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PERSUASIONS WE HAVE KNOWN: A REVIEW OF GEORGE STEINER'S GRAMMARS OF CREATION

What is on George Steiner’s mind? Exhibitionist memoirs. Slaughter in Eastern Europe. The Shoah. Electronic music. The Internet. Language. Heidegger. Creation. Shakespeare. Invention. Immortality. “At stake,” he writes near the end of Grammars of Creation, “is the fragility of the creative within us, the blighting ease with which we take leave of our creative selves.” Ominous sentences like this—and the book contains dozens of them—make me wonder, not only who Steiner’s “we” is, but whether he has taken leave of his senses.

Yale University Press calls Grammars of Creation Steiner’s “most radical” book to date. The book is not radical. If anything, it is the most conservative of the 14 books he has published since 1959, when his first, Tolstoy or Dostoevski, appeared. In Language and Silence, in 1965, Steiner said provocative and consequential things about then little-known thinkers (Walter Benjamin, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall McLuhan); about controversial subjects (pornography; the Germans, the German language, and the Holocaust); and about unpromising subjects (the study of literature). Now, it seems, he is at pains to fight old battles with atheists, deconstructionists, positivists, post-modernists, Americans, democrats, and popularizers. Now, it seems, Steiner is convinced that we must engage in serious theological questioning of art, music, philosophy, and literature—or lose “the life-transforming strengths of persuasion we have known.”

Grammars of Creation has three strengths: it is un-American; it has no single argument; it is unfashionable. It is a mood Steiner’s in; the whole book is a mood apart. Its weaknesses inhere in its strengths. Yale University Press will not be subsidizing other books from the sales of this one. Few undergraduates could read it; few graduate students will get past page 50; common readers may not make it past page 20. The first 80 pages will be hard going for anyone.

The main question Steiner addresses in the book occurred to him in 1983, while writing the “Introduction” to George Steiner: A Reader. “Can we get much further in our poetics of understanding, in our common pursuit of the identification, interpretation and transmission of that which is indispensable in literature and the arts without an acknowledged transcendence?” Grammars of Creation begins and ends with this question; but in 2001, the term is no longer “an acknowledged transcendence”: it is now “the God-hypothesis.” The bland, abstract ecumenicism in these two phrases clouds every page of Steiner’s new book. Is it “radical” to ask a largely secular, agnostic, and atheist readership to use the “God-hypothesis” as a means of furthering an understanding of poetics? Kierkegaard and Pascal must be turning in their graves.

To his credit, Steiner admits that the questions he is asking in Grammars of Creation may not be worth taking seriously; they may “merely invite vacuous high gossip.” This is not a new worry for Steiner. In 1983, he confessed to feeling haunted by thoughts that his work might be “divorced from the crisis of the humane.” But the fact that he spends the first few pages highlighting the crisis of “inhumanity” from ancient Rome to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans does not deter him from getting to the heart of his matter.

In a massive failure of perspective, a severe attack of category confusion, Steiner writes: “What I want to consider briefly is something of the impact of this darkened condition on grammar.” I think there are even dons in Cambridge who will wonder whether Steiner hasn’t lost his sense of proportion. As for the titular topic of grammar, in its egregious acadamese plural, it turns out to be a red herring, useful chiefly for setting up a Manichaean melodrama with “grammars of nihilism.” By “grammar,” Steiner means neither more nor less than “language.” But in this book—as was not the case in After Babel, dense as the lexicon in that study is—whatever Steiner can make academic, by shunning popular usage, he does, as in this meretricious gloss: “‘holocaust’ is a noble, technical Greek designation for religious sacrifice, not a name proper for controlled insanity and the ‘wind out blackness.’”

Polyglot, staunchly European, and unashamedly elitist, George Steiner is perhaps the most thoroughgoing man of letters of his generation. Born in Paris in 1929, he emigrated with his family in 1940 to the United States, where he seems to have learned first-hand, at the University of Chicago and then at Harvard, that “populist democracies are not necessarily inclined to excellence.” One of the charms of his new book is its relentless anti-Americanism, its aristocratic and unpopular mood. The chorus of “egalitarianism, populism, [and] the utopias of fraternity” cannot sing the “jubilations against despair.” Steiner registers the basso profundo of a “darker, more selective view of man.” The last thing he wants to be taken for is a pragmatist, an “interested” or “useful” party. This book will therefore seem belated and reactionary to the US professoriate; the laity, unless steeped like Steiner in German and French literature, will be stumped by it. Steiner knows this; he is unapologetic. “The icon of our age,” he announces, “is the preservation of a grove dear to Goethe within a concentration camp.” It sometimes seems as if “modernity” chiefly preoccupies Steiner because Kafka wrote Metamorphosis, “the key-fable of modernity,” and because it “renders plausible Camus’ famous saying: ‘The only serious philosophical question is that of suicide.’” The aesthete and the moralist could not wish for blacker touchstones.

