truth—is possible only through the transubstantiation of man, through his deification, through the acquisition of love as Divine essence . . . In love and only in love is the actual cognition of Truth thinkable" (SU, p. 74). Love, truth, cognition, kenosis, and, by implication, the Incarnation are thus all profoundly linked together. All either actually or by analogy bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible worlds.

Florensky came to the attention of literary scholars in recent years because of his writing on language and art. Members of the Tartu school of structuralism and semiotics, a group of Soviet scholars working at the University of Tartu in Estonia, rediscovered Florensky's writings some twenty years ago and, in the early 1970s, published several of them with footnotes and commentary. One of these is titled "Iconostasis."[14] The iconostasis is a screen in Orthodox churches that separates the sanctuary


from the nave and is covered with icons arranged in prescribed, complicated patterns. The essay is about icons, and it gives one of the most extended and complete philosophical treatments of the subject in the history of Russian iconology. It was written in 1922 but never published until 1972.

Much of what Florensky says about icons fits the standard formulations. In some cases, however, he has come up with novel ways of thinking about icons and novel terms in which to conceptualize them. He starts out by pointing to the truth underlying the existence of icons, namely the existence of a visible and an invisible world. Florensky says that the iconostasis represents the border between these two worlds. Icons are not art, they do not represent things, and icon painters do not create anything. Instead, icons are the means by which the prototype "witnesses" itself. Florensky says that when he sees an icon of the Mother of God, "in my consciousness there is no representation: there is a board with paints on it, and there is the Mother of our Lord Herself" (SS, 1:226). The prototypes that icons give us (or whose "self-witnessing" they give us) are suprasensible ideas, eide (the plural of eidos ) (SS, 1:225). The true icon artist seeks "the artistically embodied truth of things" (SS, 1:236). This is natural since for Florensky the apprehension of truth already has to do with the notion of embodiment or incarnation. It makes sense that the icon should be the artistic incarnation of truth because the icon is by nature a kenotic object, standing on the border between the visible and the invisible, and its apprehension, to follow what Florensky had said in The Pillar and Ground, is an act similar to love or to the apprehension of truth. Icon painting is thus a metaphysics of being (SS, 1:296).

This analysis is not significantly different from what we see in other writings in the Orthodox theology of icons, except perhaps for Florensky's emphasis on the concrete reality of the prototype that we experience in an icon. Florensky shows the same Platonic essentialism as others who had written in this field before him. In fact, at one point in the essay, he even mentions the closeness of Platonic ontology to iconography (SS, 1:290).

When he turns to language the Platonic essentialism and a Humboldtian myth of origins persist in Florensky's conception, but with a twist that is entirely new. There are two important places where we can learn Florensky's thoughts on language. There is The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, which contains numerous etymological excursuses on various concepts. And there is a short article titled "The Construction of the


Word," which Florensky wrote sometime before 1922, but which was not published during his lifetime.[15]

In The Pillar and Ground Florensky shows a fondness for philological speculation that anticipates Heidegger. We find the same simple faith in the myth of original purity, the same sense that a primitive, essential core dwells in a word over the centuries and continues to have signifying force for the speakers of a particular nation. In his chapter on truth, for instance, Florensky examines the words for "truth" in a number of different languages and includes an analysis of the Greek word aletheia similar to Heidegger's celebrated treatment in his 1943 essay "Aletheia." We find, too, the same willingness to cross the boundary between sober scholarly accuracy and pure fancy in his etymological work. In fact, Florensky openly acknowledges and even justifies his transgressions in a footnote to one of his etymological analyses in The Pillar and Ground : "Philosophy creates language, not studies it." He then strangely cites as his authority Humboldt and the theory that language is a dynamic process (SU, p. 786).

"The Structure of the Word" contains a theory of language that is extraordinary for the way it combines the traditional romantic myth of origins with a more "modern," contextual theory. Florensky's point of departure is the observation that a basic antimony underlies language. Every word, he says, derives at once from a set of primary elements common to all speakers and from the mind and thoughts of the individual speaker. The word is thus both public and private. It contains elements that must not change from utterance to utterance in order for a community of speakers to have a fixed means of communication. At the same time, since the word is used in actual utterances, it contains elements that are peculiar to those utterances and to the speakers making them.

