” . . . Words strain, Crack and sometimes break. . . . “
—T.S. Eliot

The ancients, wiser than modem theorists, recognized language as a gift and (at Babel) a curse from the heavens. Even pagans recognized a Word behind words and a Muse beyond music. The Creator of the world was everywhere acknowledged as the bestower of words, giving tremendous powers and social prestige to those initiated into the underlying grammar of both. (Glamour originated as a variant of grammar.) In every literate land in antiquity, the priests praised the gods for revealing the mysteries of writing, and the earliest poets were universally reverenced (as Plato explains in the Ion) for the “power divine” that worked through them. (The widespread belief that Plato banned all poets from his Republic is a calumny; Plato welcomed all poets who honored the “forms of theology” so that “God is always . . . represented as he truly is.”) It is no wonder that when the Apostle Paul proclaimed the Christian gospel on Mars’s Hill, he could cite the verse of the Greek philosopher-poet Cleanthes.

Even when modern rationalists began their baleful work, language enjoyed at least a temporary exemption from their reductionist ambitions. Rene Descartes, “the father of modern philosophy,” arrogantly hoped to explain not only the stars and planets but also all animal behavior and most functions of the human body without recourse to “any other principle in physics than Geometry or abstract mathematics.” Yet even this desiccated mechanist sensed something of the wonder of words. “There is,” Descartes wrote, “no one of our external actions which can assure those who examine them that our body is any thing more than a machine which moves of itself, but which also has in it mind which thinks—excepting words.” And elsewhere: “The word is the sole sign of the presence of thought hidden and wrapped up in the body.” Sainte-Beuve, with some justice, accused Descartes of “cutting the throat of poetry” by making man “an angel shut up in a machine.” But at least there was an angel in Cartesian thought, with language acknowledged as his seraphic wings. From Thomas Hobbes to B.F. Skinner, philosophers since Descartes have embraced his scientistic project, while rejecting the special and anomalous status he assigned to language. John Locke even argued that we know man is not one of the “spirits of a higher rank” because he must use “corporal signs and particular sounds” to communicate his thoughts.

By 1820 John Keats was warning that “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,” and indeed in our century the philosophical attack upon language and literature has been unremitting among that army of structuralists, semioticians, deconstructionists, and critics determined to naturalize every phoneme of every poem. Much of this rage against the logos, the transcendent word, has originated in Descartes’ own land, dooming the angel of Cartesian linguistics to the fate described (in another context) by Robert Browning:

And clipt of his wings in
Paris square,
They bring him now to be
burned alive.

As a leading exponent of structuralism and semiology until his death in 1980, Roland Barthes presided as one of the inquisitors at this auto-da-fe. Following in the steps of Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes sought to develop a “science of the signifier” by analyzing the social, political, economic, and historical systems within which new signs—verbal, architectural, sartorial, artistic—are produced and circulated. Among his major works in this effort are Elements of Semiology, S/Z, Empire of Signs, and Mythologies. As a posthumous collection of assorted prefaces, critical essays, and short articles, The Rustle of Language does not represent a major addition to his oeuvre. Still, the reader of these diverse essays can get some idea of the problematic character of contemporary language study.

In several of these pieces, Barthes pursues structuralist objectives by “scientifically” dissecting various modes of symbolic expression—that of historians, that of gourmets, that of rulers versus the ruled, that of teachers versus students—trying to discover their internal dynamics and their social significance. Repeatedly, Barthes asserts that, as with Marxism, anthropology, and Freudianism, the goal is “to demystify languages.” His “countertheological” approach to words sets him against “the whole of Western (Greco-Judeo-Islamo-Christian) civilization, unified in one and the same theology (essence, monotheism).” God and the Author must die together on the altar of structuralism.

Yet Barthes concedes “a certain embarrassment, even a certain laceration,” caused by structuralism’s attempt “to keep the distance of a science in relation to its object,” language. “How,” Barthes asks, “can [structuralism] fail to call into question the very language by which it knows language?” Just as the self-consuming regression of rationalism finally leads to what G.K. Chesterton called “the suicide of thought,” as skepticism finally doubts its own mental tools, even so the attempt to take the scientific measure of words with words was foredoomed.

