1987. Graz - Literatures in English : The Linguistic Perspective

By C. George SANDULESCU, Monaco.

(Paper given at the Conference "Literature in English: New Perspectives" which took place in Graz, in April of 1987. The Conference was sponsored by the University of Graz, Austria, and came under the aegis of I.A.S.A.I.L -- the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature, founded in the early 1960s by A.Norman Jeffares.) 


0.    Epigraphs:

                                                                      Anything becomes interesting
                                                                       if you look at it long enough.

                                                                                        Gustave Flaubert

                                                                        Great literature is simply
                                                                        language charged with meaning
                                                                        to the utmost possible degree.

                                                                                         Ezra Pound

1.            The Status of Meta-Criticism.        Meta-Criticism is to literary criticism what meta-philosophy (q.v.) is to philosophy. Further, in the light of the clear distinction between (a) the philosophy of language, and (b) the philosophy of linguistics, it is much more closely related to the latter than to the former. Its necessity derives among others from POST semantics, as instantiated in post-structuralism, post-modernism and other POST's, either explicit or disguised (e.g. DE(?)-constructivism). 

2.            The LANGUAGE & LITERATURE correlation is the first major theoretical issue to be taken up not only in the definition of one literature as such (hence the Irish dilemma !), but also in the definition of one literary trend or another (the self-referentiality of post(?)-modernism here defined as maximal LANGUAGE FOREGROUNDING); there is lastly the intricate question of the cultural (national ?) identity of one or another writer (Joyce as Britishly European, Beckett as down and out French, Yeats as overseas Senator . . .). It is in this connection in particular that both anecdotal evidence and circumstantial argumentation acquire Gargantuan dimensions, quite out of line with placement within a theory.

3.            The Intrinsic Factor is perhaps quite analogous, philosophically, to Greene's The Human Factor in that it deals with the positivistically imponderable quotient. However, It remains the central element in any discussion of translatability, either of Samuel Beckett by himself or of Finnegans Wake by the Franco-Italian- Japanese. I here contend that the factor intrinsic to English in its umpteen varieties is quite distinct from that of other languages: the 20th Century may, even in its eighties, still prove both too primitive and too prejudice-ridden in order to be able to handle the issue realistically and at an adequately high level of efficiency. Joyce and Beckett are again forcing the issue prematurely.

4.            The Centrality of Linguistic Perspectivism: 'Linguistic Perspectivism is with regard to literary discourse what aesthetic distancing is with regard to art in general' (1967). Both literature as such on the one hand, and language as such on the other essentially share the fundamental principle of regularity, which is ultimately grounded on symmetry of patterning (with its variations in point of asymmetry and unobtrusive patterning, leading to the downright cryptic). For patterning is a philosophical synonym for both 'system' and 'structure'. 

            Conceived as a full-fledged set of axioms, principles, maxims, and rules (qq.v), linguistic perspectivism functions as a space age tool where other, more primitive though more congenial, instruments are liable to fail, or have already done so in a most lamentable way.

            The literary text in English could hypothetically be taken, for the sake of this particular intellectual exercise, to function as a major theoretical construct (more particularly so in its prose variety). Once the instrument is operational and well adjusted to a major target such as English (or more precisely, English literary discourse in prose), language-specific axioms, principles, maxims and rules could far more consistently be envisaged for any of the other languages specified in,say, Joyce's celebrated List of Forty. 

5.            Precedence of Description over Axiology. It is a matter of more than common knowledge that any act leading to a value judgment must necessarily be preceded by an act of understanding, even though understanding (I advance in passing that the relation is as imperative as that underlying cause and effect; though, alas, how often overlooked in both trivial daily discourse ("I hate carrots !") and not at all current social interaction): the variable assessment of Joyce's late literary productions may well be an example in point; even Eliot and Pound had at the time flatly rejected Finnegans Wake.

            Along the same line of thought, an act of individual description may, by consolidating understanding, be taken to precede the more important act of collective assessment. What, for instance, might have been the fate of Ulysses without T. S. Eliot's 'descriptive' review, so poignantly entitled Ulysses -- Order and Myth ?

            Description and assessment, though, turn out to be, more often than not, as far apart as Fact and Opinion in non-art.            

P.S.      In addition to Joyce's famous List of Forty Languages, handwritten by the author himself on the very last page of  the original manuscript of Finnegans Wake, the handout to this talk also carries an analysis of the French & English paragraphing patterning of Beckett's  Sans / Lessness, published (in French) the very year -- 1969 -- he was awarded the Nobel Prize; the English version, as is known, was only published years later.