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L.M. FINDLAY 'Who hath given man speech?': Swinburne, Myths of Origin, and Logocentrism In 1866 the newly founded Societe Linguistique de Paris formally excluded from its activities any consideration of the origins of language. ' This is one of many gestures during this period which mark the movement beyond Enlightenment conjecture and nineteenth-century philology to Saussurean linguistics, and thence to structuralism and poststructuralism, deep structures, and grammatology. In this paper I will reverse and simplify this sequence, and will begin by restating some of the principal contentions currently associated with the school of theory and criticism known as Deconstruction.2 I will then proceed to examine some of the analogues and antecedents of these contentions in mid-Victorian England, especially in the works of Swinburne, before concluding with a reassessment of the enduring importance of Swinburne for lovers of poetry and critical theory, and of the coherence and utility of Deconstruction itself. According to Jacques Derrida, the most celebrated and influential practitioner of Deconstruction, myths of origin have been used in both the Judaeo-Christian and the pagan classical traditions to justify a preference for speech over writing, operating in the interests of a 'metaphysics of presence' with its consoling fictions of transcendence and access to the immutable.' The importance of language to epistemology, theology, and the production of culture more generally, to theories of the subject and the grounds and protocols of intersubjectivity, has led, according to Derrida, to a fraudulent, oppressive, profoundly entrenched logocentrism - that is to say, to an incarnation or encodification of human desire in and as language. The one thing currently needful, then, is the demystification of language, the reconstitution of the logos, the deconstruction of those ideological formations which lead a naturalized, privileged existence in our sacred and canonical texts and in the various forms of spoken discourse those texts authorize. But is such a project appropriate and practicable? Was it anticipated in any respect during the nineteenth century in the course of the great debates on the Chtistian or the Platoniclogos and the poetic reworking of the grounds ofbelief? What can we learn in this regard from the Victorian logomachy? I In an attempt to understand more fully the importance of language to UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 60, NUMBER 2, WINTER 199011 'WHO HATH GIVEN MAN SPEECH?' 275 culture, scholars have been strongly attracted by the evidence of continuity and convulsion afforded by the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848. Michel Foucault, in one of his salutary provocations, has located an epistemic shift in the late eighteenth century, and has defined that shift as a move from language as transparency to language as habitable opacity, or, in other words, to language as constituting reality rather than as a convenient means of referring to reality. In a more measured way in his two books on the development of thinking about language, Hans Aarsleff has done much to connect linguistic studies in Britain to developments in France and Germany. Olivia Smith has recently brought out the political dimensions of linguistic debate in Britain from 1791 to 1819, and in ways that have important implications for Victorian studies. Hilary Fraser, in her aptly titled Beauty and Belief, has reviewed the secularist hypothesis according to which the Germano-Coleridgean logos becomes the aesthetic stylism of Pater and Wilde, while David Shaw, pursuing similar interests in The Lucid Veil, has made much of hermeneutic and epistemological models grounded in the philosophy of language and poetic practice.4 Linda Dowling, in Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle, makes a number of important claims about 'the Victorian privileging of written language over speech: about Pater and 'the post-philological moment in Victorian civilization: autonomous language and 'Literary Decadence: and 'the tragicomic example of Swinburne' who adhered not to the written language of the book ... [but] to an earlier model of poetic song, by which the human voice participated materially in the true essence of things, their physical sounds. ... Clearly there is in this view no evasion of the linguistic conditions of language, for Swinburne gives spoken language privilege over written. Nor is there any overt compromise with what Swinburne despised as the bankrupted religious doctrines...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 274-291
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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