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Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

by George Steiner

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A collection of essays and articles about the life of language, and its role in a world where words are used to manipulate as often as they are used to convey meaning
Language and Silence
is a book about language—and politics, meaning, silence, and the future of literature. Originally published between 1958 and 1966, the essays that make up this


A collection of essays and articles about the life of language, and its role in a world where words are used to manipulate as often as they are used to convey meaning
Language and Silence
is a book about language—and politics, meaning, silence, and the future of literature. Originally published between 1958 and 1966, the essays that make up this collection ponder whether we have passed out of an era of verbal primacy and into one of post-linguistic forms—or partial silence. Steiner explores the idea of the abandonment of contemporary literary criticism, from the classics to the works of William Shakespeare, Lawrence Durell, Thomas Mann, Leon Trotsky, and more.

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Language and Silence

Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

By George Steiner


Copyright © 1967 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1189-0



When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch's shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow? All great writing springs from le dur désir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation. "Brightness falls from the air": five words and a trick of darkening sound. But they have outworn three centuries. Who would choose to be a literary critic if he could set verse to sing, or compose, out of his own mortal being, a vital fiction, a character that will endure? Most men have their dusty survivance in old telephone directories (it is a mercy that these are kept at the British Museum); there is in the literal fact of their existence less of life's truth and harvest than in Falstaff or Madame de Guermantes. To have imagined these.

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. By virtue of style, criticism can itself become literature. But usually this occurs only when the writer is acting as critic of his own work or as outrider to his own poetics, when the criticism of Coleridge is work in progress or that of T. S. Eliot propaganda. Is there anyone but Sainte-Beuve who belongs to literature purely as a critic? It is not criticism that makes the language live.

These are simple truths (and the honest critic says them to himself in the gray of morning). But we are in danger of forgetting them, because the present time is peculiarly charged with autonomous critical energy and prestige. Critical journals pour out a deluge of commentary or exegesis; in America there are schools of criticism. The critic exists as a persona in his own right; his persuasions and quarrels have a public role. Critics write about critics, and the bright young man, instead of regarding criticism as defeat, as a gradual, bleak coming to terms with the ash and grit of one's limited talent, thinks of it as a career of high note. This would merely be funny; but it has a corrosive effect. As never before, the student and the person interested in the current of literature reads reviews and critiques of books rather than the books themselves, or before he has made the effort of personal judgment. Dr. Leavis' statement of the maturity and intelligence of George Eliot is part of the common coin of present feeling. How many of those who can echo it have actually read Felix Holt or Daniel Deronda? Mr. Eliot's essay on Dante is a commonplace in literary education; the Commedia is known, if at all, in a few brief excerpts (Inferno XXVI or Ugolino famished ). The true critic is servant to the poet; today he is acting as master, or being taken as such. He omits Zarathustra's last, most vital lesson: "now, do without me."

Precisely one hundred years ago, Matthew Arnold saw a similar breadth and salience of critical impulse. He recognized that this impulse was secondary to that of the writer, that the joy and importance of creation were of a radically higher order. But he regarded the period of critical bustle as a necessary prelude to a new poetic age. We come after, and that is the nerve of our condition. After the unprecedented ruin of humane values and hopes by the political bestiality of our age.

That ruin is the starting point of any serious thought about literature and the place of literature in society. Literature deals essentially and continually with the image of man, with the shape and motive of human conduct. We cannot act now, be it as critics or merely as rational beings, as if nothing of vital relevance had happened to our sense of the human possibility, as if the extermination by hunger or violence of some seventy million men, women, and children in Europe and Russia between 1914 and 1945 had not altered, profoundly, the quality of our awareness. We cannot pretend that Belsen is irrelevant to the responsible life of the imagination. What man has inflicted on man, in very recent time, has affected the writer's primary material—the sum and potential of human behavior—and it presses on the brain with a new darkness.

Moreover, it puts in question the primary concepts of a literary, humanistic culture. The ultimate of political barbarism grew from the core of Europe. Two centuries after Voltaire had proclaimed its end, torture again became a normal process of political action. Not only did the general dissemination of literary, cultural values prove no barrier to totalitarianism; but in notable instances the high places of humanistic learning and art actually welcomed and aided the new terror. Barbarism prevailed on the very ground of Christian humanism, of Renaissance culture and classic rationalism. We know that some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been taught to read Shakespeare or Goethe, and continued to do so.