Rather than simply repudiate structuralism and semiology, though, Barthes prefers to redefine them. It was necessary, he explains, for him to “corrupt languages [and] vocabularies” and so “shift the meaning of words” as “a way of thwarting the Image” he had acquired as a leading structuralist “with a touch of narrow pedantry.” “In the case of Semiology, which I helped constitute, I have gone over to the side of the Corrupters.” Barthes declares that “structuralism’s logical extension can only be to join literature no longer as ‘object’ of analysis but as activity of writing.” For him, the “science of the signifier” no longer takes as its goal “the analysis of the sign” but instead seeks the “dislocation” of the sign:

It is no longer the myths which must be unmasked . . . but the sign itself which must be perturbed: not to reveal the (latent) meaning of a statement, of a feature, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning; not to change or purify symbols, but to contest the symbolic itself. . . . Initially, we sought the destruction of the (ideological) signified; now we seek the destruction of the sign.

The goal, acknowledged as “utopian,” is the production of “a desituated, dis-alienated language” not repressed by any extant social, political, or historical linguistic order. A language of historical givenness offends Barthes almost as much as one of divine grace, and he denounces grammar as intrinsically “fascistic” because it is “based on subordination: subject, predicate, direct and indirect object.” (If grammarians are fascists, does this mean that fascists are no worse than grammarians?) Shorn of every linkage to heaven or earth, “texts” are tied to “no author or origin but language itself, i.e., the very thing which ceaselessly calls any origin into question.” (Where were Barthes’ royalty checks sent?) These rootless texts are filled with a “plurality of meaning: an irreducible (and not just acceptable) plurality . . . an explosion.” This hardly sounds like linguistic “science.” Rather, it sounds like in his last years the perpetual avant-gardist was running hard, trying to catch up with Jacques Derrida and all of the literary “deconstructionists” who are still riding high in Derrida’s turbulent wake. Rejecting the scientific pretension of structuralism, Derrida has made his career by stressing the radical indeterminacy of language. But Derrida has from the first shared with Barthes and other structuralists an antipathy to any transcendent or theological understanding of language. His project is “the unrelieved temporalization of logos, the reduction of meaning to rhythm, the disintegration of all representation into instinct and desire.” Readers must abandon the futile search for certainty and truth and instead simply play with multiple interpretations of texts.

In recent years numerous academic critics in Europe and America have adopted Derrida as their prophet and have feverishly “deconstructed” poems and novels for the edification of their bewildered sophomore literature students. Deconstructionists insist that the mind of the author cannot be known and that there can therefore be no authoritative reading of any text. The deconstructor overturns and “transgresses” normative understanding of the text. The new and always provisional meaning of literature emerges in the “lateral dance of interpretation,” and we make up the steps as we go along. There is no voice “behind” the text for the deconstructionist, so the poem or novel becomes an echo chamber into which he shouts, with perhaps an occasional chorus sung by his “interpretive community.” Since there is “nothing outside of the text” for the deconstructionist, literature no longer offers windows looking out upon new mental landscapes, merely a fun-house array of mirrors for narcissists and solipsists.

In the United States, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and Paul de Man—all professors at Yale—assumed the leadership of the deconstructionist movement. With books like Hartman’s Saving the Text, de Man’s Allegories of Reading, and Miller’s Fiction and Repetition, and with help from such other “New Readers” as Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish, they captured widespread attention for deconstruction among college English professors. In 1984 the University of Oklahoma sponsored a conference on deconstruction and its three Yale champions, recently publishing the conference papers and symposia exchanges in Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale. If this conference may be taken as any indication, deconstruction may already be ebbing as a critical force in literary study.

It is not that the protests of old-fashioned humanists such as M.H. Abrams, Wayne Booth, Gerald Graff, and Denis Donohue are effecting a return to a more traditional and integrative understanding of literature. Far from it. In Rhetoric and Form, the loudest voices are those of Marxists and feminists bored by all the pointless “free play” of deconstructive interpretation and zealous for Good Causes. Without actually endorsing the Marxist or feminist critiques, the editors observe in their introduction that deconstruction may well be so “vacuous” and “global” that it lacks both “usefulness” and verifiability and is therefore “without any real force.”

