thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #2

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The quote I ended with last time, with its ‘proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world’ and ‘certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours’ comes from Silence and the poet, the third essay in Language and silence1 by George Steiner.

Second in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence and Real presences2.

See also Whispers of the gods #1.

According to, George Steiner has been a Lecturer at Princeton; Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva; and held visiting professorships at Yale, New York University, the University of Geneva and Oxford University. He is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary fellow of Balliol College Oxford, and has been awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French Government and the King Albert Medal by the Royal Belgian Academy. He has received the Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature and is a Fellow of the British Academy.

He is Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University and Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge University.

He is by all accounts a clever dude, which is no doubt why what he says commands great authority.

But I have to say I find him difficult to follow – and I don’t think it’s just me being dense. 

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Tower of Babel

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Tower of Babel

Silence and the poet starts with images from ancient mythology (Babel, Orpheus torn to pieces, Marsyas flayed) depicting the ‘miraculous outrage of human speech’. We then get the old saw about language being what divides man from other organisms – or at least a few highlights from its pedigree: Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Ibsen. The approach steers us clear of the open sea of ethology so we end up beached on tribal ethics. Language

is both miracle and outrage, sacrament and blasphemy.

…If speaking man has made of the animal his mute servant or enemy – the beasts of the field and forest no longer understand our words when we cry for help – man’s control of the word has also hammered at the door of the gods…

One would like to ask when exactly did the inhabitants of those alliterative regions know what we were saying and leap, trot, slither or prowl to our aid? But maybe this is not SteinerThink at all – his technique is advanced, exponential name-dropping, so it is hard to know. We have Freud and Lévi-Strauss, Nimrod (he of the Tower of Babel), Tantalus, the Neoplatonists and John of Gospel 4:

…speech is the core of man’s mutinous relations to the gods.

…in the beginning was the Word; but if this Logos, this act and essence of God is, in the last analysis, total communication, the word that creates its own content and truth of being – then what of zoon phonanta, man the speaking animal? Can there be a co-existence other than charged with mutual torment and rebellion between the totality of the Logos and the living, world-creating fragments of our own speech? Does the act of speech, which defines man, not also go beyond him in rivalry to God?

If so the poet is the worst offender:

The poet makes in dangerous similitude to the gods. His song is builder of cities; his words have that power which, above all others, the gods would deny to man, the power to bestow enduring life…

We need to bring this down to earth for a moment: the argument seems to be going in reverse.

We have a variety of living organisms, extant and extinct, sometimes with huge differences between them (oak tree/mouse), and sometimes with relatively small differences (house sparrow/tree sparrow). On that multi-dimensional continuum the differences between man (Homo sapiens) and the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) are relatively small – smaller than those between either of them and, say, the mosquito.

Waggle dance of the honey bee

Waggle dance of the honey bee

Nevertheless, the possession of language by humans is something special. Other animals have languages – humpback whales, vervet monkeys, honey bees – but human language is unique in many ways. This cannot be denied – even though no doubt arguments could be made for the uniqueness of whale song, vervet monkey distress calls, and the waggle dance of a honey bee. We can, though, accept for the sake of argument that there is something uniquely unique about human language.

But it is a great leap from here to the ‘classic doctrine’ that

speech… define[s] man’s singular eminence above the silence of the plant and the grunt of the beast…

The proposition is both anthropocentric and circular. We are humans, and we are the ones who possess the uniqueness of our particular language function. Had we been whales we would no doubt be struck by our enormity and the bizarre shuffle of our out-of-the-water, back-to-the-water evolutionary history. Those would advertise our distinctness from the rest of creation. Had we been slime moulds we would be telling the world about our superhero power to leap from cluster of individual single-cell beings to single multi-cellular being and back again.

The point is this. Human language may be special to us, but the only thing special about our specialities as opposed to those of any other organism is that they are ours.

There is more. We have created gods, and because they are our gods we have made them in many ways like ourselves – and in some ways unlike ourselves. As we do language, so our gods do language in spades. Their language skills are magical: their language ‘creates its own content and truth of being’.

Hieronymus Bosch: detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch: detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights

But wait – man too ‘creates words and creates with words’ – as if we are trying to be gods ourselves. We cannot of course achieve divine ‘totality’ but the ‘fragments’ of our own language are also ‘world-creating’, so we are ‘mutinous’ and guilty of ‘rivalry’. The act of the ‘god-rivalling’ poet is ‘potentially sacrilegious’:

[T]he motif of the necessary limitations of the human word… carries with it a crucial intimation of that which lies outside language, of what it is that awaits the poet if we were to transgress the bounds of human discourse. Being, in the nature of his craft, a reacher, the poet must guard against becoming, in the Faustian term, an overreacher. The daemonic creativity of his instrument probes the outworks of the City of God; he must know when to draw back lest he be consumed, Icarus-like, by the terrible nearness of a greater making, of a Logos incommensurable with his own (in the garden of fallen pleasures, Hieronymus Bosch’s poet is racked on his own harp).

All very picturesque, but do we need to know when to draw back lest we be strangled by the shadows our own hands are making on the wall?

Yes of course says George. Because for some reason we have forgotten that the shadows are of our own hands we do draw back; and because we draw back, this proves the shadow hands really have the power to strangle us:

[I]t is decisively the fact that language does have its frontiers… that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world.

If anyone has overreached it is Steiner himself. He has conflated two different things. Yes there are limits to what language can express. But the In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God of John’s Gospel is something else, based on an arbitrary projection and extension of human faculties onto a projected entity. Having conflated the two, he cannot then deduce a ‘transcendent presence’ or ‘divine meaning’ from those limits. That’s just playing with words – whether it is the English his essay is in or the lengthy passages of French, Latin, Italian and German he leaves untranslated. Interestingly a Polish poem by Zbigniew Herbert is presented in English. Perhaps Steiner’s own Polish was not quite up to scratch?

Real presences next time.


1 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

2 George Steiner, Real presences, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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