Florensky then builds on this antinomy a theory of inner and outer form clearly derived from Potebnia, except that he performs a fascinating reversal of Potebnia's terms. Outer form, according to Florensky, is what he calls the body of the word. It is the word's unchanging composition, which serves common reason. Inner form, by contrast, is the very soul of the word. It is constantly changing, always being born anew, and it serves individual reason. Potebnia, remember, had equated the inner form of the word with its closest etymological meaning. Florensky retains both the idea of inner form and the idea of a closest etymological meaning, but he changes things around and associates the closest etymological meaning, what he calls the etymon, with outer form. That's be-


cause the etymon, which is the true flesh of the word, provides the constant element in a word, the element that does not appreciably change from one utterance to the next. Florensky uses the same terms as Potebnia to describe this changeless element in a word. It is the old etymological myth of origins. The etymon for Florensky is the word's "original [pervonacal'noe ][*] or truthful [istinnoe ] meaning."[16] Florensky gives an example of a word with its etymological derivation to illustrate what "primeval [pervobytnyj ] man" thought about the object designated by that word.[17] But Florensky's conclusion is entirely different from Potebnia's. For Florensky, the etymon is merely part of the outer form of the word, that is, the form that serves the needs of the community of speakers. It is not the soul of the word.

The soul of the word is its inner form. Florensky also calls this the "sememe." The sememe is what belongs to the particular speaker on the particular occasion of a particular utterance. "The sememe of a word constantly wavers," says Florensky, "it breathes, it is iridescent and has no independent meaning that exists separately from this speech of mine, spoken right here and now, in the whole context of lived experience and also in the present place of this speech."[18] The notion that speech is, at least on one level, linked with inner, private experience leads Florensky to the following bold observation: "Words are unrepeatable; in every instance they are spoken anew, that is, with a new sememe, and in the best case this will be a variation on an earlier theme. . . . Only the outer form of a word can be objectively one and the same thing in a conversation, but never the inner form."[19]

What do we make of an assertion like this? There is no doubt that the Platonist and essentialist impulse is there. The whole doctrine of inner form as it was modified by Potebnia was Platonic because it linked the essence of the word with something basically ahistorical. Florensky may have seen himself as returning to Humboldt's notion of inner form, which had to do with the dynamic nature of language and not with frozen, ahistorical meanings. But there is an important difference here, too. For Humboldt, the dynamic, generative nature of language had to do with a concept of nationhood. It was the Volk with all its generative cultural energy that was responsible for the constant process of renewal that languages undergo. With Florensky, however, the emphasis is on the individual utterance, on the implicit isolation and uniqueness of any act of speech. His use of the word context, the idea that speech can be understood only in relation to a total "lived" set of circumstances, is particularly striking since it anticipates all those lonely twentieth-cen-


tury postmodern theories of language, which see language as ultimately unstable because it is always "implicated" in a ceaselessly changing historical context. This contextuality is what Florensky appears to regard as essential in language. But the most Platonic and essentialist concept in Florensky's theory of language is associated for him with the aspect of language that is least essential, namely its outer form.

Earlier I said that Bulgakov was an important figure not because of any impact his writings had on his contemporaries or on future generations but because his thinking arises from the same tradition as the thinking of figures that did have an enormous impact on future generations in the West. This is true of Florensky, too. But with Florensky we can speak of a few actual points of contact with his contemporaries. Aage A. Hansen-Löve, for instance, in his huge book on the Formalist movement, asserts that an essay by Florensky on perspective in art was known to the Formalists, although he doesn't say to which Formalists it was known or what sort of response it drew from any of them.[20] Another scholar mentions Florensky as part of a history of Soviet semiotics, saying that Florensky and a few better-known writers contributed to the study of the relation between signs and extralinguistic reality.[21]

