Outline of Gérard Genette's Mimologics. This is part III in a series; see part I, part II or part IV.
Chapter 10 – Internal Inflection
- The discovery of Sanskrit and its resemblance to European languages in the early 19th century (starting with Friedrich Schlegel) undermines the Cratylist position: common features (e.g. the st root for immovability) are now seen as genetic, instead of mimetic. Of course, the primal language could still have a mimetic origin, but now the argument is much weaker.
- The introduction of comparative grammar (a term coined by Schlegel) shifts the emphasis from the vocabulary to the syntactic structure of languages and hence from names (nouns) to actions (verbs) and to the auxiliary speech parts. Beginning with Humboldt, grammar becomes a science of relations, and not of nomenclature. At a deeper level, the move is from the designated object to the designating subject; this does not as much falsify Cratylism as render it irrelevant.
- For Schlegel, Indo-European languages are characterized by internal inflection (expressing meaning by changes in the structure of the root), which is superior to derivation. The corresponding "mobility" of the word is a move away from mimetism.
- All these advances push Cratylism from the domain of science to that of poetry (as seen in Chapter 8 for Nodier).
Chapter 11 – Desert Languages
- For Renan, languages cannot form gradually: they must be complete from the beginning, at least potentially, "as the flower is whole in the bud". This spontaneous creation is due to a collective spirit and cannot be improved upon by artificial construction (i.e. secondary mimologism). However, unlike in classical Cratylism, language is considered in relation to its users, rather than its objects.
- "the relation between sense and word is never necessary, never arbitrary; it is always motivated", but this is an inner motivation. The universal language never existed, and it never will: spoken languages belong to irreducible families, with separate origins.
- Renan achieves a comparative grammar of semitic languages, along the lines of that given by Schlegel and Bopp for Indo-european languages. He constantly compares the two families, to the disadvantage of the Semitic one, seen as simplistic, intolerant, immutable and incapable of abstraction.
- His hierarchy (in order of decreasing "value"): Indo-european, Semitic, Chinese and African languages is also that of decreasing familiarity. For Genette, Renan yields to the temptation of evacuating the unknown by belittling it.
Chapter 12 – Failing Natural Languages
This chapter mostly deals with the linguistic positions of Mallarmé and Valéry (with a bit of Sartre and Jakobson thrown in) and is the most substantial in the book (in page number but also in importance), since here Genette tries to clarify the relation between mimologism and poetry.
- For Mallarmé, the semantic content of English words of Saxon origin correlates to their consonants (the first one, in particular). His reasoning is however purely inductive, with no mimetic motivation and does not apply to other languages (not even to his native French).
- This is in contrast with the Cratylist position: while Plato only considers the Greek language (as a matter of course), most of his followers believe that all languages are accurate, and thus any of them can serve as example. Wallis, on the other hand, extols the virtues of English: all other languages are faulty. Why then does Mallarmé insist on the onomatopoeic value of a foreign language, indirectly deprecating his own?
- One explanation would be that "words are most clearly seen from the outside, that is from abroad" (Mallarmé's own phrase), but this is not what Genette has in mind. For him, the poet gives an illustration of the failing of languages (le défaut des langues). This failing can be corrected but, unlike previous instances of secondary mimologism, the correction occurs not within the existing language but somewhat outside it, namely in poetry.
- More precisely, poetry operates not so much a correction (it does not replace the words in day-to-day use) as a compensation. The failing is the only justification for poetry: a perfect language is a poem through and through, so the art of the poet would be useless.
- Stretching the initial categories, the Cratylism of poetry supersedes the Hermogenism of language, itself built on top of the semi-Cratylism of individual sounds. The verse (very broadly defined) restores, on a higher plane, the adequacy of phonemes — an adequacy betrayed by the words.
- One should not however attempt to reduce Mallarmé's own poetry to a Cratylist play upon words (and sounds): poetic creation transcends the linguistic substrate.
* * *
- Valéry started as disciple to Mallarmé (whose deep understanding of language he admires). His point of view is openly conventionalist with respect to "ordinary" language, which is strictly functional: its most accomplished version would perfectly represent the thought process (to the point of replacing it), like Leibniz's mathesis.
- Poetry, on the other hand, should transport the reader to a special state, whose elements corresponds "harmonically" to the sensible world, but also to the reader's sensitivity.
- Unlike other arts (such as painting or music) that have a specific substrate, poetry must be a "language in a language" and use everyday words. Using this common material is not without difficulty: ordinary language is only a means to conveying a message, at which point it is completely replaced by its signification. Poetic language lives a life of its own; it is indestructible. This is Genette's term, who interprets it in two ways:
- autonomy of the poetic form with respect to its signification, which can be either manifold or secondary (or even completely absent).
- "solidarity (indissolubilité) of sound and meaning (sens)" (Valéry). If we accept –as Genette does– the equivalence of "signification" and "meaning" [here, the terms have nothing to do with Frege but rather with Sartre, see below], this second interpretation is antithetic to the first one, a puzzling evolution for which Genette does not provide a convincing account. At any rate, the solidarity provides a motivation for signs and thus a poetic mimologism similar to that of Mallarmé.
- Similar (and not identical), because Valéry is less ambitious than his mentor: for him, the poem can only give the impression –or illusion– of solidarity. Furthermore, this solidarity is not a resemblance (the original mimesis) but a much weaker and undefined "harmony". In fact, it must be undefined, as Valéry states in Tel Quel: [Genettes quotes the fragment in full, so I will do the same]
The power of verses resides in an undefinable harmony between what they say and what they are. Undefinable is part of the definition. This harmony must not be definable. When it is, it is imitative harmony, which is not good. The impossibility of defining this relation, combined with the impossibility of denying it, represents the essence of the verse.
- Normally, the analysis should stop here: attempting to define an undefinable harmony is (by definition) futile. Genette does however speculate that the mimetic illusion stems from an illusion of perfection (achèvement). A purely formal equilibrium can give the reader the impression of meaning.
* * *
- Sartre develops the distinction between poetry and ordinary language (or "prose") along the same lines. He also makes a clear distinction between (conventional) "signification" and (natural) "meaning". In prose, words have a signification. In poetry they have a meaning, like things themselves or like sounds [in music] and colors [in painting].
- For the Russian formalists, in "poetic language" words have a certain autonomy, manifested by an enhanced perceptibility.
[to be continued]