Critical Inquiry 3 (2):369-386 (1976)

Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between parole and langue has greatly helped linguists to clarify the relationship between particular speech events and the underlying reservoir of verbal signs and combinatory rules. The relationship emerges from Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale as one between concrete instances of employed language and a slowly but permanently changing virtual system.1 It seems to me that the more recent literary distinctions between the implied author of a work and its actual author and between the implied and the actual reader point to similar relationships along the rhetorical axis of communication.2 For example, the respective authors implied by The Comedy of Errors and by The Tempest are in a sense fixed, concrete manifestations of the actual author whose permanently shifting potential of manifesting himself in literary works or otherwise was only partially realized between 1564 and 1616; his full potential has thus forever remained virtual. The congenial readers implied by the respective plays are in turn two of many "roles" which an actual reader may attempt to slip into for the length of time it takes him to read one work or another. Even a book like Mein Kampf will be adequately understood only by men and women able and willing temporarily to become Adolf Hitler's implied readers. The price may be high, but having shed the mental mask and costume required for the proper "performance" of the text, a discerning person will emerge from the ordeal with a keener sense of the despicable part assigned to the book's actual readers. I hardly need to add that works of imaginative literature tend to imply readers whose intellectual, emotive, and moral response is far less predetermined than is the response of the reader implied by the typical work of assertive discourse. · 1. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale , 4th ed. . Since this book was posthumously compiled from the notes of students attending three different sets of lectures, I am not overly troubled by the fact that the letter of at least two sentences seems to contradict my characterization of langue as a virtual and changing system: "La langue n'est pas moins que la parole un objet de nature concrète" and "tout ce qui est diachronique dans la langue ne l'est que par la parole" . See also Wade Baskin's English trans., Course in General Linguistics , pp. 15 and 98.· 2. See esp. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction and Wolfgang Iser Der implizite Leser , trans. as The Implied Reader . Paul Hernadi is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Iowa. His book, Beyond Genre: New Direction in Literary Classification, is soon to appear in Spanish translation. He has edited a collection of essays titled What is Literature? and written a book on modern historical tragicomedy. "On the How, What, and Why of Narrative" was contributed to Critical Inquiry in the Autumn 1980 issue
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DOI 10.1086/447894
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