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Chapter One— Flight from Eden: Myths about Myths about Language in Modern Times
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Chapter One—
Flight from Eden:
Myths about Myths about Language in Modern Times

It's an age-old problem with language: since it has never done what it was meant to do, since no one has ever established a lasting notion of what it was meant to do, and since it has never submitted to any plausible account of why it functions in the inadequate way it does, the only way out has been to resort to myths. Most of these myths are myths of origin: language today is imperfect in performing its assigned task, but in the beginning it was different in a way that can be ideally hinted at but not fully described. This is the way Rousseau sees it. "The first language of man," he says, "the most universal, the most energetic language, and the only one he needed before it became necessary to persuade men in an assembly, is the cry of Nature."[1] In those early days "people spoke only in poetry."[2] Man had not yet learned to reason, but that was fine since his life was an unspoiled vision of simplicity and his needs were few.

Some myths are not quite like this one. The myth about language that has served as a point of reference for almost all philosophy of language in the West is a myth of the present, and it belongs to Cratylus in the dialogue of that name by Plato. Cratylus is a naive etymologist who thinks that language is meant to name things and that names consequently bear a necessary connection with the things they designate. But even Cratylus's argument requires an appeal to an unknowable and ideal past, a past when the words of language sprang into existence by a kind of natural necessity.

The distance of the myth, whether it's a distance in time or just a


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distance in thought, a sense of distinctness from the way things are today, is essential. It is a correlate to the present inadequacy of language: if language is imperfect today, it must be that it has fallen from grace, from some distant Eden where it did all the things it no longer does. But language is inadequate only in relation to a standard that has been assumed, often without any explicit argument, from the outset. Thus the pure, natural language that Rousseau's primitive man spoke—or sang—in that idyllic landscape of uncorrupted, precivilized virtue was ideal because Rousseau expects from language a perfect medium for the expression of man's passions. Love, hate, pity, and anger are the things that first raised men's voices, and this is why the first languages were "singing and passionate" rather than "simple and methodical."[3] The birth of language in the passions has to be accepted before the myth makes sense. And the pure language that Cratylus sees in operation in the present is pure because he expects from language a perfect medium for the transmission of things in nature. The primacy of this function of language has to be accepted before his myth makes sense.

We can see what makes myths about language so valuable. It is not at all important to ask whether the authors of these myths (if there is such a thing as the author of a myth) really believe them to be plausible, historical accounts of the emergence or origin of language. It is important only to ask what the myths tell us about their authors' notions of language in the present—for instance, that Rousseau saw the unity of speaker and speech as a fundamental obligation of human language, whereas Cratylus saw the unity of name and thing (signifier and signified) as an equally fundamental obligation.

Why does this need to be said? Because the history of the theory of literary language in modern times is a history of the attempted flight from Eden and the subsequent, irresistible pull of Eden. This history parallels, in fact is intertwined with, the history of modern linguistics, a distinctly modern product that is modern precisely because it has tried to be "scientific" and dispense with disobedient, metaphysical ideas like myths of the origin of language. But modern linguistics, for all its efforts to demythify, hasn't resisted the temptation of the traditional myths any more than Rousseau or Cratylus did; or any more than the visionary poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who dared, in what appeared to be a last, desperate appeal for the metaphysical integrity of the human spirit in a scientific and skeptical age, to propose their own myths about the nature and origin of language. It wasn't really a last, desperate appeal, because the myths were carried on—by even the


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scientifically inclined literary theorists. And it wasn't an appeal for the metaphysical integrity of the human spirit either, because the myths served the same function for the visionary poets as for the theorists. The myths were there to be rejected in favor of a far lonelier view of language. At least that's what they all thought. The only problem was that the myths never really went away.

The Myth of the Fractured Myth

The curious thing is that there is more than one myth—or more than one level of myth. There are the various myths about language, its primeval unity, its innate expressiveness, its state of perfection in some other time and place than now and here. But there is also the myth of how these myths came to be abandoned. For modern criticism not only has perpetuated many of the myths of its predecessors but also has told its own story with a pretty fair mythical imagination of its own.

