thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #4

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On Art Garfunkel’s website there is a section he calls his LIBRARY which lists every book he has read since June 1968. By September 2009 the count was 1084. Not surprisingly there is a subsection for Favorites.

Art Garfunkel

Art Garfunkel

Fourth in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence 1 and Real presences 2

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2; and #3.

As I plod through George Steiner’s Real presences for the second time – the book does not make Art Garfunkel’s 1084 by the way, let alone his Favorites – I find myself wishing George had chosen Art’s rather more economical technique to draw people’s attention to how erudite he is. Instead we get page after page of this sort of stuff:

…criticism is energised into creative responsibility when Racine reads and transmutes Euripides; when Brecht reconstrues Marlowe’s Edward II; when, in The Maids, Genet plays his sharp variations on the themes of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. The most useful criticism I know of Shakespeare’s Othello is that to be found in Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s opera, and in Verdi’s response, both verbal and musical, to Boito’s suggestions…

…There are kindlings of discursive revelation in Plato, in Kierkegaard, in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Adorno. There is a rare force of suggestion in the definition proposed by Gioseffo Zarlino, the principal Renaissance theoretician of music: … [My emphases.]

I am tempted to say Steiner makes name-dropping into an art form. But that would be wrong. Art it is not.

It is hard to understand how someone who has read so widely through so many canons of world literature can manage to write so badly. First an almost trivial example:

…music entails differentiations between that which can be understood, this is to say, paraphrased, and that which can be thought and lived… [My emphases]

Christopher Marlowe - or someone very similar

Christopher Marlowe - or someone very similar

What on earth is wrong with the simple four-letter word ‘what’? Surely ‘differentiations between what can be understood… and what can be thought and lived…’ is just that little bit more vernacular, and therefore just that little bit clearer? Plus of course, by replacing ‘that which’ with ‘what’ would have freed him to exchange ‘this is to say’ for that tiny bit more familiar ‘that is to say’:

…music entails differentiations between what can be understood, that is to say, paraphrased, and what can be thought and lived…

Far be it from me to subedit the work of a Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford and Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, but I wish somebody had.

It is beyond irony that a book cited by John Cornwell (see Whispers of the gods #3 and Touched by an angel #7) as evidence in favour of the ‘argument from beauty’ should be a work of such ugliness. Some examples:

…Not even the most rudimentary of structures of literacy and of musical reception is, one imagines, free from critical or didactic interposition…

…Periods, climates of culture, in which the exegetic and the critical dominate, are called ‘Alexandrine’ or ‘Byzantine’. These epithets refer to the prevalence of grammatological, editorial, didactic, glossarial, and judiciary techniques and ideals over any actual poetic-aesthetic creativity in Hellenistic Alexandria and in the Byzantium of the later Empire and Middle Ages…

…Manifold accommodations between aesthetic consumption and political-social power, between leisure and industrialization, are relevant…

…The transmutation of poetics into texts, that is to say, the lexical, grammatical, compositional analysis of a piece of literature, and the uses of such analysis towards rhetorical, civic and moral instruction, is as old as are the commentaries on Homer in ancient Greece…

Lafond: Sappho sings for Homer

Lafond: Sappho sings for Homer

And – sorry – I couldn’t resist this one:

The axioms of the transcendent in the arts of understanding and of judgement – axioms which this essay seeks to clarify – are invested in the overnight. [My emphasis]

Real presences is, needless to say, a painful read. It feels like being painted into Pseuds Corner. (Apologies to those unfamiliar with the UK magazine Private Eye.)

It is self-reflexive in the worst possible ways. For one thing it is its own entrance barrier to itself. It could have been at least 100 times clearer. Maybe its opacity was a deliberate marketing strategy – targeting just that elite minority clever enough and well-read enough to understand it?

But a curious thread of self-loathing also seems to run through it. I am not trying to claim that George Steiner hates himself. It is at level of the voice, and of the text itself.

I’ll try to explain what I mean next time.


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

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

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

7 November 2009 at 4:36 pm

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