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Modernism and Babel

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Abstract

One of the most important articulations of the German-Austrian ‘Sprachkrise’ at the turn of the century, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s ‘Ein Brief’, presents the modernist linguistic crisis as a Babelian fall. The story takes the form of a letter from a fictional Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon, explaining his cessation of literary activity. Chandos’s previous state of linguistic and literary transcendence contrasts acutely with his current condition whereby his relationship with language — and, in consequence, the world — is completely ruptured. Everything is viewed with a microscopic closeness which prevents a unified vision of the whole:

Es zerfiel mir alles in Teile, die Teile wieder in Teile, und nichts mehr ließ sich mit einem Begriff umspannen. Die einzelnen Worte schwammen um mich; sie gerannen zu Augen, die mich anstarrten und in die ich wieder hineinstarren muß: Wirbel sind sie, in die hinabzusehen mich schwindelt, die sich unaufhaltsam drehen und durch die hindurch man ins Leere kommt.1

[For me, everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.2]

Keywords

Target Language Source Text Foreign Word Poetic Language Linguistic Turn 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Hugo von Hofmannsthal, ‘Ein Brief’, in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Christoph Perels and others (Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 1991), 45–55 (p. 49).Google Scholar
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    Eugene Jolas, ‘Logos’, transition, 16/17 (1929), 25–30 (p. 28). Jolas celebrates American English in particular. He argues that ‘[i]n the crucible of the immense racial fusion of indigenous and immigrant America there is occurring today an astounding creation that ultimately will make the American language, because of its greater richness and pliancy and nearness to life, the successor of British English […] It is in the immigrant development of the new America that the possibilities for a fundamental revolution of the word are inherent.’ Jolas, ‘The King’s English Is Dying — Long Live the Great American Language’, p. 146.Google Scholar
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    As Leonard Bloomfield wrote in 1933, ‘the creolized language has the status of an inferior dialect of the masters’ speech. It is subject to constant levelling-out and improvement in the direction of the latter.’ Cited in Lawrence Alan Rosenwald, Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Juliette Taylor-Batty 2013

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