September 26, 2012

Swept Away by Language

In this blog post, Ivan Kreilkamp, an Associate Professor for the Department of English, discusses ways in which language can exhibit good and bad behavior and presents conflicting and evolving ideas about how language should behave.

Friedrich Nietzsche and mustache.
In English L371 this semester, “Introduction to Criticism and Theory: Original and Copy,” we’ve been considering why and how language – especially literary language -- has been considered to misbehave, turn bad, or mislead us. In Book X of hisRepublic, Plato (via Socrates) explains why poetry and other artistic representations can become so dangerous to the state. A poet “establishes a bad system of government in people’s minds by gratifying their irrational side;” poetic representations are at best, “a kind of game,” diverting but deceptive, far from the truth, and an indulgence of our worst natures. “We surrender ourselves” to poetry, which sweeps us away and casts a kind of enchanting “spell,” but this is dangerous sorcery against which we must protect ourselves. Good, rational language leads us to reason and the truth, and away from the imagination.

Few can match Plato for full-throated denunciation of the tendency of language to “go bad.” His student Aristotle was more receptive to poetry or other imaginative literature, which, he argued in his Poetics, can ideally lead to emotional “catharsis” in an audience and promote an understanding of the “universals” of experience. A great poet may “tell untruths,” but “in the right way,” such that this language will seem “plausible,” “natural,” and “probable” as it tells of “terrifying and pitiable events” and promotes an understanding of heroic action. For Aristotle, poetry and made-up stories can easily go bad when they seem implausible, based on “contrivance” rather than “necessity.” But poetry also can offer access to “what is universal” and virtuous in human experience.

From these classical origins, we have been considering the various different ways 19th and 20th-century theorists, critics, and philosophers worry about language “going bad.” Such thinkers as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, invert and question many of the principles Plato and Aristotle laid out. Plato’s dream of rational, sober language that will contribute to a sound and well-ordered community becomes Nietzsche’s nightmare. For Nietzsche, the Platonic “Man of Reason” has in effect sold his soul, or at least his creative spirit, in exchange for the lie of rationality and “truth.” “As creatures of reason, human beings… no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions.” We implicitly agree to “use the customary metaphors” and to render our language abstract, conventional, and “dull-spirited.” Instead, Nietzsche urges us to become intuitive, metaphorical, “richer, more luxuriant, more proud, skillful, and bold” in our uses of language. The “Man of Intuition” “jumbles up metaphors and shifts the boundary stones of abstraction, describing a river, for example, as a moving road.”  In creative metaphor, human beings escape the “mark of servitude” and become creative, swept away by language.

Ivan Kreilkamp
Associate Professor
Department of English

No comments:

Post a Comment