The story of one of the most fundamental and "radical" tenets of modern criticism and linguistics is a perfect illustration of this point. The lost unity of language in the early modern era was most forcibly asserted by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who used the expression l'arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign). This cardinal concept, the concept of Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale (Course in general linguistics, published in 1916), the frontal assault on the myth that the sign, or word, bears a motivated connection with the thing it designates, has been seen as a necessary condition for modern linguistics and criticism. It is the cornerstone of the "lonelier" modern view of language.

The myth of modern criticism is that this concept was new. It was not. Eugenio Coseriu, a Romanian linguist teaching at Tübingen, wrote an article in the 1960s in which he demonstrates first, how pervasive the belief is that the theory of l'arbitraire du signe originated in the twentieth century and, second, how far this belief is from the truth. In fact, Coseriu shows, the notion has to be traced back to Aristotle. For one thing, Aristotle sees language from a purely functional rather than a Cratylic point of view, rejecting the Cratylic idea of any sort of motivated or necessary connection between words and the things they stand for. For another, the very concept of arbitrariness and the expressions in Latin, French, German, and English to convey it can themselves be traced back to Aristotle and a troublesome little two-word phrase he


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used in his treatise On Interpretation . The phrase in Greek is kata syntheken, and in Coseriu's understanding it means something like "through what is already established." In a famous passage from On Interpretation Aristotle defines language as "sound that is meaningful kata syntheken, " which is to say that the words of language have meaning not through any kind of natural necessity, as Cratylus believed, but through historical necessity, through tradition, through what is already established.

Next, Coseriu says, the concept of kata syntheken is adopted by a long line of Western philosophers and translated into various modern languages by a number of different phrases. What is striking is that if one is willing to accept Coseriu's idea that the various words and phrases (ad placitum, institutio, and conventio in Latin, arbitraire in French, Willküur in German, arbitrary/arbitrariness in English) are equivalent, a great many thinkers steadily from the seventeenth century up until Saussure had already proposed the notion of the arbitrariness of the sign. In fact, many of them had done so without any particular claim to originality, in some cases treating the idea as a self-evident truth. Coseriu lists about twenty philosophers, among them Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Berkeley, Condillac, Lessing, Fichte, and Hegel.[4]

Coseriu, whose business it is to know the facts about the history of language philosophy, expresses shock and indignation at this common oversight. And who can blame him? After all, Hobbes, Locke, and Leibniz are not insignificant thinkers. The writers whose ignorance is in question are not insignificant in their fields either; they are prominent linguists and historians of linguistics. Is the problem that Coseriu's list of names is largely restricted to philosophers who were known less for language philosophy than for other things? This may well be part of it. The twentieth-century philosopher and historian of philosophy Ernst Cassirer devotes a brief section of his monumental work The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms to the history of language philosophy, mentioning a good many of the same names as Coseriu does. But then Cassirer is hardly a standard to measure others by, since he was enormously erudite and saw everything in such broad terms as only his uncannily vast learning permitted. The fact remains that Coseriu's list does not look like the list of figures one would include in a history of language philosophy, linguistics (to the extent that these two are different), or modern literary theory.

But something else is going on here, something that Coseriu doesn't mention and that he really has no reason to mention. Look at the writ-


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ings of the literary theorists who wrote in the years right after Saussure and to whom the notion of the arbitrariness of the sign (to choose just this one concept of "modern" language theory) may be attributed, of any theorist who is committed to undermining the notion that language functions because of a mystical unity between sign and world (or sign and speaker, or sign and national spirit). What about the Russian Formalist critics, for instance, who in the 1910s and the 1920s were so intent on rejecting the old myths and retaining only the most functional, "scientific" view of language? (Never mind, for the moment, that they didn't really abandon the myths; we'll get to that shortly.) How many of them cite Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Wolff, Berkeley, Condillac, Lessing, Fichte, or Hegel as their models and predecessors? These names almost never appear in the writings of the Formalists or in writings about them.