Most important of all, however, is the connection with Mikhail Bakhtin. In Bakhtin's theory of discourse all speech is part of a dialogue. The word never exists in isolation but gets its meaning from the context in which it is uttered. Thus for Bakhtin, too, words are unrepeatable, since contexts are unrepeatable. Bakhtin spent most of his life in obscurity or in internal exile in the Soviet Union, and his writings were not widely known even abroad until the 1970s. But he has since become popular in the academic literary establishment. As it happens, Florensky and Bakhtin were part of the same intellectual circle in the 1920s, and there are affinities between their ways of thinking that can perhaps be explained by the circumstance that Bakhtin was, to a surprising extent, a religious man in the Orthodox tradition. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, who have written the standard biography of Bakhtin, show the religious bases of his theory of language. There are two concepts, both deriving from the familiar doctrine of kenoticism. The first is something called sobornost ', which Clark and Holquist translate as "communality."[22] It refers to the brotherhood on earth of Christian worshipers, and it derives from the idea of the shared experience with Christ that was made possible by the kenosis. As Clark and Holquist explain, this idea serves as a foundation for Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic. Dialogic communication rests on the fundamental act by which one consciousness


recognizes another. All human interaction is an example of this kind of self-other relation. In his earliest work Bakhrin explicitly makes the connection between this model of human interaction and the idea of Christian community.

The second concept, Clark and Holquist say, is "a profound respect for the material realities of everyday experience."[23] Since the kenotic tradition emphasizes the Incarnation so strongly, it has always insisted on the miracle of creation itself as another instance of incarnation and thus has always revered the material world. This was the injunction of John of Damascus, who cautioned men not to despise matter. Bakhtin, as Clark and Holquist explain, was fascinated with the material dimension of language for precisely this reason. But he also reverted to the standard terms of Orthodox logology to describe the word, referring to the two-sided nature of the word and implicitly confusing "word" (a unit of human language) and "Word" (the Word of God that was made flesh).

It's easy to see the resemblance between this idea and the doctrine that Florensky has briefly elaborated in "The Construction of the Word." Bakhtin's communal conception of language would later develop into a full-fledged theory of linguistic contextuality, and that is exactly what Florensky proposes in his essay. And Bakhtin's point of departure is the recognition of the fundamental duality of language, a recognition that comes from the way the kenotic tradition views the relation between the visible and the invisible. That was Florensky's point of departure, too.


Chapter Six—
Roman Jakobson, or How Logology and Mythology Were Exported

It's certainly fair to say that Roman Jakobson is the biggest name in modern linguistics. No other figure dominates the field quite the way he did. This is only partly because of his uncanny productivity. It is also because he was around for so long and in so many places. Since he spent the last forty-one years of his life, from 1941 to 1982, in the United States, he is regarded as almost an American academic fixture. But before he came here, he had spent a couple of years in Norway and Sweden and almost twenty years in Czechoslovakia. He spent the first twentyfour years of his life in Russia, where he was born in 1896.

This geographically and chronologically wide-ranging career allowed Jakobson to have an extraordinary international impact on both linguistics and literary theory. In his early days he was closely associated with the Formalists and Futurists in his native country. After he went to Czechoslovakia in 1920, he founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, which is mentioned in every account of the history of structuralism. And in the United States his long career in the academic establishment made him a continuing presence in various schools of literary theory.

No one doubts the importance of Jakobson in the history of structuralism. The facts can be stated briefly: Jakobson received his copy of Saussure's Cours de Imguistique générale in 1920, although he had been familiar with Saussurian doctrine since 1917. He was troubled by certain aspects of Saussure's system, above all its inability to accommodate the notion of ongoing change in language, so he elaborated a new view of language that would take account of this temporal factor. The document


in which this view appears is "Problems in the Study of Literature and Language," which Jakobson coauthored with Formalist critic Yury Tynianov and published in 1928. This programmatic list of principles and recommendations introduced the notion that language is a "system" that "necessarily exists as an evolution." But it also contained a proclamation that was to play a significant role in the development of structuralist thought:"An analysis of the structural laws of language and literature and their evolution inevitably leads to the establishment of a limited series of actually existing structural types (types of structural evolution)."[1] The following year, at the First Congress of Slavists in Prague, Jakobson proposed new modes of poetic analysis and, as he tells the story later, "christened" them the "structural method."[2] Thus, by Jakobson's account, the foundation was laid for the elaboration of structural principles into a broad methodology.

