Language And Silence.
by George Steiner.
Atheneum. 448 pp. $10.
One evening some years ago in Cambridge (England) I was present at a party at which two dons had come to tell a third what a brilliant man George Steiner, being considered as a possible fellow of that august college, was. They cited his erudition, his great success with students, his high seriousness, his eloquence; they went into details of how he had overcome, in his writing, a certain “sweaty and rather ostentatious learning” and praised his championing of difficult literatures and intolerably arduous reading. It was all done in such a way as to make it elegantly, almost casually, clear that all these items of praise were really meant to damn the man—and at any price. A curiously English and unfair performance.
Why, I wondered, if Steiner was possessed of such obvious virtues, couldn't they forgive him his imperfections and extract from him his proper usefulness? Having since read more of Steiner's work than I had then, I now think their main objection was to what Steiner himself was most proud of: his whole approach to literature. For them, Steiner took it all too seriously. He was too stubborn, too insistent. He bent their ears; he wouldn't let up; he was humorless and unrelenting. Plainly, for some, such qualities are virtues; for others, intolerable vices. One thing was certain, Steiner at least had not been misjudged; he had adopted a position, stuck to it, and couldn't expect to win a popularity contest with it. He was being taken at his written word.
Elements of his critical stance are scattered throughout the essays in his most recent book, Language and Silence, from the admission on the first page that the critic is in some way a eunuch to the manic note with which Steiner gives Marxism-Leninism credit for at least “taking literature seriously.” “To shoot a man,” Steiner says, “because one disagrees with his interpretation of Darwin or Hegel is a sinister tribute to the supremacy of ideas in human affairs—but a tribute nevertheless.”
The obsessive intent of Steiner's work is to be that important. His method is best revealed in the admiration he feels for the way Georg Lukacs brings “philosophical equipment” to bear on “literary problems” and for Lukacs's “sense of history,” his feeling “for the rootedness of the imagination in time and in place.” These, again, can be virtues; they can also be vices. A mind that is long on knowledge is inclined to be short on worldly sophistication; if it delights in categorization, it will also be self-indulgent toward sweeping generalizations. Such a mind may impress, but it will not charm Cambridge dons, who are neither taxonomists of ideas nor philosophes by temperament.
This very Mitteleuropäisch quality of his mind serves Steiner well when, as in the best essays in this book, it is related back to his own experience. For Steiner is a man of conscience; of intellectual penetration, if not of logic; of sympathy; of judgment, courage, and stubborn honesty. He is a tendentious writer with no humor or self-irony of any kind, but he is not to be found on the side of the pusillanimous: his causes are unfashionable and unpopular.
He is, for instance, the first critic in ages to challenge (for that matter, to consider seriously) the great idée reçue of criticism since the last war—namely, that criticism is an effective substitute for the literature on which it feeds. His reflections on being a Jew and a “survivor” are a passionate, moving confession. Life today, and certainly criticism, offers fewer hard truths than those Steiner reveals in demonstrating the unimaginability of the Holocaust and the guilt lodged in the heart of any survivor.
True, the tone in these more personal pieces is a little shrill, but I think it is valid, in a way the hysteria in his one excursus into fiction, Anno Domini, was not. Steiner often fails to imagine concretely, or to experience, what he describes (his argument against Maurice Girodias and erotic literature is a particularly painful instance of this failure); but when he is at his gamiest and most rhetorical, there is always the suggestion of the man behind the argument. While the various plights he describes are perhaps not equally bewailed by all, his own plight in facing the moral issues does move the reader and involve him.
Naturally, any man so addicted to broad arguments is prone to producing analyses, observations, comments, and conclusions that are either unclear, refutable, or at the least subject to widely differing interpretations; the tone of dogma and the prevailing rhetoric almost insist on the reader's supplying his own constant skepticism on margins dotted with innumerable question marks. Similarly, it is only to be expected that in a big book, covering the production of a fertile, reactive mind over half a decade, the results should be uneven. Some essays in Language and Silence would be, if Steiner's were a lesser mind, mere trivia. Those on purely literary subjects—on Kafka, Mann, Günter Grass, and Lawrence Durrell—are literary journalism, neither better nor worse than most. Three reduplicative essays on Lukacs are unclear as an exposition of Lukacs's thought, and as apologetics for his theories they fail to convince. There are good examples of haute vulgarisation, such as the essay on Claude Lévi-Strauss. Finally, there are several essays centered on theories of language and translation which are ingenious and first-class; they stand, however, shoulder to shoulder with pedestrian restatements of the relation of politics to literature and glances into pop and McLuhan that seem to catch all the signs of the times and little of their sense.
