George Steiner, fully Francis George Steiner

George
Steiner, fully Francis George Steiner
1929

European-born American Literary Critic, Essayist, Philosopher, Novelist and Translator

Author Quotes

When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch's shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow?

When it turned on the Jew, Christianity and European civilization turned on the incarnation — albeit an incarnation often wayward and unaware — of its own best hopes.

When the modern scholar cites from a classic text, the quotation seems to burn a hole in his own drab page.

When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins.

Where God clings to our culture, to our routines of discourse, He is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech. So Nietzsche (and many after him). This essay argues the reverse. It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence.

Women began their inner emancipation by their access to literature, by access to the world through books; an access they could not have socially or politically, or of course economically, in the world at large.

We are still waging Peloponnesian wars. Our control of the material world and our positive science have grown fantastically. But our very achievements turn against us, making politics more random and wars more bestial.

Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle, even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control. And we shall do so with that desolate clairvoyance, so marvelously rendered in Bartok's music, because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity.

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning.

We speak in (rich) monotones. Our poetry is haunted by the music it has left behind. Orpheus shrinks to a poet when he looks back, with the impatience of reason, on a music stronger than death.

We speak still of "sunrise" and "sunset." We do so as if the Copernican model of the solar system had not replaced, ineradicably, the Ptolemaic. Vacant metaphors, eroded figures of speech, inhabit our vocabulary and grammar. They are caught, tenaciously, in the scaffolding and recesses of our common parlance. There they rattle about like old rags or ghosts in the attic.

What I affirm is the intuition that where God's presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable. And I would vary Yeats's axiom so as to say: no man can read fully, can answer answeringly to the aesthetic, whose "nerve and blood" are at peace in sceptical rationality, are now at home in immanence and verification. We must read as if.

What lies beyond man's word is eloquent of God. That is the joyously defeated recognition expressed in the poems of St. John of the Cross and of the mystic tradition.

What worthwhile book after the Pentateuch has been written by a committee?

When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.

Do the identifications with fictions, the inner, tidal motions of pathos and libido which the novel, the film, the painting, the symphony unleash within us somehow immunize us against the humbler, less formed, but actual claims of suffering and of need in our surroundings? Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street?

Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. To borrow an image from another domain: he who has truly apprehended a painting by Cézanne will thereafter see an apple or a chair as he had not seen them before. Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.

The immense majority of human biographies are a gray transit between domestic spasm and oblivion.

To many men... the miasma of peace seems more suffocating than the bracing air of war.

Even where it is manipulated by major talents, deconstruction tends to bear either on marginal texts (Sade, Lautréamont), or on secondary work by a great writer (Barthes on Balzac's Sarrazine). The classics of deconstruction, in Jacques Derrida or Paul De Man, are "misreadings" not of literature but of philosophy; they address themselves to philosophical linguistics and the theory of language. The masks they seek to strip off are those worn by Plato, by Hegel, by Rousseau, by Nietszche or Saussure. Deconstruction has nothing to tell us of Aeschylus or Dante, of Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Literature and the arts are also criticism in a more particular and practical sense. They embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.

The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual and social configuration; but the honing is uniform.

To shoot a man because one disagrees with his interpretation of Darwin or Hegel is a sinister tribute to the supremacy of ideas in human affairs - but a tribute nevertheless.

Author Picture
First Name
George
Last Name
Steiner, fully Francis George Steiner
Birth Date
1929
Bio

European-born American Literary Critic, Essayist, Philosopher, Novelist and Translator