Speak Up!

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 …

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Letters

For the Rare Birds February 29, 1968