However, I am sure that Steiner would insist that he be judged by the central thesis on which all the essays in this book ring various changes—what he calls the “retreat from the word.” Summarized as briefly as possible, and shorn of the considerable baggage of argument and evidence that lends it both density and plausibility, Steiner's thesis is that we have lost our belief in language, and that the primacy of the word, which for centuries bore “solemn witness to the belief that all truth and realness . . . can be housed inside the walls of language,” has been challenged almost beyond recall.
The reasons for this are many. For one, the growth and “progressive untranslatability” of mathematical and symbolic languages “divided the experience and perception of reality into separate domains . . . except in moments of bleak clarity, we do not yet act as if this were true.” We do not see “how the cult of the positive, the exact, and the predictive” has invaded us, and we fail to note how the disciplines, history and philosophy among others, that were once part of the legitimate province of the artist, have now been rapt from him by the “ambitions of scientific rigor and prophecy.”
The 19th century, Steiner argues, was already aware of “the gap between the new sense of psychological reality and the old modes of rhetorical and poetic statement”; but the 20th century compounded the difficulties. The artist today comes “after the unprecedented ruin of humane values and hopes by the political bestiality of our age.”
How, then, Steiner asks, are we to feel, if the “life of the printed word” and our capacity to identify with imaginary characters and sentiments, the traditional components of literature, actually serve to diminish “the immediacy, the hard edge of actual circumstance”? Subject to attack on all sides, language practically ceases to be an appropriate tool. The artist seeks other solutions—“transrational experience,” which denies the artificial, “temporal structure of language”; or Surrealism, which skips causation; or like Mallarmé, he makes of words acts not primarily of communication but of initiation into a private mystery (Steiner's emphases).
Steiner goes on to define three ultimate “solutions” to our dilemma. The first two are the light of spiritual illumination (carefully distinguished from any airy-fairy mysticism) and music, which is “the deeper, more numenous” code. In both, he suggests, art progresses beyond language: for where language “ceases, or suffers radical mutation, the word bears witness to an inexpressible reality, or to a syntax more supple, more penetrating than its own.”
His third “solution” is Silence, which lies beyond literature in “the fact of renunciation, the chosen silence.” What Steiner is saying, finally, is that art is “entrapped” and “diminished” when it is given articulate form. His argument against our daily language is just that: that it is daily, and hence shares “a common code of meaning” which “necessarily impoverishes and generalizes the unique, individual life-force of unconscious creation.” Ideally, we should each have our own private language, but because language has a “socialized, conventional nature,” the only proper private language is Silence.
So now we come (as one does in the course of every major Steiner essay) to the moral imperatives. And what are these? It is not, Steiner says, that he wants to impose silence on all of us; but, speaking as one who “feels the condition of language is in question,” he asks us whether we are not writing too much, “whether the deluge of print in which we seek our deafened way is not in itself a subversion of meaning.” He also wonders whether we don't talk too much, don't gossip too much, don't make “common what was private.” He asks us to “keep literature literate,” we writers who are the guardians and shapers of speech: to return to that condition of silence in which the secret urgencies of thought and language came upon us of yore. His controlling metaphor is that admirably silent sea, “ready for the wonder of the word.”
If you are like me, Steiner's thesis, so absorbingly addressed to his own peers, to other writers, will irritate you: by its immodesty, by the colossal weight of evidence brought to bear on a situation with which no writer alive and thinking can be unfamiliar. After all, to take but one point, the argument that there are too many books is as old as history; restating this as an advocacy of silence isn't going to prevent words from mating and multiplying. And is it not already something of a commonplace that we are divorced from that part of the language of reality which is “scientific”? Nevertheless, having observed that nothing really relevant long remains uncommunicable, or uncommunicated in some form, we may still feel that, ultimately, the important discoveries of this “scientific” language will be made communicable to us, regardless of the fact that the two languages will continue to pursue their separate ways.
Then, too, despite Steiner's pessimism on the subject, we may believe that the spread of literacy, even fractional literacy, is probably more of a good thing than a bad. We may doubt that the condition of language itself is thereby seriously put in question: except as it always has been in the sense that it is being daily, and rightly, reconsidered. And as for the “deterioration” of language, we may consider that each such breakdown of the common code merely conceals a corresponding advance, which it is the business of the writer to exploit—with, or in spite of, masscult, pornography, or political bestiality.
I agree with Steiner that we live, in language, at a pivotal moment between past and future modes of expression, but though I would have much to say against our times, I can't believe that Steiner's way of stating a writer's condition today, or the moral imperatives facing him, has anything to do with my situation, which merely reflects a compulsion to communicate what I feel is personally urgent or generally relevant. I know we've all talked too much, written too much, and gossiped too much; but my regrets for this are my own. Like the dons of Cambridge, I'm afraid I finally found myself distrustful of humorless and inhuman statements of the Apocalypse.