Thursday, September 21, 2017


Read and Reread

Leo Spitzer (1887-1960), "Linguistics and Literary History," Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948; rpt. 2015), pp. 1-39 (at 27):
[H]ow often, with all the theoretical experience of method accumulated in me over the years, have I stared blankly, quite similar to one of my beginning students, at a page that would not yield its magic. The only way leading out of this state of unproductivity is to read and reread, patiently and confidently, in an endeavor to become, as it were, soaked through and through with the atmosphere of the work. And suddenly one word, one line, stands out, and we realize that, now, a relationship has been established between the poem and us. From this point, I have usually found that, what with other observations adding themselves to the first, and with previous experiences of the circles intervening, and with associations given by previous education building up before me (all of this quickened, in my own case, by a quasi-metaphysical urge toward solution) it does not seem long until the characteristic "click" occurs, which is the indication that detail and whole have found a common denominator — which gives the etymology of the writing. And looking back on this process (whose end, of course, marks only the conclusion of the preliminary stage of analysis), how can we say when exactly it began? (Even the "first step" was preconditioned.) We see, indeed, that to read is to have read, to understand is equivalent to having understood.
Ian Jackson (per litteras), in response to my query about Spitzer's unusual use of the word etymology:
Spitzer's usage certainly seems rare, as he seems to realize by putting the word in quotation marks in the appended footnote (no.19 on p.38), but is consistent with his usage of "etymon" on page 11 ("the common spiritual etymon, the psychological root"). The OED does, however, give one or two citations not linked to words — see 2a (a), where the quotation from 1604 simply says "true expounding" and from 1681, "true explanation of interpretation of a thing". Using the latter gloss, the relevant phrase could be re-written as "detail and whole have found a common denominator — which gives the true interpretation of the writing".

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