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

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.

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.

For let us keep one fact clearly in mind: the German language was not innocent of the horrors of Nazism. It is not merely that a Hitler, a Goebbels, and a Himmlerhappened to speak German. Nazism found in the language precisely what it needed to give voice to its savagery. Hitler heard inside his native tongue the latent hysteria, the confusion, the quality of hypnotic trance.

No phonetic sign, except at a rudimentary, strictly speaking pre-linguistic level of vocal imitation, has any substantive relation or contiguity to that which it is conventionally and temporally held to designate.

The new pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow.

Tragedy springs from outrage; it protests at the conditions of life. It carries in it the possibilities of disorder, for all tragic poets have something of the rebelliousness ofAntigone. Goethe, on the contrary, loathed disorder. He once said that he preferred injustice, signifying by that cruel assertion not his support for reactionary political ideals, but his conviction that injustice is temporary and reparable whereas disorder destroys the very possibilities of human progress. Again, this is an anti-tragic view; in tragedy it is the individual instance of injustice that infirms the general pretence of order. One Hamlet is enough to convict a state of rottenness.

A good deal of classical music is, today, the opium of the good citizen.

For many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in.

Nothing in a language is less translatable than its modes of understatement.

The Oresteia, King Lear, Dostoevsky's The Devils no less than the art of Giotto or the Passions of Bach, inquire into, dramatize, the relations of man and woman to the existence of the gods or of God.

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