The names that do appear are either from the tradition that still entertained the old myths, and are thus cited antagonistically, or from a new, revolutionary tradition, and are thus cited favorably. Viktor Shklovsky, one of the most famous members of this group, in his early writings uses a critique of the nineteenth-century philologist Aleksandr Potebnia to launch his own theory of poetic language, citing the contemporary Russian Futurists as illustrations of the "new" ideas he is advocating.[5] When the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson, whose early career is an integral part of the history of Russian Futurism and Formalism, comes to talk about the formative influences in his early linguistic theories—the principle of relativity and the belief that everything in language "is based on relationship"—he mentions not the linguists or philosophers of language but "the great men of art born in the 1880's": Picasso, Joyce, Braque, Stravinsky, Khlebnikov, and Le Corbusier. It was in studying Khlebnikov's poetry, Jakobson says, that he first tested one of his most basic concepts, that of the phoneme.[6]

Is this preference for recent thinkers just a manifestation of the cult of the new that is a trademark of modernism, a bold refusal to acknowledge any predecessors except either the latest ones or those who are to be discarded for having old, worn-out ideas? Maybe. Is it simple ignorance? Possibly in some cases, though certainly not in the case of Jakobson. But two things are clear. One is that the ideas of the Formalists (to take just this one example) were not as new as the Formalists' mythical account of their own ideas made them out to be. The other is that the Formalists, while perpetuating the myth of the novelty of their own ideas (the myth of the rejection of myth in favor of functionalism and


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science), were still holding on to precisely those myths they claimed to be rejecting.

L'arbitraire du signe is only one idea that the twentieth century has canonized, and canonized as specifically new. The Russian Formalists are only one group of critics and did not, besides, explicitly propose a doctrine of the arbitrariness of the sign. It would be wrong to suggest that their failure to recognize predecessors in this doctrine is by itself evidence of much of anything. Still, there is a pattern here. Modern literary theory and criticism has always promoted its own novelty in cases where it is not completely novel. It has defined itself by a relation of antagonism with its past while continuing a great many of the myths it rejects. The whole process appears to be one vast evolutionary rejection of the myths. When Shklovsky criticizes Potebnia for overlooking the formal elements of language in his distinction between poetic and prosaic language, for ignoring the "facts" of sound and rhythm and thus being unscientific, there are two things he doesn't realize (apart from the circumstance that what he says about Potebnia isn't really true): first, that Potebnia, like Shklovsky himself, is engaged in a valiant attempt to reject the old, unscientific myths about poetic language and, second, that he, Shklovsky, was just as unsuccessful as Potebnia. Both merely perpetuated the myths they sought so earnestly to overturn.[7]

And that is pretty much the story of this chapter. Over and over again modern criticism, like a neurotic lover foolishly, ridiculously vowing every day to escape the clutches of the abusive and overbearing tyrant who was once a source of tenderness and security, seeks a radical break with the myths of the past, only to find itself helplessly drawn back to them. The poets I've chosen as characters in this story define the terms of the whole ritual. They supply the idea of the break, and they sustain the myths to run back to. One of the most prominent myths is precisely that there is no myth, that we have finally made that break. We haven't.

The Fracture

Before we describe this history, we need to have a sense of where it goes. How will this struggle for freedom from the old myths play itself out in twentieth-century criticism? I've used the word break to describe the desired liberation from mythical forms of thought. As it happens, the notion of a break or fracture comes to be an integral part of the very theories that seek that break with the past. Now, however, the break has


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to do with language itself, not just the relation of theorists and poets to their past.

The late French philosopher Michel Foucault has described the modern view of language in Les mots et les choses (Words and things, translated into English for some reason as The Order of Things ) in a way that is useful, although his context is different from ours. For Foucault, a view of language is part of an episteme, by which he means an entire way of understanding and knowing in a given epoch. An episteme is different from a worldview or Weltanschauung in that it has as its specific object the human, social world. The three broad classifications into which the objects of a single episteme can be divided are life, work, and language.

Foucault is interested irf three epistemai, the most recent of which extends from shortly before the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. The big change that begins to occur in the thinking about language early in this period is the change from a view of language as a representational medium to a view of language as functional. In the period of Foucault's first episteme, roughly corresponding to the sixteenth century, the prevailing notion of language is of a medium that operates through a principle of resemblance between words and designated objects. In the period of the second episteme, comprising approximately the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion of resemblance is rejected in favor of a binary notion of language. That is, language is seen as a neutral and conventional means for representing—rather than imitating—the world, and the emphasis is on the split between representing word and represented world. In the modern period representation gives way to a notion of pure function, as philologists discover laws of similarity among the Indo-European languages, particularly those laws that show resemblances among such purely grammatical attributes of languages as inflectional endings. "Language is no longer composed only of representations and sounds that, in turn, represent these representations and order themselves as strings of thought require. It is instead composed of formal elements that are grouped in a system and that impose on the sounds, the syllables, and the roots an order that is not that of representation." This is how there comes to appear in the modern age a "dimension of the pure grammatical."[8]

