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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 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-


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


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


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-


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


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-


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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