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The Great Amputation: Language in the Postmodern Era

Fall 2018 - Vol. 60, No. 4


This essay appears in the Fall 2018 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


In the 1960s, when people of my generation were entering college programs in humanities and names such as Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot were household words, I recall eagerly paging through literary magazines to see what new works these and other authors had produced and what comments about them had been made. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, I am unable to answer the question “Who is your favorite author of fiction of the past decade?” This is partly due to the fading of the novel (replaced by movies and television), but also partly to the fact that belles-lettres have lost much of their flavor. They have ceased to bring excitement. 

Words are losing their power to convince, console, and elicit joy. There are many good novels written and reviewed, and those interested in science fiction or detective stories in particular have much to choose from. But there is no Faulkner, no Dostoevsky, not even someone close to Camus. What did these authors have that is missing in contemporary prose? Why doesn’t it fire us up? Such questions prompted my reflections on language presented below.

In 2013, in a conversation recorded in the New York Times, David Brooks and Gail Collins exchanged observations about old age and retirement. Brooks asked, “Gail . . . have you started thinking about what sort of public image you want to project [italics mine] as you prepare to shake off this mortal coil?”[1]

Who said that in our time politicians and celebrities play themselves rather than being themselves in the public square? What matters is not what a person is but rather what pose he or she assumes in public. Is there a private life where one does not “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet?” It appears not—from the conversation’s tone one gathers that private time is spent selecting the costume and trying it on. And this is how it should be, the conversation implies. The most influential newspaper in the United States encourages its readers to live in the world of appearances.

Someone might say that journalism is the wrong place to seek depth. Fine—move the problem to the level of philosophy, sociology, history. (I already mentioned literature.) You get “construction of identity,” as contemporary philosophers and sociologists have taught us to say. Note the assumed absence of a core. This popular scholarly phrase is classically nominalist. It tells us that identity as the essence of personality is an empty term because there are no essences. Therefore, there is no identity. In the nominalist world, the word identity is an improper verbal shortcut. One can only speak of construction of identity, or of being noticed by others because of the costume one wears and the pose one assumes. If contemporary academics are right, we can never be fully defined because we are not able to achieve the final product: it never materializes. The fact that we can speak only of a process rather than the final product means that words like good and evil, soul, God—all essentialist entities—are likewise void of stable meaning.

The attempted expulsion of identity from our conceptual world is related to what George Orwell wrote about the destruction of language, although he emphasized the thinning down of vocabulary rather than narrowing the meaning of words. In 1984, in a conversation between Winston Smith and his colleague Syme, who works on the dictionary of Newspeak, Syme says: “We’re getting the language into its final shape—the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. . . . We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. . . . There are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of.”[2] It should be noted that mainly nouns are being consigned to oblivion.[3]

My concern here is not so much with problems of identity or the disappearance of words as with the amputation of certain sections of each word’s meaning and how this diminishes the written or spoken message that words convey. In the beginning was the Word. This sentence is meaningless not only in Orwell’s world but also in the world of postmodern thinkers and verbal artists who write contemporary novels and scholarly works and use language very skillfully.

Something happened to the English language within my lifetime. Its most subtle and ineffable level has been amputated. The most respected humanistic texts are anti-essentialist in a way that precludes assigning a “metaphysical vibration” to language. In public discourse, words have ceased to be, in Seamus Heaney’s expression, “bearers of history and mystery,” indicators that there may exist a mode of experience that can be expressed only in an indirect and obscure way, and that this limitation does not make such experience unreal. Words have become carriers of a public image and signs of aspiration to a public image. Their ludic function likewise gained in prominence: witness the abundance of humor based on puns, double entendre, and other forms of wordplay. Following Ferdinand de Saussure, scholars have begun to treat words as “points of intersection” rather than as entities that potentially carry within themselves multiple meanings, including spiritual ones. Theories about language have increasingly been derived from physical and biological sciences, rather than from what poets (not to speak of the Bible’s authors) intimated in their most profound moments.[4]p>

It is true that the appearance of another Shakespeare might reverse the shrinkage and make language resonate again in ways we have nearly forgotten. But chances are this is not going to happen. Instead, our excellent media writers (they are excellent in that they have mastered the technique of smoothly navigating a restricted range of cognitive possibilities) and a fair number of good writers keep assuring us that this is all there is to language, that we should be satisfied with what we are offered by those who shape our verbal expectations.