As a result, language in the modern age takes on a kind of opacity and becomes an object in its own right, instead of being merely a transparent, representational medium. It "folds back on itself, acquires its own density, displays a history, laws, and an objectivity that belong to


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it alone." Language exists now only in a "dispersed mode." "For the philologists, words are like so many objects composed and passed on by history; for those who wish to formalize, language must rid itself of its concrete content, leaving only the universally valid forms of speech to appear. If one wishes to interpret, then words have become a text to be fractured in order that one can then see the emergence of this other meaning they hide."[9]

Foucault's presentation of the modern episteme goes a long way toward describing the status of language in the writings of twentieth-century literary critics, theorists, and aestheticians. But critics, theorists, and aestheticians are not Foucault's subject, at least not exclusively or even prominently. Foucault speaks largely of the professional philosophers—in addition to speaking of authors and poets from time to time—and thus provides a perspective similar to the one we find in Coseriu's article on the arbitrariness of the sign. When Foucault speaks of Mallarmé, saying that with him (and Nietzsche) "thought was led, and violently so, back towards language itself, back to its unique, difficult being," thus making Mallarmé a crucial figure in the twin processes of the "fracturing of language" and its transition to a state of "philological objectivity,"[10] he speaks almost as though the whole question had been settled with Mallarmé. It had not. But the value of Foucault's discussion of language for us lies in its capacity to describe the limits of the trend he is talking about, to describe a view of language that has come to dominate much twentieth-century thinking.

The term fracture is apt, and it certainly gives a good idea of the situation in which language finds itself in the twentieth century. The fracture operates on levels that Foucault does not enumerate (this is not his purpose). But one may classify a great many twentieth-century theories of language according to the terms in which they formulate a fracture. Its most basic sense may be found in the Saussurian doctrine of I'arbitraire du signe, in which the fracture severs the sign from its referent. Any aesthetics that is formalist in the general sense—any aesthetics emphasizing functions and relations over elements (in this case words)—will accept this doctrine as a self-evident truth.

Other schools of criticism, aesthetics, and language theory have seen the fracture as operating at a higher level than sign and referent, namely the level of the extended utterance. Theorists loosely grouped under the rubric of phenomenology tend to see the problems of language arising not out of the relation between words and things, or signs and referents, but instead out of the relation between larger signifying units and a


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newly problematized entity called meaning. Edmund Husserl, the founding father of this movement in philosophy, had initiated this trend in his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical investigations, 1900–1901) by referring to meanings as an independent class of ideal objects that don't need to have anything to do with the signs associated with them.[11] In fact, the nature of this association is far less simple than has commonly been supposed, Husserl thinks. Signs may well be signs for something, he says, but they do not in all cases possess a meaning or sense that is "expressed" by them.[12]

When Roman Ingarden, a Polish pupil of Husserl, comes to talk specifically about literary texts in the late 1920s, he organizes language into what he calls meaning units, or unified utterances. Like Husserl before him, Ingarden distinguishes sharply between meanings, which are created by subjective acts of consciousness, and the units of language associated with those meanings. The meaning function of language—the function, that is, that associates a meaning with a particular meaning unit—is conferred on that meaning unit from without by a subjective act of consciousness and can therefore in no way be considered as automatic or absolute.[13] The very premise of Ingarden's theory is thus that there is no necessary, simple, or natural relation between language and its meanings. Three decades later the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty also was to insist on the lack of a necessary and direct relation between utterances (by which Merleau-Ponty understands units larger than individual words) and their associated meanings. For him, meanings are ideas that cannot be directly expressed but can only be approached through a series of "adumbrations" (Abschattungen, a Husserlian term). In his essay "On the Phenomenology of Language" (1951) he describes how the adumbrations in a given utterance suddenly "contract into a single meaning" by a process that can't even be described. For Merleau-Ponty, there can never be any question of a direct signifiedsignifying relation because the signified always "surpasses" the signifying.[14]

