Sins of the Tongue
DOI link for Sins of the Tongue
Sins of the Tongue book
Representations of the tongue in the early modern period often encode crises of logic, of language, and of sense. "0 Ambivalent Organ;' writes Erasmus in Lingua (1525), lamenting the fact that malevolent and benevolent discursive agencies emerge from one and the same bodily organ. l Erasmus, like many others, takes his cue from Proverbs (18:21) in noting the way in which the tongue is "ambi-valent," good and bad, always seeming to pull in two directions at once.2 Indeed, the organ of speech, imagined in early modern religious, rhetorical, anatomical, and literary texts as the most powerful and the most vulnerable member of "man;' is consistently
coded as a member that seems to resist logical discriminations. Because "tongue" (like the Latin" lingua" and the Greek "glossa") also means "language," the very invocation of the word encodes a relation between word and flesh, tenor and vehicle, matter and meaning.3 This relation, often configured as an intermingling of synecdoche and metonymy, is made explicit in Renaissance discourses about discourse such as Erasmus's Lingua, where the duplicities of language are imagined to emerge from the inherent slipperiness and duality of the organ of speech. 4
What is particularly striking about early modern fantasies of the tongue is the way in which anxieties about the powers and vulnerabilities of language itself are consistently displaced onto what is otherwise, in Erasmus's words, just a "flabby little organ."5 In George Wither's Collection of Emblemes (1635), for instance, the tongue, a synecdoche for the body and a metonymy for language, seems to have taken on a life of its own ("No Heart can thinke," the accompanying text reads, "to what strange ends, / The Tongues unruely Motion tends" [figure 4.1]).6 Here, the tongue is estranged not only from its assumed interior counterpart, the heart, but from the whole body of which it is (or was) ostensibly a part. Like the famously disconcerting emblem of the winged lingua in Claude Paradin's Devises Heroi"ques (1551), or the emblem of a heart and tongue separated by hypocrisy in Georgette de Montenay's Emblemes, ou Devises Chrestiennes (157l), this image calls attention to both the materiality and the metaphoricity of signification? The spectacle of the independent organ of speech, mobile even while dislodged from its bodily surround, in many ways perfectly embodies anxieties about reference itself, not only about the movement of speech away from the individual body but also about the movement of signs away from any singularly discernable, naturalized context.