Among those who have explicitly advocated such an amputation, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida stands out. In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Derrida writes of his desire to do away with the anagoge.[5] He outlines his frustration with traditional approaches to language and encourages efforts to eliminate from language its connection to the world of metaphysics. He wants to demystify language in such a way that no trace of the spiritual would remain. He posits that such concepts as soul and spirit should disappear from our vocabulary, because they mistakenly lead us to the imaginary and false source of all pseudo-meaning, namely, God. Were Derrida alive today, he would rejoice. What he tried to get rid of—the very core of Western culture—has all but disappeared from academic and public discourse. Not only in everyday conversations but also in scholarship and literature, we avoid reaching for the verbal potential that connects us to the spiritual.

I see language as an instrument that can yield a wide range of “sounds.” Contemporary usage has fine-tuned a certain narrow range of sounds: precise and sophisticated, the New York Times conversation is so construed that no reference to transcendence can interrupt it. The “sounds” it evokes are confined to a certain area of the instrument. The possibility of brushing against some enigmatic element of words is ruled out by the interlocutors’ sophistication and the elegance with which they handle their future departure from this world. This way of speaking of one’s mortality is routine in major media. We want to depart into nothingness in perfect dignity, with our manicures and pedicures intact. And we describe our departure more in terms of good grooming than “standing and staring,” as William Henry Davies once put it.[6]

In contrast, in the Middle Ages the approach to language (not to speak of mortality) was quite different. Medieval thinkers took it for granted that there were four levels of meaning in language: literal, analogical, symbolic, and anagogical.[7] These four levels can be, and have been, named differently by different thinkers, but the essential taxonomy remains intact. First, the literal one. It reflects our daily dealings with the physical world. In the twenty-first century, it is the level of newspapers and TV news, of household and office conversations, of shopping and cooking. We look at or think of an object or a phenomenon, and we name and describe it. On this level, the definition of truth articulated by Thomas Aquinas works easily: truth involves conformity between the intellect and reality. The object we are looking at is or is not a table.

The analogical level of language is a bit more abstract. It is brought into action when language is used to invoke a classical Aristotelian mimesis. It responds to our ability to describe something by pointing out that it is similar to something else. In analogy the intended meaning depends on our ability to connect two physical objects or phenomena, even if one of the objects is not immediately available to our senses. For instance, we can compare someone’s eyes to stars that we do not actually see. To create an analogy we draw on memory and imagination. We recognize the recurrence of a certain quality in two objects even when we find it difficult to describe that quality, and we share this recognition with others.

However, if a word has been flattened out by frequent use, it might be difficult to make the comparison vibrate. Great writers know how to overcome this difficulty, while most of us do not. As is the case with the literal one, the analogical level of language is accessible to virtually all people, educated and uneducated, religious and irreligious. Robert Frost’s popular poem that attributes loveliness to a forest is a good example of the use of analogy.

While analogy engages the physical world, at the symbolic level of language similarities of a nonmaterial nature are invoked. Arthur Rimbaud defined the verbal symbol as something that cannot be expressed otherwise, something that needs this unique combination of words to adumbrate its shape. While the first two levels of language are related to the human ability to see analogies and allegories in the physical world and in the process of communicating, on the symbolic level past analogies and allegories are being fitted into the new ones. To appreciate fully this linguistic potentiality, cultivation is necessary; one has to learn to savor the way in which the great masters of language have handled words. This is what liberal education is supposed to accomplish: by reading fine texts individuals develop an ability to discover aspects of language invisible to a barbarian.