Jakobson was interested not only in linguistics but in poetics as well. In fact, many people today feel that his work in poetics is superior to his work in linguistics. Some of his most obvious contributions to modern structuralism were in this field. For instance, the famous study of Baudelaire's "Les Chats" that he coauthored with Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1962 reads almost like a parody of the structuralist method. It combines semantic, grammatical, syntactical, phonetic, and prosodic methods of analysis to provide a ridiculously complicated set of organizational schemas—all for the purpose, the authors say, of giving the poem "the character of an absolute object."[3] The article has its own involved history in the annals of modern criticism, a history that has secured it a place in virtually every account of the rise of structuralism. But then Jakobson's entire association with Lévi-Strauss, which had begun in the first years Jakobson spent in the United States, was a formative influence in that movement.

Another thing for which Jakobson is particularly well remembered in literary circles and in the history of structuralist method is his distinction between the two "poles" of language: the metaphoric and the metonymic. The idea is that all language production occurs on two "axes": the vertical axis of selection and the horizontal axis of combination. In other words, as we speak we perform two different operations: we select units as if from a vertical column of choices and then we string them together as if on a horizontal track. When we select, we act on the basis of a principle of similarity (because the different choices in the vertical column will necessarily bear some resemblance to one another), and when we combine, we act on the basis of a principle of contiguity (be-


cause, in the simplest sense, the units we combine go next to each other). These two operations have to do with two basic figures of speech: metaphor and metonymy. When we use a metaphor, what we are really doing is substituting one thing for another, which is to say that we are performing a "vertical" operation of selection. Thus when I refer to someone as a weasel, I am selecting from a whole column of terms that suggest furtiveness or some other quality belonging to both weasels and the person I am comparing them with. When we use a metonymy, what we are really doing is finding something that is associated and "contiguous" with the first term. When I refer to the food I eat as my board, it is not because food and board are similar, but because the idea of food calls to mind something contiguous with it, namely the table, or "board," on which it is served. Contiguity here, of course, has a slightly different sense from the one it has when we talk about the horizontal axis of selection.

In an article on two types of aphasia, Jakobson actually used neurological research to support his findings. He found that one type of aphasic disturbance consists in a similarity disorder, that is, where the metaphoric pole of language has been disturbed and the subject has trouble choosing individual words, whereas the other type consists in a contiguity disorder, that is, where the metonymic pole has been disturbed and the subject has trouble stringing words together. These findings confirmed for him that the two axes of language actually represent two basic mental operations involved in speech formation.[4]

What is important in Jakobson's observations on metaphor and metonymy is the conclusion that he draws from them. If there are two basic figures of speech, two principles of language production, it is because there are two basic types of language: our old friends, poetry and prose. Poetic language, since it is rich in metaphor, relies more on the axis of selection. This makes sense because poetry is less a temporal and sequential form of language than is prose. Prosaic language, by contrast, is sequential and linear and thus relies more on the axis of combination. In fact, the principle of similarity, or equivalence, is so dominant in poetic language that it fairly overwhelms any instances of combination that we might find in language of this sort. Thus we arrive at Jakobson's celebrated statement, set in italics in his article "Linguistics and Poetics": "The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination" (SW, 3:27). What this means is that in poetry even the combination, the linear sequence of words, is dominated by principles of similarity.


But here, too, the main thing is how poetic language calls attention to itself "as such." In "Linguistics and Poetics" Jakobson gives his wellknown schema of the six "functions" of language. Among the functions he lists are the poetic function and the "referential" function. The referential function is also called the "denotative" and the "cognitive" function, and it has to do with what we normally think of as the transmission of information in simple communication. Each function is distinguished by its orientation toward one of six corresponding factors. Referential language is oriented toward the context . Poetic language is oriented toward the "message as such, . . . the message for its own sake" (SW, 3:25). Once again, the idea is that poetic language is different from ordinary language because it calls attention to itself.

What is a man of science like Jakobson doing concerning himself with the difference between poetic and prosaic language? Hasn't this problem been strangely resistant to any kind of scientific solution? Isn't it more and more tempting to conclude, in the face of so many failed attempts to solve it, that there is no such scientifically describable difference? As it happens, Jakobson from the very beginning was wrestling with all the old myths, and his later attempts to come up with a scientific formulation for some of them make a lot more sense if we look at what he was doing early in his career.

