Grammars of Creationby George Steiner
Early in Grammars of Creation, George Steiner references Plato’s maxim that in “all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent.” Creation, he argues, is linguistically fundamental in theology,/i>/b>/i>/b>
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“A fresh, revelatory, golden eagle’s eye-view of western literature.” —Financial Times
Early in Grammars of Creation, George Steiner references Plato’s maxim that in “all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent.” Creation, he argues, is linguistically fundamental in theology, philosophy, art, music, literature—central, in fact, to our very humanity. Since the Holocaust, however, art has shown a tendency to linger on endings—on sundown instead of sunrise. Asserting that every use of the future tense of the verb “to be” is a negation of mortality, Steiner draws on everything from world wars and the Nazis to religion and the word of God to demonstrate how our grammar reveals our perceptions, reflections, and experiences. His study shows the twentieth century to be largely a failed one, but also offers a glimpse of hope for Western civilization, a new light peeking just over the horizon.
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Grammars of Creation
Originating in the Gifford Lecures for 1990
By George Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
We have no more beginnings. Incipit: that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty "inception." The medieval scribe marks the opening line, the new chapter with an illuminated capital. In its golden or carmine vortex the illuminator of manuscripts sets heraldic beasts, dragons at morning, singers and prophets. The initial, where this term signifies beginning and primacy, acts as a fanfare. It declares Plato's maxim—by no means self-evident—whereby in all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent. Today, in Western orientations—observe the muted presence of morning light in that word—the reflexes, the turns of perception, are those of afternoon, of twilight. (I am generalizing. My argument, throughout, is vulnerable and open to what Kierkegaard called "the wounds of negativity.")
There have been previous senses of ending and fascinations with sundown in Western culture. Philosophic witness, the arts, historians of feeling report on "closing-times in the gardens of the West" during the crises of the Roman imperial order, during the apocalyptic fears at the approach of the first millennium A.D., in the wake of the Black Death and the Thirty Years' War. Motions of decay, of autumn and failing light have always attached to men and women's awareness of physical ruin, of common mortality. Moralists, even prior to Montaigne, pointed out that the newborn infant is old enough to die. There is in the most confident metaphysical construct, in the most affirmative work of art a memento mori, a labour, implicit or explicit, to hold at bay the seepage of fatal time, of entropy into each and every living form. It is from this wrestling-match that philosophic discourse and the generation of art derive their informing stress, the unresolved tautness of which logic and beauty are formal modes. The cry "the great god Pan is dead" haunts even those societies with which we associate, perhaps too conventionally, the gusto of optimism.
Nevertheless, there is, I think, in the climate of spirit at the end of the twentieth century, a core-tiredness. The inward chronometry, the contracts with time which so largely determine our consciousness, point to late afternoon in ways that are ontological—this is to say, of the essence, of the fabric of being. We are, or feel ourselves to be, latecomers. The dishes are being cleared. "Time, ladies and gents, time." Valediction in the air. Such apprehensions are the more compelling because they run counter to the fact that, in the developed economies, individual life-spans and expectancies are increasing. Yet the shadows lengthen. We seem to bend earthward and towards night as do heliotropic plants.
A thirst for explanation, for causality, inhabits our nature. We do want to know: Why? What conceivable hypothesis can elucidate a phenomenology, a structure of felt experience, as diffuse, as manifold in its expressions, as that of "terminality"? Are such questions worth asking seriously, or do they merely invite vacuous high gossip? I am not certain.
Inhumanity is, so far as we have historical evidence, perennial. There have been no utopias, no communities of justice or forgiveness. Our current alarms—at the violence in our streets, at the famines in the so-called third world, at regressions into barbaric ethnic conflicts, at the possibility of pandemic disease—must be seen against the background of a quite exceptional moment. Roughly from the time of Waterloo to that of the massacres on the Western Front in 1915–16, the European bourgeoisie experienced a privileged season, an armistice with history. Underwritten by the exploitation of industrial labour at home and colonial rule abroad, Europeans knew a century of progress, of liberal dispensations, of reasonable hope. It is in the afterglow, no doubt idealized, of this exceptional calendar—note the constant comparison of the years prior to August 1914 with a "long summer"—that we suffer our present discomforts.
