To speak is to know that language is amoral—equally congenial to truth and falsehood, clarity and circumlocution. And therein lies the impetus not only for everyday mendacity but also for artful systems of linguistic subterfuge. As Daniel Heller-Roazen observes, human beings seem to have an innate impulse to “break and scatter” language, to alter their native idioms in order to conceal, bewilder, and dissimulate. In his fascinating Dark Tongues—which might be construed as either a highly episodic history or a collection of case studies ranging across eras and cultures—Heller-Roazen investigates this tendency, paying particular attention to those instances when secret language becomes intertwined, if not interchangeable, with poetry.
He commences with an engrossing discussion of cant, introducing us to a gang of Burgundian bandits known as the Coquillars. In 1455, a prosecutor created a glossary of the Coquillars’ “refined” argot: “Jour is torture. . . . When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty.” Asking for one’s booty by yelling “Stuff!” hardly seems refined, but to the prosecutor, the descriptor connoted sinister craftiness. Permitting miscreants to communicate about subversive modes of life and thought while leaving squares and suckers none the wiser, underworld jargons are “arms or shields employed by the dangerous classes of modernity,” Heller-Roazen asserts. This is as close as he comes to an examination of illicit language’s use by marginalized or “dangerous” people in general, which is to say, it’s as close as he comes to an analysis of his subject’s political dimensions. (Surprisingly, for instance, he doesn’t mention Polari, erstwhile dialect of gay British men.) Especially since he has proved himself an astute analyst of the politics of outlawry—in his 2009 study of pirates, The Enemy of All—this is disappointing. He offers other insights, though, pointing out that cant is nowhere attested before the Middle Ages, which means that it apparently found its way into poetry (specifically, François Villon’s ballads) almost as soon as it was invented. There may be “some hidden link between the two hermetic forms of speech, which makes of verse a kind of idlers’ talk, or jargon some variety of poetry,” he speculates, and intriguingly shows that cant’s lexical, phonetic, and syntactical operations satisfy Paul Valéry’s definition of poetry, in that they instigate a “prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.”
Seeking other confrontations of sound and sense, Heller-Roazen parses the esoteric allusions of troubadours; he elucidates kennings and riddles; he examines the euphemisms used to avoid taboo words and the ciphers that once protected sacred ones. Arriving in the twentieth century, he details a trio of scholarly treasure hunts undertaken, respectively, by linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara. Jakobson successfully tracked down the ever-elusive “empirical linguistic criterion of the poetic function,” but Saussure’s and Tzara’s quests were quixotic and tinged with pathos.
In 1905, Saussure began to suspect the existence of a poetic “science,” covertly transmitted from antiquity to the Renaissance, whose primary purpose was to embed secret, scrambled “theme words,” or “anaphones,” within apparently innocent stanzas. Saussure filled ninety-nine notebooks with research on anaphones, but evidently grew worried that they were the product of his own imagination, not of poetic intention. When the notebooks were published in the 1960s, they were deemed so unfathomable that one commentator attributed them to Saussure’s “dark double.”
Meanwhile, in 1959, Tzara announced to Le Monde that Villon’s poetry was rife with “statements about contemporaries, signaled above all by the presence of proper names hidden in a web of anagrams.” He appears to have succumbed to a diagrammatic mania, feverishly mapping these hidden orthographic webs. He saw anagrams everywhere he looked—in troubadour poetry, in Rabelais. And they were everywhere he looked, because he was unconsciously creating them himself. One critic applied Tzara’s methods to a Villon poem and revealed the name “Henry Kissinger.” Still, says Heller-Roazen, Tzara “would not abandon the image of the treasure that he sought.”
There Heller-Roazen leaves us, having woven his own web rather loosely. Readers may wish for an explicit, unifying argument, but then, explicitness would be out of keeping with the book’s quasi-occult sensibility. This sensibility inspired me to wonder whether we are meant to posit a final, phantom chapter. Its subject would be Jacques Derrida, whose absence seems so odd that it becomes a cryptic presence, as if he were the book’s own anaphone, its Henry Kissinger. After all, Derrida habituated generations of scholars to the notion that where there is language there is obscurantism, equivocation, darkness. “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game,” he wrote.
Saussure (or rather his dark double) and Tzara approached this same idea. Both had a hunch that some previously undetected game was operating within vast literary corpora. It’s tempting to conjecture that the anaphones and anagrams were in fact secondary to this hunch—perhaps Saussure and Tzara inferred the existence of secrets from the fact that they felt the impulse to search. If so, they never discovered the true object of that search. They were distracted by decoys, by the surface percolations of phonemes and graphemes, which they sought to rationalize, to diagram. But if Derrida is to be believed, language’s darkest registers cannot be diagrammed—they can only be answered with another darkness, a kind of antimethodology that turns the rational against itself. This insight is typically understood as a harbinger of modernism’s long coda. Yet to the extent that Derrida was advocating a mode of criticism that may itself be understood as both poetry and cant, we might see poststructuralism not as a historical rupture but as a part of the venerable shadow tradition Heller-Roazen compellingly surveys.
Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of Artforum.