There is so much that is admirable in George Steiner’s attitudes, so much in both his desiderations and his abominations to agree with, that his faults are all the more distressing. Or rather his one fault: a histrionic habit, an overheated tone, a melodramatization of what (God knows) is often dramatic enough, a proclivity to fly to extreme positions. The effect is to antagonize the reader on the brink of assent.
My own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe; by the mass murder of the Jews and by the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism of what I try to define in some of these essays as the particular genius of “Central European humanism.”
“Possessed”—perhaps that is where the trouble begins. One must sympathize with Mr. Steiner. If you speak soberly, the world will not heed you. And if you cry out in desperation, you will be found histrionic. You will be asked, Do you think, because of Buchenwald, there shall be no more plays and tales? For, though perhaps there oughtn’t to be, there will be, there are. Some of them even written in the German language.
The difficulty with Mr. Steiner’s reflections on “the retreat from the word”—as with those of some other recent writers on this theme—is that one cannot be sure whether he is lamenting the retreat, accepting it as inevitable, or anticipating an advance on some other front in the field of communication. “The language of a community has reached a perilous state,” he tells us, “when a study of radioactive fall-out can be entitled ‘Operation Sunshine’.” But this is not language, this is human nature, which was always in a perilous state. Thousands of years ago in China the drowning of unwanted or “unwanted” children was called “bathing the infants,” while the branding of criminals or “criminals” was known as “affixing the golden seals.” Mr. Steiner agonizes over the debasement of language. But it is we who are debased, who debase ourselves, as individual human beings. “I am not yet so lost in lexicography,” said Dr. Johnson, “as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.” And the daughters of earth are tough, they can take care of themselves.
The essay “Silence and the Poet” carries the argument to further extremes. “What lies beyond man’s word is eloquent of God.” I don’t know what Mr. Steiner means by this, but I imagine that what lies beyond man’s word is no concern of the literary critic; nor, except perhaps as something to be simply accepted or rejected, will the concept be of much interest to the creative writer. Though it has peculiar charm for the weary writer, music is not superior to language, it is just different. The poet who falls silent simply ceases to be a poet. But Mr. Steiner, a master of paradox, moves from the silent intervals in a musical composition and the empty spaces in a painting to a declaration that the void places in Hölderlin’s late fragments “seem indispensable to the completion of the poetic act”:
His posthumous life in a shell of quiet, similar to that of Nietzsche, stands for the word’s surpassing of itself, for its realization not in another medium but in that which is its echoing antithesis and defining negation, silence.
This is playing with words. We see that we are heading toward the concept of the great non-writing writer whose greatness entails and requires the refusal to write in a world like ours. But when a writer inveighs against his hideous profession, when he complains of what others have done to language, his medium and his instrument, he is generally remote from the spirit of Mr. Steiner’s earnest finality. It is silence he is crying out against, silence he is seeking to break. His protest is an expression of the laborer’s anguish, not of philosophical intention or preference. Mr. Steiner, however, will have none of these mere velleities. “When the words in the city are full of savagery and lies, nothing speaks louder than the unwritten poem.” This is unworldy wisdom indeed. Silence—the city will reply, and with some reason—gives consent.
I am not saying that writers should stop writing. This would be fatuous. I am asking whether they are not writing too much, whether the deluge of print in which we seek our deafened way is not itself a subversion of meaning.
This, in the course of a book of over 400 packed pages, is a bold suggestion! But when Mr. Steiner appears to be urging us to read less as well as write less, when he remarks that “the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside,” then I for one must concede a distressed and reluctant assent. In writing of postwar Japan I once ventured that a distinct tendency existed for people to use the arts as a screen to block out the sight of human suffering. I was rebuked for philistinism in a most unprofessional degree, even though what I had in mind were the peculiarly aesthetic arts, haiku, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, moon and blossom viewing. It is a trick of human nature that we sometimes try to persuade ourselves that weeping over a character in a book excuses us from feeling for a real person in the street. Similarly we are ready to admire a fictitious or safely dead figure for qualities of honesty and courage which would cause us to steer well clear of him in life. Books won’t make saints or heroes out of us unless the germ is there already.
BUT WHAT SEEMS STRANGE in Mr. Steiner is that, having proposed that we should read less, he goes on to exhort us to read more. He quotes approvingly M. Etiemble’s announcement that “an acquaintance with a Chinese novel or a Persian lyric is almost indispensable to contemporary literacy.” (Which Chinese novel? Any one? Only one? In the original? In translation, and if so, in which?) And then off he soars into what he says “is quite simply”—simply!—“a plea for modern comparative studies.” Scott is to be seen in relation to Hugo, Manzoni, and Pushkin, the problems of form and consciousness met by the Spanish poet in Mexico are to be compared with those of the Anglo-Indian (who, incidentally would prefer to be called Indo-Anglian), and so on…. Man’s life is brief at the best, there are things to do besides reading, and as a teacher Mr. Steiner must surely have observed that the person who can genuinely benefit from this sort of study is an extremely rare bird, and that the great majority are so formed that they will gain far more from the exploration of one or two Shakespeare plays in depth. And incidentally, with all these tongues ringing in our heads, how should we even hear that cry in the street outside.
