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  • Glossolalic Folly
  • Anne Tomiche (bio)

In the several domains to which it belongs, the phenomenon of glossolalia is recurrently associated with different forms of ‘folly’. The term ‘glossolalia’ originally belongs to religious vocabulary where it refers to a specific gift in languages, a ‘speaking in tongues’ which produces religious trances that have been associated with ‘lunacy’. Since the nineteenth century, the term has been used in psychiatry and in psychopathology to describe a linguistic pathology. More recently, the term has entered the field of rhetoric and poetics.1 Indeed a number of twentieth-century writers, from the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century up to now, have encountered the phenomenon of glossolalia and have used it in their attempts to free words from their referential linkage. In its various forms, the phenomenon has indeed been analyzed by such scholars as Roman Jakobson,2 Tzvetan Todorov,3 Antoine Compagnon,4 Michel de Certeau,5 and Jean-Jacques Lecercle.6 In 1988, the journal Langages devoted one of its issues to glossolalia and the volume brought together articles dealing with religious glossolalia, psychopathological glossolalia and poetic experimentations (in particular Antonin Artaud).7 By retracing the double tradition (both religious and psychopathological) to which glossolalia belongs, I hope to be able to analyze the nature of the ‘folly’ that this phenomenon has been associated with – from religious lunacy to linguistic pathology – as well as the nature and the stakes of the ‘folly’ involved in poetic glossolalia. My point is therefore not to attempt to define ‘folly’ but to analyze how and why glossolalia has been described as ‘folly’.

Religious Glossolalia: Religious Folly

Chronologically glossolalia is first a religious phenomenon, which is still very common today in many charismatic movements, especially in the United States where ‘Pentecostal’ movements have developed since the beginning of the twentieth century, and especially in the 1950s and 1960s. [End Page 165]

In a study that is not recent but remains very useful, Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of Pentecostalism, William Samarin8 makes a distinction between Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals and analyzes the presence of Pentecostalists in many different Christian churches (Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal/Anglican, Methodist, not to mention the Apostolic Church or the Full Gospel). My point here is not to analyze the place of glossolalia in these contemporary charismatic movements. Nor is it to analyze the history of the Pentecostal movement. I want to stress, as a starting point, the extent to which religious glossolalia has been associated with a certain kind of folly. Indeed, as Samarin notes, Pentecostalism, in its modern and contemporary developments, has been known ‘as a “lunatic fringe” of the Christian religion’.9 Furthermore, most studies of the phenomenon of religious glossolalia refer to it as ‘ecstasy’, ‘frenzy’ or ‘raving’. In his ‘Brief History of Glossolalia’, E. Glenn Hinson, for example, describes glossolalia in the first sixteen centuries of its history as ‘ecstatic speech’, and he quotes Apollinaris’s description of Montanus’s ‘gift of tongues’: ‘being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved and began to babble . . . ’.10 Similarly, Marina Yaguello, in Les Fous du langage, notes: ‘dans le cas des glossolalies religieuses, on a longtemps considéré l’état de transe comme un phénomène concomitant obligatoire’.11 Whether the terms used are those of ‘lunacy’, ‘frenzy’, ‘raving’ or ‘trance’, religious glossolalia is thus associated with a kind of ‘folly’.

To try to understand what such ‘lunacy’ and ‘frenzy’ entail, we need to go back to the religious source describing the phenomenon, the New Testament. The term ‘glossolalia’ is a nineteenth-century neologism, formed on the terms glossa (tongue/language) and lalein (to speak) – terms that recur (either separately or in various combinations) in the New Testament. The main text that describes the phenomenon is The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians: ‘he that speaketh in an unknown tongue [lalein glosse] speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries’.12 A first and long-standing tradition of exegesis, going back to Saint John Chrysostom’s commentary,13 links this epistle to the Acts of the Apostles and to...


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pp. 165-177
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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