A much more radical fracture, however, is the one we find in the work of Jacques Derrida and his many American epigones. In fact, the whole trend known as postmodernism, which helped set the tone for literary studies in the 1970s, is dedicated to an idolatrous fascination with the lonely, nihilistic worldview that is implicit in Derrida's fractured theory of language. For Derrida, language can be characterized only as a play of differences among an intricate network, or "tissue," of signs. Language is marked by the "impossibility for a sign, for the unity of a


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signifier and a signified, to occur in the plenitude of a present and an absolute presence."[15] There is no present or absolute presence in any sign other than the divine logos, and the logos is a purely metaphysical, "infinitist" notion.[16] In the language of man, meaning is always in flight, always beyond the horizon; there is no presence, no unity, only the trace of what was just there. Thus language is not only the differences at play in a tissue of signs; it is also différance (with a instead of e ), a word Derrida invented to combine the two principal senses of the French verb différer, "differ" and "defer." In the intricate complex of differences that is language, meaning is always deferred, put off, scattered. Derrida introduces the concept of the trace to describe the way in which language is never fully present (as we would like to think it is) but exists instead in a state that looks back to something that was already there. The trace, always flitting ahead of the presence that it leaves behind, thus describes a double process of "retention" (since it retains what has been present) and "protention" (since it tends forward, away from that present). Signification is born at this juncture of retention and protention, and Derrida finds in the French language a word that happily combines the notion of juncture and rupture he sees united in the trace—brisure, which means "hinge," as in the hinged articulation between two parts of a shutter (this definition, of course, allows Derrida to exploit the double sense of "articulation"), and "fracture."[17]

There is another kind of fracture that at one time had become canonical in literary aesthetics, and that is the fracture that separates speaker from language. This fracture is the premise of any objectivist literary aesthetic, any aesthetic that regards the word as independent of its speaker and the literary work of art as independent of its creator. Such a view had become virtually an article of faith in the teaching of literature in many of the most respected American universities in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was fashionable for professors to shock undergraduate students by telling them that inquiries into an author's life or into the author's avowed understanding of his or her own work were irrelevant to a true understanding of that work—hence the license to throw lecture notes away and spend hours of class time in an exercise known as close reading, wherein students, with their instructor's minimal participation, take a piece of writing, like a bit of organic tissue, pick it into tiny bits, and comment on how those bits interact either with each other (the bits) or with them (the students).

Objectivist criticism became entrenched in the 1950s, when many of the next decade's academics were still in graduate school. Cleanth


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Brooks published The Well Wrought Urn in 1947, proposing a view of literary artworks as organic structures whose constituent parts were to be understood and judged only in terms internal to the artwork as a totality.[18] In "The Intentional Fallacy," first published in 1946 and then again as a chapter of The Verbal Icon in 1954, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley had argued that consulting an author to discover the meaning of that author's words was illegitimate. "Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle," the essay ends.[19] And in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958), a work designed as an introductory college textbook in aesthetics, Beardsley forcefully espoused objectivism as a principle of all art criticism.[20]

Wimsatt and Brooks, in their Literary Criticism: A Short History, published in 1957, trace the origins of the objectivist aesthetic, or "impersonality," as they put it (since the author's "person" does not appear in his works). Credit goes to T. S. Eliot, they say, not because he was the first to come up with the idea but because it was he who "brought this matter of impersonality squarely to the attention of his generation." Eliot's position in separating the personal experience of the poet from the poem itself is stated in 1919 "with almost shocking emphasis," as Wimsatt and Brooks put it.[21]

The idea of severing the speaker from his words is by no means restricted to such New Critics as Wimsatt and Brooks. Nor am I persuaded that Eliot is the one who brings it into the open. It is implicit in any formalist or structuralist view of language (in the general sense of those terms), where the emphasis is on relations between words rather than on their expressive qualities. And it emerges in the phenomenological views of language I mentioned a moment ago, since for thinkers like Ingarden and Merleau-Ponty the meanings of language escape and surpass the speaker as much as they escape and surpass language. But no matter what the specifics of the view are, language is a long way from the organic unity it enjoys in the myths—unity with man in Rousseau and many of the romantics, unity with God in the Gospels.