This is the mystique of comparative literature: If you cannot read all literatures then you cannot really read any literature. “To value Pope without a sure grasp of Boileau…is to read thinly or falsely.” And no doubt the attainment of a sure grasp of Boileau will require further reading in another language or two. I might myself wonder aloud whether, in teaching The Rape of the Lock to English-speaking Asian students (with the minimum of historical and geographical aids), I hadn’t also conveyed to them a little, a very little, of the spirit of Homer. But then I would in turn be exposing myself to the charge of mystique-mongering. At all events, observation indicates that the best criticism by comparative critics has come when they were at their least comparative. Mr. Steiner’s more pretentious pages look like a notice-board in a thriving Berlitz school.
Shakespeare… How can we hope to derive anything worth having from these foreign writers when we cannot properly understand the National Bard? In his quatercentenary tribute, Mr. Steiner tells us that while Shakespeare is unsurpassable (“a shocking statement”), he is also “using an alphabet which we have largely lost.” The adverb makes that sentence into a gross exaggeration. Adducing Iachimo’s reference in Imogen’s bed-chamber to “the tale of Tereus,” Mr. Steiner declares,
If one does not grasp, with an immediate sense of terror, the pointer to Ovid’s tale of rape and silence, the whole of Iachimo’s stance, of his shallow, embarrassed malignity, is made insignificant.
That is, we ought to have read Ovid, or at least have pursued a course of lectures on classical mythology. Two points seem worth making here. First, Shakespeare never depends upon one allusion for his whole “significance”; like a true professional, he customarily insures himself against the reader’s ignorance. Secondly, the tale of Philomela survives because of Shakespeare and other poets, the dependency works in that direction. Shakespeare will not die because of something we have forgotten; rather, we shall remember many things because Shakespeare is living.
Mr. Steiner sets out to make an interesting, often a strikingly interesting, suggestion, and he ends in sensationalism. Another instance of the higher melodrama is this: “to tutor, to guide someone through Lear or the Oresteia is to take into one’s hands the springs of his being.” The good teacher never takes into his hands the springs of someone else’s being: that to mix an already odd metaphor) is vampirism, the vicious practice of one sort of bad teacher. One can take literature seriously without going on in this hair-raising fashion! It is generally less a sign of taking literature seriously than of taking oneself over-seriously. We have heard a good deal lately about the fear-some responsibilities of the teacher of literature. Since the hubbub has not been followed by a spate of resignations, we can only suppose that the profession, feeling uneasier than usual, has merely been puffing out its chest a little.
Scorning our possibilities, Mr. Steiner demands impossibilities of us, almost as if only the achievement of the impossible can absolve us from Dachau and Treblinka. He finds it difficult to state without overstating—and I dare to say this despite his just comments on “the dangerous bias towards understatement” in the English intellectual establishment. He moves from extreme position to extreme position, an effect which one may deplore while sympathizing with its probable cause. His rhetorical discourse moves on a different level from his human subjects and concerns. “The truth is concrete” was Brecht’s motto, and Mr. Steiner could have learnt from this author, of whom he says so excellently that his language “seemed to be that of a primer spelling out the ABC of truth.” It is still the ABC that we need.
In his celebrated article “Night Words,” Mr. Steiner comes down to earth with a magnificent bump. How finely, in so few words, how Johnsonianly, he deflates the mystique of “high pornography”! “The mechanics of orgasm imply fairly rapid exhaustion and frequent intermission.” If the devout then object that art is not realism, Mr. Steiner points to the gross boredom, the unutterable monotony, of these productions of man’s unfettered mind. For sexual stimulation, should that be what is required, Henry James leaves the Olympia Reader drooping at the post. He can invoke the dark power of sex without the employment of a single orifice. Pornography is a crude and unrewarding manifestation of that disgust with himself which man must feel at certain times. Perhaps that is why in our time we have “high pornography,” a sort of tribute to Belsen and Buchenwald: but, idiotic and boring, the petty revelations of a shabby and inferior little Mephistopheles, it is not an especially impressive tribute.
The essays on Marxist literary criticism are lucid and learned, though I still feel that Marxist criticism, like comparative literary studies, is a sadly uneconomical way of increasing one’s understanding and enjoyment of literature. Its insights are gained at the expense of much irrelevance, considerable superficiality, and some obtuseness. What attracts non-Marxists to it, I suspect, is the gratifying importance Marxist criticism seems to ascribe to writers and writing. We should bear in mind that on most occasions seems is the right and necessary word.
Again, Mr. Steiner is extremely good, lively and helpful, on Gunter Grass. And good also on Felix Krull, a work of which Erich Heller (a philosophical critic with whom Mr. Steiner has a certain kinship) could find little to say, because it was not tragic, because it was an example of the comic, “the human spirit’s one and only self-inflicted defeat that is almost indistinguishable from victory.” Mr. Steiner is more willing to permit Mann’s comedy to be comic, to be life-enhancing and not exclusively a second-class memento mori, even though it was largely written after the war, after the camps and the knowledge of them. While human nature is capable of the debasement and depravity Mr. Steiner describes, it possesses, like language, a greater resilience rightly or wrongly than he allows.
For the Rare Birds February 29, 1968