This is of obvious and appalling relevance to the study or teaching of literature. It compels us to ask whether knowledge of the best that has been thought and said does, as Matthew Arnold asserted, broaden and refine the resources of the human spirit. It forces us to wonder whether what Dr. Leavis has called "the central humanity" does, in fact, educate toward humane action, or whether there is not between the tenor of moral intelligence developed in the study of literature and that required in social and political choice a wide gap or contrariety. The latter possibility is particularly disturbing. There is some evidence that a trained, persistent commitment to the life of the printed word, a capacity to identify deeply and critically with imaginary personages or sentiments, diminishes the immediacy, the hard edge of actual circumstance. We come to respond more acutely to the literary sorrow than to the misery next door. Here also recent times give harsh evidence. Men who wept at Werther or Chopin moved, unrealizing, through literal hell.

This means that whoever teaches or interprets literature—and both are exercises seeking to build for the writer a body of living, discerning response—must ask of himself what he is about (to tutor, to guide someone through Lear or the Oresteia is to take into one's hand the springs of his being). Assumptions regarding the value of literate culture to the moral perception of the individual and society were self-evident to Johnson, Coleridge, and Arnold. They are now in doubt. We must countenance the possibility that the study and transmission of literature may be of only marginal significance, a passionate luxury like the preservation of the antique. Or, at worst, that it may detract from more urgent and responsible uses of time and energy of spirit. I do not believe either to be true. But the question must be asked and explored without cant. Nothing is more worrying regarding the present state of English studies in the universities than the fact that such inquiry should be deemed bizarre or subversive. It is of the essence.

This is where the claim of the natural sciences derives its force. Pointing to their criteria of empirical verification and to their tradition of collaborative achievement (in contrast to the apparent idiosyncrasy and egotism of literary argument), scientists have been tempted to assert that their own methods and vision are now at the center of civilization, that the ancient primacy of poetic statement and metaphysical image is over. And though the evidence is uncertain, it does seem likely that of the aggregate of available talent, many, and many of the best, have turned to the sciences. In the quattrocento one would have wished to know the painters; today, the sense of inspired joy, of the mind in free, unshadowed play, is with the physicists, the biochemists, and the mathematicians.

But we must not be deceived. The sciences will enrich language and the resources of feeling (as Thomas Mann showed in Felix Krull, it is from astrophysics and microbiology that we may reap our future myths, the terms of our metaphors). The sciences will recast our surroundings and the context of leisure or subsistence in which culture is viable. But though they are of inexhaustible fascination and frequent beauty, the natural and mathematical sciences are only rarely of ultimate interest. I mean that they have added little to our knowledge or governance of human possibility, that there is demonstrably more of insight into the matter of man in Homer, Shakespeare, or Dostoevsky than in the entirety of neurology or statistics. No discovery of genetics impairs or surpasses what Proust knew of the spell or burden of lineage; each time Othello reminds us of the rust of dew on the bright blade we experience more of the sensual, transient reality in which our lives must pass than it is the business or ambition of physics to impart. No sociometry of political motive or tactics outweighs Stendhal.

And it is precisely the "objectivity," the moral neutrality in which the sciences rejoice and attain their brilliant community of effort, that bar them from final relevance. Science may have given tools and insane pretences of rationality to those who devised mass murder. It tells us scarcely anything of their motives, a topic on which Aeschylus or Dante would be worth hearing. Nor, to judge by the naive political statements put forward by our present alchemists, can it do much to make the future less vulnerable to the inhuman. Much of the light we possess on our essential, inward condition is still gathered by the poet.

But, undeniably, many parts of the mirror are today cracked or blurred. The dominant characteristic of the present literary scene is the excellence of "nonfiction"—of reportage, history, philosophic argument, biography, the critical essay—over traditional imaginative forms. Most of the novels, poems, and plays produced in the past two decades are simply not as well written, not as strongly felt, as are modes of writing in which the imagination obeys the impulse of fact. Madame de Beauvoir's memoirs are what her novels should have been, marvels of physical and psychological immediacy; Edmund Wilson writes the best prose in America; none of the numerous novels or poems that have taken on the dread theme of the concentration camps rivals the truth, the controlled poetic mercy of Bruno Bettelheim's factual analysis, The Informed Heart. It is as if the complication, pace, and political enormity of our age had bewildered and driven back the confident master-builder's imagination of classic literature and the nineteenth-century novel. A novel by Butor and Naked Lunch are both escapes. The avoidance of the major human note, or the derision of that note through erotic and sadistic fantasy, points to the same failure of creation. Monsieur Beckett is moving, with unflinching Irish logic, toward a form of drama in which a character, his feet trapped in concrete and his mouth gagged, will stare at the audience and say nothing. The imagination has supped its fill of horrors and of the unceremonious trivia through which modern horror is often expressed. As rarely before, poetry is tempted by silence.