Many of the relativizing tendencies in the twentieth century are evidence of a fracture in the primitive unity of language. This notion is true of any theory asserting that the meanings of language are determined by a context of some sort. It is essential to the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary theorist whose works became immensely fashionable in the 1980s. One of Bakhtin's central notions is raznorechie (translated as "heteroglossia"), which describes the necessary interaction in verbal utterances between the fixed system of a


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given language and the context of a particular utterance.[22] It is certainly there in E. D. Hirsch, who, some twenty years before he gained notoriety for his Cultural Literacy (a kind of companion best-seller to Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind in 1987), wrote a book in which he gave a theory of literary interpretation. Hirsch distinguishes between the "meaning" of a literary work as a fixed thing established in the context of its writing, and the "significance" of a literary work as something that changes over history as a function of the contexts of future generations of readers.[23] It is there in so-called reception theories, which see the meaning of language as largely determined by characteristics of the listener (or reader). And it is there in Marxist theory, which views consciousness and, consequently, language as determined by social existence.

The twentieth century is not responsible for inventing the skepticism necessary to produce language theories as lonely and unsettling as some of these. The fracture is there, at least in germinal form, in the early modern period I am discussing. But it is never asserted wholeheartedly. Instead, the old myths dwell side by side with the fractured notion of language. And the forum that allows for this cohabitation is the one where the distinction between poetic language and ordinary, or prosaic, language is investigated. The typical symptom of the surviving neurotic attachment to the old myths is the tendency to distinguish between two types of language, the language of poetry and the language of prose (or whatever you want to call language that is not poetic), and to assign a privileged, Edenic status to poetic language.

The Myth of the Poetry-Prose Distinction . . . and the Myth That There Is No Myth

Maybe it would be most accurate to say simply that the whole poetryprose distinction is a myth, at least as it is framed in this period. Whether or not this is true, the distinction presents a problem since so much of modern literary criticism and language theory has been intent on fostering an image of itself as the product of rational reflection, of a carefully, thoughtfully elaborated "methodology" (a buzzword of literary study today). It has in many cases sought to earn itself a place next to the other "human sciences," which are also a product of modern times and whose central obsession has been with their place next to the meth-


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odologically more secure natural sciences. The scientifically inclined schools of literary criticism, the formalisms and the structuralisms, have ridden the coattails of twentieth-century linguistics, something that is evident not only because modern criticism has often borrowed the methods and terminology of linguistics but above all because it has focused on the same object of study, namely language. Even where the notion of science and scientificity has not had an overriding appeal, the concern has been with detachment, with sober and impassive judgment—hence the preference for a spirit of objectivism in so much twentieth-century criticism.

But literary criticism is of necessity either implicitly or explicitly an aesthetic. Its object of study is not language in general, signifying objects in general, or meaning in general; it is specifically literary language, literary signifying objects, literary meaning. The problem has been, then, to account for the specific "literariness" of literary language (what Jakobson called literaturnost' ), but to do so without abandoning the highly esteemed posture of scienrificity. It is questionable whether modern criticism or modern linguistics has successfully done this, though both have certainly tried. The task presents some significant difficulties. For to set aside a certain body of written texts and call them literary is to assume the existence of an aesthetic value, some quality that mysteriously places these texts in an entirely different category from the ones in which we place "ordinary" written texts. And the minute we start talking about values, we are talking about murky, essentialist, metaphysical qualities whose existence is suspect and whose functioning is hopelessly obscure, at least from a "scientific" viewpoint.

Nonetheless, modern thinking has had trouble abandoning the romantic notion that literary texts are somehow the object of reverence and awe. It has also not quite been able to abandon the notion that poetic literary texts are more literary than prose texts and that they are, consequently, more the object of reverence and awe. And there is an assumption, usually unwritten, that literary works of art owe the specificity they possess as works of art to qualities in the language that composes them. It follows that there must be a difference between literary language and "ordinary" language and that this difference accounts either entirely or in part for the difference between, say, a poem by Blake and a paragraph from a car repair manual. Even deconstructionist thinkers like Derrida and Paul de Man, for all their skepticism about language and meaning, retain a faith in the specificity of poetic language. Derrida


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drew a clear distinction between literary and philosophical texts, and de Man, as I mentioned in my introduction, used the term rhetoricity for his version of the specificity of poetic language.[24]

And so we see in modern criticism the complicated situation I described earlier. The myth subsists that there is an intrinsic distinction between poetic and prosaic language. I use the word myth not because I wish to assert that the poetry-prose distinction is false in all of its versions (although I do happen to believe it is false when it is expressed as a distinction between two types of language ); I use it because belief in the poetry-prose distinction is framed as a myth, usually a Rousseauistic myth of original purity. But as literary aesthetics and its corresponding philosophy of language grow increasingly "scientific," there is an increasing tendency toward formalism in philosophy of language, and with formalism comes a tendency to demythify. Hence the coexistence, in the early modern period, of the myth itself (that is, the myth of the poetry-prose distinction) and the myth that there is no myth.