When, however, allowance is made for selective nostalgia and illusion, the truth persists: for the whole of Europe and Russia, this century became a time out of hell. Historians estimate at more than seventy million the number of men, women, and children done to death by warfare, starvation, deportation, political murder, and disease between August 1914 and "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. There have been hideous visitations of pestilence, famine, and slaughter before. The collapse of humaneness in this twentieth century has specific enigmas. It arises not from riders on the distant steppe or barbarians at the gates. National Socialism, Fascism, Stalinism (though, in this latter instance, more opaquely) spring from within the context, the locale, the administrative-social instruments of the high places of civilization, of education, of scientific progress and humanizing deployment, be it Christian or Enlightened. I do not want to enter into the vexed, in some manner demeaning, debates over the uniqueness of the Shoah ("holocaust" is a noble, technical Greek designation for religious sacrifice, not a name proper for controlled insanity and the "wind out of blackness"). But it does look as if the Nazi extermination of European Jewry is a "singularity," not so much in respect of scale—Stalinism killed far more—but motivation. Here a category of human persons, down to infancy, were proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, the mere claim to life.
The catastrophe which overtook European and Slavic civilization was particular in another sense. It undid previous advances. Even the ironists of the Enlightenment (Voltaire) had confidently predicted the lasting abolition of judicial torture in Europe. They had ruled inconceivable a general return to censorship, to the burning of books, let alone of heretics or dissenters. Nineteenth-century liberalism and scientific positivism regarded as self-evident the expectation that the spread of schooling, of scientific-technological knowledge and yield, of free travel and contact among communities would bring with them a steady improvement in civility, in political tolerance, in the mores of private and public business. Each of these axioms of reasoned hope has been proved false. It is not only that education has shown itself incapable of making sensibility and cognition resistant to murderous unreason. Far more disturbingly, the evidence is that refined intellectuality, artistic virtuosity and appreciation, scientific eminence will collaborate actively with totalitarian demands or, at best, remain indifferent to surrounding sadism. Resplendent concerts, exhibitions in great museums, the publication of learned books, the pursuit of academic research both scientific and humanistic, flourish within close reach of the death-camps. Technocratic ingenuity will serve or remain neutral at the call of the inhuman. The icon of our age is the preservation of a grove dear to Goethe within a concentration camp.
We have not begun to gauge the damage to man—as a species, as one entitling himself sapiens— inflicted by events since 1914. We do not begin to grasp the co-existence in time and in space, a co-existence sharpened by the immediacy of graphic and verbal presentation in the global mass media, of Western superfluity and the starvation, the destitution, the infant mortality which now batten on some three-fifths of mankind. There is a dynamic of clear-sighted lunacy in our waste of what is left of natural resources, of fauna and flora. The South Col of Everest is a garbage dump. Forty years after Auschwitz, the Khmer Rouge buries alive an estimated hundred thousand innocent human beings. The rest of the world, fully apprised of the fact, does nothing. New weapons soon start flowing from our factories to the killing fields. To repeat: violence, oppression, economic enslavement and social irrationality have been endemic in history, whether tribal or metropolitan. But this century has, owing to the magnitude of massacre, to the insane contrast between available wealth and actual misère, to the probability that thermonuclear and bacterial weapons could, in fact, terminate man and his environment, given to despair a new warrant. It has raised the distinct possibility of a reversal of evolution, of a systematic turn-about towards bestialization. It is this which makes Kafka's Metamorphosis the key-fable of modernity or which, despite Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, renders plausible Camus's famous saying: "The only serious philosophical question is that of suicide."
What I want to consider briefly is something of the impact of this darkened condition on grammar. Where I take grammar to mean the articulate organization of perception, reflection and experience, the nerve structure of consciousness when it communicates with itself and with others. I intuit (these are, of course, almost wholly conjectural domains) that the future tense came relatively late into human speech. It may have developed as late as the end of the last Ice Age, together with the "futurities" entailed by food-storage, by the making and preservation of tools beyond immediate need, and by the very gradual discovery of animal-breeding and agriculture. In some meta- or pre-linguistic register, animals would appear to know presentness and, one supposes, a measure of remembrance. The future tense, the ability to discuss possible events on the day after one's funeral or in stellar space a million years hence, looks to be specific to homo sapiens. As does the use of subjunctive and of counterfactual modes which are themselves kindred, as it were, to future tenses. It is only man, so far as we can conceive, who has the means of altering his world by resort to "if"-clauses, who can generate clauses such as: "if Caesar had not gone to the Capitol that day." It seems to me that this fantastic, formally incommensurable "grammatology" of verb-futures, of subjunctives and optatives proved indispensable to the survival, to the evolution of the "language-animal" confronted, as we were and are, by the scandal, by the incomprehensibility of individual death. There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb "to be" is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an "if"-sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. "Shall," "will," and "if," circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden centre or nucleus of potentiality, are the pass-words to hope.
