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“Solutions in Hieroglyphic”: Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Picturesque Language,” and the Ancient Near East


KeywordsTriple Keywords
Social progress
Thought and thinking
Language and languages
Foreign languages
Attitudes (Psychology)
Attitude (Psychology)
Graphemic analysis


former unitarian pastor, Ralph Waldo Emerson treats proche-Oriental Antiquity as a corpus of texts (the biblique canon); in his view, it was part of a hermeneutical survey, inextricably linked to a thorough reflection on the nature and challenges of writing and reading. Inherited from Christian theology, this approach is based on assumptions that have become problematic at a time when advances in philology shed an innovative light on the history of writing, in particular thanks to Champollion’s discoveries that make it possible to decipher hierglyphic inscriptions. Historically, the biblical exegesis had hitherto been the task of drawing up correct interpretations and recovering the exact meaning of texts whose letter often seems ambiguous and confusing; the speech known as Divinity School Address is Emerson’s main contribution to this debate. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, progress in pro-European and eastern philology poses challenges of a different kind: what does a text mean, let alone read it “correctly”? What precautions should be taken to ensure its minimum readability before even the question of “just” interpretation arises? This test attempts to examine some of the tensions resulting from this new situation. The aim is to show how they influence Emerson’s thoughts on the semicotic nature of language, complicate its relationship with contemporary thinking and determine its attitude towards its own writing, in a way which, from the point of view of the 21st century, remains highly topical.

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