European-born American Literary Critic, Essayist, Philosopher, Novelist and Translator
George Steiner, fully Francis George Steiner
European-born American Literary Critic, Essayist, Philosopher, Novelist and Translator
Verse no longer stands at the centre of communicative discourse. It is no longer, as it was from Homer to Milton, the natural repository of knowledge and traditional sentiment. It no longer gives to society its main record of past grandeur or its natural setting for prophecy, as it did in Virgil and Dante. Verse has grown private. It is a special language which the individual poet insinuates, by force of personal genius, into the awareness of his contemporaries, persuading to learn and perhaps hand on his own uses of words. Poetry has become essentially lyric — that is to say, it is the poetry of private vision rather than of public or of national occasion.
A perceptive French critic has argued that in an age of deepening illiteracy, when even the educated have only a smattering of classical or theological knowledge, erudition is of itself a kind of fantasy, a surrealistic construct.
I am and remain a Marxist, because otherwise I could not be a proofreader… If California triumphs, there will be no need of proofreaders. Machines will do it better. Or all texts will be audiovisual, with self-correctors built in. Night after night after night, Carlo, I work till my brain aches. So as to get it absolutely right… Getting it right. The holiness of it. The self-respect. Gran Dio, Carlo, you must see what I'm driving at. Utopia simply means getting it right! Communism means taking the errata out of history. Out of man. Reading proofs.
Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guide-books in hand.
The private ownership of great art, its seclusion from the general view of men and women, let alone from that of interested amateurs and scholars, is a curious business. The literal disappearance of a Turner or a Van Gogh into some Middle Eastern or Latin-American bank vault to be kept as investment and collateral, the sardonic decision of a Greek shipping tycoon to put an incomparable El Greco on his yacht, where it hangs at persistent risk — these are phenomena that verge on vandalism.
A sentence always means more. Even a single word, within the weave of incommensurable connotation, can, and usually does.
If future society assumes the contours foretold by Marxism, if the jungle of our cities turns to the polis of man and the dreams of anger are made real, the representative art will be high comedy. Art will be the laughter of intelligence, as it is in Plato, in Mozart, in Stendhal.
Often the children went alone, or held the hands of strangers. Sometimes parents saw them pass and did not dare call out their names. And they went, of course, not for anything they had done or said. But because their parents existed before them. The crime of being one's children.
The private reader of listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force.
All serious art, music, literature is a critical act. It is so, firstly, in the sense of Matthew Arnold's phrase: "a criticism of life." Be it realistic, fantastic, Utopian or satiric, the construct of the artist is a counter-statement to the world.
If, in the Judaic perception, the language of the Adamic was that of love, the grammars of fallen man are those of the legal code.
Self-projection is, more often than not, the move of the minor craftsman, of the tactics of the hour whose inherent weakness is, precisely, that of originality.
The really deep divergence between the humanistic and scientific sensibilities is one of temporality. Very nearly by definition, the scientist knows that tomorrow will be in advance of today. A twentieth-century schoolboy can manipulate mathematical and experimental concepts inaccessible to a Galileo or a Gauss. For a scientist the curve of the future is positive. Inevitably, the humanist looks back.
Almost alone among cognitive-aesthetic movements and strategies of interpretation, deconstruction neither champions anybody of past literature or art, nor does it act as vanguard or advocate for any contemporary or incipient school. The New Criticism and T. S. Eliot strove for the revaluation of Metaphysical poetry so as to underwrite, in turn, certain tactics of modernity. Aristotle was advocate for Sophocles. Deconstruction is, intentionally, marginal (a key trope) to all histories of taste and manifestos for innovation.
In aesthetic discourse, no interpretative-critical analysis, doctrine or programme is superseded, is erased, by any later construction. The Copernican theory did correct and supersede that of Ptolemy. The chemistry of Lavoisier makes untenable the early phlogiston theory. Aristotle on mimesis and pathos is not superseded byLessing or Bergson. The Surrealist manifestos of Breton do not cancel out Pope's Essay on Criticism though they may well be antithetical to it.
Talk can neither be verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense. This is an open secret which hermeneutics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Croce, have labored to exorcise or to conceal from themselves and their clients. This ontological, which is to say both primordial and essential axiom (or platitude) of ineradicable undecidability needs, none the less, to be closely argued.
The Socratic demonstration of the ultimate unity of tragic and comic drama is forever lost. But the proof is in the art of Chekhov.
Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything.
In the Soviet Union, he knew, great art hangs in public galleries. No scholars, no men and women waiting to mend their souls before a Raphael or a Matisse need wait, cap in hand at the mansion door.
That is to say that every single book will be magnetized, will be ordered under complicated mathematical clusters, by related subjects, and semantic markers. You will state your questions, or the subject you are interested in, and the computer will find the books for you. Instantaneous retrieval brings with it enormous changes in our relation to the history of a subject, because there is a cut-off point in all these systems beond which the previous books are no longer relevant. They have been adequately subsumed in the later ones. You have a completely different way of organizing knowledge—an immensely efficient and in many ways powerfully logical way, but which blocks the essential motion of the hand reaching along a shelf and stumbling on what it did not know was there. When these great knowledge and data-banks, as they are called, are operative there will come a whole change in the way the human mind and eye live with books.
The symmetries of immanence are cruel.
As the glossaries lengthen, as the footnotes become more elementary and didactic, the poem, the epic, the drama, move out of balance on the actual page. As even the more rudimentary of mythological, religious or historical references, which form the grammar of Western literature, have to be elucidated, the lines of Spenser, of Pope, of Shelley or of Sweeney Among the Nightingales, blur away from immediacy. Where it is necessary to annotate every proper name and classical allusion in the dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in the garden at Belmont, or in Lachimo's stealthy rhetoric when he emerges in Imogen's bedchamber, these marvelous spontaneities of enacted feeling become "literary" and twice-removed.
In the United States dramatically, here fortunately much less so, the book store as we have known it is dying. In the United States it is now largely an emporium, featuring music, records, Christmas cards, a large range of semi-cultural and kitsch products with books fighting for their actual spatial lives. In some of the great university towns such as New Haven, or Princeton, within the past decade, the last good book stores have had to close, and what we have now are text book emporia which are not book stores, but store-houses bracketed according to set reading lists: in other words—where there is none of the genius of waste which a great book store has, where you cannot find what you are not looking for, which is the very essence of a book store.
The absolute scholar is in fact a rather uncanny being. He is instinct with Nietzsche's finding that to be interested in something, to be totally interested in it, is a libidinal thrust more powerful than love or hatred, more tenacious than faith or friendship — not infrequently, indeed, more compelling than personal life itself. Archimedes does not flee from his killers; he does not even turn his head to acknowledge their rush into his garden when he is immersed in the algebra of conic sections.
The whispers of shared ecstasy are choral.