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Logocentricity or Difference

Dec 19, 2001 1034 Words
In many academic and scientific investigations there are three stages of development. The first involves the identification of the subject or phenomenon under investigation. The second involves establishing a theory or hypothesis to explain the nature and characteristics of whatever is to be investigated. In the third phase the investigator seeks to apply theory to some procedure of analysis, perhaps in the form of a practical application of knowledge to a range of tasks. What is the "subject" of the present study? It is not some clearly defined topic such as the behaviour of a certain kind of animal or the molecular structure of certain chemicals. The subject is a verbal phenomenon, or - to be very cautious - a possible verbal phenomenon. Do the titles of poems by Goethe and the German Romantics in which the word "Wandrer" occurs and do occurrences of the verb "to wander" in English poetry reflect the same phenomenon? By way of an analogy with a court case, I will call a number of witnesses and first among them, translators who rendered the German "Wand(e)rer" in the titles of German poetic works as "Wanderer" in English. In fact William of Norwich's translation of Goethe's "Der Wandrer" actually exerted a demonstrable influence on William Wordsworth, affecting his use of the word "Wanderer" in his own poetry. "Wanderer's Night-Songs" demonstrates that for Longfellow the English word "Wanderer" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's rendition of the title "Wandrers Nachtlied" as captured better than any other the sum total effect of the word "Wand(e)rer" in Goethe's poem. To the second class of witness belong critics who apply the word "Wanderer" or a form of verb "to wander" to their critical evaluations, evidently locating the same nexus of themes and problems whether they are writing about German or English poetry. Two critics have in my view already identified the phenomenon with which I am concerned - Professor L. A.Willoughby in his discussions of Goethe's poetry and Geoffrey H. Hartman in his discussions of English romanticism. Their conclusions overlap when they refer to the main protagonist in Goethe's Faust drama as a "Wanderer". I see my task in integrating and correlating their arguments and insights, and to do this with any degree of objectivity I discuss at some length J. Tynjanov's theories concerning "the Word" in poetry. I also attempt to avoid any monocausal explanation of the phenomenon identified by myself and others (though my perception of the scope of this phenomenon is wider than in the case of the two scholars I have mentioned). To come to grips with the phenomenon and its possible underlying causes one should, in my view, understand as far as possible the interrelationship of the unconscious (particularly as defined by C. G. Jung) and individual self-awareness, informed by personal experience and being aware of the contemporary world. It is perhaps no coincidence that two of the poems discussed in Chapter Four begin with the pronoun "I" followed immediately by the verb "to wander". The critics whose arguments we shall consider agree that the age common to Goethe and the Romantics brought with it an unprecedented new sense of self-awareness as so poignantly expressed in Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or in Goethe's Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). G. H. Hartman and others argue that this process involved a total internalization of art that dissociated poetry from any truth beyond itself. For reasons adduced in the course of this study I shall take issue with this point of view, mainly on the basis of arguments concerning the nature of language itself. The most important witnesses in my case are the poets whose works will be considered. They without collusion or the acceptance of any convention or regulatory authority called themselves "Wanderers" and their art "wandering". The mode of investigation adopted in this study is logocentric to the extent that occurrences of a particular word such as "wanderer" are considered in the light of "the word" understood as potential aggregate of meanings lying in the word itself and "the word" as a specific element in a poem or piece of writing. This distinction should become clearer in due course. The basic premise on which this approach is based has roots in religious, hermeneutic and modern linguistic schools of thought, certain inter-connections between which I shall consider. The area of dispute between proponents of "deconstruction" together with certain strains of objective criticism and my position lies essentially in differing attitudes to language. While the followers of Jacques Derrida understand any attempt to define a proposition stated in language to be a futile goose-chase on the assumption that such a proposition is devoid of any essential "presence" or basis in objective truth, I see language as infinitely dense but not in its nature incapable of conveying a message to any one able or willing to perceive it at one of possibly many levels of significance, though I agree with J. Derrida and others that the fund of significance to be drawn from a text is inexhaustible. However, in the view I shall defend, the overt statements of language are not undermined, but enriched, by the unlimited inferences to be drawn from the words that compose language in all its forms, poetic texts included. One of my main contentions is that the frequently encountered denial of a connection between the language of poetry or literature and "truth" poetry, "truth", however defined, is not only itself a challengeable and dogmatic assertion, but a source of interference and practical encumbrance to those involved in literary criticism, not least because this approach often encourages a reader to suppress what he or she inwardly feels to be valid when reading a poetic work. I certainly do not wish to lay down the law as to how a particular poem is to be interpreted, but I cannot deny in principle that some connection between life and art exists. If I believed otherwise, I fear I might hear some alien influence bragging that was wandering in its vale. Fortunately, I discern in "wandering" a friendlier aspect.

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