Grammars of Creation “originated,” as the title page has it, in the Gifford Lectures for 1990. I had to read that again, to see if 1999 hadn’t been printed. In the eleven years since he delivered the lectures, Steiner has managed to take almost all of the spokenness out of them. The book has the tone neither of a lecture nor a conversation. Grammars is Steiner’s last tape. One need only pick up another book that “originated” in the Gifford lectures to make the comparison. William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) may keep too many ligatures from the lecture hall, but it is legible and audible—and persuasive—in a way that Steiner’s is not.

When I read the first serial from Grammars of Creation in Harper’s, I found it abstract, obscure, unhelpful, pedantic, obnoxious. My reading of the book has only deepened that impression. What has happened to George Steiner? While he has never been as surprising and helpful a writer as Guy Davenport, whose reading and range of reference are equally prodigious, or Isaiah Berlin, or Hannah Arendt, or even Arthur Koestler (his Act of Creation is an excellent study of many of the same topics Steiner takes up), Steiner has, until now, been true to his saying, in 1983, “that we write about books or about music or about art because ‘some primary instinct of communion’ would have us share with and communicate to others an overwhelming enrichment.” Now, Steiner seems willfully idiotic—or, to use the other Greek word he himself prefers, “autistic.” On the evidence of Grammars of Creation, the “overwhelming enrichment” that Steiner wished to express has taken the form of a burden, even a retard. He cannot lay it down. His “instinct of communion,” absorbed in a futile struggle of his own devising between “the grammars of creation” and the “grammars of nihilism,” has become involuted.

On the other hand, perhaps nothing has happened to George Steiner. He is still chanting the credo he has held for 40 years: that divine Creation must “underwrite” human creations. He is still re-writing Deism and aestheticism—post-Dada, post-Shoah, post-Heidegger. Against Laplace, the 18th-century mathematician who said he had no need of the hypothesis of God, Steiner insists throughout that we need it—not because we are Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, but because “Dante’s creativity is self-enclosed in Christian doctrine”; because “the ‘other’ in whose presence the writer and composer works is, time and again, a more or less imagined God”; because “in the begetting by writers and artists of fictive creatures . . . aesthetic theory and practice have found a close analogue to the divine creation of organic forms”; because “without the arts, the human psyche would stand naked in the face of personal extinction”; because we can survive death only by “authentic religious beliefs” or by way of “the aesthetic”; because “authorship . . . has served as the principle analogue for creation itself . . . of the coming into being of being.” And in faith as in art, there are no certainties, such as those known by scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Theological and aesthetic credos both “are inherently fallible assertions from the unplumbed depths of the spirit. They are jubilations against despair, neither refutable nor irrefutable.”

Steiner seems really to have suffered from the fact that assertions in his chosen discourse cannot be proven. He has never ducked the issue or pretended otherwise. “My argument, throughout,” he says at the outset, “is vulnerable and open to what Kierkegaard called ‘the wounds of negativity.’” In a 1960 essay on “Georg Lukacs and his Devil’s Pact,” included in Language and Silence, Steiner wrote: “By its very nature, criticism is personal. It is susceptible neither of demonstration nor of coherent proof.” From Gautier to Wilde to T.S. Eliot, the erection into laws of one’s personal impressions has been the rule of criticism. Steiner adheres to the rule. In this sense, Grammars of Creation, holding hard to the idiom of critical argument, may be his most personal book. Though he offers no “personal recollection,” such as he did in the “Epilogue” to The Death of Tragedy (1961)—many years before that became a hallmark of new historicist (Stephen Greenblatt) and lesbian and gay criticism (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick)—Steiner is coming as close he can, given his manners and station, to baring his soul before scientists who will find him “ludicrous” and intellectuals who will find him “obsolete.”