The idea of poetry (a term that can mean anything from imaginative writing to specifically lyrical verse) as a distinctive form of verbal expression that stands in natural opposition either to other forms of expression or to whole ways of apprehending the world is an idea of long standing. Aristotle, in the Poetics, had opposed poetry (understood in its broadest sense as what we might call today simply literature) to history, saying that poetry is more philosophical, indeed is "greater" than history, because poetry expresses universals whereas history expresses particulars.[25]

The more familiar distinction since Aristotle has been between poetry and prose, poetry being understood in a more specific sense than the one it has in Aristotle. This distinction is standard in the poetics of romanticism. Rousseau sets the tone for the entire era in his "Essay on the Origin of Languages," where poetry is identified as the earliest and, of course, most natural of languages. The English and German romantics return again and again to the same theme: poetry, specifically as distinguished from prose, is the purest, the most original (in the sense of being close to the origin) form of verbal expression. The German romantic critic Johann Gottfried von Herder, in his essay on the origin of language, asserts, like Rousseau before him, that poetry is older than prose and that in its capacity to express passions in all their immediacy lies the primitive source of all verbal communication.[26]

By the late romantic era in England something new has happened: the poetry-prose distinction has given way in a great many instances to


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a distinction between poetry and science. M. H. Abrams, in his classic work on English romanticism The Mirror and the Lamp, documents this transition, citing Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1825 essay on Milton as evidence that Aristotle's poetry-history distinction had been converted into the distinction between poetry and science.[27] But the poetry-science opposition does not arrive directly from a rejection of Aristotle; it comes along instead to replace the distinction that was dominant at the time, namely the distinction between poetry and prose. This, at least, is how Wordsworth sees it. As early as 1800, in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he goes so far as to say that "there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition." Then, in a footnote, he says that "much confusion has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science."[28] The poetry-science opposition in most cases does not represent an abandonment of the poetry-prose distinction; it represents merely a clarification, in epistemological terms, of the perceived province of prose, since science in the new opposition corresponds to prose as the vehicle exclusively suited to its methods and worldview. Thus poetry is to prose as feeling is to intellect, or as expression is to description, or as emotion is to scientific cognition.

This view is taken over in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, author of the highly influential über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren EinfluB auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (On the diversity of human speech structure and its influence on the spiritual development of the human race, published 1827–29) and in many ways a pivotal figure both for the history of language philosophy and for our story here. Humboldt divides the territories of poetry and prose in a manner similar to that of the romantics. Poetry apprehends reality in its sensible (sinnlich ) manifestations; it is "inseparable from" music and is thus more appropriately the vehicle of aesthetic beauty than is prose. It is given to the rendition of "individual moments" in human experience rather than to universals. Prose, by contrast, is concerned with facts and concepts rather than with ideas or sensation. Since it is suited to the rendition of ordinary life, it is the province of the objective, of science and scientific terminology; and where poetry "belongs to the individual moments of life," prose accompanies man "in all the expressions of his spiritual activity."[29]

But there is a significant difference between the opposition that Humboldt makes and the one the romantics made, and that is that for Hum-


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boldt the opposition does not of necessity entail the privileging of poetry over prose. Humboldt's distinction is simply descriptive, and this is because his approach to language is in certain fundamental respects different from that of the romantics. Humboldt sees language above all as a function of our inner being. It is an organic medium, representing the perpetual spiritual activity of an entire nation (not the individual). As Humboldt put it in his famous formulation, language is not a mere dead created thing (ein totes Erzeugtes ) but an ongoing creation (eine Erzeugung ); it is not (finished) work (he uses the Greek word ergon ) but ceaseless activity (energeia ).[30] Any definition of language must, then, be a genetic one, that is, one that sees language not as the product of an act of genesis in some distant, mythic past but as a continuing genesis in the present. Thus Humboldt has taken the romantic myth of origin, by which language is a creature fallen from the grace it had "in the beginning," and replaced it with a myth of origin where that origin is always now .

