Edward Sapir > Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech > Subject Index > Page 236
Edward Sapir (1884–1939).  Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.  1921.

Page 236

XI   Language and Literature
  LANGUAGES are more to us than systems of thought-transference. They are invisible garments that drape themselves about our spirit and give a predetermined form to all its symbolic expression. When the expression is of unusual significance, we call it literature. 1 Art is so personal an expression that we do not like to feel that it is bound to predetermined form of any sort. The possibilities of individual expression are infinite, language in particular is the most fluid of mediums. Yet some limitation there must be to this freedom, some resistance of the medium. In great art there is the illusion of absolute freedom. The formal restraints imposed by the material—paint, black and white, marble, piano tones, or whatever it may be—are not perceived; it is as though there were a limitless margin of elbow-room between the artist’s fullest utilization of form and the most that the material is innately capable of. The artist has intuitively surrendered to the inescapable tyranny of the material, made its brute nature fuse easily with his conception. 2 The material “disappears” precisely
Note 1.  I can hardly stop to define just what kind of expression is “significant” enough to be called art or literature. Besides, I do not exactly know. We shall have to take literature for granted. [back]
Note 2.  This “intuitive surrender” has nothing to do with subservience to artistic convention. More than one revolt in modern art has been dominated by the desire to get out of the material just what it is really capable of. The impressionist wants light and color because paint can give him just these; “literature” in painting, the sentimental suggestion of a “story,” is offensive to him because he does not want the virtue of his particular form to be dimmed by shadows from another medium. Similarly, the poet, as never before, insists that words mean just what they really mean. [back]


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