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Speaking in Tongues: Homage to George Steiner

2020 - Issue Four

Robert Asch

“I will take my place in that vortex of darkness and light that we call the Word.”

~Léon Bloy, Le Pèlerin de l’Absolu (October 24, 1912)

I parted company with George Steiner some twenty-five years ago, about the time of my reception into the Catholic Church. I had been an avid reader of his books, finding him an incomparably erudite analyst of the development of modern literary sensibilities—particularly in Britain, America, France, Germany, Central Europe, and Russia—with a unique insight into the other arts and expertise in the many disciplines which shed light on the tangled underpinnings of cultural expression. But at that stage I felt he had little more to say to me. We had different tastes, sometimes to an extent that strained my sympathies. And he was becoming an uncongenial companion. There was something disgruntled, a certain spleen, in his obtrusively Jewish persona that left me—an ardent though not uncritical admirer of the Christian achievement—ill at ease, claustrophobic in his presence.

But Steiner’s was too intelligent and civilized a mind to neglect indefinitely. I had made my own way and settled my besetting questions. The regret I felt on learning of his death in Cambridge on February 3, 2020 seemed an apposite occasion to revisit a man I regarded as an early mentor, particularly in this time of an emergent hostility to hierarchies of value, to the Jews, and to free speech. There is in his work considerable emphasis on why the arts demand our most serious attention—something my earlier self had never needed to be persuaded of. Now I find Steiner’s voice speaking with an urgency which had not previously touched me.

A controversial figure from the outset, Steiner was ultimately perhaps the most influential humanist of his generation. He was fascinated by the phenomenon of Modernity, which was and is a crisis of human society: highly sophisticated, self-conscious and complex, but tending towards disintegration. He studied how the social and linguistic shed light upon each other in this context. A pioneer of the metaphysics of language, he took the classics of the literary and philosophical traditions as maps of the human spirit. His was a criticism open to transcendence, with language as the privileged locus: for language allows for the transmission of the greatest intimacy, complexity and concentration of identity, and is uniquely open to the divine. Ultimately, Steiner argued that for meaning in language, as in life, to be possible, God (the Logos) must be a possibility. For Steiner there were many forms of Language: the languages we speak, our social languages—and then there are the Arts, in which he found the highest flow and intensity of meaning between human beings, and above all, the evidence of a unifying transcendence and of God. He was convinced that the study of these many logoi could each contribute to our very limited and imperfect perception of the Logos.

For the French philosopher Pierre Boutang, Steiner was above all “someone who knows, and teaches us, how to read a text….now, knowing how to read is a formidable claim.”[1] In Steiner’s words,

[T]he critic steps back from the object of perception in order to “get closer to it”…. He establishes and argues distance in order to penetrate. He widens or narrows the aperture of vision so as to obtain a lucid grasp. This motion—we step back to come nearer, we narrow our eyes to see more fully—entails judgement. Why should this be? Because action (the critic’s motion) is not, cannot be indifferent…. The point I am putting forward is not the suspect commonplace whereby there are supposed to be no value-free, no rigorously neutral perceptions…. The critic is an activist of apprehension. (69) [2]

He brought formidable equipment to the task. Alarmingly articulate, perfectly fluent in French, English, and German, he was also conversant with physics, mathematics, and philosophy. I can think of no modern literary critic—in English, at least—whose native acumen was supplemented with such a breadth of knowledge. Predictably, he was occasionally accused of dilettantism by professional scientists, linguists, and philosophers; and he patiently acknowledged his limitations as an inevitable corollary of the meta-critical project he rightly saw as necessary. Again, as a man preoccupied with the crises and complexities of modern culture, he was apt to make pronouncements which will not survive the judgement of posterity. As Oscar Wilde memorably remarked: “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.” There is nothing unusual in this; the same can be said of Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot.

It is sometimes hard to determine whether the writers Steiner sees as exemplars of Modernism (Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, Pound, Beckett) are held up primarily as great writers or great modernists. The preferred language of modernity is difficult, intertextual, self-conscious and self-referential: even hermetic. Such idioms or jargons, which enjoyed the unstinting support of the arbiters of 20th century taste (which is perhaps the main reason Waugh’s early novels tended to be more highly regarded than Brideshead or Sword of Honour)—while distinctive—are no guarantee of genius or endurance (Austen, Pope, Tennyson, and Virgil spring to mind). Yet even here it is evident that it was the character of language which was his primary concern: “The undoubted genius of Beckett, the talents of Pinter, still strike me as essentially formal. In their plays, we find an internalized epilogue to an eroded tragic vision. The brilliance and the grief lie in the language (10).”

