Altitude Sickness

In The Poetry of Thought, George Steiner announces his theme variously as “the dialogue I am trying to listen in on as between metaphysics and literature,” “the quarrel at once bitter and fraternal between philosophers and poets,” “the commerce between poetics and philosophy,” and the fusion of “the poetry of thought and the thought of poetry.” He also quotes Heidegger’s claim that what is “still concealed is the poetic character of thought” and Maurice Blanchot’s observation that there is between poetry and thought an “exultant antagonism.”

In effect, the book is a study of certain philosophers insofar as they were also poets, sometimes great poets. The choice philosopher-poets are Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, Valéry, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein.

Steiner makes life hard for his readers, not only because he has read all the books and pretends that they too have read them, but because of some willful practices he could easily have avoided. The book consists of nine chapters, none of them given a title. There is no table of contents, no bibliography, no index. None of the quotations is located. No footnotes. At one point Steiner quotes a memorable sentence by Beckett—“Now and then the rye, swayed by a light wind, casts and withdraws its shadow”—but if you want to find it in Beckett’s works, Steiner doesn’t help; you have to Google it to discover that it comes from Words and Music, a short piece for radio. Quotations from dead languages and modern European ones are left in their original form, but some of them are translated late in the day at the back of the book. Why these pedantries and obfuscations?

Another problem. Each chapter is propelled by an official theme, slowly declared, and then by a loose assemblage of paragraphs on vaguely related issues, an association of motifs often suggestive but locally beside the point. In Chapter 5, Steiner eventually concentrates on Hegel, but also indulges himself in sundry paragraphs on Georg Lukács, Alexandre Koyré, Alexandre Kojève, Ernst Bloch, Strindberg, Brecht, Genet, Beckett, Anouilh, and Kierkegaard. In chapter 6, which is apparently on Bergson, he makes excursions to Proust, Péguy, Santayana, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, Aristophanes, Tom Stoppard, Valéry, Fernando Pessoa, Ferrucio Busoni, Paul Bourget, Iris Murdoch, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Musil, Elfriede Jelinek, Freud, Auden, and Wittgenstein. In the chapter on Lucretius he veers to Dryden, Leopardi, Tennyson, Marx, and Leo Strauss, as if Lucretius were not enough. Inevitably, there are repetitions, especially on Wittgenstein’s charisma and Celan’s ghostly presence. A chapter on dialogue contains remarkable perceptions about Abélard, Galileo, Hume, de Maistre, and Valéry, but it sounds as if it were written for some other occasion. The chapter on Plato minds its business and is superb.

Shorn of its extravagances, Steiner’s book would have been a more cogent essay on philosophy as style. “In this essay I am trying to clarify the extent to which all philosophy is style,” Steiner claims, but he often forgets his purpose. Several issues much to the point of philosophy-as-style are left unattended:

The performative virtuosities which place the Phaedo and the Symposium among the very summits of all literature need no emphasis. Plato’s account of the death of Socrates has informed western consciousness. Comparable only to the Gospel narratives it has been a touchstone of moral and intellectual aspirations. Abstractly, propositionally, the Socratic “proof” of the immortality of the soul may be feeble. As poetry in action it is transcendent.

The transition from the feebleness of Socrates’s proof to the transcendence of the poetry is too gliding to be persuasive. Does the feeble proof not come into the question—for it must count as a question—of the transcendence of the poetry? Does it not matter?

Steiner gives a damaging account of Freud:

What now remains of psychoanalytic theory, of its physiological inference? What demonstrable cures has it brought? The typological Freudian neurotic has faded into Central European history, into the vanished era of a bourgeoisie, largely feminine, largely Jewish, from whose contingent historical context her or his troubles arose. The patriarchal, masculine codes of sexuality on which Freudian models and teachings are founded have all but receded into the archaeology of European values.

After that and more in similar vein, Steiner merely takes a breath and opens a new paragraph:

In compensation we have the resources of the writer, of the builder of myths comparable to Plato, of the teller of tales. The accounts of the ‘Dora’ case, of the Wolf Man belong among the masterpieces of the nineteenth-century novel.

