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Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal's Pensees.

Nicholas Hammond. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. xii + 249 pp. $45.

According to Nicholas Hammond, the majority of studies concerning Pascal often concentrate on vocabulary and style but do not investigate how the language operates within the structure of the text. The author thoroughly studies key terms depicting the central subject of the Pensees. Referring first to different approaches to language in Port Royal and in the Pensees -- which have been covered by recent critical scholarship -- Hammond notices that certain words which play an essential role in Pascal's mathematical writings, in De l'Espirit geometrique or in the Logique, do not appear in the Pensees. With these remarks, the author embarks on a voyage of rediscovering key elements expressed in recurrent words: the first chapter shows particularly the difference between parole/mot and the tyranny of speech. Inconstance, ennui, inquietude, bonheur, felicite and justice are later studied. In the Pensees, the words used by Pascal convince the reader of the multi-leveled meanings of words. They depict the dialectical process of the Pensees and show the intrinsic corrupting power of language. Though, as Hammond quotes, "interpretation must be approached with caution" (49), any interpretation shows the obscurity of human discourse and could be a sign, according to Pascal, of man's fallen nature and lack of communication with God. At the same time, the truth of religion is perceived through the recognition of this obscurity. Chapter nine, "Playing with the Truth," identifies the notion of play on words and these two notions of the conceits and deceits of language.

The textual study of words helps to guide interpretation by focusing attention on several loci of meaning. Whereas a theological design naturally points to a revelation and resolution at the end of Pascal's Pensees, a symmetrical design points to a revelation -- but not a final resolution -- at the center of words. To this evolution in compositional logic within the Pensees corresponds a profound change in meaning and nature of meaning.

The text shows a very unusual and deconstructive approach to the fragmentary discourse of the Pensees. Very well referenced and documented, Hammond presents an in-depth account of many important critical controversies. Very provocative in some respects, the study offers a link to Pascal's other works and a deep insight into the complexity and subtlety of themes developed.

Playing with Truth is an ambitious and successful contribution to the advancement of the criticism of Pascal. It shows care and erudition, and should give voice to the ideas and discourses that hegemonic structures in texts and in the academy have changed.
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Author:Sauret, Martine
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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