22 / CHRONICLESnOPINIONSnClippingthe Angel’s Wings byBryceJ. Chmtensenn” . . . Words strain,nCrack and sometimes break.nThe Rustle of Language by RolandnBarthes, New York: Hill and Wang;n$25.00.nThe Humiliation of the Word bynJacques EUul, Grand Rapids, MI:nEerdmans; $14.95.nRhetoric and Form: Deconstructionnat Yale, edited by Robert C. Davisnand Ronald Schleifer, Norman, OK:nUniversity of Oklahoma Press.nThe ancients, wiser than modemntheorists, recognized language asna gift and (at Babel) a curse from thenheavens. Even pagans recognized anWord behind words and a Muse beyondnmus-ic. The Creator of the worldnwas everywhere acknowledged as thenbestower of words, giving tremendousnpowers and social prestige to thoseninitiated into the underlying grammarnof both. {Glamour originated as a vari-n—T.S. Eliotnant oigrammar.) In every literate landnin antiquity, the priests praised thengods for revealing the mysteries ofnwriting, and the earliest poets werenuniversally reverenced (as Plato explainsnin the Ion) for the “power divine”nthat worked through them. (Thenwidespread belief that Plato banned allnpoets from his Republic is a calumny;nPlato welcomed all poets who honorednthe “forms of theology” so that “God isnalways . . . represented as he trulynis.”) It is no wonder that when thenApostle Paul proclaimed the Christianngospel on Mars’s Hill, he could citenthe verse of the Greek philosopherpoetnCleanthes.nEven when modern rationalistsnbegan their baleful work, languagenenjoyed at least a temporary exemptionnfrom their reductionist ambitions.nRene Descartes, “the father of modernnphilosophy,” arrogantly hoped to explainnnot only the stars and planets butnalso all animal behavior and mostnfunctions of the human body withoutnrecourse to “any other principle innphysics than Geometry or abstractnmathematics.” Yet even this desiccatednmechanist sensed something of thenwonder of words. “There is,” Descartesnwrote, “no one of our externalnactions which can assure those whonexamine them that our body is anynthing more than a machine whichnmoves of itself, but which also has in itnmind which thinks — exceptingnwords.” And elsewhere: “The word isnthe sole sign of the presence of thoughtnhidden and wrapped up in the body.”nSainte-Beuve, with some justice, accusednDescartes of “cutting the throatnBryce /. Christensen is associateneditor of Chronicles.nnnof poetry” by making man “an angelnshut up in a machine.” But at leastnthere was an angel in Cartesiannthought, with language acknowledgednas his seraphic wings. From ThomasnHobbes to B.F. Skinner, philosophersnsince Descartes have embraced his scientisticnproject, while rejecting thenspecial and anomalous status he assignednto language. John Locke evennargued that we know man is not one ofnthe “spirits of a higher rank” becausenhe must use “corporal signs and particularnsounds” to communicate hisnthoughts.nBy 1820 John Keats was warningnthat “Philosophy will clip an Angel’snwings,” and indeed in our century thenphilosophical attack upon languagenand literature has been unremittingnamong that army of structuralists,nscmioticians, deconstructionists, andncritics determined to naturalize everynphoneme of every poem. Much of thisnrage against the logos, the transcendentnword, has originated in Descartes’ ownnland, dooming the angel of Cartesiannlinguistics to the fate described (innanother context) by Robert Browning:nAnd dipt of his wings innParis square,nThey bring him now to benburned alive.nAs a leading exponent of structuralismnand semiology until his death inn1980, Roland Barthes presided as onenof the inquisitors at this auto-da-fe.nFollowing in the steps of Ferdinand denSaussure, Barthes sought to develop an”science of the signifier” by analyzingnthe social, political, economic, andnhistorical systems within which newnsigns—verbal, architectural, sartorial,nartistic—are produced and circulated.n