what I’ve learned about the literature faculty

Back when I studied modern languages and literature at university, it seemed to be commonly understood that what language, the words of a poem or novel, does is represent things – it makes things present to us that are not currently present to us, such as faraway lands, past times or flights of fancy – but that it is fundamentally inadequate for this purpose. It cannot fully simulate reality, only provide a poor imitation, and this applies not only to the small things like the exact expression of one's face (😫 vs 😩) or the precise contours of the grain on one's tabletop, but to what we might call the transcendent, what we struggle to give shape to even in thought and concept – a slippery soap no sooner touched than escaped! Representation is not reality, it was constantly urged upon us.

This idea helps explain why literary trends change over time (although there are surely other reasons for this too). A certain convention for how language is used (such as that of writing fourteen-line poems or sonnets, or writing in Latin rather than in the vernacular, or that novels should have a beginning, middle and end) is explored in literature, but at a certain point it runs its course. Everyone realises that there is more to be expressed than can be expressed with the current conventions, which heralds a break in convention. I take it that the same is true of other art forms: 📚🎨🎭🎻

This idea is also pretty fruitful for interpreting many pieces of literature. So for example Dante's Divine Comedy is about an encounter with God. God by definition is supposed to be beyond human comprehension and thus attempts to reason and talk about his nature cannot be wholly successful. So the encounter with God must necessarily happen at the end of the poem: where God begins, the writing must end. And in the approach to the encounter with God, the author has to rely on abstract metaphors about triangles and circles to try to get across the mystery of the Trinity (which, I understand, defies most people's ideas of logic). Language fails, but another kind of 'sign' (a less materially limited one, the perfect triangle of concept that can never be reproduced on paper) can try and take its place. Equally, Petrarch tries to talk about his beloved Laura but can't represent her amazing beauty and goodness, can only transform her, make her again in another image, in the various metaphors associated with her (laurel tree, the dawn, gold … in Italian, these are all puns on her name). I always talk about these two authors because they are my faves, but there are many other examples.

Under the surface, I'm sure that these ideas, ultimately to do with how humans come into relation with and understand the world, helped push along my interest in studying philosophy.

Then during my masters I took a philosophy of language module. None of the above seemed to be a concern at all. The 20th-century philosophers we read were more worried about the word 'the' and how it's possible that we can understand each other's malapropisms than about whether the words we use to express our thoughts and which we access to expand our horizons can only put a limit to them – or so it seemed to me. Indeed, the general tenor of all of philosophy at this moment in time seems confident that we can access the truth with reason (yes, there is an objective truth and a fact of the matter!), we can analyse our concepts, report them accurately in words, and discover whether or not they track real things in the world. In the main, there seems to be optimism about our ability to make our ways of talking about the world match and increase our understanding of the world, in a way that I had previously assumed wasn't possible.

Why was this? At some point I realised that the theories of literature and language that are commonplace in literature study, and perhaps especially European literature study, are theories from continental philosophy: lots of French and German philosophers and the occasional Italian. And I had read only nuggets of continental philosophy, and had nourished my frustration with those texts with the general aura of semi-snobbishness the analytic departments seem to hold towards the continentals and their incomprehensible volumes etc etc.

But then the other week I went to a conference that featured a video'ed interview with French (continental) philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. He was talking not about language but about music and philosophy, and he said that philosophy needs to recognise that it has its own discrete domain beyond which it has no competence (presumably, that its expressive powers aren't unlimited, and some things can only be expressed in other ways, such as through art), even though it constantly tries to appropriate things that are outside its boundaries, such as when it tries to talk about music. Old habits die hard and I found this idea quite appealing. And indeed, to tie all the above threads together, the discussion following the interview brought out something which is apparently a big problem in continental philosophy, that of ascertaining philosophy's relations to the transcendental, and to those things that make it possible to do philosophy in the first place.

Now analytic philosophers do muse on their own methodology and even sometimes their bias: it's acknowledged that philosophy as currently practised has its problems. But this idea of the ineffable is given short shrift, even a guffaw at the naivety of the thing (and to be fair, so did the continentals at this music conference acknowledge the idea was a bit of an overdone trope). But I do think that being comfortable with, and certainly revelling in and playing upon, the limitations of logic and reason and language (before perhaps handing the truth-seeking baton over to fiction or music) is a hallmark of one tradition and not the other.

It would be fun to know how I might have read some of my favourite books differently, and how I might have emerged from my undergrad, if my tutors had ignored Barthes & Saussure & Derrida and followed analytic philosophers of literature/language instead – food for thought! 🍽💭

Interested in your comments as ever 😊

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