Language As Disclosure

In the light that Heidegger’s thinking casts onto works of literature, I have tried to “see” what a handful of modernist American authors were seeing and saying about the nature of language. The point was not to compare the views of the authors with Heidegger’s, nor to verify their views by his or vice versa, nor even to define or sketch out a modernist position on the subject, though something of that does appear. The attempt was to exercise for myself that freedom, with its rigorous demands, enabled and empowered by Heidegger’s thinking, to follow after, in a sense, to re-collect what is appearing in or by way of the modernist works. The experiment has brought a sense of genuine encounter, through the mediation of Heidegger and the five pieces, with what the works brought to the encounter.

A “Heideggerian reading” has taken an attitude toward its subject: this one has set itself to questioning the nature of language. All of the readings above have so placed themselves, ordered themselves, have entered and followed through the works according to that interrogation.

If I survey my study as a whole in order to surmise something about the modernists or about lines of kinship that can be drawn with the early Heidegger, it is not to bring the work to a conclusion. I have followed some Heideggerian paths as they opened up certain literary works, and have come to a point where finer branching may occur.

The works of the literary authors as I have read them give to language in general, and to works of art a essential language, some responsibility for “originating” “reality”—i.e., whatever exists, whatever happens. In each case this point of origin occurs when/where in one strange way or another language arises in opposition to whatever is not language—massiness, doing, the abyss, death, empty silence. Gone is the possibility of an ideal or an objective world-in-itself; nor is the world subjective. Though human language seems to be operative in the continuous originating of a world, its adversary, a chaotic or massy waste of not-world—freedom, groundlessness—is equally contestant and generative. I return once more in brief review.

Williams was an outspoken critic of the tradition. As in Paterson he would call for the burning down of libraries, so in In the American Grain his representative Poe recognizes the necessity of destroying everything: in order to begin again. Thus though IAG formally appropriates the literary tradition, it does not revive and reinvigorate it; in the terminology of this work, “recognition” of the tradition “annihilates” it.

In this work the notion of origin changes from its rational conceptualization as the point of temporal or motive or causal beginning, a point fixed and referential, to in this case not a notion at all but a fact: ground as actual place. But fact and place too lose definition; ground is “massiness”: the undifferentiated, the chaotic (comparable, perhaps, to James’ “magnificent waste”), the stuff of physicality and sexuality and spirituality admixed (“genius”), a generative, continuously regenerative esthetic-moral potentiality.

This originating ground may be missed or ignored or lost; the genius of the New World is even yet disappearing under European domination. The discovery or recovery of the genius of a place requires that a people pay attention, that they look at and see what is offering itself all about them. Such “recognition” would not be an act of intellectual objectification or of objective taking-measure, but a spiritual, emotional, intellectual submitting-to, immersing-in (“touching,” “marrying”), the effect of which would be to “release” things into their own “emergence.” (Refusals, such as ignoring or denying, refuse existence itself.) Thus Rasles frees the Indian into his own existence, and thus such men as Boone, Burr, and Houston cultivate what survives of the lusty genius of the New World; thus also Poe releases his method, himself, and his period, as Williams releases all of these, along with the genius of his own place and time—and the genius of his own: method.

That is, the path from ground to existence, from beginning to end, is not teleological but spontaneous, not linear but reciprocal. Not only is the ground’s genius released into existence by the poet, but the poet’s genius is released by the ground. The self or the poet is not merely a channel or conduit by which the ground has its say; s/he is another self-asserting genius. A third factor too, oppositional and unoriginal, enters into and issues from this process of emergence: the historical locality, the period: “the mass of impedimenta which is the world.” That is, the local and contingent, which resists and obstructs (or supports and assists) the emergence of the original and the authentic, enters into existence also as it shapes (and distorts) the genius and the method that emerge.

