Here’s a review originally intended for the Dabbler, however they destroyed it with a hammer when i instructed them to either format it correctly or delete it, so here it is, formatted correctly (i hope). It’s of George Steiner’s latest, The Poetry of Thought. The book is good; my review is just a review, i.e. of no significance, but i got the book by telling the publisher (New Directions) that i was a Dabbler book reviewer so i feel obliged to post it somewhere, even if only my dozen-or-so regulars see it. So here it is.
Born in Paris in 1929 of Viennese Jewish parents, Steiner has lived a nearness to the great and terrible. He is something of an anachronism, an old magister in love with language and learning and art. His prose is baroque and overtly rhetorical, and this not with the fashionable gibberish of Literary Theory; it is rather a sinuous and massive articulation. Here he broods superbly on the ambiguous relation of thought to linguistic expression, that is, can thoughts be conceived, let alone articulated, without submission to language and style:
Hence the recurrent trope, so urgent in Plotinus, in the Tractatus, that the nub, the philosophic message lies in that which is unsaid, in the unspoken between the lines. What can be enunciated, what presumes that language is more or less consonant with veritable insights and demonstrations, may in fact reveal the decay of primordial, ephiphanic recognitions.
Steiner is animated by this ambiguity, that language is evidently inadequate, and yet it is the only carrier of thought. The same coin for God and Caesar.
It follows that philosophy and literature occupy the same generative though ultimately circumscribed space. Their performative means are identical: an alignment of words, the modes of syntax, punctuation (a subtle resource). This is as true of a nursery rhyme as it is of a Kant Critique. Of a dime novel as of the Phaedo. They are deeds of language.
There is something fastidious about Steiner; fastidious and gritty. He desires Platonic clarity, pure thought, but he will not deny the murkiness of our executive means, of language in all its inadequate variety. If even the heights of philosophy must be communicated in language, then we must attend to language. It is a messy, unsatisfying business; it would be so much easier to simply apprehend. But such immediacies are no longer possible, having been long since shunted aside by language; so he writes of Wittgenstein:
In many ways, the Investigations invite the conjecture that there is “behind” or between their lines another text. In which formal logic would irradiate everyday speech. That other text remains just out of reach but its mute presence is ethical. It prefigures a condition in which falsehood would be immediately visible and absurd.
As in Genesis 2.19. From this we came, to this we may perhaps return. In the meantime, ordinary language is the means by which we explore and articulate our experience of being alive. Philosophy is consciousness exploring itself, as a mode and energy of being:
We tend to take this revolution for granted, being its products. It is in fact strange and scandalous. Parmenides’ equation between thought and being, Socrates’ ruling that the unexamined life is not worth living are provocations of a truly fantastic dimension. They incarnate the primacy of the useless, as we intimate it in music.
Grossly physical, we often regard consciousness as a quirk of evolution or just one of those things; not an energy to equal physical being. Philosophy is the examination of this energy and form of being. But no matter if philosophers aspire to bloodless clarity, they necessarily think and communicate in words – the same words we use to buy apples and ask for directions, and threaten and curse. We must use these words; and that which we consider is itself not separate from language, and so what exact clarity could there be, how could we possibly examine our own means of examination? Metaphorically perhaps, not by reference to an objective point of external reference, but by internal echo, by internal comparison and suggestion:
I have suggested that the “discovery” of metaphor ignited abstract, disinterested thought. […] It is out of a metaphoric magma that the Pre-Socratic philosophy seems to erupt (the volcanic is not far off). Once a traveler in Argos had perceived the shepherds on the stony hills as “herdsmen of the winds,” once a mariner out of the Piraeus had sensed that his keel was “ploughing the sea,” the road to Plato and to Immanuel Kant lay open. It began in poetry and has never been far from it.
Not, that is, to exit the world and stand outside, serenely judging, but to come to some sense of things by metaphor and simile, perceiving the structure and symmetry from within (a barbarian reading Paradise Lost, knowing absolutely nothing of Christian myth). Steiner therefore examines the interactions between style and thought in, among others, Wittgenstein, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Marx, Hegel, Descartes, Bergson, Heidegger, Plato. There is often no sense of an overarching argument; it is rather close-reading and appreciation, an essay in the etymological sense of the word, a sweet attempt. I learnt that Marx isn’t as dull as one might lazily suppose, and that Hegel’s prose is atrocious but worth the trouble (apparently). Steiner dedicates several pages to Wittgenstein, following Guy Davenport’s observation of the similitudes between Wittgenstein and Heraclitus:
“When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.” Was Wittgenstein, in his notebook for 1948, transcribing a fragment of Heraclitus not yet available to the rest of us?
Astutely worded. Steiner is a close reader of Wittgenstein:
Wittgenstein fought with valour on some of the hellish fronts during the First World War – again, that Socratic analogy. He seems to have experienced combat as exhilarating. This may be more significant than his hagiographers and imitators realise. A deep-seated capacity for charring rage inhabited his tensed consciousness, a vital terribilità.
Thematically, Steiner is close by Wittgenstein. Language, culture, meaning – and a simultaneous attraction to, and wariness of, academia. Steiner has long understood that language is central to our consciousness, and so to our culture; and of late he has become reassuringly melancholy about a civilisation long gone into decline, in which language is publicly devalued, and consciousness as an energy and mode of being is summarily (if spuriously) dismissed:
On the horizon lies the prospect that bio-chemical, neurological discoveries will demonstrate that the inventive, cognitive processes of the human psyche have their ultimately material source. That even the greatest metaphysical conjecture or poetic find are complex forms of molecular chemistry.
This is not a vision in which an obsolescent, often technophobic consciousness such as mine can take comfort.
Steiner intuits that if anything can oppose this technocratic horror it will be a kind of philosophy. If so, I think it will be philosophy in the pre-Socratic sense, as Peter Kingsley contends – a form of magic, a means of transforming consciousness and the world. It will be initiation, not entertainment, not matter for doctoral theses and conferences and academic reputation. The true work of philosophy would be a work of magic; and vice versa.
For all its complications and muddle, language is the bridge between consciousness and the world. The bridge binds and alters. Our kind of consciousness cannot do without language (as Steiner notes, even deaf mutes can learn to read); language makes consciousness physical, joins us to our world and to each other. This is ubiquitous and so almost beyond reason; we do not see the air. To turn the mind against language – to cleanse our expressive, and therefore experiential, means – this is brutal and subtle both, this is the philosopher’s task, and he must be brutal and subtle also.