In his essay, the best in the collection, J. Hillis Miller anticipates many of the objections—traditionalist and radical—to deconstruction and offers a defense. He demolishes the traditional approach to literary study, tracing it back to Matthew Arnold’s attempt to substitute the beauty of poetry for the abandoned doctrines of Christianity. In this view, deconstruction springs from a repudiation of this naive aestheticism and constitutes an attempt to find some new grounding— social, linguistic, psychological, or metaphysical—for literary study. In Deconstruction and Theology (1982), Carl Raschke argues, “Deconstruction is the death of God put into writing. . . . Deconstruction is the dance of death upon the tomb of God.” Certainly, it is that, but it may be more as well. Deconstruction may also serve, as Thomas Altizer observed, as an “iconoclastic witness,” one that may provoke a new Christian affirmation. as did Philo and Spinoza. Miller himself suggests that deconstruction may serve as a species of “negative theology.”

Because Matthew Arnold recognized no divine source for language or verse, his adoration of poetry must be regarded as idolatrous. But Arnold borrowed much of the moral and ethical substance of his idol from Christian poets who, with Milton, heard “the Heav’nly Muse.” Arnold’s idol may fall to deconstructionists only to be replaced by the more barbarous icons of feminists and revolutionaries.

Jacques Ellul offers a more promising way out of the dilemma in The Humiliation of the Word, a work devoted to “iconoclasm and . . . the criticism of structuralist ideologies.” Indicting Saussure, Derrida, and other of his theory-mad countrymen, Ellul criticizes both the structuralists who are “reducing the word to . . . a scientific object” and the critics engaged in “playful destructuring of language.” He provocatively links these anti-Logos thinkers to a much broader and essentially bourgeois cultural displacement of “spoken language and the word” with “images, films, and television.” Ellul laments the modern ascendance of images, which convey only reality, over language, the conduit of meaning and truth. (Barthes expresses a more equivocal attitude toward the modern use of images in his essay “Leaving the Movie Theater,” where he admits that during his frequent visits to the movie theater part of his mind “gazes, lost in the engulfing mirror,” while the other part of his consciousness maintains an “ideological vigilance” over the movie’s cultural setting.)

Extending the theses of his widely acclaimed Technological Society (1950) and Propaganda (1962), Ellul notes how the manipulation of images extends the power of technocratic politicians and undermines the independence of the individual. Like Plato, he regards even writing with some suspicion, affirming the primacy of the spoken word, alive with the voice and personality of the speaker. He holds in contempt the debased use of language in newspapers and pedantic scholarship. In a world of glossy pictures and moribund writing, “poetic communication has been degraded, so we need a rediscovery . . . which would give poetry back its authenticity.” As a devout Calvinist, Ellul expresses his deepest distress at the religious implications of the triumph of imagery over language. Reliance upon the visual, he argues, invariably entangles us in idolatry. “The only possible relationship with Cod is based on the word, and nothing else.” Though careful to ground his analysis in Scripture, Ellul ranges freely through the works of Kirkegaard, Marx, Huxley, Malraux, and Ionesco. Impatient with the naive bibliolatry found among Fundamentalists, he seeks a renewed reverence for the mystery of language, “multicentered and flowing, evocative and mythological.”

Even many Christian readers will demur when Ellul criticizes those churches with showy liturgy and downgrades the importance of prophetic visions recorded in Scripture. Yet this profound book should convince most readers that if language is to be more than a scientific specimen or a critical plaything, we must locate anew its divine origins and purposes. This will require attention to angels more sublime than any imprisoned in Cartesian machinery. Scripture tells of such beings, who praise God in song and speak to man in words.


[The Rustle of Language, by Roland Barthes (New York: Hill and Wang) $25.00]

[The Humiliation of the Word, by Jacques Ellul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) $14.95]

[Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale, edited by Robert C. Davis and Ronald Schleifer; Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press]