Commentary Magazine


After Babel, by George Steiner

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.
by George Steiner.
Oxford University Press 507 pp. $17.50.

Through seven books and countless essays (most notably in the New Yorker), George Steiner has attempted to follow the vocation of the man of letters, to apply a literary sensibility to every aspect of culture. To this task he has brought some formidable equipment: trilingual from childhood, he possesses an impressive erudition in the major literatures of Western culture and a writing style at once elegant, ornate, and, above all, copious, which has served him as a glittering vehicle for the display of that erudition. In pursuing the vocation of general cultural critic, Steiner has exercised his erudition and style upon a range of issues far broader than those usually approached in conventional literary criticism. Thus, in Language and Silence, he concerned himself with the relation between literature and the various forms of totalitarianism; in In Bluebeard’s Castle, he proposed a “meaning” for the Holocaust and reflected on the future of civilization in its aftermath; now, in After Babel, he has attempted to confront the significance of the newly evolving sciences of language for the theory of translation and the study of literature. More than all his earlier writings, however, this most recent and ambitious book raises the question of whether all Steiner’s erudition and elegance have actually served to integrate the complexities of culture or, rather, to confuse them through violent simplification.

As its title suggests, Steiner’s major concern in this book is with the diversity of language. There are, it seems, no fewer than five thousand mutually incomprehensible languages spoken throughout the world, virtually all of which are equally rich, though in different ways. Steiner argues that there are no physical, geographical, or evolutionary reasons sufficient to explain this diversity of languages; indeed, their existence not only contradicts the almost universal uniformity of human biological and mental structures, but has proven historically destructive: many communities in the past have withered and perished as a result of their linguistic isolation. For Steiner, this “destructive prodigality” embodies the essential paradox of language, the clue to its enigmatic existence, for which, he writes at one point, “the proper start is wonder, a tensed delight at the bare fact.”

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Steiner’s initial complaint against the recent sciences of language stems from what he considers their refusal even to face seriously the issue of linguistic diversity, let alone to exhibit the proper wonder and tensed delight before it. He is partly right. The closest modern linguistics has come to providing an explanation for Babel has been in the famous hypothesis of Benjamin Lee Whorf, who believed that every language literally inhabits a different landscape of consciousness and carries within itself a unique “world-view” which, in turn, shapes its speaker’s view of reality. For Whorf, each language is a monad, and like the cultural consciousness which its surface grammar reflects, is ultimately untranslatable. Whorf’s theory, however, is ridden by its own problems of circularity of argument—which came first, consciousness or language?—and has been largely rejected by most contemporary linguists.

Current students of language have also not been overly concerned with the matter of diversity, but have devoted their studies instead to those features common to all languages, and to the question of linguistic competence: how is it possible that, despite the complexity of language, any normal child of three is fully able to speak sentences which are at once grammatical and fully original? The best-known answer, and the one to which most linguists today subscribe in one fashion or another—the name most frequently associated with it is that of Noam Chomsky—has proposed that the human mind possesses a specific linguistic capacity which is probably innate; by means of transformational operations, this capacity, an internalized knowledge of grammar, generates sentences of suitable and grammatical form from linguistic “deep-structures.” At a highly abstract level certain of these structures, in turn, provide for a universal grammar common to all languages. Against the particularism of Whorfian linguistics, which tends to see each language as a kind of poem, uniquely binding form and meaning, these most recent projects of transformational grammar—which tend to be both technical and arcane, given to logical formalizations and mathematical models—represent an extreme linguistic universalism.

The greater part of After Babel is devoted to a match between Whorf’s and Chomsky’s views on language, with Steiner acting as umpire and commentator. As it turns out, however, the game is never really won by either side since, after pages of qualifications and questions, Steiner generally concludes: we do not yet know. The fact is that many of the most basic hypotheses proposed by transformational grammar are as yet unproved; like those in any science—and because of the rapidity of linguistic advances, perhaps even more so here—all linguistic theories are tentative, a circumstance which virtually all linguists would be the first to admit, but which Steiner often seems ready to take as cause for rejecting the entire enterprise. Steiner himself is more sympathetic to Whorf’s metalinguistics than to transformational grammar, which he accuses of being not only inadequate to the actual experience of language—and particularly to its anomaly, ambiguity, and innate “looseness”—but ultimately unfeasible as well. “The application of the concept of exact science to the study of language,” he writes, “is an idealized simile,” by which he presumably means that a poem can never be reduced to an equation. In addition, Steiner also argues that transformational grammar itself is a kind of linguistic gnosis: the project of constructing a universal grammar is merely the modern version of the age-old, mystical search for the original Adamic tongue which was snatched from the lips of mankind at the moment of Babel. The analogy is suggestive, but overlooking as it does the obvious differences between the mystical search and the linguistic project both in method and aims, it turns out to be so superficial as to be meaningless.

A quasi-mystical, gnostic tradition of speculation in language is the origin for the theory of language, or the sketch for such a theory, that Steiner himself proposes. As his own masters, he invokes Kafka, Borges, and Walter Benjamin, whom he also describes as three modern kabbalists. For his model, he takes poetry, and especially elusive and cryptic poetry like that of Hölderlin or Celan. Language in his view is essentially private, even hermetic—a fully translucent statement, which would not require an act of interpretation, does not exist. Language—or more accurately, languages—originated not out of man’s desire to communicate his deepest longings or most immediate needs, but out of a “shared secrecy,” wherein small clans first invented the password in order to exclude strangers from their midst. The essential secrecy of all language, the degree to which it conceals meaning rather than communicating it, is connected as well with its use as the instrument through which man refuses “to accept the world as it is.” This aspect of language tends toward counter-factuality, fantasy, and the lie—all of which Steiner understands as attempts on the part of man to defeat and negate mortality. As the epitome of “alternity,” the will toward otherness, this darker side of language also supplies its power of creativity, and yields the imaginary, the fictive, and the poetic.

