Maybe he made it up

Terry Eagleton

  • The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature by Nick Groom
    Picador, 351 pp, £20.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 330 37432 X

Postmodernism awards high marks for non-originality. All literary works are made up of recycled bits and pieces of other works, so that, in the words of Harold Bloom, ‘the meaning of a poem is another poem.’ This doctrine of intertextuality is not to be confused with good old-fashioned literary influence. Such influences are mostly conscious and generally sporadic, whereas for Postmodernism it is impossible to open your mouth without quoting. As Roland Barthes and others have pointed out, the phrase ‘I love you’ is always a citation, indeed one of the most shopsoiled citations of all, even when it is sincerely meant. For the romantically inclined, this opens up an ominous gap between experience and expression; but if words are what we are made of – if I can know that what I am feeling is love only because I have language in the first place – the romantic view may need to be modified.

In the beginning, then, was the repetition. My signature is authentic only if it is a reproduction of its previous versions. Postmodernism is entranced by imitation but sets itself sternly against mimesis, or the notion of realist representation, so that what copies reproduce is not the world but other copies, in a ceaseless chain of simulacra. If meaning is a matter of difference, then there could have been no primordial word, since one word already implies another. If language can be said to have been born, Lévi-Strauss reflects, then it must have been born ‘at a stroke’. In any case, as Wittgenstein muses, it is difficult to imagine an origin without feeling that you could always go back beyond it. As the business of looking things up in the dictionary suggests, all words are stand-ins for other words, and all our language is filched and forged, reach-me-down rather than bespoke.

If texts can be translated, then a certain translatability or recycling is constitutive of what they are. And translations can certainly improve on the original, as with the word ‘Vienna’. Similarly, we would not call ‘literary’ a piece of writing which was not somehow portable, more capable than a shout of ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre of being transported from one context to another and interpreted differently each time. In this sense, literary discourse is what it is by virtue of never being quite identical with itself. But the point cuts deeper than literature: we would not call a mark which could happen only once a sign. Language must belong to the Other – to my linguistic community as a whole – before it can belong to me, so that the self comes to its unique articulation in a medium which is always at some level indifferent to it.

Who, then, wrote the first poem? If poetry, like potholing, is a practice governed by certain public conventions, then surely those conventions had to be always already in place for a piece of writing to be identifiable as a poem. I might furtively conceal some dreadful doggerel of mine from public view, but unless it was in principle accessible to others I could not speak of it as a poem at all, even a lousy one. With regard to origins, literary and social conventions are rather like the laws of physics. The mystery of the Universe’s origins is not so much how, pace King Lear, something could have come of nothing, since a random fluctuation in a quantum field might have popped an inflatable particle into fleeting existence, but rather where the quantum field itself might have come from. Or is to raise such a question merely to confuse different language games, modelling a quantum field on a material entity?

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