The Treasure Chest

Saussure Anew

By Paul Bouissac

For close to a century, the French-reading scholarly world has been exposed to, at times swamped by, publications related to Saussure’s posthumous Course in General Linguistics (1916). It is well known that Saussure himself did not write this text. After his untimely death, the book was cobbled together by two colleagues of his at the University of Geneva, using some of his latest students’ notebooks, and bits and pieces of hand-written fragments. Although doubts have lingered regarding the reliability of the editors’ method and the authenticity of their resulting text, The Course was generally considered to be an accurate reflection of Saussure’s thought on language and signs, and was celebrated, mostly in Europe, as the fountain-head of modern linguistics and semiotics. It was, though, early translated into other languages such as Japanese, Korean, Italian, and Russian. By contrast, English readers had to wait until 1959 for a translation by American educator Wade Baskin. The book was received with mixed reviews and had little impact. However, Saussure’s ideas attracted more attention in the English-speaking world after the Course in General Linguistics was translated anew by Oxford University linguist Roy Harris in 1983. Harris’s further critical engagement in Saussurean scholarship contributed to the wider visibility to this work. At the same time, Harris incisively raised questions regarding both the originality of Saussure’s linguistic thought and the conditions in which this posthumous book had been produced. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, many social scientists and linguists had already buried Saussure with Sémiologie and Structuralism when the word spread that, quite unexpectedly, a trove of original manuscripts had been discovered. This triggered a renewal of interest among specialists and beyond. These manuscripts were published in part in 2002. The brief reviews which follow are designed to call attention to some of the most relevant publications by and about Saussure that marked the first decade of the current century.

Writings in General linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure. Translated by Carol Sanders and Matthew Pires with the assistance of Peter Figeroa. Oxford University Press. 2006. (336 pages).

Previously unknown manuscripts written by Saussure were discovered in 1996 in Geneva in the ancestral home in which he was born and lived during the last twenty-five years of his life. Saussure scholars Rudolph Engler and Simon Bouquet edited a selection of these manuscripts, including a long text that probably was the advanced draft of a book on general linguistics that had not been completed. The publication of these manuscripts in 2002 (Paris: Gallimard) constituted a notable event given the fact that Saussure’s thoughts on language were hitherto known mostly from indirect evidence. The contents of this new material did not drastically modify the tenets of Saussurism but recalibrated important aspects of its founder’s theoretical approach.

British linguist and Saussure specialist Carol Sanders soon undertook to translate the French texts into English in collaboration with Matthew Pires with the help of Peter Figueroa. The resulting book includes the preface by the French editors and a fifteen-page introduction by Sanders who provides a concise review of Saussure’s main ideas as well as comments on the challenges encountered in translating Saussurean terminology into English. The writings by Saussure are divided into four parts. Part one is a sixty-page text entitled “the dual essence of language”. It is certainly a most valuable document which brings the reader into close contact with a theory in the making. There are long, coherent paragraphs that cogently make their points. But there are also some unfinished developments with sentences left incomplete. At times, the rough draft reveals the writer’s emotions: from provocative, forceful assertions to hesitation, doubt, discouragement in front of the challenging, perhaps impossible task of coming to grips with the complexity of language. Part two lumps together in twenty pages what was classified as “aphorisms and miscellanies”, that is, brief sentences or short paragraphs that Saussure had jotted on pieces of paper probably with a view to using them later, the sort of thoughts that one tries to capture whenever they happen to cross one’s mind. Part three (85-198) offers “further reflections on general linguistics” that include both new and previously published documents. Part four (200-240) are notes that Saussure made for his courses on general linguistics, some of which were previously published in critical editions of the Course. The volume concludes with a substantial “Saussure Bibliography 1970-2004” which bears witness to the enduring relevance of Saussure’s ideas for linguistics, modern semiotics and, controversially, post-modern research. The index (329-336) points to crucial notions that Saussure addressed or defined in the manuscripts that have been collected in this book. Comparing the elaboration of these notions with the way in which they were rendered in the 1916 edition of the Course in General Linguistics does not reveal any striking discrepancies. However, this new publication brings to the fore Saussure’s thought in the making and discloses an epistemological, if not existential process that cast a new light on his visionary, albeit tormented mind.

The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Edited by Carol Sanders. Cambridge University Press. 2004. (303 p.)

