25 January 2010

Choosing between words

In The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979), Roger Scruton writes:

"Even in the case of literature – for which a semiological account might seem to be particularly suitable – it is doubtful that ‘aesthetic’ values and significances can be described in semantic terms. Even here the creation of aesthetic significance depends, in the last analysis, on the discovery of ‘correct’ and ‘appropriate’ details, and we cannot assimilate this idea of correctness to a semantic rule. The ability of the poet is the ability to choose between words despite their identical semantic properties, to choose, for example, the word sans instead of the word without, as in a famous Shakespearian example. It is the ability to choose between words with, as Frege would put it, the same sense but different tone. And we cannot assimilate ‘tone’ to any semantic category. A word acquires its tone as a consequence of its use and of the rules which govern it. Tone cannot therefore be the subject of a rule. It is for this reason that we must distinguish, even in literature, between style and linguistic competence. A style might be imitated, but it is already an aesthetic achievement, not available to any language user irrespective of his creative powers.” (p. 176)

In literature, particularly poetry, it is not the semantic or denotative meaning of a word that takes priority, but first its sound, then its cultural or literary source. To a poet or a critic, sans is a world of difference from without. We cannot imagine Shakespeare using without in the famous line "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" from Act 2, Scene 7, of As You Like It. The meter would not be correct, the French allusion would be lost, and most of all, the sudden shift to another language signalling the introduction of a major idea would not be there. Literal meaning is not everything (nor even a lot) in literature, particularly poetry, particularly Shakespeare.


  1. Tolstoy writing on his great work WAR AND PEACE offers another view on the issue raised by this blog. First his caveat: "It is not a novel. still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle." Then as to why he has Napoleon speaking in both Russian and French: "I was involuntarily carried away more than necessary by the form of expression of that French way of thinking. (From the new translation by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. 2007)

    Does the critic try to get at the author's way of thinking by reading the language signals?

  2. Certainly, the critic must find the artistic purpose in the entire artistic construct. One of the aspects of this construct is, of course, signals from the language used and articulated to arrive at that artistic purpose. This purpose becomes the basis for criticising whether or not an artistic work succeeds in achieving its aesthetic plenitude.