Finally, there is the anagogic level, on which human language reaches toward the metaphysical world. On this level, symbols are also utilized, but they point to a transcendent reality rather than to the intellectual or material one. All human cultures have struggled to convey through words something that reaches beyond intellect, emotions, and the world of the senses. In Christianity, we have received assurances that language is in fact capable of relating to this untouchable world: what is can be intimated through words. In the beginning was the Word. Christians have had it confirmed that language is capable of something far greater than the greatest poetry.

There are no rigid borderlines between levels of language, just as there is no rigid boundary between the attributes of sounds produced by various instruments in the orchestra. Like a symphonic orchestra, language comprises all possibilities of expression, from simple tunes to the most complicated symphonies. Medieval philosophers were quite liberal in allowing those of lesser ability and skimpier learning to miss quite a bit while interpreting profound texts; they were adamant however in maintaining that texts are polysemous and that there are several levels on which they can be interpreted.

In the twentieth century, several scholars tried to return to the reflections of medieval interpreters. I shall mention three: Northrop Frye, Paul Ricoeur, and Henri de Lubac. In his unjustly forgotten Anatomy of Criticism, Frye notes that “poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” archetypes out of other archetypes, manners out of other manners.[8] This means, among other things, that language is a treasure trove that preserves not only the facts of history but the entire human culture. The role of language as a carrier of culture is vouchsafed by the fourth level of meaning: the connection words have to the world of mystery. The connection need not be explicit, and the text need not be religious. Words carry traces of previous usages, and these traces add up to a mysterious adumbration of transcendence. Frye tried to wake up his students’ waning sensitivity to the features of language that are “the bearers of mystery.”[9] He urged his readers to pay more attention to medieval reflections on language that foregrounded metaphysics, and he proclaimed the principle of polysemous meaning, not in the sense that there exist infinite possibilities of interpretation (a postmodern view), but in that the same words may carry a light or heavy semantic burden depending on the context and the reader’s ability to relate to that context.

His book is an attempt to invoke medieval distinctions in such a way as to blur their original purpose as guides to interpretation of religious texts while making them palatable to the contemporary secular reader. Frye tried to avoid the ostensibly Christian references in his argument but claimed that the anagogic aspect of language makes literature comprehensible across centuries. He claimed that certain meanings remain comprehensible to persons living in diverse interpretive communities and suggested that we all partake of the ability to transcend the utilitarian side of language.

His attempt to secularize the anagoge was not successful. His appeal to tradition and history was not enough to sensitize students to words’ full potential. Anatomy of Criticism still decorates library shelves of many universities, but it is seldom quoted or invoked in class.[10] Also, Frye belonged to the generation of university professors who, while being comfortable with their own metaphysical convictions, allowed those who denied metaphysics to be hired, promoted, and elevated to deans and presidents of universities whose humanities departments now aspire to produce persons capable of writing for the New York Times. His broad-mindedness in that regard contributed to his failure to reestablish the anagogic aspect of language as a legitimate subject of study in humanities departments of American universities.

For a more decisive affirmation of anagoge in language one has to go to such philosophers as Paul Ricoeur. Unlike Frye, Ricoeur does not take an ostentatiously secular stance; on the contrary, he chides his fellow philosophers for showing a lack of interest in, and ignorance of, medieval writings on language.[11] He laments the historical amnesia of twentieth-century philosophers of language and declares that there exists a level of meaning that remains invisible to contemporary readers’ eyes because intellectuals have routinely bypassed it as imaginary, while medieval thinkers who wrote about it and explained it have been consigned to oblivion. These are strong statements indeed. But Ricoeur’s focus is twentieth-century philosophy rather than the defense of the Middle Ages, and his insistence on the necessity of returning to the study of the Middle Ages has all but passed unnoticed.

