chapter  C
C. Language and Literature in Modernity
Pages 12

Around 1800 another linguistic current that received fresh momentum from the Romantics was the widespread emphasis on the languages of literature. Wordsworth and Coleridge in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798), like Victor Hugo in Les Contemplations (1856), echo many Romantics in calling for a democratization of classical or “high” literary language, and for admitting common speech into literature. In the course of the nineteenth century, the great amalgamation of genres and forms that for centuries had all been assembled under the term “literature”, including theological and philosophical texts among others, gradually disaggregated until the term designated chiefly the fictions of poetry, prose, and drama. The formative characteristic of the text was no longer its genre, as in earlier periods, but rather, in the new era of Gesamtkunstwerke or mixed genres, the individual writer’s unique literary style. Nineteenth-century realists achieved the Romantic agenda for literary language in sometimes scandalous ways, rendering the speech of prostitutes and blacksmiths with the same seriousness as that of the higher classes. It is not only normative literary discourse that undergoes this kind of amplification into new registers and tonalities, but also language itself gradually becomes one of the topics of modernist literature. This kind of de-sacralization (to borrow Barthes’ term) of literary language branches off into radical techniques of subversion, as in the surrealists’ automatic writing, into more combinatory techniques of amplification, as in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, into material collage with photos and publicity posters, among other modes of decentering the legacy of the literary.