This “method of composition” by which the poet sets forth his ground, his locality, and his self neither forms these things nor contains nor represents them. Like James’ presentation of language as a formative, ordering human movement over against chaos, Williams’ method of composition occurs only in and according to an active opposition. The self-declaring, which is never finalized or totalized, proves the existence and potency of the self as, and as long as, it maintains itself in active opposition to the (existing, potent) driving and opposing forces. One difference is that in the James story the opponents in the conflict, form against disaster, interpenetrate more freely, conjoin or admix more imperceptibly. The most intense, deliberate opposition in the James story, the governess against Quint, conceals the most total surrender. Total victory of language over potentiality achieves total defeat—i.e., the collapse of the story. In Williams too the success of the method means maintaining a precarious balance, but the self-supporting self-assertion seems to hold itself more definitively apart, and the assertion seems to be more essentially assertiveness; the potentiality which realizes itself in potency in both works tends further in IAG toward will to power. Williams’ work is a dense assemblage of “fresh” entities and notions in new relationships: origin, culture, history, language, the work of art—and in all of these arises a new sense of what it means to “be.”

If Williams’ and James’ element is subjectivity, Faulkner’s is objectivity, but scrutiny “annihilates” (in Williams’ sense) the generalizations in each case. Objectivity is not Faulkner’s objective; such a word would be a high, thin sound unrelated to the blood and flesh and terror that he presents as Addie’s truth: “doing.” And it is Addie who makes the case against words in Faulkner’s story: i.e., their element is not earth, but ether. Their function is not to present or to represent life, but to evade it, “correct” (erase) it. Life and language are separate and different, in her view. The effect of the irrelevance and ineffectuality of words is to separate and alienate the users of words not only from life (“doing”) but also from each other, since it is words that work among people a mediation, communication, community. Language is dysfunctional in Addie’s world because its origin, its purpose, its use, and its effect have lost their connection to blood and earth. (The notion is something like Williams’ sense of lusty, massy, original relatedness to ground. The difference seems to be that the smell of blood is stronger in Faulkner, though less blood is spilled in his story.) What words indicate are “gaps in peoples’ [sic] lacks” (166); they mark the empty spaces which “doing” does not inhabit: “love,” “sin.”

But “dysfunction” is dysfunction only when “function” is operating to mark the difference. Addie’s bitter proclamations about language are part and parcel of a broader presentation of language—including her own practice of it. The most radical element in Addie’s language theory is her analysis of the function of words: words hold and carry, bring to presence. And they hold and carry and bring to presence not meanings or concepts but actual people and things, and more.

Addie is Faulkner’s governess in at least one respect, i.e., she sees clearly and with self-certainty “truths” which the story itself enlarges and renders ambiguous. First, Addie’s denunciation of words is “carried” to the reader by way of her words. Second, we find, as we find in James’ story, that meanings are communicated which are different from or opposite to the literal meanings of the words that carry them—Cora “gets” (understands) Addie’s reticence, ambiguity, or even silence, for example, and Addie “gets” the resentment (compare ressentiment) underneath Cora’s truisms.

And so in spite of her protests to the contrary, language functions for Addie, directly or not, to “mean” (bring to presence) living “doing.” In fact, we discovered in the dictum of her father an ambiguity principle, an elasticity and openness that allowed words to accommodate living, changing “doing.” The freedom that belongs to unfixed, unstable language allows language to move and change as unfixed, unstable “doing” changes.

As in the James story language moving against disaster founds a social order, so language functions in the Faulkner story as the point of origin where living “doing” (or not-living not-“doing”) enters into reality. As in James’ story the governess is a fallen (weak, blind, self-deluded) governor, implicating history, so in Faulkner’s South the Bundrens are morally shabby, deliberately ignorant; they choose false words, suppress and deny knowledge available to them in their own unarticulated understanding and in Darl’s extraordinary vision. And both stories intimate genuine danger. At Bly disaster is the “proof” of the governess’s method; for the Bundrens, turning toward such “truths” as they suspect would mean turning toward something in or underneath those truths which is dreadful. They turn away—as false words allow them to do.

Faulkner has achieved what Williams required of American authors. In his work his time and place, which have shaped and distorted his genius, are set forth in and as that opposition. Meanwhile an originary vision emerges through the impedimenta, asserts and supports itself, its ground, its “doing.”