Jakobson's own account of his linguistic genealogy is puzzling. In the "Retrospect" to the first volume of his Selected Writings he mentions a few linguists that helped inspire him to take a new direction in language studies. But he also says that the strongest impulse came from the "great men of art born in the 1880s," and he lists Picasso, Joyce, Braque, Stravinsky, Khlebnikov, and Le Corbusier (SW, 1:631–32). He goes on to say that his first topic for the analysis of language "in its means and functions" was the poetry of Khlebnikov (SW, 1:633). In the "Retrospect" to another volume he credits Bely with inspiring him to take on the analytic study of verse (SW, 5:569). I mentioned earlier that Jakobson was closely associated with Formalists and Futurists. What he says about himself and much of the evidence about his early career suggests that the fundamental aspects of his thinking about language came not from professional linguists but from other sources—chiefly poets, artists, and literary critics.

One of Jakobson's earliest published writings is a long essay on Khlebnikov called "Modern Russian Poetry."[5] If ever there was evidence that Jakobson was a man of his age and a product of indigenous tradition, this is it. The only thing that distinguishes it from the work of, say,


Shklovsky is that Jakobson pays slightly more attention to the grammatical aspects of his subject. Otherwise the essay is pure Formalism, complete with all the mythical and Platonic baggage we saw in Shklovsky's work.

The effort is always to locate the essence of poetic language, to find the quality in poetry that makes it different from ordinary discourse. When Jakobson proposes solutions to the poetry-prose puzzle, we find the same phrases and concepts turning up as we had seen in the writings of Futurist poets like Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh and Formalist critics like Shklovsky. Poetic language is different from ordinary language because in it "linguistic representations (both phonetic and semantic) focus more attention on themselves" (SW, 5:304). He quotes Khlebnikov approvingly and says that "poetry is the formation of a self-valued, 'selfspun' word" (SW, 5:305). In passages reminiscent of Shklovsky he describes how words undergo a gradual process of petrification until they cease to be felt as words. When words reach this point, we read, a poet needs to come along and revive them so they can be felt as such. Or better yet, a poet can come along, as Khlebnikov has done, and invent whole new words, which can't avoid being felt as new because they are. "The form of words in practical language easily ceases to be consciously felt, it dies away, becomes petrified, whereas the perception of the form of a poetic neologism, a form given in statu nascendi, is absolutely compulsory" (SW, 5:333). Khlebnikov seems to have accomplished the resurrection of the word that Shklovsky had called for five years earlier. When the poet exploits consonant similarities in adjacent words, Jakobson says, "the word acquires a sort of new sound characteristic, the meaning bestirs itself, the word is perceived like a friend with a suddenly unfamiliar face, or like a person we don't know, but in whom something familiar can be divined" (SW, 5:342).

When Jakobson had spoken of the self-valued word and the tendency of poetic language to call attention to itself, he was really just answering the question of what poetic language does, not what it is . But he returns again and again to the question of what there is about poetic or literary language that makes it poetic or literary. "Poetry is language in its aesthetic function" (SW, 5:305). What quality is there that makes poetic language have this aesthetic function? Jakobson started out by considering literary language in general, without for the moment distinguishing literary from poetic language. He came up with a name for the distinctive quality in literary language: literaturnost ', or "literarity." In a famous sentence that gave the term currency in the Formalist movement, he says


that "the object of a science of literature is not literature, but literarity, that is, what makes a given work a literary work" (SW, 5:305).

Naturally, neither Jakobson nor any other Formalist thinker ever came up with a truly satisfying definition of literaturnost '. This ultimate object of the "science of literature" always seemed to be on the other side of the horizon. But that makes perfect sense, because literatumost ' is intrinsically an ideal, essentialist concept; and if it is ideal, then it is not accessible to the kind of knowledge implicitly understood in the phrase science of literature . No, unfortunately, Formalism was no science at all. It was founded in mystical and mythical notions. Now it appears that it was an essentialist and idealist doctrine as well, and Jakobson's quest for that pure aesthetic quality of literary language is a perfect example.