Steiner may be justified in changing the subject from Freud’s reductive errors to his storytelling genius, but not in changing it so smoothly: it is a difficult issue in philosophy, not to be skated over. Steiner skates over it again in his pages on Marx—“the most eminent virtuoso of opprobrium after Juvenal and Swift”—where he elides every substantive difficulty in his zeal for Marx’s “stylistic repertoire.” These pages are remarkably eloquent, as one would expect from Steiner, but they aspire to altitudos and superlatives too often to be convincing. As on the Communist Manifesto, “one of the most influential pronouncements in all history.” And on Valéry’s Monsieur Teste: “No text I know of excels Teste in communicating the musculature of thinking.”

The passages on Heidegger are, of necessity, contentious. Steiner wrote a short book on him in 1978. Since then, the archives from 1933 to 1939 have been opened:

These are permeated by an almost vulgar entrancement with the Führer and his purification of the German nation. Heidegger’s imperious idiom closely parallels the Völkisch, implicitly racist lingo of Nazi propaganda. The contempt for disinterested intellectuality, for the commitment of scholarship to impartial evidence is strident.

But a new paragraph changes the tone, if not the assessment:

The crucial challenge still stands: does all this vileness demean, let alone refute or falsify Heidegger’s principal philosophic texts? Instinctively I feel that it does not, that Heidegger on the dawn light of the pre-Socratics, on Sorge (“concern”) and our being-unto-death retain their stature. At the same time, however, it has made it more difficult—the inhibition is almost physical—to read, to live with, to interpret Heidegger on Sophocles, on Hölderlin and to evaluate his confrontation with Celan. What was intended to be the crowning moment in our argument no longer seems altogether accessible. Always tentative, my questions have become unanswerable.

But Steiner is not free to rely on his instinct or on the wan certitude of “I feel.” His claim to be “always tentative” is amusing, refuted by the assertiveness of his sentences. He is the most acclaimed apocalyptist in contemporary criticism.

Chapter 9, the last one, is only four pages. Steiner tries to cram in reference to all the books he has not mentioned, among the hundreds he has indeed mentioned. “I have not touched on Ficino’s De Amore (1469), on Thomas Otway’s Alcibiades (1675), on Wieland’s influential Gespräche des Sokrates of 1756 or Voltaire’s Socrate (1759), with its detestation of Aristophanes whom Voltaire held partly culpable for Socrates’ fate.” Meanwhile, some pressing issues are deflected. Adorno’s attack on Heidegger, in The Jargon of Authenticity, is brushed aside as if it were irrelevant. “For Montaigne, all philosophy ‘n’est qu’une poésie sophistiquée,’ where sophistiquée needs careful handling.” I looked for Steiner’s careful hand: where was it when I needed it? “Others have found the intimacies between the philosophical and the poetic incestuous and reciprocally damaging. Husserl, for example.” Husserl? Where and when, in which book, on which page, so that I can check the reference?

In these last pages Steiner, speaking as “an obsolescent, often technophobic consciousness,” surveys the cultural scene. He reports on its dismalness: the conception of language “as the defining nucleus of being, as the donation, ultimately theological, of humaneness to man is now in recession.” He deplores “the reduction of literary texts on screens or the anti-rhetoric of the blog.” “The future of uncontrollably overcrowded, costly storage in public and academic libraries is increasingly questionable.” Worse still:

On the horizon lies the prospect that biochemical, 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.

I doubt that Steiner believes any of this. If he did, he would not have written his many books or propounded his favorite superlatives.

Finally he refers to “the humanities,” “which so bleakly failed us in the long night of the twentieth century.” Steiner likes the punitive note if it is at all feasible, but here he is being absurd. The humanities could be said to have failed us if they at some point offered or promised to save us. I think Steiner has the Holocaust in mind, and evidently thinks that the humanities could have prevented it. I recall a few redemptive phrases from Matthew Arnold and I. A. Richards, but nothing amounting to a promise to change the ways of the world. I remember Kenneth Burke saying that if you claim that literature will cure your toothache, you immediately disclose the superiority of your local dentist. William Empson put forward a tolerable program in Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture (1987):

The main purpose of reading imaginative literature is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own; and it cannot be done except in a Benthamite manner, that is, by thinking “how would such a code or custom work out?”

That is an honorable aim. If we add to it the pleasure of such experiences, we have a decent reason for reading yet another book. But there is no merit in claiming that if we were to read all the treatises and poems that Steiner recommends, and listen several times a day to Brahms’s third string quartet, we could save children in Malawi from dying terrible deaths. Famine, drought, flood, and murder are immune to sonatas.

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).

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