Whenever scholars of Comparative Literature invoke the importance of working with the original, there are clear political implications. Claiming the surplus value of work in the original language(s) versus work in translation emphasizes cultural specificity and celebrates the multiplicity of linguistic and cultural expressions that are the corpus of Comparative Literature as a discipline. However, the term “original” also has less benign innuendos that conceptually void hybridity and polyvalence: the original (versus the copy), the origin (versus derivation and decadence), as well as the origin or arché of the archive (versus cultural repertoires and marginal expressions). This essay uses Leibniz's search for a linguistic original and origin of Chinese as a test case as well as a caveat against some implications of the claim for linguistic “originality” (with its different meanings). Leibniz's project of a Characteristica universalis, a universal philosophical language, drew inspiration from the Chinese script—or rather, from what was known or fantasized about it by European scholars. In a time in which the quest for the monogenetic origin of languages gave way to the possibility to conceive of a perfect man-made language, Chinese seemed a likely model. However, Leibniz's dream of a Universal Character relied on a combination of competing semiotic and systemic requirements that only the misguided view of sinographs and hexagrams as an integral part of one Chinese script system could achieve. Consequently, instead of finding a perfect philosophical language in the Chinese script, Leibniz framed Chinese as an impossible system of multiple scripts and signifying principles.

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