In the first part of this book I talked about inner form and showed that it was one of the most pervasive concepts in Russian language theory. It was also one of the most unscientific concepts in theories that masqueraded as scientific. Not surprisingly, the term springs up in Jakobson just as naturally as it had in Potebnia, Bely, and Shklovsky. At one point Jakobson discusses Khlebnikov's word inventions, saying that words of the sort that he creates "seem almost to be seeking out a meaning for themselves. In this case," he continues, "one cannot, say, speak of the absence of semantics. These are, to be more precise, words with negative inner form" (SW, 5:353). A few paragraphs later he says that the word in Khlebnikov's poetry "loses its object-quality [predmetnost '], then its inner and finally even its outer form" (SW, 5:354). It's hard to extract from these statements a precise sense of inner form as Jakobson understands it. Still, the mere fact that he doesn't pause to explain the term suggests that he is using it in what at least he regards as its customary sense. Inner form seems to have to do with the word's meaning and, more than this, with the mysterious way in which the word means that meaning. Thus a word with "negative inner form" is one that appears to retain the connectedness with its meaning even though the meaning—in the sense of a true, "objective" meaning—is lacking.

But isn't inner form just another essentialist doctrine when it comes right down to it? Doesn't it make perfect sense that the Russians should have seized hold of this concept from a romantic thinker like Humboldt, then redefined it in such a way that it would now satisfy their indigenous, age-old religious need for essences, ideals, eide, iconic prototypes, and such Platonic otherworldly notions? Potebnia had taken what for


Humboldt had been a dynamic concept and, in characteristic Russian fashion, replaced it with something static, fixed, and eternal.

This search for essences is utterly typical of Jakobson's thought. A curious chapter in the Jakobson story that is seldom mentioned helps account for Jakobson's essentialism (or his essentialism helps account for it . It is his association with phenomenology. Anyone familiar with this movement in early twentieth-century philosophy knows how difficult it is to define phenomenology, above all since Edmund Husserl seemed to want to redefine it every time he wrote a new book about it. But one can say at least that, in the eyes of Husserl's contemporaries, it was a philosophy of pure thought. The phenomenologist sought, through the "phenomenological reduction," to abstract or "bracket" from thought all prior experience, all presuppositions about the world, in order to isolate "thought" itself. At another stage, the phenomenologist, through the application of "eidetic intuition" and "eidetic reduction," brackets away the qualities in a phenomenon (that is, anything that appears to consciousness) that are peculiar to that phenomenon in order to arrive at the essence or eidos common to all similar phenomena. Phenomenology is thus, among other things, a science of essences. This is undoubtedly what made it appealing to the Russian mind in the early twentieth century. A number of Russian intellectuals came to champion Husserl's cause in their own country, largely at the instigation of one Gustav Shpet, who studied with Husserl. Interestingly enough, Shpet was later to write an entire book with the Humboldtian-Potebnian title The Inner form of the Word .[6]

Elmar Holenstein has investigated the Jakobson-Husserl connection and shown the degree to which Jakobson's thought was formed by his exposure to phenomenology. He feels so strongly about the impact of phenomenology on Jakobson, in fact, that the subtitle to his book on Jakobson's theory of language describes that entire theory as "phenomenological structuralism."[7] One fundamental feature that phenomenology and Jakobsonian linguistics have in common is precisely the notion of essences, Holenstein thinks. In an article devoted exclusively to Jakobson and Husserl, he shows how the notion makes its appearance in both fields. Holenstein describes the search for essences in phenomenology as "the search for invariants in all the variations, for the general in everything particular."[8] This is because in phenomenology essences have to do with those qualities in a thing that remain unchanged despite variations in the way the thing is perceived. For example, the quality of


extension is invariant because an object cannot exist without it. The two chief concepts in Jakobson that Holenstein sees as analogous are literarity (Holenstein translates it as "literaricity") and poeticity (poèticnost[*] '), a term that Potebnia had used and that Jakobson reintroduced about a decade after the Khlebnikov article to describe the quality that makes a specifically poetic work poetic.[9] Holenstein then draws an important conclusion from his observation. "Jakobson," he says, "knows just as well as Husserl that in the search for the essentialities success is not to be had with induction and statistics, but only with phenomenological analysis and insight into the object of investigation itself."[10] The standard tools of empirical science thus have no place in this central task of linguistics. In other words, to the extent that it seeks essences in the objects of its own investigation, Jakobsonian linguistics, that important precursor to the scientific methods of structuralism, is not a science in the sense many of us understand when we speak of a science of language.

