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


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-


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


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.

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