The James novella emphasizes language from the outset as the narrator purports to offer to the reader his own transcript of the governess’s story rendered to him by Douglas, who received it from the governess herself in her own handwriting. Story itself is the problem of the story. The problem is form, whose character as containment is given rein to seek itself out. The content of the story, or what it seeks to contain, is “evil” or “love.” That is, by means of her story the governess attempts to clarify and justify (manage, control) the experience she claims to relate. Indeed the story is a relating: is the governess’s attempt to forge relationship between her experience and herself, or between herself and the master and other figures in the story; is, equally and pointedly, the attempt of each narrator in the chain to establish authority and credibility and justification: from governess, Douglas, and the narrator to the canny James himself.

The narrative is about things suppressed, locked up, breaking out. Not only is the story’s hi/story a case in point, but inside the story there works a network of such phenomena. What are “contained” in the story—the past, the dead—are not past, dead, but are presencing, living—beckoning from the future. The central passage of the story, in my view, suggests a border between everything drawn or drawing into language and “forbidden ground” (355)—a border where language is stopped by or opens upon a questioning, a questioning of the past and the present, of the dead and the living, of occurrence and recurrence. At the end, the story itself crosses the border. At this point, where Miles’ “supreme surrender of the name” (402) brings the story hurtling from the pinnacle of its power, the reader is thrust past the limit of language, beyond the literal itself. At this point we see that the literal is not something, but it does something.

What does the literal do? Letters (the master’s, the headmaster’s, the governess’s, e.g.) work to point beyond themselves to something more or other than the meaning they “literally” convey—they indicate; they evoke; they call to view. Originally, or ultimately, letters work to found and to maintain or to subvert and to violate the human “world”: Bly, fiction. Traditional representational language (religious, literary, and psychological) appears in the story as secondariness, delusion, evasion, romance. However, as the world loses material solidity or epistemological certainty, “seeing” achieves a new kind of purchase on reality. More flawed than ever, weaker in composition and in character, self-indulgent and self-deceptive, “seeing” yet assumes the responsibility for the world—not to interpret it, but to negotiate the particulars of its relations.

James fashions his story in the face of (i.e., opposing) received ideas on the one hand and “life” on the other. The dreadful threatens in spite of the form/ula/s that should placate it. Statements all but grasp a matter before they disappear into it, when the matter appears (breaks out) on its own. Language works—in reverse. It works (evokes, provokes) by so clearly, so disastrously, not-working (to express, to represent). Its figures, forms, and structures do not mime or represent its operation—they enact it. Form forms—in a tightrope performance just one step short of abyss.

Hemingway’s bullfighting handbook—his esthetics, in my reading—“sets forth” the work of art, i.e., language in its essential function. Language is the site and the “method,” not of the cultivation of a culture (Williams) and not of the founding of a social or human order (Faulkner and James), but of the rising into appearance of what actually happens. The strength of this work is that in it the marvelous is brought into view—the appearing of what-is (-happens) upon the horizon of what-is-not (death). The ground of this appearing is the seeing emotion of a spectator. The occasion or agency is the work of art (demonstrated in the bullfight). As in the Williams work, the nature of seeing is not physical or intellectual; these aspects of perception and cognition are ignored or subsumed in what Hemingway treats as emotion. Morality (Williams’ sharpened sense of original relationship to the earth), discounted or opposed outright, gives way to a rigorous demand for “purity” of seeing, of feeling, of writing—the power of which would be to produce a work of art in which Hemingway’s modified “truth” could continue to happen.

For Williams the method of composition is the method by which things are released into emergence and held in existence, but the nature of the method is potent self-assertion. In Hemingway, though relationship brings what happens into appearance, sets it forth (human emotion is the very place where things appear, the very stuff of their appearing), yet what appears seems to belong to itself, not to the self-assertion of the author. Language in Hemingway, the work of art (the bullfight) in which the emotion “sees” the appearing of what happens, is nearer to Addie’s depiction of words bringing something actual (a “doing”) to presence. Like Addie and like Williams’ persona, Hemingway’s author demands of language a relation to living “doing.”

