m e n o f l e t t e r s century focus on linguistic change over time had obscured deeper truths about language as an abstract system. Joseph argues that although the key elements of the Course in General Linguistics were not original, Saussure’s revelation was to fit them together as a whole.
As Saussure wound up the lecture series that would posthumously make his name, he condensed a lifetime’s thought into a single sentence: ‘The entire system can be envisaged as differences of sounds combining with differences of ideas.’ It was the mapping of this total system, in which tout se tient – ‘every part supports every other’ – that was Saussure’s ultimate contribution. Although forged from a combination of centuries-old ideas, Saussure’s dissolving of language into an interplay between sets of differences would later chime with a modernist sensibility and would be picked up by the structuralists in the 1950s.
Joseph reveals Saussure’s personality through a series of contrasting vignettes.
Descriptions of Saussure as a lecturer show the intimidating scope of his erudition. ‘He warned his students that, to save time, he assumed that they already knew Greek, Latin, French, German, English and Italian,’ reported one student, adding that Saussure had given him zero on an exercise for making a single mistake, ‘confusing a short a with a long a’. For the few students who could survive the rigours of Saussure’s courses, though, he offered them sensitivity, kindness and support.
There was another, less austere side to Saussure. As an adolescent, he was a keen and accomplished poet. While teaching in Paris, he also gambled heavily – offsetting his losses at the horse races at Longchamp with his winnings in nightly sessions of poker. The surpluses and debits were duly jotted down in his notebooks, with headings in Greek letters: πωκερ (poker) and τυρφ (turf ). While much of his career was spent on technical aspects of linguistic theory, he also embarked on quixotic projects like his three-year search for anagrams, ‘syllabograms’ and ‘hypograms’ in classical poetry.
John E Joseph’s biography is a rich, scholarly account, exhaustively detailed, pursuing the Saussure family back into the fifteenth century and forward to the present day. Every twist and turn of Saussure’s intellectual trajectory is mapped out and analysed. Weighing in at over 700 pages, this book will not be an easy read for the non-specialist, which is a shame, given that buried in the detail is a compelling narrative of a great but flawed intellectual. From early on Saussure was destined to be a thinker, to live the life of the mind, but throughout his life he never felt he could pin down exactly what he meant. Joseph puts it well: ‘The piles of manuscripts were as the ruins of his dreams. He spent his life on them, waiting for a perfecting light that never came.’ To order this book for £30, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 39
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