The Latent Possibility of Pure Language

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’

It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.

This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”

“The entire species of the verb may be reduced to the single verb that signifies to be. All the others secretly make use of this unique function, but they have hidden it beneath a layer of determinations: attributes have been added to it, and instead of saying ‘I am singing’, we say ‘I sing’; indications to time have been added, and instead of saying ‘before now I am singing’, we say ‘I sang’; lastly certain languages have integrated the subject itself into their verbs, and thus we find Romans saying, not ego vivit, but vivo. All of this is merely accretion and sedimentation around and over a very slight yet essential verbal function, ‘there is only the verb to be . . . that has remained in this state of simplicity’. The entire essence of language is concentrated in that singular word. Without it, everything would have remained silent, and though men, like certain animals, would have been able to make use of their voices well enough, yet not one of those cries hurled through the jungle would ever have proved to be the first link in the great chain of language.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

It doesn’t get enough recognition, this brilliant and beautifully written work (sadly there is no translator credited), amidst Foucault’s better known books. I’m reading a Routledge reprint, but have tracked down a first translation into English and will credit a translator if included in that edition.

“Strangely enough, man — the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates — is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things, or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of knowledge. Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all the facile solutions of an ‘anthropology’ understood as a universal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical. It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

“When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in Romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of its loss.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

“I began to understand what it meant to read. Reading is seeing the words as lights shining in the dark, one after another, and to engage in the activity of reading is to follow the lights into the text. But what we see is never detached from the person we are; the mind has its limitations, they are personal, but cultural too in that there is always something we cannot see and places we cannot go. If we are patient and investigate the words and their contexts carefully enough, we may nonetheless identify those limitations, and what is revealed to us then is that which lies outside ourselves. The goal of reading is to reach these places. This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realise that there is more to understand.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

The last sentence of this fragment, so elegant a formulation of the increasing uncertainty that comes with maturity.

“Humility, a word so often bandied about in public contexts, was something hardly anyone knew the meaning of any more. Only those who had every reason to be conceited, those of real calibre, showed no trace of conceit, only they were humble. Conceit and self-righteousness were part of a defence mechanism without which a person would be crushed under the weight of their own weaknesses, shortcomings and flaws, and that fact underlay almost every discussion I witnessed, verbal as well as written, in newspapers and on television, but also in my immediate surroundings, in the private sphere. Such weakness would not be admitted, since so much would be lost, and the form of those discussions and the power of the media resolved it by endowing it with their strength. That was why opinions were so important in society, through opinions we appropriated a strength and supremacy we did not possess. That was the function of form here, to obscure the weakness of the individual.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)