The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 25, 2017

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The Treasonous Clerk: Saint Augustine and the Meaning of Art
James Matthew Wilson - 01/07/09

Such claims seemed to undermine any positive assignation of meaning and merit to a work of literature, and so also seemed to threaten the two pillars of twentieth century academic criticism: interpretation and evaluation. And they routinely excited the disgust of the casual reader, the retail banker and the candlestick maker, because it seemed preposterous that some academic in a turtle neck and corduroy jacket would presume to tell anyone who lives in the world that sentences do not bear a determined, that is to say, delimited, meaning inherent to themselves.

The scandal of Deconstruction has slackened considerably in the last couple decades, as many of its most bold assertions retreated from the center of critical study to the margins whence, with the other hermeneutical wall flowers imported from France and Germany, it occasionally steps forward for a paragraph or two. As such, it is now easier to see than it once was not how well founded its claims were, but how the work of the literary critics who preceded Deconstruction, and the positivist tendencies of our culture in general, paved the way for it to become the reductio ad absurdum of academic and everyday life. Few persons would hesitate to deride the absurdity of Deconstruction—unless, of course, they are seeking tenure somewhere. But would such persons as quickly affirm that a printed word on a page signifies an idea in the mind that, in turn, immediately signifies a thing in reality? “Cow” on the page immediately conjures “cow,” an idea, in my mind; but does my idea correspond in some intrinsic way to that real creature chewing the real cud on some real pastoral hillside?

My suspicion would be that many, even most, persons would answer, “No.” The relation of a written word to the mental word of an idea is an internally consistent, but closed, system. Any relation between that closed system and reality is strictly arbitrary, as we may conclude from the obvious phenomenon of there being thousands of languages with different and unrelated words for the same thing. “La vache” signifies cow in the mind of a Frenchman, as “cow” signifies the heifer in my mind, but neither sign signifies of itself a real cow or, to speak in terms of essences, the reality of “cowness.”

Previous generations of literary critics, aesthetic theorists, and linguists prepared us to accept the “arbitrary” relation of word to reality, as above all did John Locke, whose empirical psychology is its charter document. But is theirs an accurate, or even defensible, account of how words work? Do they paint an accurate picture of how the world works and words speak?

Clearly, the words of a language are “conventional” signs; the real cow does not necessitate its being called “cow” and nothing else, as we know simply from the fact that other people call cows something else. But a necessary causal connection between reality and word is not the only possible kind of real connection. As Jacques Maritain argued many years ago, the system of signs that constitute a particular language are not simply modeled upon, but derive from, the system of natural signs we encounter from the very beginning of our lives. Smoke is a natural sign of fire—not a cultural convention levied upon the burning villages of natives by colonial invaders! A shout, a scream, and a cry—very different though they are—may be natural signs of that singular phenomenon, a body in pain. These are three different ways of expressing pain, but no one would say that they are three merely “conventional” expressions; in their variety and proliferation, natural signs make possible the multitudinous variations of signs that, through the art of human reason, become a complete language. But, again, it was not some French literary theorist who cut language off from nature; it was a whole slew of earlier thinkers, and their claims were accepted with a sigh of relief by most modern persons who found it convenient to accept that languages were entirely contingent, even arbitrary, cultural systems that may be “conventional” but were closed off from nature, from reality.

It may take a theology undergraduate to point out how inadequate such a “relativist” account of language—and so of literature and other “signifying” art forms—this is. The ambiguity of a word, a sentence, a play, or even a picture of St. Augustine, arises not from its being “indeterminate.” It arises rather from even a simple word’s being what Dante called “polysemous,” or polysemantic. Even so simple a word as that I have used as an example—“cow”—does not suffer from a dearth of definite meaning but from a surfeit of meanings. When we encounter that or another word in a sentence, our task seems not so much to be to decide if “cow” means anything, but rather, to determine which of the myriad possible meanings seems most immediately—if not exclusively—relevant. “Cow” as in a Holstein in the Irish countryside? Or a lean and hunkering steer on the range? Or perhaps poor, loud, gluttonous Aunt Ruthie? Or an overreaction according to the lights of Bart Simpson?

All of us are aware of the de-signification of everyday life that stands out as one of the apparent hallmarks of modernity. A number of years ago, cultural critics bemoaned the loss of the “figural imagination,” the “sacramental imagination,” the “ritualistic imagination,” or of, as the anthropologists had it, “savage thought.” The surfaces and interior of the things of this world seemed to have been scoured with lime, until all that remained were the inert facts and things of “objective” reality. Things had been reduced to facts rather than objects; that is to say, the world beyond the human intellect seemed to stand in no real or meaningful relation to it.

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