Saturday, December 26, 2009

Figuratively Literal

I've written before about biblical literalism and the confusion surrounding it, so I was pleased to read Dennis Baron's essay, "A Literal Paradox", in his collection Declining Grammar (Urbana, 1989). He begins with the text from a New Yorker cartoon of February 28, 1977:

Confound it, Hawkins, when I said I meant that literally, that was just a figure of speech!

I'd already noticed that many people use "literally" as an intensifier, just as many people use quotation marks for emphasis, but I'm so literal-minded myself that it hadn't sunk in that as an intensifer, "literally" means "figuratively." Baron explains that the paradoxical use of words to mean their opposite is a common, longstanding feature of English. "Sanction" (which can mean either to forbid or to permit something) is a well-known case, as is "dust" (either casting dust on an object or removing it). As with many changes in language, though we grammar neurotics rage and gnash our teeth, the figurative use of "literal" is probably not going to go away, especially since so many educated readers (the standard of competence in literacy) are unable to sort out the different meanings and uses of the word -- the current U. S. Secretary of Education, for example. This may not be a problem for most everyday use, but since accusing fundamentalists of reading the Bible literally is such a popular (and inaccurate) ploy, the misunderstanding of "literal" just adds to the mess. Or to the fun, I haven't decided yet. (Baron quotes a writer who warns, "Abuses of the word can seem ludicrous, and those who recognize them enjoy pointing them out" [79].)

Here's what I mean. "Begging the question" is a logical fallacy, known as petitio principii in Latin. It means assuming something that needs to be proved in an argument (and "argument" has to be understood not in its everyday sense of two people yelling at each other, but in its technical sense of "discourse intended to persuade" and "a coherent series of statements leading from a premise to a conclusion"). Outside of academic writing, though, it usually means that a statement raises a literal question that the writer or speaker "begs" to ask, e.g., "Elin Woods is divorcing Tiger -- which begs the question: Elin, when will you marry me?" and that's a reasonable mutation of the meaning. What bothers me is that I find similar misunderstanding of what it means to beg the question even in academic writing. Misunderstanding the technical terms of one's profession doesn't have the real-world consequences in the humanities that it could in the sciences (if your doctor, for example, thought that your femur was a small matriarchal primate instead of your thighbone), but it still seems to me a problem worth taking seriously. In literary criticism, it means at best that the critic has a tin ear for language, so his or her readings can't be trusted.

So, back to "literally." I find accusations of fundamentalist "literalism" in all sorts of writings, including religious professionals who ought to know better, but also among educated laypeople who love to level the charge. Reading Baron's essay sent me back to a Usenet dispute in which I was involved a decade ago. I pointed out that fundamentalists believe that the Bible is inerrant, and must often come up with very non-literal interpretations in order to get rid of errors in the plain, literal meaning of the text. Another person asked me, "Have you conflated 'literal' with 'literary'? I'm confused here." No, I hadn't, and it didn't seem that this guy knew what either word meant. If he were a doctor, I wouldn't trust him with my femur.

Baron, however, gave me a Mobius-strip-like idea. If "literally" often means "figuratively," when anti-fundamentalists accuse fundamentalists of taking the Bible literally, do they really mean that fundamentalists take the Bible figuratively? When they advocate figurative readings, do they mean literal ones?

P.S. The New Yorker cartoon quoted by Baron can be seen in this Slate article on "literally."
(image credits: left; right)