Steiner’s analysis of language is perhaps his most immediately arresting characteristic; it is highly sophisticated but never superficial, hunting out every subterranean passage, quick to apprehend any significant detail. There is a remarkable passage of Steiner’s on O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which bears out Hofmannsthal’s maxim “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.”[3]

Language seeks vengeance on those who cripple it…. [Swinburne’s] lines are flamboyant, romantic verbiage. They are meant to show up the adolescent inadequacies of those who recite them. But, in fact, when the play is performed, the contrary occurs. The energy and glitter of Swinburne’s language burn a hole in the surrounding fabric. They elevate the action above its paltry level and instead of showing up the character, show up the playwright. Modern authors rarely quote their betters with impunity. (301)

This is revelatory, Steiner’s own language reflecting something objectively real, something frighteningly and incomprehensibly alive and free-fighting its way out of the superimposed text.

Steiner traced the emergence of the Modern literary sensibility in part, at least, to the theory of the proximity of Homer and the Psalmists to the birth of language that gained currency among the German Romantics:

[T]he model of a lost poiesis … spurs on the intuition, widespread after the 1860s, that there can be no progress in letters, no embodiment of private and exploratory vision, if language itself is not made new. This making new can take three forms: it can be a process of dislocation, an amalgam of existing languages, or a search for self-consistent neologism. These three devices do no normally occur in isolation. What we find from the 1870s to the 1930s are numerous variants on the three modes, usually drawing on some element from each. (388)

Steiner implicitly identifies this development with the period increasingly referred to as English Literature in Transition (generally situated ca. 1880‒1920; a typical figure would be Henry James). Fascinatingly, he draws Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear into the discussion—men rarely associated with nascent Modernism, yet curiously very Victorian figures who remained popular with Modernists in an anti-Victorian age: “The art of Edward Lear and of Lewis Carroll... is probably cognate with the new self-consciousness about language and the logical investigations of semantic conventions which develop in the late nineteenth century (388).”

He takes this investigation of the half-private language of nonsense poetry further, into anthropological, sexual territory:

It is likely that human sexuality and speech developed in close-knit reciprocity. Together they generate the history of self-consciousness, the process...whereby we have hammered out the notion of self and otherness. Hence the argument of modern anthropology that the incest taboo, which appears to be primal to the organization of communal life, is inseparable from linguistic evolution. We can only prohibit that which we can name.... The seminal and the semantic functions (is there, ultimately, an etymological link?) determine the genetic and social structure of human experience. Together they construe the grammar of being…. In what measure are sexual perversions analogues of incorrect speech? Are there affinities between pathological erotic compulsions and the search, obsessive in certain poets and logicians, for a “private language”...? (376)

He follows this up with an exploration of the submerged discontinuities between the language of men and women:

Men and women communicate through never-ending modulation. Like breathing, the technique is unconscious….Under stress of hatred, of boredom, of sudden panic, great gaps open. It is as if a man and a woman then heard each other for the first time and knew, with sickening conviction, that they share no common language. (381)

This dovetails into a detailed exposition of the art of masters outside the purlieus of most anglophone literary critics; first Racine:

In every one of his major plays there is a crisis of translation: under extreme stress, men and women declare their absolute being to each other, only to discover that their respective experience of eros and language has set them desperately apart…. I do not believe there is a more complete drama in literature, a work more exhaustive of the possibilities of human conflict, than Racine’s Bérénice. It is a play about the fatality of the coexistence of man and woman and it is dominated, necessarily, by speech terms (parole, dire, mot, entendre). (381)

Then Mozart and Stendhal:

Mozart possessed something of this same rare duality.... Elvira, Donna Anna, and Zerlina have an intensely shared femininity, but the music exactly defines their individual range or pitch of being. The same delicacy of tone-discrimination is established between the Countess and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro…. Stendhal was a careful student of Mozart’s operas. That study is borne out in the depth and fairness of his treatment of the speech worlds of men and women in Fabrice and la Sanseverina in The Charterhouse of Parma. (381‒82)

The expert musical reference is characteristic of an Austrian, and raises the question of his cultural identity. It is clear that Steiner saw himself above all as a Jew, but specifically as a Central European Jew. Born in France and completing his education in his adopted country, the USA, his parents and his sensibility were both Viennese. He was a survivor of the double shipwreck of European Jewry and the Habsburg Empire: “I come from the singularly productive world of emancipated Central European Judaism. In its sciences, schools of psychology, in its sociologies and climate of nervous sensibility… the twentieth century in the West, has, in the main, been heir to this world (13).”

