Pourciau, Sarah M, The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and The Roots of Language Science

Sarah M Pourciau, The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and The Roots of Language Science (New York: Fordham University Press 2017) $16.99 EPUB, $25.00 Pb, $90.00 Hb ISBN: 9780823275625

The Writing of Spirit opens up new directions of thinking about the rise of language science from the eighteenth century into the first half of the twentieth century. Scientific language theories over two centuries are linked to thinkers from Jacob Grimm to the Russian Futurists and from Richard Wagner to Roman Jakobson. Pourciau’s critical scholarship interrogates the historical development of modern system theories within the paradigmatic realm of natural language.

In the introduction, Pourciau emphasizes that individual languages, according to linguists, do not evolve in conformity with the dictates of a shaping spirit or Sprachgeist‘(1). Contemporary thought has been shaped by the turn toward synchronic models of explanation which analyse phenomena as they appear in one moment rather than diachronically as they develop through time.

The Writing of Spirit reinterprets the historical development of modern system theories within the paradigmatic realm of natural language. Pourciau’s argument proceeds by claiming that much exciting work has been done in recent years, and is currently being done today, on the relevance of a new ‘organicist’ understanding of system for the radical transformation of German thought around 1800, in domains such as life science, literature, and philosophy (2). In this context, the author argues that less attention has been paid to the domain of language science, despite its exemplary status for the time period in question, and still less to the relationship between the spirit of early nineteenth-century systems and their spiritless twentieth-century successors.

Pourciau’s work is split into two parts. Part One ‘”The Eternal Etymology”: From Sprachgeist To Ferdinand de Saussure’, is divided into three chapters: ‘Language Ensouled’, ‘Saussure’s Dream’ and ‘Verse Origins’. Here, Pourciau explores the concept of language system as it develops, against the backdrop of Friedrich Schelling’s nature philosophy, in the works of nineteenth-century German linguists such as Jacob Grimm, Franz Bopp and their successors. This study investigates the transformations to which Saussure subjects the nature-philosophical model in his unpublished notes and concludes with an extended treatment of the nineteenth-century emergence and polemical Saussurean reinterpretation, of a specifically Germanic poetics of enspirited letters (11). Part One investigates the transformations to which Saussure, who was educated in comparative linguistics at the German center of Leipzig, subjects the nature-philosophical model in his unpublished notes.

Primal poetry, philologically reconstructed, comes to operate as a kind of projection screen for language-scientific fantasies about the writing (down) of language spirit. Saussure’s response, Pourciau argues, takes the form of a battle with the Germans over the origins of verse, the true character of alliteration, and the etymology of the German word for ‘letter’ (Stab). In the context of his enigmatic ‘anagram studies,’ and in line with his linguistic vision of a fully disenspirited notation, Saussure imagines the roots of Indo-European rhythm as a rule-governed procedure for emptying poetry of all mental content, via the counting, rhyming, and cancelling of meaningless letter-signs (11).

In Part Two, ‘Tending Toward Zero: From Runes to Phonemes’ Pourciau discusses ‘Wagner’s Poetry of the Spheres’, ‘Pythagoras in the Laboratory’ and ‘Jakobson’s Zeros’. The section introduces Wagner’s operatic dramatization of Stabreim, which was informed by his intense engagement with the language theories of Jacob Grimm. Pourciau explores the ways in which Wagner’s poetic project in The Ring can be understood as an attempt to harness the rhythms of ancient alliterative verse to an all encompassing neo-Pythagorean model of cosmic acoustic accord such that the meter of his own mid-nineteenth-century alliterations – when united with the harmonic modulations of his music – turn out to merge with the ‘meter’ of the world spirit progressing through time’ (11).

‘Pythagoras in the Laboratory’ sets out to provide a discussion of the Wagnerian sound of sense. Pourciau suggests Wagner’s insistence on a music of language as ‘the only legitimate medium of future art’ combined with his willingness to anticipate this fusion in the form of the ‘present-tense, public spectacle’ set the stage for over half a century of music-inflected encounters with the ‘conundrum’ of expressive sound. Pourciau argues that ‘the same story culminates, somewhat less intuitively, in a new, natural scientific theory of the mind-matter interaction with the names of early experimental psychologists such as Gustav Fechner and Wilhelm Wundt’ (160).

The Writing of Spirit offers a sustained analysis of the emergence of a structuralist solution against the backdrop of specific epistemological positions familiar to nineteenth and twentieth century protagonists. Pourciau wants to supplement the historical account with a brief look at two of the most significant contemporary solutions to the language-as-interface puzzle in the hope that doing so will provide to a clearer picture of how the structuralist proposal still challenges us to think differently today (245).

This book is likely to be of the greatest value to readers who are interested in the history of modern language science. For linguistics scholars, The Writing of Spirit offers a fresh lens through which to view language structure, together with its etymological methodology in the twin language-scientific spheres of linguistics and poetics.

Denise Saul, University of Roehampton