The book is written in a fast, terse style. Its rush of short, magisterial claims in the indicative mood suggest that Steiner is in a hurry to have the last word, as if this book might be his last word. The pace and mood make his asides—that he’s working in “wholly conjectural domains”—gratuitous. His determination to move forward bears the stamp of a mind made up—which, in the main, it is. Grammars of Creation is a summa of Steiner’s previous books, recapitulating their themes, arguments, touchstones, and texts. (“‘Theme and variation’ is not only a musical device, but the linguistically ordained dynamic of literature in toto.”) Here, he seems to have aimed for a lapidary effect. With a few exceptions, though—“We now remember the futures that were,” for example, and “Re-reading is a minor key of everlastingness”—his aphoristic phrasing is more hectoring than memorable. Concise (“Vermeer, Chardin paint silence”) and elliptical (e.g., on the distinction between “a thought authentically new and a thought whose terms of reference are only materially-historically new”) on every page, Steiner often indulges, for the sake of a synonym or a summary of a school of thought, in a preening inclusiveness. The following passage illustrates the effect:

This equality resolves, sublates, the primordial conflict between spirit and matter, between reality and the conceptual or imaginary appropriations and negations of such reality, between the absence of existential reality from all linguistic and symbolic designations and the real presence which must nevertheless ‘inhabit’ the sign (Hölderlin’s formulation rigorously prefigures the semantics of negation and erasure in theories of deconstruction).

If it took him years to remove what he calls, in another context, “the encumbrances of material contingency” from his lectures, Steiner’s prose suffers from that effort. The variousness and leisure of his syntax in After Babel is gone; the passion and focus of his argument in Language and Silence and The Death of Tragedy are gone.

Missing here, too, is the Steiner of arresting openings and surprising conclusions. “We cannot be certain that there is, either in language or in the forms of art, a law of the conservation of energy” (“Tragedy and Myth,” The Death of Tragedy, 1961). “There are three intellectual pursuits, and, so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess” (“A Death of Kings,” Extraterritorial, 1968). “Damn the man” (“The Cleric of Treason,” 1980).

“The Cleric of Treason,” Steiner’s demolition of the art connoisseur, critic, and double-agent Anthony Blunt, has stayed with me for twenty years. It is dramatic, thorough, suggestive, irreproachable. The brilliant opening, in which Steiner introduces his subject as “the twenty-nine-year old art critic of the London Spectator,” captures Blunt’s historical, social, and academic milieu. It delivers a consummate critique of Blunt’s literary style, a thorough description of what his work as a cataloguer was like, and a chronicle of his rising stature as a scholar—all in ten pages. And then this: “I do not know just when Blunt was recruited into Soviet espionage.” Re-reading the essay, I realize that much of its force comes from Steiner’s identification with Blunt: “I, too, have taken the vows of the cleric.” Like Blunt, Steiner is “the utmost scholar”:

He is, when in the grip of his pursuit, monomaniacally disinterested in the possible usefulness of his findings, in the good fortune or honor that they may bring him, in whether or not any but one or two other men or women on earth care for, can even begin to understand or evaluate, what he is after. This disinterestedness is the dignity of his mania. . . . To the utmost scholar, sleep is a puzzle of wasted time, and flesh a piece of torn luggage that the spirit must drag after it.

Though unable to find out exactly when Blunt was recruited, Steiner knew exactly how Blunt came to possess his formidable credentials, and how such credentials are valued and exchanged in Cambridge, Oxford, and London. Into this intimacy of understanding, Steiner weaves untimely meditations on homosexuality, humanism, and intellectual violence (“odium philologicum”). The damnation of Blunt with which the essay ends could not be more credible or dramatic.

Few essays convey a deeper sense of the vocation of scholarship and the tensions it breeds. For Steiner as for Blunt, “the pulse of most vivid presence beats from out of the past.” That pulse, one of the central themes of Steiner’s career, does not beat vividly in this new book. Like one of Poe’s obsessives, Steiner seems be boarding up or bricking in his own auctoritas, his own “wager on everlastingness.” The “new” material in Grammars of Creation, while it will add to Steiner’s reputation as a polymath, distends the book, which includes both an impressive survey of current mathematical ideas and a meditation (yet another) on the future of books, the World Wide Web, and the obsolete vocabularies in which Grammars itself is written. Steiner seems to have spent two or three years working through primary and secondary texts on mathematical process (Paul Erdos, Alan Touring, John von Neumann), cyberspace, the Internet, information theory and technology, and virtual reality. His gleanings on the relations between “pure mathematics” and “absolute poetry” reduce to the unsurprising finding that “the arts are more indispensable to men and women than even the best of science and technology.” If the equation and the axiom have the truth, Steiner says, “it is a lesser truth.”