It is in this context of privation and uncertitude that criticism has its modest yet vital place. Its function is, I believe, threefold.

First, it may show us what to reread, and how. The sum of literature is obviously immense, and the pressure of the new constant. One must choose, and in that choice criticism has its use. This does not mean that it should play the role of destiny and single out a handful of authors or works as the only valid tradition, excluding others (the mark of good criticism is that it opens more books than it closes). It means that from the vast, entangled legacy of the past, criticism will bring to light and sustain that which speaks to the present with particular directness or exaction.

This is the proper distinction between the critic and the historian of literature or philologist. To the latter the value of a text is intrinsic; it has a linguistic or chronological fascination independent of larger relevance. The critic, while availing himself of the scholar's authority on the primary meaning and integrity of the work, must choose. And his bias will be toward that which enters into dialogue with the living.

Each generation makes its choice. There is permanent poetry but hardly any permanent criticism. Tennyson shall have his day, and Donne his eclipse. Or to give an instance less dependent on the play of fashion: before the war, it was commonplace in the French lycées in which I was educated to consider Virgil as a fussy, nerveless imitator of Homer. Any boy would tell you so with cool assurance. With disaster, and the routine of flight and exile, this view changed radically. Virgil now seemed the more mature, the more necessary witness. Simone Weil's perverse reading of the Iliad, and Hermann Broch's Death of Virgil are both part of this revaluation. Time, both historically and on the scale of personal life, alters our view of a work or body of art. There is, notoriously, a poetry of the young and a prose of the aged. Because their trumpetings of a golden future contrast ironically with our actual experience, the romantics have moved out of focus. The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, though their language is often remote and intricate, seem nearer to our speech. Criticism can make these changes of need fruitful and discriminating. It can summon from the past what the genius of the present draws upon (the best of French prose at the moment has behind it the sinew of Diderot). And it can remind us that our alternances of judgment are neither axiomatic nor of lasting validity. The great critic will "feel ahead"; he will lean over the horizon and prepare the context of future recognition. At times he hears the echo when the voice is forgotten, or before it is known. There were those who sensed, in the 1920s, that the time of Blake and Kierkegaard was at hand, or who discerned, ten years later, the general truth in the private nightmare of Kafka. This does not mean choosing winners; it means knowing that the work of art stands in a complex, provisional relation to time.

Secondly, criticism can connect. In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian. It is part of his job to see that a political regime cannot visit oblivion or distortion on the work of a writer, that of books burned the ash is gathered and deciphered.

Even as he seeks to establish the dialogue between past and present, so the critic will try to keep open the lines of contact between languages. Criticism widens and complicates the map of sensibility. It insists that literatures do not live in isolation, but in a manifold of linguistic and national encounters. Criticism delights in affinity and the far leap of example. It knows that the incitements of a major talent or poetic form spread outward in intricate patterns of diffusion. It works à l'ensigne de Saint-Jérôme, knowing that there are no exact equivalences between languages, only betrayals, but that the attempt to translate is a constant need if the poem is to achieve its full life. Both critic and translator strive to communicate discovery.

In practice, this means that literature should be taught and interpreted in a comparative way. To have no direct acquaintance with the Italian epic when judging Spenser, to value Pope without a sure grasp of Boileau, to consider the performance of the Victorian novel and of James without a close awareness of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, is to read thinly or falsely. It is academic feudalism that draws sharp lines between the study of English and of Modern Languages. Is English not a modern language, vulnerable and resilient, at all points in its history, to the pressure of European vernaculars and of the European tradition of rhetoric and genre? But the question cuts deeper than academic discipline. The critic who declares that a man can know only one language well, that the national inheritance of poetry or the national tradition of the novel is alone valid or supreme, is closing doors where they should be opened, is narrowing the mind where it should be brought to the sense of a large and equal achievement. Chauvinism has cried havoc in politics; it has no place in literature. The critic—and here again he differs from the writer—is not a man to stay in his own garden.


Excerpted from Language and Silence by George Steiner. Copyright © 1967 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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