In Medieval Exegesis (1959),[12] Henri de Lubac, a distinguished medievalist, offers detailed guidance concerning the neglected attributes of language. While his aim is to introduce dozens of medieval thinkers to twentieth-century scholars, he dedicates the first volume of his three-volume opus to “the four senses of Scripture.” He states that for many centuries, Christian scholars took it for granted that passages of Scripture contained multiple meanings, and their polysemous depth can never be fully probed because a new interpretation of one passage reflects on other passages, thus demonstrating that language is a bottomless well in which divinity deposited its wisdom for those who are able to draw from it.[13] Lubac limits himself to Scripture, but I submit that the fourfold structure of meaning can also be found in secular writings and popular verbal expressions. Sometimes these meanings are explicit, at other times certain levels of meaning are only weak echoes of previous usage in a different context. But virtually all words have the potentiality of partaking in this “carryover” of meaning.

Lubac points out that language has the capacity to shrink and expand depending on the social milieu that shares it. The perceived meanings of words or passages rest on the ability of the interpreter to navigate the four levels of language. Reading a text on the literal level does not contradict that text’s deeper meaning; it merely precedes it. If one limits oneself to the literal or even symbolic levels with regard to Scripture, one misses out on metaphysics, but one is not in error. The “lower” meanings are still valid, and it is correct to point them out.

Lubac belongs to the small group of twentieth-century thinkers who incorporated medieval reflections into their own philosophizing. His study of the medieval interpreters of Scripture demonstrates that from the tenth century onward there existed a tradition of interpretation that declared the Bible to be the inexhaustible source of new meanings, because each new elucidation of a passage on any level threw new light on neighboring passages and ultimately on the entire text, and then on language itself. Following the medieval thinkers, Lubac states that “the spiritual sense of the Old Testament is the New Testament,”[14] a sweeping acknowledgment of the fourth level of meaning and quite incomprehensible to those who reject the possibility of the metaphysical roots of language. Lubac points out that all medieval interpreters agreed on this in spite of their varying levels of historical knowledge and diverse personal situations. He outlines the struggle in the Catholic Church between Scholasticism and mysticism and points out that regardless of the prevalence of one or the other, this interpretation of language has been widely accepted. What is also striking in Lubac’s book is the breadth and depth of consideration he shows to even the least profound of the commentators. He freely pours “the milk of human kindness,” in addition to scholarly attention, and this makes the tone of his books so strikingly different from that of present-day historians.

* * *

My thesis, then, is this: the meaning of words in a language is in constant flux. We change the language we speak with each utterance, although in an infinitesimal way. These changes become significant as the meaning of words is modified by many speakers and writers, most of whom speak and write in such a way as to secularize the public square. In ages past, the public use of words in a spiritual context was frequent enough to endow all texts with echoes and associations related to human spirituality; transcendence is the territory that evokes the most profound and lasting interest among humans. When transcendence-oriented usage became rare, words began to lose their secret glow. Their “value added” content collapsed. They ceased to radiate spirituality. They not only began to mean less but also lost the power to attract the way they did in past centuries. The change has snowballed in our time as the public square has been swept clean of spiritual “ballast.” I contend that the ability to carry on traces of the ineffable made many texts written before our time generate excitement of the kind contemporary texts seldom do.

In centuries past, in addition to strictly religious writings the anagoge was routinely present and recognized in all but the most utilitarian of texts—through association, echo, or context. It permeated many social situations, as in the German Grüss Gott, still a functional greeting in parts of Germany, or Niech będzie pochwalony (May He Be Praised) in Poland. These brief greetings not only carry a heavy historical load but also proclaim the metaphysical dimension of humanity. They provide links between daily chores and the meaning of life. The invocation in literature of anagogical meanings plays a similar role, and I daresay the popularity of nineteenth-century Russian novelists in the West is largely due to the fact that they did not shy away from invoking metaphysics at a time when western European philosophy and literature were abandoning it. It’s this ability to draw on past works of literature (even without having read them) that T. S. Eliot had in mind when he wrote that “Art never improves. . . . Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum. . . . [The artist must acquire] the sense of tradition.”[15]