Unlike Whorf, however, Steiner sees translation—here the book’s disguised subject emerges as its real focus—as an attempt to abolish the multiplicity of language, to reinvent the shape of an original, lost meaning. Through his efforts, the translator “‘re-experiences’ the evolution of language itself, the ambivalence of the relations between language and world, between ‘languages’ and ‘worlds.’” According to Steiner, all texts require translation, if not interlingually (between languages), then intralingually (within a language). After Babel begins with a number of close readings of literary texts from Shakespeare to Noel Coward, through which Steiner attempts to prove that every act of reading is also an act of translation, and concludes with a chapter which considers acts of cultural transmission as exercises in translation. Between these two universal modes of translation, there is translation proper, in which Steiner distinguishes four movements, almost a kind of narrative. To illustrate this narrative he moves effortlessly to and fro among German, French, and English texts, achieving something close to a literal tour de force. Translation, he proves, is ultimately a wholly altruistic task: self-effacing, but also self-extinguishing. Steiner recalls how Stephen McKenna, the translator of Plotinus, spoke of Plotinus’ “literally submerging his own being.”

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This section of After Babel is surely the most exciting and original, yet its very strengths expose the weaknesses of the rest of the book. For one thing, there is a huge marshaling of facts, often to no evident purpose, which makes Steiner seem more interested in building a second tower of Babel than in elucidating the problems suggested by the first one. In erecting this edifice, Steiner tends on occasion to lose his grip on his own language, and to make statements like, “The silences, the insanities, the suicides of a number of great writers are rigorous affirmations of an experience of the boundaries of language” (which can only leave one wondering if they do not more rigorously affirm the boundaries of life). In too many passages like this one, Steiner’s own voice becomes ornate, confused, and above all public—a style curiously at odds with his proposed view of language, or with the bareness, privacy, and paradox of his “kabbalistic” masters. And what actual meaning is there even in calling Kafka, Borges, and Benjamin “modern kabbalists” when, with the possible exception of Benjamin, their writings show only the smallest familiarity with Kabbalah? By employing language so recklessly, Steiner violates the very rules he canonizes.

The excesses of his rhetoric and erudition should not, and cannot, hide the more fundamental defects in Steiner’s argument, and primarily those in his critique of transformational grammar. When, for example, Steiner condemns current linguists for not facing the issue of Babel, his criticism is clearly directed not so much against their failure to include the real differences among languages in their models—a valid criticism which has been made by other linguists, including Chomsky—as against their failure to provide an explanation for Babel itself. But how could they? Steiner’s question, which in its hopeless mixture of innocence and absurdity is like asking why the world was created as it is, will never be satisfactorily answered since, as Steiner himself remarks in passing, “The problem of Babel is quite simply that of human individuation.” At other moments, Steiner appears to believe that the simplest method of refuting Noam Chomsky is to shift the level of discourse from the realm of linguistics or philosophy to that of glorified poetics—to change the subject, in other words. But the force of Chomsky’s claims is not so easily dismissed. For what is most annoying about Steiner’s treatment of linguistics is less his oversimplifications of its complexities than his sheer disregard of them. These are, after all, difficult issues, and there is an element of intellectual arrogance, even dishonesty, in the self-assurance with which Steiner, in the space of a few pages, glides from one issue to the next—through areas over which some of the most prominent linguists and philosophers in this century have hesitated their entire lives.

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It is curious and significant that Steiner omits from consideration a number of linguistic theories other than those of Chomsky or Whorf. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics and probably the most important linguist of the century, is scarcely cited, which in a history of linguistics is comparable to omitting Einstein from a history of modern physics. Although Steiner does discuss Roman Jakobson’s theory of translation, he almost never mentions his linguistic work, nor does he discuss the contemporary French structuralists, yet their theories of language closely resemble Steiner’s own—he may well have borrowed some of his ideas from them—and in addition Jakobson and his French colleagues have succeeded, at least partly, in applying linguistic criteria to the study of poetry and to those very features of language which Steiner claims resist linguistic description.

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Given his propensity for overlooking or improperly evaluating actual attempts to grapple with the problems of language, it is not surprising that Steiner should also overlook the weaknesses in his own approach—his failure, for example, to clarify whether the problematic aspects of language merely represent a series of as yet unsolved puzzles or whether they constitute a true mystery, beyond solution; or his failure to answer the question of why individuals should still express, or conceal, their most inviolable privacies in remarkably similar ways. These unresolved questions, which point toward the true paradox of language, escape Steiner’s notice. His vast display of erudition and knowledge serves in the end only to mysticize and mystify language, not to elucidate it. Steiner’s preference of gnosis to intelligence, erudition to explication, inevitably has the effect of vitiating the cause for which he wages his war against linguistics: the continued viability of poetic language. For if poetry is indeed the inscrutable hermeticism which Steiner claims it is, why bother to read or write it? Rather than defending poetry, this book offers an amazingly persuasive argument against it.

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