Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Disinterring and Reinterring the Dead: Tense in French Grammars, Du Vair, and Pasquier (C. 1550-1610)

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Disinterring and Reinterring the Dead: Tense in French Grammars, Du Vair, and Pasquier (C. 1550-1610)

Article excerpt

Relations between the living and the dead are negotiated through various categories of discourse, including tense. This article focuses on one particular phase--the French Renaissance--of the long history of the roles that tenses have played, and continue to play, in negotiating those relations. First a historical and linguistic framework for studying the question is sketched; three case studies then follow.

Whereas the use of tenses to attribute different kinds of presence or absence to the dead is obviously not specific to the Renaissance, it did take particularly intensive forms in the Renaissance because the Renaissance--understood not as a period but as a cultural movement grounded in humanism--centered on the notion that one should disentangle those elements of the past (whether ancient or medieval) that might have "life" in the present from those that remain "dead." (1)

On the other hand, if Renaissance humanism is viewed in the broader context of its period, then it can be seen as having shared both with nonlearned culture and with the Middle Ages conceptions of death that differ to some extent from those dominant in the modern West. Those conceptions involved widespread belief that physical death, despite provoking grief, is not an impasse; taken together, the process of dying and its immediate aftermath constitute a transitional phase. Certainly, there is evidence that death was more often experienced as a radical rupture from the sixteenth century onward, (2) but even then, death continued to be in some respects not simply a punctual moment, and not the absolute end of a person, but a progressively developing, temporary state into which the person moves: "Un 'mort' est donc un homme dont les deux parties constitutives sont momentanement dissociees.'' (3)

The sixteenth century was also a period in which postmortem possibilities multiplied in controversial fashion. The two main factors were Renaissance humanism and the Reformation. Humanism relaunched, without necessarily proposing, numerous ancient Greek and Roman accounts of the afterlife, including some (such as reincarnation) that emphasized continuity between life and death even more than Christianity did. And humanists imitated the Romans' obsession with secular posthumous renown as being one kind of immortality.

Reformation thinking assumed the reality of posthumous spiritual survival just as much as Catholicism did. Indeed, much continued to unite the confessions in this area: only in the eighteenth century did considerable secularization of death begin. (4) But Protestantism radically revised some traditional Catholic notions of what happens after death (notably Purgatory) as well as introducing greater discontinuity into the relationship between the living and the dead. Catholicism's routine commerce of various sorts between the living and the dead, such as prayers of intercession to help hasten the dead to heaven, was generally condemned by Protestantism. (5)

My hypothesis is that in this climate, which combined powerful belief in posthumous survival with controversy as to its mode, tenses often communicated a sense of the dead's presence or absence that was conceptually vague or indeterminate and not translatable into precise propositional terms. This partly preconceptual use of tenses was not necessarily always conscious on the part of the speaker or writer. One historical specificity of the period's tense-use when compared with today's is that for the formally educated it was grounded in explicit grammatical training (in Latin). While that training was primarily concerned with correct tense-use, humanist education also seems to have involved teaching expressive tense-use that departed from what was the most obviously correct choice. Some of this teaching came under rhetoric, to which pupils progressed in the later stages of school education after mastering grammar. (6) Although in many ancient and early modern rhetoric texts, mention of tenses is either absent or confined to a statement of the importance of grammatical correctness in tense choice, (7) an important exception is Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, especially a passage in book 9 that treats tense-switching--"translatio temporum" or "metastasis" (9. …

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