When the word Madonna was not yet distorted by a vision of a well-nourished and well-taken-care-of body of a popular singer, its spiritual associations reached deep. I wonder how many persons today, upon hearing the word “Madonna,” have any awareness of that other sphere this word used to invoke. And not only Madonna. For centuries, first names carried an anagogical echo because they were the names of Christian saints. Today this awareness has waned, and in some circles it is fashionable to make up first names or to seek inspiration in alien cultures so as to endow one’s child with a name no one else will have. And so it is with other words, phrases, sentences, conversations. Consider the influence of the Lord’s Prayer on the word father in the Western world. Some of the glow and mystery to which the prayer refers has been transferred onto ordinary use of the word. Today words such as father and mother are stripped of their metaphysical overtones—as has been the entire range of subjects associated with fatherhood and motherhood. “Mother of God” used to endow the word mother with a depth of which hardly a trace remains. Hundreds and thousands of words in our vocabulary used to profit from such echoes and associations. I would also venture to say that the belief in transubstantiation has had fundamental importance for the Western understanding of culture and history. But what Lubac calls “a transpositional mode of thought” has been banned from academia and educated society generally.[16]

The Nicene Creed is full of paradoxes, and if one accepts that Creed, one is well on one’s way to inheriting the riches language can offer. It is ironic to think that this Creed, adopted in 325, has been accepted and understood by millions of people in diverse circumstances and for hundreds of years, whereas today, with populations fully literate and trained in so many refined forms of verbal expression, it seems absurd to so many. There has occurred a shrinkage of some sort, a refusal to accept all the possibilities language offers. “Fearful symmetry,” said William Blake of the tiger. “Fearful symmetry,” said Northrop Frye of William Blake. Not only the Nicene Creed but even this kind of utterance rings uncomfortable to many well-educated readers today. We have lost the lining that the fourth dimension of language used to give to words. The waning of the religious sensibility brought a flattening-out of language. As a result, texts of all kinds became colorless and uninteresting, and their half-life has become short.

A century ago, Wilhelm Dilthey proposed the following distinction between natural sciences and history: in natural sciences one explains phenomena in terms of their causal antecedents; in history one tries to understand the meaning of events.[17] Dilthey’s essentialist distinction is not dependent on knowing the latest theory; indeed, it is open to the idea that a barely literate person can understand history better than a Harvard professor can. At stake here is that indescribable ability to synthesize that makes certain people profound and others not so wise, even if they have read many books. As T. S. Eliot noted, certain people learn more from reading Shakespeare than others from an entire British Library. But Dilthey’s distinction would have lost its profundity if words did not have the spiritual lining that some people hear and others do not. In the atheistic world, understanding the meaning of events amounts to an Enlightenment-rationalism-inspired chain of statements ultimately dependent on natural sciences. Maybe this is why Dilthey, like Frye, is seldom mentioned in today’s academia that is so fiercely nominalist.

Today the words of praise for a professor and scholar in history might look as follows (an example taken from a real advertisement about a university lecture):

X is one of the most prolific academics in the humanities. His work has been central to the development of the fields of literature, history of art, media theory, and visual art. Many of his books are classic studies in those areas. Recent publications include works on biocybernetics, contemporary art, media theory, and politics. An extensive list of his many books and essays can be seen in Wikipedia. X is also the editor of several periodicals.[18]

Dilthey might have asked, but does he understand history? Is he able to explicate texts that embrace all four levels of language? Has he actually explicated something in a profound way? The announcement quoted above fails to characterize the speaker in a significant way. A recitation of titles and distinctions replaces information about what this scholarly individual really professes. He is a professor, so he should profess something, and this should be reflected in his résumé.

On the other hand, his potential listeners have ceased to ask such questions, and not only with regard to him and other scholars occupying prominent positions in academia. Granted, this is just an ad on the bulletin board. But the disappearance of interest in the fourth dimension of language is visible well beyond it. Articles, interviews, even poems are shaped in such a way as to suggest that meanings to which the “mystery dimension” refers do not exist or do not count. Of course I do not expect newspapers and ads to cater to the readers’ spiritual longings, but between the metaphysics-oriented texts and the sophisticated flatness of the New York Times there is a vast space that could accommodate occasional admissions that language helps us approach the ineffable that even the best columnists cannot adumbrate with their witticisms.