The secret to the creative, perpetually generative force of language in the present is what Humboldt calls the inner form of speech, a notion that will be taken over by the Russian philologist Potebnia, with lasting consequences for the Russian tradition. Inner form is the thing that makes language what it is. It is the key to the connection between language production and the sound of language. It is what allows language to express those thoughts that the greatest minds entrust to it.[31] Language deals not with objects but with concepts.[32] Its principal task is to mediate between objective reality and subjective inwardness, and it successfully accomplishes this task when sound and inner form are harmoniously joined. At that moment the process of language production and the external sound qualities of language work together to form a language that is living and rich, particularly in metaphorical content. This happens especially in the works of poets and philosophers, who contribute to the development of a nation's language by infusing its words with spiritual content. The success of a language for Humboldt is always measured by the progress of that language through history, and this notion leads him to mention a phenomenon that Potebnia and the entire Russian tradition later canonize. Harmony of inner and outer form is lost when a language stagnates. At that moment metaphors that had previously had a "youthful sense" become, through daily use, "worn out" so that they are "barely perceived anymore."[33]

Why is Humboldt a pivotal figure? To begin with, he has sought to abandon all forms of naive Cratylism and romantic primitivism in his


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approach to language. If Humboldt believes in the specificity of poetic language, it is not because he sees poetry as based in some mystical unity of either word and object or word and speaker. For him, poetic language is distinguished from prosaic language more by its function, by the way it is used, than by any intrinsic properties. The nonexistence of a necessary or motivated connection between signs and the things they designate in language in general, whether that language is poetic or prosaic, is already implied in the subject of Humboldt's work. Humboldt's point of departure, as the title of his work suggests, is precisely the fact of the diversity (Verschiedenheit ) of human speech, the obvious fact that, owing to the existence of a multitude of human languages, there is no single, universal, and necessary way of saying any one thing.

The flight from Cratylism or natural-sign language is further signaled by Humboldt's insistence that language has to do not with things but with concepts. This is because language does not spring into existence ready-made to serve poets as a vehicle for the expression of their feelings; on the contrary, we ceaselessly create language for the purpose of meaningfully organizing our own experience. And since Humboldt was a good Kantian, believing that conscious beings can never "know" things in and for themselves, to him language, like any activity that generates meaning, cannot deal directly with objects.

Humboldt's Kantianism is another reason for his status as a pivotal figure. Ernst Cassirer writes about it in the brief history of language philosophy that he includes in the first volume of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms . As Cassirer sees it, Humboldt betrays his underlying Kantianism in at least two ways. The first is in the notion of language as a subjective medium whose function is to objectify sensory impressions, thus serving as a kind of bridge between subjectivity and the objectivity that, according to Kant, we can never know in and for itself. The second is in the distinction between the matter (namely sound) of language and its form. In Cassirer's reading of Kant form is "the truly objectifying principle of knowledge" because it is the source of unity in our apprehension of objects. The function of form in Humboldt is entirely analogous since inner form for him is exactly what serves as a mediating function between subjectivity and the objective world of phenomena. Humboldt's entire conception of language thus appears in Cassirer's eyes to be founded in the "basic principle of the transcendental method" (the method in Kant by which the philosopher logically deduces the categories that the mind uses to order experience). Cassirer calls this principle "the universal application of philosophy to science." Hum-


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boldt's innovation consists in making language the object of that "universal application" rather than mathematics and mathematical physics, as Kant had.[34]

The Russian tradition that is central to the development of language theory in modern literary aesthetics begins precisely in the context of the transition that Cassirer identifies in the work of Humboldt. It is important to keep in mind that the period in question is transitional and that the notion of the perpetuation of myths remains fully in force. Humboldt certainly has his own myths, in spite of any Kantian formalism that Cassirer sees in his thinking. The notion of inner form is scarcely an empirically scientific one; even less scientific is Humboldt's concept of nationhood and the way in which some vaguely defined and almost mystical national character finds itself expressed in language. The Russian tradition begins in the shadow of Humboldt, with a bow to Humboldt, but also, strangely enough, with a reassertion of some of the older myths Humboldt had apparently rejected—the myth of origin, for instance, which now shows itself in a slightly new form.


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