But though the essential function of language is to provide the possibility and the occasion for seeing, there are corollary functions as well. We recall that in James the language principle, the impulse and the intent to order, negotiates its way among and against the chaotic, both contrary forces contributing to the tenuous equilibrium that “skirts” disaster. In Hemingway we find similarly that language may function to displace, evade, hide, suppress; to escape, postpone, buffer. In Faulkner such evasions amounted to lies and delusions, but here they are the tactics and techniques for evading danger and death as well as for approaching and daring them (the closer to death the closer to life). But just as Faulkner’s ambiguity principle allows an always changing “doing” to inhabit language, omitting a function of concept or meaning, so Hemingway’s language, working according to a principle of opposition, mediates not another mediator (concept, meaning) but “things that actually happen.”

In Hemingway the point where “what happens” appears is something like James’ border. Its force is the absolute nihil of oblivion. Against the Nothing, Being appears. Hemingway’s border reaches to the core of existence, to the ontological difference (being versus not-being). James’ border reaches to the unplumbable irrational at the core of the psyche—“love,” “evil.” In fact, James referred to his use of the ghosts in the story as a “process of adumbration” by which he tried to evoke “that sense of the depths of the sinister . . . . Portentous evil. . . .”

In spite of the radical powers of language these works disclose, in Hemingway’s handbook—on language, art; not bullfighting—the work of art is not essentially different from ordinary language; its distinction is that it intensifies and clarifies the opposition between itself (the institutionalized, formalized ceremony of the bullfight, for example) and death, intensifies and clarifies, then, the appearing of what happens. The notion is something like Addie’s and like Vardaman’s: language provides a place for actualization.

Hemingway’s method of composition, like Williams’, depends upon opposition, antagonism. Language here opposes not only death, but other language; i.e., ineffectual language works against ineffectual language in this work to evoke, to force, the appearing of what-happens. For language sometimes functions as death does, as a negative horizon against which things that actually happen appear in their happening. Surprisingly, the “emotion” of Hemingway’s author-spectator seems less virile than the “love” of Williams’ “method”; but the power of Hemingway’s figure that flares against the shock of the matador’s sword gives a sense of rising appearing as uncanny as anything in literature, enacts while it asserts the essential function of language as disclosure.

The difference between Barth and the modernists is clear and, in my view, chastening. We find the same confrontations between language and what there is to say, between language and silence; the same dilemma when language is used up and disfranchised in an objective universe. But these confrontations occur not between a seemingly naked humanness and a “terrible” or gross or chaotic other; they occur between subjectivity and objectivity. These contenders have regained the status of idea, concept, and they are exposed or manipulated with precision; they are not set forth as dangerous and unpredictable opponents with the urgency that the eminence of disaster and death engenders.

The novel impresses first with the aptness, the currency, of its intellectual analysis. Barth follows the conceptual path of thinkers since Nietzsche—follows concepts to their end, or their beginning, and shows what they have come to show: a false fit. Concepts lead away from life, eventually negate it, nihilate it. The dilemma is genuine, but not in Barth’s novel, where eventually it is delightful. The power of this work to move us and to make us see (whatever that has come to mean) is in the force of its energy, its joy, jouissance, which counters its seeming assertions of emptiness, impoverishment, deadend. Life escapes the dilemma by declaring itself (as the moderns had asserted, above) through the interstices, rising in antagonistic rebellion against falseness, nothing. Not-language overthrows language, in and by means of language.

Which is the expressed intention of the work. By means of language (traditional concepts, here) the novel maneuvers its tautological circle. Yet the point of view seems to issue from a point outside the circle. The concepts and the circle are intellectual; the point of view is human. And language seems still to be working, as Williams had it, to set forth what it does not thematize: a “self,” a place, a period.

