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This report is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

Catchwords (8) Iain Bamforth

The primary meaning of the adjective literal is ‘according to the letter’, though it is hardly ever used in that sense. Producing a literal version of the Word of God was what a scribe did, copying a manuscript word for painstaking word, and not the hermeneutics that followed the inky act of reproduction. If God had wanted us to be right-thinking all His instructions would have been solely speech acts, a fact of some significance for those who aspire to be fundamentalists. The only literal-minded characters in modern literature are those boring copy-clerks in Flaubert’s proto-semiotic novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet.

The confusion arises because ‘literal’ has effects which are predicated upon a mode of thinking that has been shaped by texts and writings, including the Word of God. ‘Literal’ carries a perlocutionary if not already figured force. There can be no ‘literal readings,’ although that is how the early scientists such as Galileo applied themselves when they got down to study the Book of Nature.

By the eighteenth century, ‘literally’ was being used to intensify statements of fact, as when a house is shaken to its foundations by a storm. Jane Austen uses it in this way, as an adverb of drama and degree. ‘We had been literally rocked in our bed,’ she writes in her last unfinished novel Sanditon. A century later, it was being used as a general intensifier for statements that were themselves figurative: Fitzgerald wrote that his Great Gatsby ‘literally glowed’. ...

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