George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to CelanThe Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an essay about the failure of philosophy—and Steiner stresses that it is indeed an “essay,” in the Montaignean sense of “trial.” Philosophers have longed to make their discourse like mathematics or music: a mode of pure reason that can master human experience because it is unsullied by reference to experience’s inevitable, ungovernable mess and murk. But philosophy takes place in language, and language is, whatever else it is, a means to reference experience. By the time the history of philosophy arrives at Nietzsche and Saussure, the old dream slips even further from the philosophers’ reach: language, even considered in itself, is no less a mess than reality. It is an ever-failing system of signifiers “slipping,” as the poststructuralists liked to say, as if on grease or slime. On the other hand, poetry, whether defined referentially (as mimesis, per Aristotle) or semiotically (per postmodern theory), has tended to accept, in varying ways, the inevitable complexities language involves. Steiner’s essay narrates—in a roughly chronological montage—philosophy’s becoming-poetry, its fortunate fall into the word-flesh.

Steiner’s aforementioned Eurocentrism (“What theorem out of Africa?” he invidiously inquires in this book) illustrates why some of us—non-Europeans or, like myself, the wrong kind of European—feel no particular loyalty to philosophy qua philosophy at all. Steiner regards as at least arguable Heidegger’s contention that philosophy can only occur in Greek and German; I recall that Derrida, by contrast, stressed the Latinity of literature, and I distantly recall too a lecture by R. A. Judy wherein he pledged his fealty to poetry over philosophy because in philosophy a black man could only be an object rather than a subject of thought. Steiner rightly cites Borges on the indivisibility of poetry and philosophy (and theology, which, like music and the pure sciences, hovers at the edge of this argument):

Borges infers that all philosophical propositions (however stringent), that every formal logic are daydreams, that they manifest the systematic reveries of the woken intellect. In Goya’s etching the sleep of reason breeds monsters. In Borges both the night-dreams and the daydreams of rationality engender Zeno’s tortoise, Plato’s cavern, Descartes’s malignant demon or Kant’s starlit imperatives. As Hamlet instructs Horatio, the matter of philosophy is “dreamt of.” Concomitantly there is no literary text, be it a lyric poem, a detective story, science fiction or romance which does not contain, either declared or veiled, metaphysical coordinates, logical axioms or spoors of epistemology. Man narrates worlds possibly alternative, contrapuntal to his bounded, parochial reality.

On the other hand, a species of total and unsullied abstraction may be, at least contingently, a cultural and geographical matter. (But even if it is, can one exclude China or India, both of which, per a lamenting Justin E. H. Smith, have traditions of “philosophy” as the term is meant in the West?) The mathematicians and the physicists have no doubt given us good reason to be grateful, but I feel no ontological sense of inferiority about my incapacity for abstract thought. A C-student in physics and calculus, a failed reader of Spinoza and Leibniz and Kant, a “poet” who, like so many poets, has to make due with Plato and Nietzsche for my philosophers—yes, I am all those things, but, given the thinking I am able do in images (including images of action), I defer to no philosopher.

The best passages in this book are those on Plato, Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Each is treated at length and in relation to the poets. The section on Plato will make readers feel an urgent need to go beyond the undergraduate standards. The section on Hegel, considered in relation to Hölderlin and then to modern drama, gave me a new list of plays to read soon (Strindberg, Genet); and Steiner’s defense of Hegel’s style and anti-style—as prose in the best sense of the term—is oddly charming, if one can be charmed by the thought of Hegel. Steiner’s bravura passage—pages of 19th-century energy—on Marx’s reading and his style, his love of Shakespeare and of the realist novelists, his Swiftian mastery of all the registers of contempt, may be a coded commentary on the left-classicism that drew some of us, in the age of the canon wars, to Marxism in the first place. Steiner’s eulogy to Marxism in spite of all—as the apogee of the West’s moral adventure, its climactic combination of the Hebraic ethics and the Hellenic reason—is worth quoting at length, though I do not think I can accept it, ultimately, believing as I do that utopias, like superheroes, really must be outgrown:

No less than Homer’s Odyssey or the Aeneid, Marx’s analytic and critical narrative has as its archetype a journey homeward. Ernst Bloch summarizes memorably: a site “which irradiates childhood and where no one has yet been: homeland.” That this voyage should have led to despotism and suffering, to monstrous injustice and corruption, that it vainly sought to negate what Hegel had called the tragic essence of history, does not invalidate the grandeur of the dream. It refutes but does not devalue the compliment which utopian socialism pays to mankind’s potential for altruism and betterment. When the true revolution comes, proclaimed Trotsky, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx.” The Manifesto turns to Shakespeare: with the overthrow of the old order, “all that is solid melts into air.” The quote from The Tempest, the salute to Aristotle and Goethe are no ornamental flourishes. They tell of one of the great, tragic adventures of the human spirit, of philosophy seeking to transmute itself into that other voice of poetry which is action.

Steiner’s excursus on Wittgenstein’s beguilingly aphoristic style—and its relation to Beckett—amused me. Steiner draws his narrative to an end with Heidegger. The erstwhile Rector of Freiburg is too compromised—and more so by recent publications out of the archive—to admire, and yet Paul Celan was able to expect from him a word from the heart. Steiner ends, before an epilogue, with the two men, the Nazi philosopher and the Jewish poet, together in silence, a “silence both safeguarding and trying to transcend the limits of speech which are, as in the very name of that hut [Todtnauberg], also those of death.”

After this scene, Steiner provides a brief epilogue on “the radical break with the western historical past” represented by all the counter-verbal trends of the present. Gloomy as ever, Steiner nevertheless strikes a note more hopeful than I am accustomed to from his prose:

Yet it may be a formidable adventure. And somewhere a rebellious singer, a philosopher inebriate with solitude, will say “No.” A syllable charged with the promise of creation.

Omissions? I grasp Steiner’s relative avoidance of Nietzsche (he gives him only three pages) since everyone knows already that Nietzsche was a poet; but I still would have liked more, and, relatedly, more on Schopenhauer. Steiner’s evasion of theology, sensu stricto, causes a neglect of Dante and Aquinas, who might have formed the centerpiece of the book. And why not more on Shakespeare and Montaigne? There are many pages devoted to major figures in the French and German tradition that I, as a vulgar American who has spent too much time reading writers not even mentioned in this book (such as Emerson), do not know as well as I should or at all—Valéry, for instance, or, again, Hölderlin. But this is my problem, not Steiner’s.

As I recently read in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, the essay should be regarded as the short form of the confession, just as the story is the short form of the novel and the tale the short form of the romance. So Steiner’s style—his relentlessly morose and high-minded sensibility and the grave drama of his prose with its intellectually suspenseful and mountingly intense periodic sentences and its near-desperate allusions to the masters, like one calling on the gods—is the confession, a confession not foreign to advanced fiction in the age of Beckett, Bernhard, and Sebald, of the illuminated European on the eve of his final departure.



  1. I discovered your blog because of a shared love of Steiner. Despite the reality of not being able to read a word I have excitingly saved your URL in my favourites bar and will return.

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