As we have seen, the modernists delivered up to the postmodernists the quasi-Nietzschean starting point. Their stories ignore, expose, or oppose the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm, in which objectivity as truth threatens the validity of the subjectivity that gave it legitimacy in the first place. An authoritative perspective is deliberately set up inside subjectivity itself, all things, including what we have called objectivity, appearing, then, colored through and through with human involvement, even while their “reality” is struck with penetrating clarity. The perspective is caught in Heidegger’s tautological circle. The problem of the circle is ignored or it is not a problem; seeing continues to proceed from, call it, point of view. There is no sense of loss, but the sense of “objectivity” is compromised.

The authors have redefined such notions as truth (Williams’ “original,” Faulkner’s “doing,” Hemingway’s “things that actually happen”); essentiality (no longer single or pure or conceptual); temporality (not that the past is present as memory or history, but that memory and history become futural modes of presencing; the difference implicates a revision of spatiality as well); presence (not objective identity, but the appearing of things in human experience; further, absence is no longer the antithesis of presence, but it underlies presence as potentiality or it pervades or even displaces presence); and causality (in Williams the notion of originating as rising, emergence from ground which rises, emerges, too, in what it grounds; in Faulkner and James “saying” as the point of originating, in Hemingway the work of art as it hazards death). As humanness becomes involved in what was formerly objectivity, and the “real,” the material, the fact, becomes engaged with humanness, the traditional conceptualization of the human as a confederation of body and spirit or mind undergoes a redistribution in which both components remain but are no longer dissociable.

We find in these works at least three ontological levels, which we may carry into Heidegger’s neighborhood for comparison. (1) We find an articulable human understanding, a world—primarily and for the most part a secondary world of received representations of the world, which could be compared and contrasted with Heidegger’s everyday falling Dasein or the “they” in Being and Time. (2) We find a subconscious level of unarticulated and unappropriated knowledge, for which there is no single corresponding structure in Heidegger’s Dasein, though what we attribute to the subconscious shows up, or remains concealed, in Dasein otherwise. For example, ordinary everyday Dasein primarily and for the most part avoids “the task of genuinely understanding” (213) by fleeing into the “publicness” of the “they” (see “Idle Talk,” “Curiosity,” and “Ambiguity,” Sections 35-37). Meanwhile, “mystery” (the concealing of what is concealed) as such holds sway throughout man’s Da-sein" (“On the Essence of Truth” 132-33).1 Untruth is prior to and proper to the essence of truth (132). Truth, uncoveredness, must be “wrested” or “snatched” from beings, is “always, as it were, a kind of robbery” (Being and Time 265). (3) Finally, outside (and also inside) these two kinds of being lies absolute freedom—chaos, abyss, death of “being,” of existence. Against the horizon of chaos or death, of not-being, the emergence or appearing of things occurs in these works in something of the “fresh” (Williams), genuine (Faulkner), stark (Hemingway), silent or invisible (James, Barth) arising that Heidegger attributes to the Greek phusis, aletheia. But the difference between being and not-being does not separate the two. The difference that prevents the achievement of totality, identity, provides temporality or movement to this unity of antagonists. Compare Heidegger’s descriptions of temporalization (Being and Time and Time and Being), of identity and difference (Identity and Difference),2 of the earth-world strife (“The Origin”), etc. This point may be the Nietzsche-Heidegger (-Freud) difference that distinguishes modern literature. What was called madness or evil or nihilism is now violating the integrity and the order of the forms constructed to limit or oppose it. What “is” (including what “is said”) is contaminated with the “not.”

All of the Americans inveigh against losses, resistible ignorance and impotence, impinging darkness; they all describe dilemma, comparable with Heidegger’s (Hölderlin’s) time of need. Heidegger expresses some hope, but less expectation, that Being will manifest itself in a primordial way even as it unfolds as the technological domination of all that is.3 The Americans all make a case for diminishment, and yet at the same time, without clear or determined objectives their works vigorously affirm a clarity and a purposiveness. They commence from no beginning but from just where they are, a new making-way toward a doubtful destiny. The dread nature of the ground and the way and the end is freedom, the dread task for human freedom: responsibility.

