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

Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise.

It was a brilliant, mutinous period. Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classic and Mediterranean tradition. These years, 1920-33, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit.

The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other men's genius.

Though acts of reception and of understanding are in some measure fictions of ordered intuition, myths of reason, this truth does not justify the denial of intentional conduct. It is as absurd to discard as mendacious, as anarchically opaque, the bearing of contextual probability and suggestion, as it is to invest in such probability any blind trust. The negations of post-structuralism and of certain varieties of deconstruction are precisely as dogmatic, as political as were the positivist equations of archival historicism. The "emptiness of meaning" postulate is no less a priori, no less a case of despotic reductionism than were, say, the axioms of economic and psycho-sociological causality in regard to the generation of meaning in literature and the arts in turn-of-the-century pragmatism and scientism.

Creation of absolutely the first rank — in philosophy, in music, in much of literature, in mathematics — continues to occur outside the American milieu. It is at once taken up and intelligently exploited, but the "motion of the spirit" has taken place elsewhere, amid the enervation of Europe, in the oppressive climate of Russia. There is, in a good deal of American intellectual, artistic production (recent paining may be a challenging exception) a characteristic near-greatness, a strength just below the best. Could it be that the United States is destined to be the "museum culture"?

Literary criticism has about it neither rigor nor proof. Where it is honest, it is passionate, private experience seeking to persuade.

The dramatic arises out of the margin of opaqueness between a writer and his personages, out of the potential for the unexpected. In the full dramatic character lurks the unforeseen possibility, the gift of disorder.

To a degree which is difficult to determine, the esoteric impulse in twentieth-century music, literature and the arts reflects calculation. It looks to the flattery of academic and hermeneutic notice. Reciprocally, the academy turns towards that which appears to require its exegetic, cryptographic skills.

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.

Fantasizing about action out there in the 'real' world, spinning dreams abut the secret centrality, about the occult importance of the labours in which he has interred his existence — labours that the vast majority of his fellow men would deem wholly marginal and socially wasteful if they knew of them at all — the pure scholar, the master of catalogues, can sup on hatred. At the ordinary level, he will exorcize his spleen in the ad-hominem nastiness of a book review, in the arsenic of a footnote. He will vent his resentments in the soft betrayals of an ambiguous recommendation or examination report and in the scorpion's round of a committee on tenure. The violence stays formal. Not, one supposes, in Professor Blunt.

Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, messianic socialism: these are the three supreme moments in which Western culture is presented with what Ibsen termed "the claims of the ideal." These are the three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.

The letter kills the spirit. The written text is mute in the face of responding challenge. It does not admit of inward growth and correction. Text subverts the absolutely vital role of memory.

To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial. It is to immure him in emptiness.

For it is a plain fact that, most certainly in the West, the writings, works of art, musical compositions which are of central reference, comport that which is "grave and constant" (Joyce's epithets) in the mystery of our condition.

More and more lower-middle-income families either live their lives in debt or leave the city altogether. The boom is strictly at the penthouse level.

The most important tribute any human being can pay to a poem or piece of prose he or she really loves... is to learn it by heart. Not by brain, by heart; the expression is vital. When two of God's children join hands and hearts, all of Heaven rejoices.

Tragedy speaks not of secular dilemmas which may be resolved by rational innovation, but of the unalterable bias toward inhumanity and destruction in the drift of the world.

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.

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