Hope and fear are supreme fictions empowered by syntax. They are as indivisible from each other as they are from grammar. Hope encloses a fear of unfulfilment. Fear has in it a mustard-seed of hope, the intimation of overcoming. It is the status of hope today which is problematic. On any but the trivial, momentary level, hope is a transcendental inference. It is underwritten by theological-metaphysical presumptions, in the strict sense of this word which connotes a possibly unjustified investment, a purchase, as the bourse would say, of "futures." "Hoping" is a speech-act, inward or outwardly communicative, which "presumes" a listener, be it the self. Of this act, prayer is an exemplary case. The theological foundation is that which allows, which requires the desideratum, the forward venture and intent to be addressed to divine hearers in "the hope," precisely, of support or, at the least, understanding. The metaphysical reinsurance is that of a rational organisation of the world—Descartes must gamble on the supposition that our senses and intellect are not the toys of a malignant deceiver—and, even more importantly, on a morality of distributive justice. Hope would be meaningless in a wholly irrational order or in one of arbitrary, absurdist ethics. Hope, as it has structured the human psyche and behaviour, is only trivially operative where reward and punishment are determined by lottery (gamblers' hopes at roulette are exactly of this vacant order).
The formally religious subscription of the act of hope, direct resort to supernatural intervention, has weakened almost continually in Western history and individual consciousness. It has atrophied into more or less superficial ritual and inert figures of speech. Unthinking, one still "hopes to God." The philosophical edifice of hope is that of Cartesian rationality (where, most subtly, the theological drifts, like sand in an hour-glass, into the metaphysical and the scientific). It is that of Leibniz's optimism and, most eminently, of Kantian morality. A shared pulse of progress, of meliorism, energizes the philosophic-ethical enterprise from the early seventeenth century to the positivism of Comte. There are dissenters from hope, visionaries made desperate such as Pascal or Kierkegaard. But they speak from the margin. The prevailing motion of spirit makes of hope not only a fuel for political, social, and scientific action, but a reasonable mood. European revolutions, the improvement of social justice and material well-being, are crystallizations of hoped-for futurity; they are rational advents to tomorrow.
Out of Mosaic and prophetic Judaism grew two major branches or "heresies." The first is that of Christianity, with its promise of God's kingdom to come, of reparation for unjust suffering, of a Last Judgement and eternity of love through the Son. The future tense of the verb inhabits nearly every saying of Jesus. He is, for his followers, hope made flesh. The second branch, largely Jewish in its theoreticians and early proponents, is that of utopian socialism and, most signally, of Marxism. Here the claims on transcendence are made immanent, the kingdom of justice and equality, of peace and prosperity, is proclaimed to be of this world. With the voice of Amos, socialist idealism and Marxist-Leninist communism cry anathema on selfish wealth, on social oppression, on the crippling of countless common lives by insensate greed. The desert marches on the city. After the bitter struggle (after Golgotha) comes "the exchange of love for love, of justice for justice."
The twentieth century has put in doubt the theological, the philosophical, and the political-material insurance for hope. It queries the rationale and credibility of future tenses. It makes understandable the statement that "there is abundance of hope, but none for us" (Franz Kafka).
It is not the cant-phrase "the death of God," in fact predating Nietzsche and to which I am unable to assign any arguable meaning, that is pertinent. The determinant of our current situation is more embracing. I would call it "the eclipse of the messianic." In Western religious systems, the messianic, whether personalized or metaphoric, has signified renovation, the end of historical temporality and the coming in glory of an after-world. Over and again, the future tense of hope has sought to date this event (the year 1000 or 1666 or, among present-day chiliastic sects, the imminent turn of our millennium). In a literal sense, hope has sprung eternal. Western faiths are redemption-narratives. But the messianic is no less instrumental in secular programmes. For anarchist and Marxist imaginings of futurity, it will be represented by the "withering away of the state." Behind this figure, lie Kant's argument on universal peace and the Hegelian thesis of an end to history. In a paradoxical regard, the messianic can be independent of any postulate of God: it stands for man's access to perfectibility, to a higher and, presumably, enduring condition of reason and of justice. Again, on both the transcendental and the immanent levels of reference—these two being always closely related in a dialectical reciprocity—we are undergoing a radical displacement. Who except fundamentalists now awaits the actual coming of a Messiah? Who except literalists of a lost communism or anarcho-socialist Arcadia now awaits the actual re-birth of history?
Excerpted from Grammars of Creation by George Steiner. Copyright © 2001 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
George Steiner, author of dozens of books (including The Death of Tragedy, After Babel, Martin Heidegger, In Bluebeard’s Castle, My Unwritten Books, George Steiner at the New Yorker, and The Poetry of Thought), is one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. He has been professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, professor of comparative literature and fellow at the University of Oxford, and professor of poetry at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he has been an Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge since 1969.
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