As to their issue (either way), most of these readings, if my particular Heideggerian approach were extracted from them, could be (mis)taken to concern and produce the “effects” that Derridean readings often concern and produce. Note that Williams’ “method” in Chapter 2 describes Derrida’s in Spurs (especially as the “operation” of “oppositional articulation” summarized by Stefano Agosti in the Introduction,“Coup upon Coup, 25). The difference is that Williams’ turn against the tradition is a turn to the ground under his feet, submerging and emerging, his hands dirty or bloody, his essays too, not from”handling" the textual but from “touching,” “marrying,” the actual (“presence” would be as dismissable as, e.g., the “history” he “annihilates,” and on the same grounds).

Or compare James’ “literality,” above, with Derrida’s Dissemination “textuality” or with the éperon in Spurs. Compare my version of James’ ghost story, getting around hallucination or projected subjectivity Heidegger’s way, with Derrida’s deconstructive rendering (rending) of Schapiro (and a bit of Heidegger) in “Restitutions,”4 and contrast what gets left over in each case: a coming to terms, to the terminal, to more or less determination—the more in James, the less in Derrida. Or compare if you can Derrida’s treatment of form, of the frame; of the ergon and the parergon in especially “Parergon5 with my little foray into the between in the James chapter. The essential difference in every case is the difference of essentiality. For James, as we noted, “to ‘put’ things [compare “effects,” “style”] is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them.”

In Faulkner “words” are as disconnected from and incommensurate with “life,” as “orphaned, and separated at birth from the assistance of [their] father,” as Derrida’s “writing.”6 Words are arbitrary and unnecessary, and, further, using them cheats, cripples, blinds. But there are true words in Faulkner’s story: connected and commensurate not with their faithful authors but with the “deeds” that engendered them: the terrible blood boiling along the land. And language is working, not only like chisels and levers but also as a place to put things (three times Addie puts something different into her father’s adage), and a place to meet the painful shapes of things (Darl), or to discover the shapes for the first time or to decide them (Vardaman).

For Hemingway the “fact” disclosed in the work of art (and language per se) is no more undecidability than it is truth, but it is the undimmed event of the deciding, of the contestants in their contesting. Compare the textual complexities, conflicts and play, in Dissemination,7 and the essential blockage at the point of every determination. The question of seeing what really happens is essential with Hemingway (though “essence” is renewed), is not intellectual, not esoteric; it restores the gaping wound in the necessity (happening) of its contradiction. Barth’s work differs from the others, ends where Derrida’s works end: pointing beyond themselves. Or I could say that Barth’s words work as Derrida’s do, to count the ways they do not mean, while their style provokes: “life.”

Perhaps Derrida has already provided a response, a warning against the kind of work I have attempted here:

“Every time that, in order to hook writing precipitously up with some reassuring outside or in order to make a hasty break with idealism, one might be brought to ignore certain recent theoretical attainments … [here he describes the course of his work so far], one would all the more surely regress into idealism, with all of what, as we have just pointed out, cannot but link up with it, singularly in the figures of empiricism and formalism” (“Outwork” 43-44).8

If I consider this passage to be adversarial to my project here (though it was not, of course, written with any such intention), I provoke myself to restate my fundamental position, which I worked to define in the beginning. First, I do not recognize or appropriate Derrida’s “writing” in this work, but Heidegger’s language as disclosure. Second, the world and the human and things that are drawn into relation, and the nothing and death that pervade these with their “not,” are not “reassuring” except in their nearness and mineness, and any project that excludes these has stepped into an illusory position. Without sacrificing the necessities of the strange, the other, the infinitely complex, the variable, indeed applying special intensity and rigor in addressing them, I have tried to traverse the terrain of the literary works. I have read under the “spur” of Derrida’s opposition (perhaps his work has radicalized—sharpened and toughened—my reading of Heidegger and the modernists), but I believe I have read primarily and for the most part after the vision and along the way of Heidegger.


  1. Basic Writings 113-41.

  2. Trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).

  3. See the essays contained in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977).

  4. “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [pointure],” The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1987) 255-382.

  5. The Truth in Painting 15-147.

  6. “Signature Event Context,”Margins 316.

  7. Trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1981) 1-171.

  8. Dissemination 1-171.