I don't know whether phenomenology was the reason for the essentialist impulse in Jakobson, or if the essentialist impulse was already there and was the reason for Jakobson's interest in phenomenology. The second hypothesis makes more sense, for essentialism was a native organism of long standing in Jakobson's mother country. But it doesn't really matter much in the end. The fact is that Jakobson's thought is fundamentally essentialist and that if phenomenology either fed or caused his essentialism, if it played a role in the development of his thought as he himself acknowledges, then the essentialist impulse is a strong one in the formation of structuralism. Holenstein is not the only person to have asserted that phenomenology in some sense leads to structuralism.[11]

Jakobson's essentialism was not merely a feature of the youthful thinking associated with his early Formalist-Futurist period; it was to remain with him for his entire career. For instance, the concept of poeticity that Holenstein mentions comes from an article that Jakobson published (in Czech) in 1933 and 1934 called "What Is Poetry?"[12] Even at that date, well after the heyday of Russian Formalism and presumably well after the era of romantic and mystical language philosophy, Jakobson is trotting out the same old notions about the specificity of poetic language. "Poeticity," he says, "is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning,


their external and inner form acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality" (SW, 3:750).

Even better evidence of the tenacity of Jakobson's essentialism is his 1965 article titled "Quest for the Essence of Language" (SW, 2:345–59). Early in this article Jakobson refers to Saussure's idea of l'arbitraire du signe (pointing out, by the way, that the idea is twenty-two hundred years old) and then embarks on his own quest for instances where the signe is not so arbitraire . In some cases, he says, borrowing terms from Charles Sanders Peirce, there is a "diagrammatic resemblance" between the sign and the signified. For example, the phrase veni, vidi, vici bears a diagrammatic resemblance to the signified because the order of the words is the same as the order of the actions they designate. Another place where the diagrammatic resemblance shows through is in the length of words. With few exceptions the length of words corresponds to the notions of degree and number (superlatives are almost always longer than positives; plurals are almost always longer than singulars).

So strong was Jakobson's faith in the "essence" in language that he was led to adopt some strangely paradoxical positions later in his career. In his 1965 article "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" Jakobson introduces another one of his favorite ideas, namely the interdependence of signatum and signum . "There is no signatum without a signum, " he says (SW, 2:260). This is a striking sentence, because it means there is no signified thing (signatum ) that exists independently of the sign (signum ) standing for it. The signified exists only when and because there is a sign for it. In other words, language is a kind of enclosed universe unto itself that is ultimately indifferent to the existence or nonexistence of a "real" world without. This sounds much like the lonely, postmodern language philosophies of the 1970s, when it was fashionable to see language as a big subterfuge, forever undermining itself and always refusing to point to any kind of concrete reality. I don't mean to suggest that Jakobson is taking such an extreme position, but what he's saying certainly seems out of step with any theory that cherishes the idea of an essence in language. In the interdependence theory the relation between sign and signified, like the relation between sign and outside world, is bound to be arbitrary: sign and signified depend on each other; the signified exists as a function of the sign. But the signified cannot be said to necessitate the sign, and if the converse is true, namely that the sign necessitates the signified (which exists, remember, only as a function of the sign), then it will have to do so by means that are mysterious


indeed. Essentialist theories, by contrast, always want to see a necessary connection between sign and signified, sign and thing, or sign and concept.

Naturally, poetic language was always there to restore Jakobson's faith. In 1965, only seven years after writing "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation," Jakobson writes about poetic language, saying that in it there is "an essential change in the relation between the signifier and the signified, just as there is between the sign and the concept."[13] In other words, you may speak all you like about the interdependence of sign and signified, provided that you're speaking only of everyday language. When it comes to poetry, however, there is an "essential change." Jakobson doesn't say here just what this change is, but it's easy enough to fill in his meaning. In "Quest for the Essence of Language," written in the same year, he borrows a term from Peirce and refers to certain "iconic" properties of language, by which he means properties that show a factual similarity between signifier and signified. One highly significant iconic property in language may be found in the selection of phonemes. That is, certain sounds in language bear a factual similarity to the things they signify. Jakobson even cites Mallarmé's "Crise de vers" and the paradoxical example of jour, a dark-sounding signifier with a light signified, and nuit, a light-sounding signifier with a dark signified. Amazingly, Jakobson's point is not, as it was for Mallarmé, that this example proves the arbitrary nature of the sign-signified connection but instead that Mallarmé was "deceived" (Jakobson's translation of Mallarmé's deçu, "disappointed") by the perversity of this one case. Jakobson has been busy showing how the connection is nonarbitrary when it comes to the phonemic qualities in words, and he now goes on to say that the connection is particularly nonarbitrary in poetic language. The trouble with this view is that it brings all kinds of factors from the external world into the picture and thus wrecks the serene isolation of the interdependence model. Sign and signified are no longer purely interdependent; now they depend on something outside, like the lightness of the day or the darkness of the night.

