February 14, 2004

Finally, a unified theory!

Posted by Curt at 02:11 PM in Language, Literature | TrackBack

While, today I have found yet another long-overdue takedown of a linguistic travesty. And no, it is not the snide carping about “Ulysses” among Irish writers preceding the centenary of the “longest day.” I hope that my perspective on complaining will be easily anticipated by now. It is all pure jealousy, even if some of the literary points of the matter are well-taken. Why attempt to beat a corpse now? Would they prefer that Irish writers have the stature that they did before Joyce? No, rather I mean this dismissal of thesaurae in general and the still-in-print production of Mr. Roget in particular. The best line, apart from all the sectarian quibbling about what really constitutes a synonym, is this:

“The safest storehouse for writers to fetch words from is their own head. In it are the words and phrases, read and heard, that have struck or pleased them. Among these will be the colloquialisms, the neologisms, the new metaphors hatched out of current events, that are unlikely to be in any existing list. Only the treasury of the mind can supply just those turns of phrase with which writers express their own thoughts and not somebody else’s.”

As much as this may seem a pure and unexonerated platitude, it is so very true in one important respect. In the continuing argument of attrition over the relevance or non-relevance of a literary canon, I notice that the one thread which holds together almost uniformally the writers who are with little controversy acknowledged to be the most important in their particular language, Shakespeare, Dante, Pushkin, Joyce, Kierkegaard, Chaucer, is that these were the most prolific inventors in their literary languages (even when that invention consists primarily of borrowing from other languages). Consider Chaucer and Shakespeare. Chaucer lived in the very midst of the great shift from Old English to Middle English, and he had an inestimable role in expanding its grandeur and intellectual capability by importing hundreds of French- and Latin-derived words to serve his work in the French- and Latin-derived literary genres in which he wrote. In the decades before he was born, English was a very Germanic, still basically oral, and regional language. Within a century of his death, the English language was undeniably within the orbit of the greater post-Roman intellectual imperium of Europe. Similarly, roughly the lifetime of Shakespeare constitutes the period of transition between the Chaucerian form of Middle English and English as it is spoken today. In Italy, similarly, if one reads any literature from before Dante’s birth, it will likely read like a fairly indecipherable dialectical form of Latin, whereas “The Divine Comedy” is written in language almost identical to modern Italian. I could go on: when I asked my best friend about how Pushkin had affected the Russian language, particularly in terms of borrowing words from French, he started reaching out and snatching at the air in all directions to demonstrate. Anyway, needless to say this point is less well-appreciated than it should be, because few people can read all of the major literary languages, and so the linguistic style and influence of the great writers must be largely accepted on faith.

The exceptions in this case definitely prove the rule. French, for example, certainly has canonical writers but no truly dominant figures. And probably the relentless codification and self-ossification of the language on the part of the people, seemingly designed to stamp out all irregularities and innovations, is largely the reason for this. Furthermore, the writers whose reputations stand at the apex in French literature, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Montaigne, Mme. de Sévigné, were writing at the time of, and indeed helped in the creation of, the establishment of the codes and regulations of the language and its literary forms. Flaubert’s method of composition has been widely admired, but it also makes him emblematic in my opinion of the whole course of French literature and of secondary literary lights generally: he searched for the exact right word within the confines of his language rather than inventing (or stealing) it. Thus, it seems almost indisputible and proverbial to me that, whatever the psychological and philosophical implications of a writer’s work, their most important influence will be on the shape of their language. Perhaps modern literature is generally a matter of secondary importance today because the creation of new words, new means of expression and, ultimately, new modes of consciousness, derives today largely from other areas of culture. Whose mode of expression in speech (and perhaps in thought) is not sensibly shaped by the use of language in movies, in music, and in business? But whose voice, except in a certain sort of academic context, is shaped by contemporary poetry, for example?

I would be the last person to bleat about the lost kingdom of the poets or some such nonsense, but it is very obvious to me that the importance of a writer is almost entirely correlated with the extent to which he is the author of his language. Think of Samuel Johnson, the first dictionary-writer, who is regarded as the greatest literary figure of the 18th century in Britain, despite not writing a single book which is read (as opposed to used for reference) by anyone in his own time or ours. Or the two writers in English who have probably had the greatest influence on literature and culture in this century, Joyce (inarguably) and Tolkien (debatably). They were probably the two, in my opinion, who took on the project of the invention of language most seriously and on the most grandiose scale, and it seems to have been for both of them the most important consideration in their work. And consequently their notoreity is inassailable, despite some fumbling with rather basic elements of narrative writing in both cases.


Excellent find. I've never had much use for the thesaurus; I've only really used one when translating poetry (trying to find a word with a similar meaning to better fit the meter of the poem) and, occasionally, when I can't remember the exact word I want to use.

I think your point about writers is dead-on. One of the signs of great writing is that the writer always uses the _right_ word (even if it has to be made up). This as opposed to the prevailing attitude among students and second-rate scholars that good writing is defined by the use of hieratic diction.

Posted by: shonk at February 14, 2004 02:53 PM