Fantasies of Private Language in “The Phoenix
and Turtle” and “The Ecstasy”
ANITA GILMAN SHERMAN
Although “perfect” and “universal” language schemes have been extensively studied, fantasies of “private language” in the seventeenth century have been neglected.1 “Private language” is a vexed term seldom applied to the early modern period, mostly because it is anachronistic, having been coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the mid-twentieth century. Yet the idea of a private language would not have seemed far fetched in the Renaissance. Seventeenth-century notions of language as the privileged site of rationality derive in part from Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:19. This story of origins becomes the basis for divergent but related models of language: the first involving the sovereign individual who has the power to confer identity, the second involving a fantasy of fellowship and universal language among speakers prior to Babel. The Edenic vision of perfect communication has long inspired the human mind. As a young man, Wittgenstein was attracted to mathematical logic as an instantiation of a universal language, going so far as to call it sublime, but he later repudiated it in favor of ordinary language, with its messy variations and ambiguities.2 While his thought experiments with private language occur in his later work (sections 243–315 of his Philosophical Investigations), they share concerns with the universal logic of the earlier Tractatus. Both private and universal languages speak to a desire for perfect legibility.
Private language, while apparently the opposite of the Ursprache or lingua adamica imagined by seventeenth-century thinkers, betrays a similar yearning for transparent communication. Both linguistic models aspire to clarity and complete understanding. In a fallen world both perfect and private languages are inaccessible, simultaneously inviting and resisting translation. Both are out of reach, the one in the paradisal past, the other as a logically