Central Europe was a multicultural yet unified reality, a kind icon of the Western tradition; the Jews played a crucial role in this culture, and were uniquely gifted to do so. Christopher Dawson observed that

the most distinctive feature of all the great ages of Jewish cultures was their multilingual character. There have been many bilingual cultures in history—in fact, most of the great world cultures have been bilingual. But these Jewish cultures of which I speak were trilingual, which is unusual and possibly unique.[4]

These three languages were the sacred Hebrew, the language of intimate communication (Aramaic, then Ladino or Yiddish), and the language of the surrounding Gentiles.

Now the result of this threefold linguistic relation was to make the Jew a natural interpreter—a “Methurgeman” or dragoman[5] between the two alien cultures with which he was in contact. The intensive philological study that has always been emphasized in Jewish education—especially in the Spanish period—laid the foundation for this development, so that in an age or ages when a large proportion of the population was illiterate, the Jews held a unique position as the one people, skilled not only in many languages but in different scripts, and also in different literary and philosophic traditions.[6]

But Steiner was more than an inspired dragoman to the new hegemonies on either side of the Atlantic. The Shoah had simultaneously destroyed the communities in which he located his deepest self and raised vertiginous questions about the presence of evil in the ties that bind art and community. The Jews, whom he described as “the conscience of man” (277) had been betrayed by “the guardians of...language...the keepers of its conscience” (213). It was a dilemma he felt particularly keenly in music:

Music, the mystery of music, what Nietzsche called so rightly the Mysterium Tremendum, the Mysterium Tremendum of the last act of Tristan.... it can be an etude of Chopin, it can be a phrase almost in Mozart—speaks to us that there is something else, which paradoxically belongs to us profoundly but somehow touches on a universal meaning and possibility: that we are not only an electro-chemical and neuro-physiological assemblage; that there is more in consciousness than electronic wiring. Music seems to me more than literature —the great force, the hope, of a transcendent possibility.[7]

For a Jew like Steiner, the transcendent—if it exists—is both a mystical and a moral reality. And yet in Nazi Germany, musicians of genius such as Furtwängler had left incomparable performances of Beethoven. Steiner speaks of “a slow movement from a Bruckner symphony to mark the death of the Führer. We have a recording—and it too is fantastic; it’s one of the very great recordings....For many, many years I was trying to understand why music does not say No! at certain occasions....Which is a nonsense question. But is it a nonsense question? I still don’t know the answer.”[8]

Yet the void is never really an option: the numinous ground behind the appearances must exist if the Shoah is to retain more than factitious significance, if the intuitions of Kafka and Paul Celan’s halting witness of its psychic devastation were a point of reference to something rather than nothing. Steiner’s personal experience made this an impossibility for him—not just temperamentally, but as a matter of utter conviction. Near the end of Kafka’s “Before the Law” we find a remarkable, ambiguous passage on the dying moments of a character who has spent his entire life vainly seeking to pass through the gates of the Law: “At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law.” Might this illustrate Steiner’s intimations of the Logos—a Real Presence—streaming from the all-but-inscrutable but inescapable reality of scriptures sacred and profane, those gateways to the transcendent?

For Steiner there is an unbearable enigma in our culture, right at the crossroads of meaning and absurdity, that we must somehow endure. Man is faced with the ultimate questions: questions which are at once unanswerable and imperative. No man’s answer can ever be sufficient, but, like Oedipus, answer he must.

Robert Asch is a cofounder of the Saint Austin Review. His books include The Romantic Poets (Ignatius) and Lionel Johnson: Poetry and Prose (St. Austin Press, forthcoming). He lives in Preston, England, with his wife and children.

[1] Pierre Boutang, George Steiner, “Dialogue on Antigone and Abraham,” Oceaniques, ina.fr, 1987.

[2] All quotations, unless otherwise identified, are from George Steiner: A Reader (Oxford, 1984).

[3] The Book of Friends in The Selected Prose of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952), 362.

[4] “On Jewish History.”

[5] An interpreter between Arabic, Persian, Turkish and European languages and cultures. The word has Semitic roots and is etymologically related to “targum.”

[6] “On Jewish History.”

[7] “What’s Next for Music? Superman meets Beethoven,” Nexus Conference, June 11, 2010.

[8] Ibid.


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