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Litotes

June 10, 2011

It seemed wrong to me when Melissa Frazier defined litotes as “the negation of a negation,” since I thought the trope required only a particular kind of single negation, saying “not X” to mean “Y!!” where X and Y are opposites. I’ve now read a bit of what Elizabeth Cheresh Allen says about litotes and Turgenev and see that MF accurately represents ECA’s view, and I think I can put my finger on what bothers me.

There are two relevant dimensions in possible definitions of litotes. First, is a single negation sufficient, or must it be a negation of a negation to qualify? MF and ECA want double negation; for me, this is a special case within a larger set of single-negation litotes. For ECA, “the single negative” is not exactly litotes, but in some cases “contributes to the language of litotes” (112 in her Beyond Realism: Turgenev’s Poetics of Secular Salvation).

Second, does an expression like “not unhappily” mean “quite happily” or does it ambiguously suggest anything between “happily” and “almost unhappily”? For me it’s the “quite happily” reading that makes the original expression qualify as litotes, but for ECA and MF ambiguity is the key, at least with Turgenev. In fact, ECA considers these separate types of litotes, which she labels “with irony” and “without irony,” saying about the second:

Used without irony, though, the litotes itself signifies nothing precise, but rather conveys a range of possible meanings. It therefore embodies a kind of nuanced, semantic unspecificity, its meaning located somewhere between opposed, specific meanings. Hence the nonironic phrase “not ungrateful” may mean merely grudgingly appreciative, somewhat thankful, ambivalently welcoming, or even quite grateful—the relative quantities of gratitude and nongratitude remain unspecified. Reduced to a formula, the litotes can be understood to express at best an imprecise relation between “X” and “not-X.” It gives no clue as to how much “X” is included in “not not-X” and how much “not-X” is excluded by “not not-X.” (107)

I’m not enamored of ECA’s terminology of “with irony” / “without irony,” but let’s stick with it for clarity. And let’s call the other dimension “single negation” / “double negation.”

If, like me, you think litotes implies ECA’s “with irony,” then it works equally well with single or double negation. Think of an English phrase like “at no small cost.” You don’t have to work in another formal negation by, say, changing “small” to “inconsiderable.” And it’s not showing a range of anywhere from small to medium to big, but means “at great cost.” (I’m backed up here by the first classical book that came to hand, where litotes is defined as “an understatement, usually in the form of a negative statement implying a positive statement; e.g., non simili poena (Aen. I, 136); non indebita regna (Aen. VI, 66-67)” – note that one Latin phrase has single negation and one double, and “implying a positive statement,” which is ECA’s “with irony,” makes it into the definition. My favorite Latin example is Ovid using “not white” to mean “black” – see J. C. McKeown.)

If, like ECA and MF, you want to include expressions “without irony” in the category of litotes, then suddenly single negation is a problem. Can “not grateful” suggest a whole continuum of meanings the way that ECA persuasively claims “not ungrateful” does? It seems to me unlikely, and I think this is why ECA must hedge a bit about when a single negative is “simple and straightforward” or when it “foster[s…] semantic ambiguity” by bringing to mind the thing it negates; she refuses to classify the latter as a full-fledged litotes (112).

MF twice defines litotes as double negation, but she seems to be treating her own single-negation phrases “not feuilletonistic” and “not French” as contributing to the language of litotes, in ECA’s phrase; MF also makes a point of paraphrasing “not feuilletonistic” as “not insincere, inauthentic, or unoriginal” (939). Ultimately what I think she’s saying is this: Turgenev presents the negative characters in his novel as being “feuilletonistic”; he presents the positive characters and the novel as a whole as “not feuilletonistic”; but this “not feuilletonistic” is best read as a litotes without irony and with implicit double negation (“not unoriginal, not insincere, not inauthentic”). It is in the end ambiguous, MF argues, how un-feuilletonistic A Nest of the Gentry is.

See Melissa Frazier, “Turgenev and a Proliferating French Press: The Feuilleton and Feuilletonistic in A Nest of the Gentry,” Slavic Review 69.4 (2010): 925-43. (Abstract)

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