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19216698 Literature and Language _ Paul de Man

19216698 Literature and Language _ Paul de Man

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Literature and Language: A CommentaryAuthor(s): Paul de ManSource:
New Literary History,
Vol. 4, No. 1, The Language of Literature (Autumn, 1972), pp.181-192Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL:
Accessed: 04/08/2009 10:13
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 New Literary History.
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LiteratureandLanguage:ACommentary
Paul de Man
WH
.HENEVERQUESTIONS
about thelanguage ofliterature,
about thedistinctivenessofliterary language,arebeing~,~wTasked,somepredictabledifficultiesoccur.Itisquitepos-sible todescribeacertaintypeofliterary languagewith more thanadequateprecision,asCyrilBirchdoes in his article onChineseitera-tureor,to someextent,IsaacRabinowitznhisstudyon thelanguageoftheOldTestament-although,in the lattercase,ominousquestionsareveryclose tomakingtheirappearanceover thehorizonofthetext.Butthisworksonlyaslongasonedescribeshespecieswithoutgettingtoo close to thegenus: takingforgrantedthere issuch athingas"literaryanguage,"onecan describeaparticularsubsetoftheclass,butassoon asoneconfrontsthequestionofdefiningthespecificityofliteraryanguageassuch,complicationsarise.Themoretheoreticalamongthe studiesonliterature andlanguagepublishednthisand inrecentissues ofNewLiterary Historyshouldallow ustospeculateonthesystematizationofthisdifficulty.Thejuxtapositionof theseessaysrevealsarecurrentnarrativepatternthatmaywellbe more than a mere result ofchance ora com-monplaceofacademicexposition:all of theessayssuggestthatthestudyofliterarylanguagecouldprogressifonlywe couldridour-selvesofmisconceptionshat havehamperedtpersistentlynthepast.The tone isone ofimpatiencewithrecurrenterrorsofdefinition: "Itisevident,"writesSeymourChatman,"thatstylistics,ikelinguisticsbeforeit,must rid itselfofnormativepreoccupationsfitisever toget
IThecommentaryisbasedon most ofthe articlespublishedinthisissue ofNewLiteraryHistoryand onthefollowingearlieressays:MichaelRiffaterre,"TheStylisticApproachtoLiteraryHistory";StanleyFish,"Literature in theReader:AffectiveStylistics"(bothinNLH,
2[1970]);
SeymourChatman,"OnDefining'Form'"(NLH,2
[1971]).
Thearticles in this issue(TheLanguage ofLiterature)aresodiverse thatno inclusivecommentarycouldpossiblydothemjustice.I havepreferredtherefore to narrow down thechoiceofillustrativematerialto thesmallestnumberofarticlespossible,at the riskofleavingoutoutstandingcontributions.Theirinclusionwouldhaveextended thecommentarybeyondreasonableproportions.
 
NEW LITERARY HISTORY
around to thetaskofdescribingitsobject"2 (myitalics).MichaelRiffaterre can seenoother obstacle tothenaturalcooperationbetweenliterary historyand textualanalysis(acooperationwhich,hesays,"has remainedlargely unexplored")thanthe reluctanceof thehis-torianstorealize that "texts are madeupofwords,notthingsorideas."3StanleyFish iseagertogetunderwaywith amethod ofwhichheclaimsthat"itworks,"4buthefirsthas to clear the decksofa number of obstacles such asWimsatt,Beardsley,Richards,Empson,and,asithappens,Riffaterre. The stance is dramatizedmostintenselyintheproseofGeorgeSteiner.Hehasfewdoubtsaboutthespecificityofliterarylanguage;no dialecticalcomplexitiesmar his assertionthat inreadingliterature"weareimplicatedin a matrix of inexhausti-blespecificity."5If he seemsperhapsslightlylesssanguinethan theothersabouttheprospectsofa science ofliterature,thisisonlybecausetheliteraryworkstandsglorifiedinasemidivinestatusofinaccessibleperfection.Providedonlywe cangetridofuniversalistaberrationsthatpretendtoseeconnections betweenliteraryandordinarylanguage,linguists,critics,and socialscientists canunite in ajointeffortthatmayelevateus towardsthe exaltedlevel oftheworld'sliterarymaster-pieces.The same basicstoryunderliesall oftheseessays.None of theauthorsspeakasiftheymerelyhad toperformastraightforward,un-hamperedtaskofdescriptionorunderstanding.Allhavetosetoutagainstan erroneousconceptionofliteraturethat stands intheirway.Thisiscertainlynotbecausethey happentobeaparticularlyaggressiveorself-satisfiedgroupofpeople:allareeminentlyfairandrespectfuloftheirpredecessors.Itseemsto be in the natureofthequestionthatithasto beaskedagainstpreviousanswers thatfirst haveto beshowntobeaberrantbefore theproperdefinitionofliterarylanguagecan bestated.Thenatureof thisobstaclevariesto thepointofdiametricalop-position,butin a manner thatdefieseasysystematization.For Rif-faterre(atleastinthisarticle),literature is staticandmonumental:
"thetext... isunchanging"6;"the more of amonumentitis ...
the moreliterary"7;and it isthetask ofstylisticstorescuethis
2Chatman,p.
220.
3Riffaterre,p.39.4Fish,p.
I61.
5George Steiner,"Whorf,ChomskyandtheStudentofLiterature," NLH,thisissue, pp.15-34.6Riffaterre, p.39.7Riffaterre,p.47.
I82

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