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  • Latinity
  • Jeffrey Sacks (bio)

Sunt enim quaedam uerba certarum linguarum, quae in usum alterius lin-guae per interpretationem transire non possint.

—St. Augustine, De doctrina Christiana

In a debate that took place during the tenth Christian century between Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus, the translator of Aristotle's Poetics into Arabic, and Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi, a scholar of jurisprudence, theology, and philology, the latter compels the former to formulate his defense of Aristotle as a privileging of logic over language.1 As the intellectual historian Muhsin Mahdi explains, "He [Matta] seeks to defend the nonconventional character of logic by dissociating it from language and by defining it as 'an inquiry into intelligible notions and apprehended meanings'" (1970, 65), and it is this dissociation which remains decisive in the debate. It remains decisive because it affirms and cosigns the separation of utterance from meaning (lafz and ma'na) and of language or speech (kalam) and intelligibles (ma'qulat), which [End Page 251] both Matta and al-Sirafi share with the theologico-juridical inheritance in which they partake. It is a separation which is instituted hierarchically and assymetrically, and with the force of the law. It is not only that for al-Sirafi "logic does not transcend language and its conventional character" (66), just as for Matta it is not only that the relation between language and logic is accidental (bi al-'arad), but that each of these divisions must be so. The text of the debate does not describe a state of affairs, but it acts performatively to institute—and to reinstitute—a series of divisions with which one may hardly be said to dispense with ease. The inheritance in which Matta and al-Sirafi share is one which must separate the temporal from the eternal. If "the material of the utterance is earthy, and everything which is earthy falls into ruin" (wa madat al-lafz tiniyyah, wa kul tiniyy mutahafit) (al-Tawhidi 1965, 1:115), the intelligible, for both Matta and al-Sirafi, is permanent and unchanging: it is untouched by time (thabitan 'ala al-zaman).2 It is a separation which participates in the formation of what came to call itself Europe and its literary, juridical, theological, and philosophical institutions. And it is a separation which may not be delinked from the divided institution to which we shall turn in this essay—literature—or from the belonging of the word literature to an Arabo-Latin inheritance the stakes of which Matta and al-Sirafi instruct us to read. If in what follows we shall attend to German and philological elaborations of this inheritance it is not to secure Latinity from a relation to Arabic but to aggravate that relation and its fragile and fraught legacies. It is to consider what will have been given with and what remains to come from the institution which has named itself literature.

To address the stakes which occasion the reflection on the Latinity of the word literature is to underscore that literature—and the name that it is—belongs to language. As Jacques Derrida explains, "What is this name? It should at least be emphasized that it belongs, like any name, that is, like any noun, to language. Which means, as always—since language does not exist, no one has ever encountered it—that it belongs to a language. Literature is a Latin word" (1998, 17/20).3 Literature's Latinity confines itself neither to Europe nor to its languages, and if literature may be said to be "a mode of writing and production specific to the little thing that is Europe, a barely national piece of European history and Geography" (15/19), literature and its belonging to [End Page 252] the Latin language has never remained peacefully at home. "This belonging has never been simple: it is a belonging that travels, emigrates, works, and is translated" (17/20). The non-simplicity of literature's belonging to the Latin language may be considered not only in the translation of diverse non-European literatures into the English or American languages, but also in the formation and institutionalization—the interruptive constitution—of non-European institutions of literature. Derrida therefore also asks, "Does there...


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