The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan
‘When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer?’ This sentence, written by George Steiner in 1963, is probably the most concise summation of his body of work. No one has been more intensely eloquent about the ancillary function of criticism: ‘The critic lives at second hand. He writes about.’ But this is Steiner’s rhetorical game: lower the expectations of your reader, then instantly awe them by raising the stakes. In other words, tell us that criticism is a sham for secondary minds, then subtly awe us with your extraordinarily first rate mind. My bet is that Steiner has pulled this trick enough to know what we’re thinking: he’s not really writing ‘criticism’ then, is he? Well, no. He’s not.
Steiner’s new book, The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, is described as his ‘magnum opus’ on the dust jack, but since Steiner so brilliantly writes the same book over and over again, this one seems hardly better than any of the others. If anything, its definitive quality is its overwhelming mood of resignation in the face of technology (‘a technophobic consciousness such as mine’) and, though I didn’t think it possible, an even more pervasive note of the elegiac throughout. Steiner’s work has essentially been one long, (more or less) joyous eulogy for the western canon. At times he has proclaimed a unique and fanatical faith in the humanities, but more often he has lamented their current state. One of the last lines of the book refers to “the humanities” in quotes, as that institution which ‘so bleakly failed us in the long night of the twentieth century’. “the humanities”, apparently having forgotten their etymology, can no longer be referred to without quotes. Statements like this, along with the ponderous stylistic gravitas of every sentence Steiner writes, do nothing to illuminate his erudition or brilliance. Instead they tend to encourage the image of Steiner as your peevish luddite Grandfather, cantankerously moaning about the volume of the radio as he tosses another iPad into the River Cam.
But this is an old image. Steiner was an elder before his time (regardless of age, priests of high art must feign a demeanor perilously close to senility). And his acute perception of the essential meaninglessness of the academic factory’s monograph machine is something more people should have listened to. Yet, one problem with Steiner’s new book is that while it claims to be about the intersection of philosophy and poetry, it is more often about philosophers and poets. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if it were announced as such, but his stance often seems to assume that a discussion of the friendship between Paul Celan and Martin Heidgger, followed by a few pages of surface level philosophical discussion is a summation of the subject. Much of the book impressively rests on Steiner’s intuition that
‘All philosophy is style. No philosophic proposition outside formal logic is separable from its semantic means and context…the Platonic dialogues and letters are performative literary acts of surpassing richness and complication.’
In other words, Steiner sets out to mark the place where philosophy and poetry are ‘litigious’; where they come into meaningful and productive quarreling; to argue that philosophy is as much style as poetry is thought. ‘There has been no greater ‘wordsmith’ than Plato’, he remarks, thereby claiming a rigor of philosophical thought for all poetry, and a necessary stylistic virtuosity for all philosophy. Often he succeeds in drawing these lines. But problematic here is the common critical assumption of the ability to really know what is and is not deliberate in the writing of poetry. As Don Paterson astutely noticed, a critic will often assume something was done with long deliberation, when in fact it happened instantaneously; on the other hand, things that took years to do may look like they took minutes. This tends to happen when you chart the decision making process of something you’ve never done before. Steiner doesn’t quite do this, and he is absolutely correct that the points of intersection between philosophy and poetry are absolutely everywhere. But this is what makes it problematic: they are often so thoroughly amalgamated, dispersed, and pervasive as to be inaudible. Contrary to critical intuition, those who may seem less philosophically versed may simply be less explicit about it. The book is dedicated to Durs Grunbein, the brilliant and celebrated German poet who has also written a book on Descartes. Steiner’s method demands the kind of confirmation that Grunbein’s publishing history provides, and when explicit evidence of the ties between the two fields is absent, it tends to look less impressive.
The end result of all this is a brilliant book that is at times extremely taxing to read. Steiner’s assumption tends to be that Great Poets are people who read Great Philosophers. I couldn’t agree more (although this method leaves out just about every everyone but Durs and Geoffrey Hill). I would only suggest that Steiner looks for confirmation of somebody’s essential Greatness based on explicit manifestations of who they have read. I wonder whether he has considered those who aren’t so keen on telling him.