George Steiner: Yeah, He’s the Man

The master and his dashing red jacket, courtesy of CiênciaHoje.

How can one possibly sum up George Steiner? Neither I nor the collection of essays, originally published in 1967, known as Language and Silence, has the intention of doing so. What this book does make clear, though, is the breadth and depth of this guy’s knowledge and insight. And even though the essays are approaching the half-century point in age, it’s remarkable how relevant his thoughts about media and the printed word continue to be.

As only one example, take his assertion about the effects of language used in advertising and mass media– that political speech (in this case, Eisenhower’s) “was intended neither to communicate the critical truths of national life nor to quicken the mind of the hearer,” but “to evade or gloss over the demands of meaning.”(1) It not only nails contemporary (U.S.) political discourse; it also fits in well with a mental consortium of media critics such as Noam Chomsky, especially in his Manufacturing Consent. But Steiner goes further than Chomsky, or at least makes more explicit the almost spiritual effects technological changes do and will have on human beings. Foreseeing upcoming advances in mass communication– although not visualizing, of course, the particulars of our current constantly connected world– he comes right out with “behind the technical change [in literature and its form/s] lies the metaphysical shift” involved in closer identification with and formation by collective understandings and assumptions. (2)

Steiner knows and admits that much of his criticisms, at least about literature, are subjectively based, and that there’s no way to prove, as opposed to those who buy into social scientism, that one work is better than another. And he’s also not willing to sing the joys of art for art’s sake, or to add his voice to a sort of “save the humanities” campaign based on the argument that good art/literature makes one a better person. His examination of cultivated Nazis and the artistically civilized milieux from which they came is too insightful to wave such a simplistic literature-boosting banner.

There’s just too much in this collection of essays to address in any sort of satisfactory fashion.* But two little parts stood out for me, which somehow represent 1) what Steiner’s about and 2) what his role may, fortunately or un-, be. First: in his discussion of nationalism (“the venom of our age”) and the general situation of Jews, he declares that “The earth grows too crowded, too harassed by the shadow of famine, to waste soil on barbed wire.” (3) Somehow, I feel as if Steiner’s entire critical undertaking is devoted to some better, more truly humane world, a utopia to which we might be able to find our way through the Word.

But then, how many people really listen to highbrow essayists and literary critics, or care, other than the choir already set to sing their praises? When he describes Kafka’s place in life, via a quote from Kierkegaard– “An individual cannot assist or save a time, he can only express that it is lost”– it seems that Steiner’s describing his own efforts. (4) There’s absolute value in such expression; among other things, that includes making 20th-century hold-outs like me feel a little less alone. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly drawn to this principled and intimidating (I’d be too terrified to meet the guy) giant of letters. He’s one of a dying breed, and I can only hope the connection-addled world he foresaw in the 1960s doesn’t become so distracted that it forgets the spirit of what Steiner represents.

*Because there really was no place to put this comment, I thought I’d include separately Steiner’s claim that “The American writer… has found it difficult to achieve continuity, to make individual acts of invention part of a natural growth and completion… The history of the writer who produces a stunning first novel, whose second book is either a nervous pastiche of his own success or a botched fling at something new, and whose later work moves erratically between quality and routine, is almost an American cliché.” (5) What I heard loud and clear in those couple of phrases was “Mark Z. Danielewski.” House of Leaves: absolute brilliance, and among my top three favorite novels. His later stuff? Heartbreakingly unreadable, probably because it seemed to this humble reader that the guy thought he’d found a gimmick, and would just go with it.

(1) “The Retreat from the Word,” 27.
(2) “Literature and Post-History,” 387.
(3) “A Kind of Survivor,” 152, 153.
(4) “K,” 123.
(5) “Building a Monument,” 288.

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