The best part of the book is the last thirty pages, where Steiner finally makes good on his promise, some fifty pages earlier, to consider “the intentionality of literature in reference to the topos of survival, of ‘immortality.’” It is here that Steiner all but “rules” (a verb he frequently uses to characterize the predicates of his authors) that human creations must be answerable to one divine Creation. It is a serious ruling, made in behalf of those “masters of form” who have “borne witness to their wager on lastingness, to the contract they hope to have signed with tomorrow.” The seriousness is underscored by Steiner’s stipulations: every difference, every qualification, every “lapidary pride” a poet takes in a line, is “seminal,” “decisive,” “strenuous,” “essential,” “drastic,” “stark,” “grave.” Why? Because Steiner hears all around him “literary avowals and exhibitionist indiscretions” that threaten to drown out the echoes of Plato, Shakespeare, and Dante (the most discussed “masters of form” in Grammars). Because “today, I venture, even the most charismatic of philosophers, even the most self-dramatizing of writers, painters or composers, find embarrassing, if not downright ludicrous, the claims to perdurance which have been the rallying cry since Pindar, Horace, and Ovid.” Silence and privacy are devalued; an “ancien régime of aloneness and reserve” has collapsed; “populist democracy” dwells in an “echo-chamber of interminable gossip.” Steiner wants no part of it; he prefers Bacon’s “lumen siccum.” This book is Steiner’s “dry light,” and he picks his fastidious way among the ruins by its glow, as “grammars of nihilism flicker” on the horizon.

In his forty years of reading, re-reading, writing, and teaching, Steiner’s obsession with “creation” has carried with it the feeling that he is being compelled to question. Looking back in 1983 on his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevski, Steiner wrote that “the sheer impact” of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov, “their mastering seizure of our thoughts, feelings and, indeed, conduct, compels the question of creation (poesis).” Most readers would not go so far. Most readers would wonder why Steiner phrases his response in this way, lodging his impressions in the third person (“What does he mean by ‘the question of creation’?”). After all, Steiner is feeling what any reader who gets so engrossed in a novel, so fascinated by a character, so eager to know what happens next, that he or she can’t put the book down, feels. Why is creation a question? What, or who, “compels” it? But critics differ from readers in feeling compelled to ask why they have been seized by a book, and how a book makes its impact.

In Grammars of Creation, Steiner speculates that we are compelled by works of literature because their creation partakes of Creation, “the story out of Genesis,” a story of “a coming into being which we do not understand.” When Robert Frost was asked where a poem comes from, his answer was “animus.” Steiner’s is similar: works of literature, art, and philosophy come from, and provide, “a confidentiality of being, where the etymology of ‘confidential’ encloses a triplicity: there is trust (‘confiding’), there is hope (‘confidence’), and there is faith (fide). Words do remind us unnervingly of our losses.”

In that last sentence, the elegiac mood of Steiner’s new book is captured. But Steiner could not leave it at that. He seems to think that such losses can be restored by retrieving the discarded “assumptions of faith and of a transcendental metaphysics.” He tries very hard, in the last few pages, to be a prophet of things to come, as, in the first pages, he tried to be a lamenter of things past (the effects of which, he assures us, we have yet to realize). Instead, he is merely pompous: “I put forward the intuition, provisional and qualified, that the ‘language-animal’ we have been since ancient Greece so designated us, is undergoing mutation.” Therefore, he continues, without provision or qualification, “what we have known of both ‘creation’ and ‘invention’ will have to be re-thought.” That this re-thinking is done every day by people everywhere is a thought too mundane for Steiner. He is hearing the echo of Blake’s “Mock on, Voltaire, Mock on, Rousseau,” and he is writing: “The God-hypothesis will not be mocked without cost.”

As an apologia pro vita sua, published in Steiner’s seventy-second year, Grammars of Creation is weirdly heroic. But as a “literary avowal” and an “exhibitionist indiscretion,” it will perish of its own “reserve.” “Hope makes a good breakfast,” Bacon said, “but an ill supper.”

published by Lyall Bush in PORT, an online journal of the Humanities, Seattle, 2001

 
   

 

A BEDROOM OCCUPATION BY MARK SCOTT

Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646

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