Some four years in the making, this ambitious volume, excellently edited by Carol Sanders, brings together fifteen specialists who take stock of the state of the art in Saussurean scholarship at the turn of the century. The axis of this book – parts two and three – is formed by an examination of the influential but problematic concepts that were popularized under Saussure’s name by the posthumous Course in General Linguistics (1916) and a review of the impact of his ideas on the linguistics and semiotics of the twentieth century. This substantial core (pp. 47-205) is framed by the first two chapters which deal with the intellectual context of Saussure’s early life, first as a student of the Neogrammarians at the University of Leipzig, then as a junior lecturer in Paris. The concluding part considers Saussure’s legacy in linguistics, semantics, epistemology, nd semiotics.

This compendium is a landmark that provides an enlightening and comprehensive vista on Saussurean scholarship. It is highly significant not only because it summarizes all the aspects of the research on Saussure that were completed during the twentieth century in a context marked by the relative paucity of textual sources and biographical data, but also because it maps the unknown, so to speak, as all the chapters were written before the latest documents, both manuscripts and personal archives, started being published during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This volume is bound to remain a point of departure for further research and a lasting reference for specialists and students alike.

Readers of English will find a useful complement to this book in Roy Harris’s Saussure and his Interpreters (Edinburgh University Press 2001). The author reviews the ways in which Saussure’s teaching in Indo-European linguistics was somewhat misunderstood by his contemporaries and how his insightful approach to language that was publicized through the Course in General Linguistics was often misinterpreted by his followers and critics alike.

Le cours d’une vie. Portrait diachronique de Ferdinand de Saussure. Claudia Mejía Quijano. Editions Cécile Defaut. 2008. (398 p.) [The Course of a Life: A Diachronic Profile of S.]

For almost a century so little was known about Saussure’s life and death that rumors and assumptions ruled. Saussure’s persona was equated with the book he had not written but which had become influential in spite of its assumed author who had always refused to publish such a book during his lifetime. The fountainhead of modern linguistics and semiotics was “a book named Saussure” as a critic pointedly put it. When, after Saussure’s untimely death at 56, the editors asked his widow for her permission to use his manuscripts in order to complete their project, they were led by design or by chance to a desk that did not contain any useful material. In the following decades, researchers were kept at bay and could not get hold of the Saussure family’s relevant archives. The only source of reliable biographical information was a compilation of notes that Italian linguist Tullio de Mauro had appended to his edition of the Course. Progressively, though, successive generations of Saussures donated documents to the Public and University Library of Geneva. Saussure’s sons even sold a bulk of manuscripts to Harvard University Library in the 1960s. But there was nothing of biographical significance that could be used to produce the kind of intellectual and personal history one would expect for a major modern thinker.

A new era of saussurean scholarship has now been inaugurated with the publication of the first volume of a monumental biography by Claudia Mejía Quijano who managed to gain access to sensitive family archives. The author is a linguist and child psychiatrist, currently teaching at the University of Antioquia in Columbia. She also taught at the University of Geneva where she was a member of the Executive Committee of the Ferdinand de Saussure Circle as well as the Editorial Board of the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. Her approach is unsystematic and psychoanalytical, and deliberately demonstrates some degree of creative meandering in her handling of the chronology. She has endeavored with success to recreate the familial milieu in which Ferdinand de Saussure grew up and the academic context of his student years during which he quickly reached linguistic fame. In spite of the Lacanian jargon that permeates the text, her profile of Saussure the child and the adolescent is refreshing, entertaining, and very informative. But linguists and semioticians will be more particularly fascinated by her retracing of the paths that led Saussure from his student years in Leipzig and Berlin to a prominent academic position in Paris at the age of 24. Mejía Quijano announces a second volume which will be fully devoted to the decade Saussure spent in Paris but she discloses tantalizing information on this period of his life and provides an explanation for his sudden return to Geneva at a time when he was offered a most prestigious life-long position in Paris. The psychoanalytical perspective can be ignored as the reader may form his/her own interpretation of the numerous life data Mejía Quijano marshals in the book while she covers successively the three stages of Saussure’s development as she diagnoses it: “the Oedipian knot”, “the sexual choice”, and “the filiation”. The last hundred pages of the volume present the literary productions of Saussure as a gifted teenager. The latter is impressive but merely reflects the poetic aesthetics of the mid-nineteenth century. Today’s readers will be more interested in the abundant correspondence between Saussure and members of his family, and friends, which is quoted in the course of this volume. Let us hope that a translation into English will soon make this work accessible to a wider readership.

A rich complement to this biography can be found in the hefty volume of articles and documents edited by Simon Bouquet in 2003 in the series Cahiers de L’Herne. It includes short unpublished texts and some drawings by Saussure. A few pages of iconography include group photos of Saussure among other Swiss students in Leipzig. It endows with touching humanity someone who has been so far mainly known as a book.