The hints that language may be used for something other than scientific discovery, everyday communication, or aesthetic pleasure are also absent from school textbooks. What matters is practical things; students are tested electronically on their skills in dealing with these practical things. As I consider school textbooks and what is being valued at universities (technological discoveries that use language as a tool in explaining and mastering the material world), I note that all this takes place on the first and second level of language, seldom on the third and never on the fourth.

Medieval intellectuals explored, named, and renamed various aspects of language. The broad range of views they displayed while probing the possibilities of expression contrasts with the contemporary American university culture based on epistemological uniformity. In Medieval Exegesis, Lubac mentions dozens of language philosophers of the Middle Ages; one is humbled by the realization that one has read only a few of them and that there exist profound texts most educated people do not know anything about. Instead of building on them, we started anew during the Enlightenment and declared that the anagogic level of language does not exist and attempts to connect to it should disappear from public discourse. We learned to read and write texts as if there were no metaphysical dimension to language and as if the range of possible meanings never exceeded what the New York Times offers us as intellectual food.

* * *

There also exists the problem of overuse. When we face what Confucius calls “the truth of things,” we feel uncomfortable reaching for words that have been used many times in mundane contexts and on a much “lower” level. We therefore tend to avoid “the truth of things”: it is hard to express and it implies a confession we are unwilling to make. Language is so structured that words double up (or triple up or quadruple up) as carriers of diverse meanings, from physical to mystical. We have at our disposal only one worn-out collection of words to express the events of daily life, explore moral ambiguities, probe spiritual territory. This is like using the same garment for scrubbing floors and going to the opera. Since we cannot change our shabby clothing, we prefer not to go to the opera. Some people feel so uncomfortable about the impossibility of changing “garments” that they flatly refuse to contend verbally with anything that transcends what science can describe. They feel that since there is no special language to deal with the areas of mystery, one should ignore them altogether and remain forever in the realm of the mundane. As Wittgenstein famously said, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”[19]

But “passing over in silence” leads to atrophy of that aspect of language in which mystics couched their messages—and subsequently to our own atrophy. Yes, we have only one garment, only one vocabulary that has to serve us on many levels of our engagement with the world. The weight of everyday use sometimes seems so overwhelming that it annuls the possibility of another usage. Ultimately, however, the refusal to accept our shabby garments brings about an inability to understand important texts. Those who reject the medieval idea that language is polysemous are also the ones who reject the possibility that the garment in which we scrub floors is appropriate for Carnegie Hall; and this leads to a denial of the existence of “Carnegie Hall” and of spirituality tout court.

There are no words that have not been soiled by unspiritual use, and when we speak of things spiritual we have to use the vocabulary that not so long ago might have languished in a gutter. During the past century, an average human being pronounced, read, or heard many more words than his ancestors in centuries past, not only because of premodern illiteracy, but also because hard physical labor, limited possibilities of relocation, and the shortness of human life restricted opportunities for reading, writing, and listening. The demographic avalanche of the past two hundred years has created previously unheard-of opportunities for words to be used and overused.[20] Words of all languages became increasingly associated with secular contexts, and terms that used to be reserved for the sacred have increasingly acquired secular first meanings. All this has worked toward desensitizing us to the fourth dimension of language.

Some language theorists want us to stick to the first two levels in daily use, arguing that the third-level symbolism belongs to poetry and that interpretation involving the fourth level is pure fantasy. They insist that “the proper study of mankind is man”—man without an imaginary soul. Yes, they say, human beings have construed symbolic verbal structures that are worthy of admiration and study, but their exegesis must not lead us to an unreal world of transcendence. Not only Derrida but also other intellectuals who participated in “the long march through the institutions” during the past century have made the elimination of references to the fourth level of language a priority. They endorse the idea that one could perhaps study those who insist on making the transcendent a part of human endeavor, but one should not take seriously what they say.