Essentialism was similarly at the root of Jakobson's theories of poetic language. In Jakobson's immediate cultural context the idea of the "word itself," poetic language that calls attention to itself, goes back to the zaum ' theorists, who believed that poetic language should be ideally signifying. Poetic language that created its own signified world signified that world through an ideal and necessary connection between sign and signified. Poetic language that did not create its own world simply sig-


nified through an ideal, direct connection. In both cases the word had to exist "as such" and call attention to itself, because, owing to its ideal signifying powers, by calling attention to itself it was also calling attention to its signified.

When Jakobson refers to the iconic properties of language, he is using iconic in a sense borrowed from Peirce. And yet isn't his whole notion of poetic language iconic in the Orthodox sense, too? All Jakobson's essentialist notions—literarity, poeticity, inner form—point to the presence of an immaterial, invisible core in words, a core that is ultimately neither accessible to ordinary perception nor susceptible of scientific description; it is incarnate, like the prototype in an icon, like the Word in the Son of God, like God in creation. What this means is that despite his efforts to make the study of language a respectable, scientific discipline, Jakobson is really proposing the same Orthodox model of the aesthetic epistemological attitude as we have found in Bely and in the overtly religious thinkers I have spoken of. The way Jakobson sees things, the reader of poetic works of art performs the same operation as the worshiper of icons. Reading means reaching beyond the material dimension of language back to that irretrievable essence, whose existence is known only by faith, just as the existence of the prototype of the icon is known only by faith.

Jakobson was no stranger to religious doctrine. This dimension of his work is often overlooked. Though he was Jewish by birth, he converted to Orthodox Christianity in the late 1930s, and though he was not an overtly religious man, he devoted a considerable amount of scholarship directly or indirectly to religious matters. Over a period of at least sixty years he produced a staggering amount of scholarship on early Slavic texts, almost all of them religious. During his years in Czechoslovakia he devoted a tremendous amount of time to the study of early Czech writing, most of it religious. One of his chief scholarly interests for many years was Saint Cyril, the ninth-century Macedonian missionary who, together with his brother, Methodius, is credited with inventing a Slavic alphabet and is responsible for spreading the use of the Slavic vernacular in the liturgy. Jakobson's interest in these subjects is generally linguistic and historicolinguistic, but a glance at his writings shows that he was intimately familiar with Christian theological doctrine in the Czech and the Russian traditions. Any linguist studying liturgical texts is certain to run up against the theological notion of the Word and is thus likely to raise many of the same issues I have been discussing. This is true for Jakobson.[14]


The volume of Jakobson's Selected Writings in which the early Slavic material is collected was published only in 1985, and this may partly explain why the standard books on Jakobson contain almost no mention of it. A more reasonable explanation, however, is that the commentators on Jakobson have not quite known what to make of it. They like to think that the Jakobsonian canon is restricted to the basic set of principles usually associated with him and officially sanctioned by American literary academia. But this view is just as narrow as the view that accepts Jakobson's more widely known theories as scientific.

One could describe even the method of poetic analysis that Jakobson uses in one of his most scientific, analytic texts, his article on Baudelaire's "Les Chats," as iconic. The effort there is to pierce through the material veil of word-sounds so as to discover underneath an invisible abstraction of grammatical relations. This method, of course, has a more familiar name: structuralism. But it is clearly iconic in its conception. This means that the iconic principle is likely at the heart of Jakobson's contribution to the entire structuralist enterprise. What does one find once one has pierced the material veil? What is the hidden god? A prototype. Or an abstract structure of relations. And this, conveniently enough, is the subject of the next part of this book, where Jakobson will play a significant role once again.


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