* * *

In the Middle Ages, texts and utterances that had no religious content were not deemed to be complicated enough to require interpretation. As secular literature developed and grew, the need for interpretation created a new profession, that of a literary critic. At first, such scholars tried to explicate the symbolism of literary texts and their obscure references to man’s spiritual life. As the spiritual was gradually written out of the public arena, literary scholarship began to turn to linguistics, sociology, and other disciplines for inspiration. It began to concentrate on technicalities of writing. This limited its attractiveness for ordinary educated readers.

Criticism appeared attractive when it did not programmatically exclude references to mysteries of the human soul. When the channel that supplied metaphysical nourishment was choked off and references to it were removed from both texts and their interpretations, criticism became the domain of the learned few. The general public lost interest in it. While a collection of essays on literature by T. S. Eliot can be given as a birthday present to a nonacademic lover of poetry and fiction, the same cannot be said about essays written by contemporary neo-Marxist critics.

In twentieth-century revolutionary Russia, an extremist program was created to get rid of the metaphysical element in criticism once and for all. A group of literary critics called Russian Formalists offered a blueprint for this kind of purge. They defiantly proclaimed that texts should be analyzed from the point of view of verbal devices they contain, rather than from the point of view of “content.” (I know something about it because I wrote a PhD dissertation on that topic.) Literature should be read as a display of the writer’s skills in using literary devices. Readers should not pay attention to content but only to literary techniques.

At first, the Communist authorities encouraged this program, because it promised to separate Russian readers from matters spiritual so often invoked by such writers as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Western academia also paid considerable attention to this Russian Marxist development. It became an important part of “the march through the institutions” and was taught at many universities, without mentioning of course its usefulness in striving for a society devoid of transcendence. According to Russian Formalists, criticism should cease to attempt to recover meaning; it should amount to an invention of meaning and vivisection of the literary work. Critics must not attempt to show that characters in novels have transcendent yearnings; if writers placed them there, literary critics were to ignore them and instead foreground either literary devices or class struggle. The extremism of Russian Formalism was eventually rejected even in the USSR, but it played an important role in eliminating the traditional ways of explicating literature.

Structuralism in language studies was to a large extent inspired by Russian Formalism. Since Saussure, language has been viewed as a system of signs that can be described no less accurately than any other closed physical system. The notion of a sign transcending the natural world is incomprehensible to a student of language today. Yet it was known to philosophers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Augustine’s view is not that God gives us certain information but rather that God gives us insight into the truth of the information we discover ourselves. This kind of thinking is excluded from today’s academe. In spite of sophistication and a broad range of shadings brought into discourse by postmodernism, we have learned few things about our cognitive and communicative possibilities. The field became broader but not deeper. Psychoanalysis did not help. As Stuart Hall put it, psychoanalysis is “another network of disciplinary power relations.”[21] Thus literary criticism and its tributaries played a notable role in amputating the spiritual level of words.

In the twenty-first century we have at our disposal great books that engage the anagogic level, but the majority of them were written in the past. Religion remains the only domain where language retains its polysemous power. Or does it? Certainly megachurches that preach success and feel-good attitudes are far from engaging the metaphysical sensibility of their attendees. In such a milieu, heaven has become a pleasure palace where one can meet old chums and reminisce about happy moments on earth. The untutored mind so seldom encounters the language of metaphysics that it sometimes responds with laughter at the mysteries of Christianity. “What? Your God is one in three persons? Gimme a break!” This kind of interpretive disorientation indicates an inability to realize that, yes, on the literal level three cannot be one, but somewhere in the world to which we can only aspire, oneness and threesomeness do coexist even though they transcend our dictionary explanations. Those who have never encountered references to transcendence at home, in school, or in poetry joke about the language of the Bible. They have dulled their ability to see words as bearers of something more than dictionary meanings.

We have entertainment that tries to exalt itself into culture, but hardly any culture, because culture without the transcendent core becomes entertainment. We have become enemies of metonymy.[22] Yet subordination of human disciplines to divine wisdom—as practiced in epochs called religious—would terminate the “infertility of language” on display today.[23] Our fondness for language acrobatics, emoticons, and substitute ways of communication partly stems from this infertility. Since words have lost value, one may as well use brief substitutes.

Thus book by book, article by article, movement after movement, words were confined to the sterilized territory fit for elegant conversations like the one between Brooks and Collins quoted at the beginning of this essay. This is the reason why in our time we lack writers who inspire millions. World population has grown so rapidly since the eighteenth century that there should have appeared numerous such writers. Instead, we have scores of Pulitzer Prize winners. The fact that so few people are persuaded by writers today indicates a descent of discourse to a lower level.

Language’s resonance and depth stem from its contact with the spiritual world, a contact that cannot be replaced by the complex verbal acrobatics that postmodern philosophy and literature have offered. As I read learned books and papers dealing with literature, history, and society published in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I marvel at the precision of expression and the ability to conduct meta-meta-arguments, but I also see the closing of the spiritual imagination. Without it, we cannot explain why it is even worthwhile to conduct any enquiry, why scholarship and the world of ideas are so much a part of who we are as humans. In one of his books, C. S. Lewis presented a vision of hell in which human transgressions resulted in the transgressor’s banishment to more and more remote locations. As a result, distances between individuals increased to astronomic proportions, and people sentenced themselves to eternal solitude in which common efforts to reach the Mystery became impossible.

What humanity has learned about reality is crammed into the languages of the world. Mystery communicates with us through words that have been overused or used in nontranscendent contexts. Given this, one might have thought that educated people would treat their language gingerly and cultivate its secret nooks and crannies. Such was the case until the post-Enlightenment society marched in. The masses embraced entertainment, and the educated abandoned metaphysics for the worship of art. Both groups have cherished the conviction that the post-Enlightenment society is smarter and better than the pre-Enlightenment one. When in the eighteenth century the wise men of Western Europe decided on full secularization of public life, language was still pregnant with meanings that clung to words because of custom and tradition. These meanings gradually peeled away, and language became lighter. Discourse has achieved a previously unheard-of level of precision and elegance. The language of the New York Times can serve as an example: words faultlessly describe what their users want them to describe; there is no awkwardness, every word hits its target. But while doing so these words reaffirm the commitment to become and remain impervious to the spiritual imagination. A reversal of this development requires consciousness of what has happened to language over the past several generations.♦

Ewa Thompson is research professor of Slavic Studies and former chairperson of the Department of German and Slavic Studies at Rice University.


[1]      David Brooks and Gail Collins, “The Conversation,” New York Times, July 17, 2013,, accessed September 28, 2013.


[2]      George Orwell, 1984 [1949], quoted from, accessed June 6, 2015.


[3]      On the philosophical level, R. V. Young deals with a similar problem in At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999).


[4]      The use of the word mystery by Heaney echoes the medieval commentator Remi of Auxerre, who wrote about “history, morality, and mystery” as aspects of language. Quoted in Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 1, trans. Marc Sebanc (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 1998), 95.


[5]      Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Science of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 247–71.


[6]      W. H. Davies, “Leisure”: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare, / No time to stand beneath the boughs / And stare as long as sheep or cows . . . ”


[7]      De Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 167.


[8]      Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 97.


[9]      Ibid., 71–130.




[11]     Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970), 24.


[12]     De Lubac, Medieval Exegesis.


[13]     Young, At War with the Word.


[14]     De Lubac, “Preface,” Medieval Exegesis, xiv.


[15]     T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1960), 6, 7.


[16]     De Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 1:51.


[17]     Quoted from René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1956), 17.


[18]     A paraphrase of an advertisement for a lecture at Rice University on September 13, 2013.


[19]     Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. Pears and McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961), 151.


[20]     Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (New York: Penguin, 1978).


[21]     Stuart Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996), 14.


[22]     When we metonymically invoke the name of a group of people (pars pro toto) and express an opinion about members of that group, we hear cries of prejudice even when our opinion is not offensive or detrimental to the group. Our metonymic usage is treated as a sign of intolerance.


[23]     De Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 1:35.


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