Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

George Steiner, fully Francis George Steiner

European-born American Literary Critic, Essayist, Philosopher, Novelist and Translator

"Music has always had its own syntax, its own vocabulary and symbolic means. Indeed, it is with mathematics the principal language of the mind when the mind is in a condition of non-verbal feeling."

"Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence."

"Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent. "

"The ordinary man casts a shadow in a way we do not quite understand. The man of genius casts light."

"The age of the book is almost gone. "

"The inception of human consciousness, the genesis of awareness, must have entailed prolonged 'condensations' around intractable nodes of wonder and terror, at the discriminations to be made between the self and the other, between being and non-being (the discovery of the scandal of death)."

"There would be no history as we know it, no religion, no metaphysics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, more fundamental, more axiomatic by far than any “social contract” or covenant with the postulate of the divine. This instauration of trust, this entrance of man into the city of man, is that between word and world"

"There is something terribly wrong with a culture inebriated by noise and gregariousness. "

"Books - the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity."

"The fantastically wasteful prodigality of human tongues, the Babel enigman, points to a vital multiplication of mortal liberties. Each language speaks the world in its own ways. Each edifies worlds and counter-worlds in its own mode. The polyglot is a freer man."

"There would be no history as we know it, no religion, no metaphysics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, more fundamental, more axiomatic by far than any “social contract” or covenant with the postulate of the divine. This instauration of trust, this entrance of man into the city of man, is that between word and world."

"A good deal of classical music is, today, the opium of the good citizen."

"A canon is a guarded catalogue of that speech, music and art which houses inside us, which is irrevocably familiar to our homecomings. And this will include, if honestly arrived at and declared (even if solely to oneself), all manner of ephemera, trivial, and possibly mendacious matter… No manor woman need justify his personal anthology, his canonic welcomes. Love does not argue its necessities."

"A sentence always means more. Even a single word, within the weave of incommensurable connotation, can, and usually does."

"A perceptive French critic has argued that in an age of deepening illiteracy, when even the educated have only a smattering of classical or theological knowledge, erudition is of itself a kind of fantasy, a surrealistic construct."

"A chess genius is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise."

"All serious art, music, literature is a critical act. It is so, firstly, in the sense of Matthew Arnold's phrase: "a criticism of life." Be it realistic, fantastic, Utopian or satiric, the construct of the artist is a counter-statement to the world."

"Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything."

"Almost alone among cognitive-aesthetic movements and strategies of interpretation, deconstruction neither champions anybody of past literature or art, nor does it act as vanguard or advocate for any contemporary or incipient school. The New Criticism and T. S. Eliot strove for the revaluation of Metaphysical poetry so as to underwrite, in turn, certain tactics of modernity. Aristotle was advocate for Sophocles. Deconstruction is, intentionally, marginal (a key trope) to all histories of taste and manifestos for innovation."

"Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise."

"But I would like to think for a moment about a man who in the morning teaches his students that a false attribution of a Watteau drawing or an inaccurate transcription of a fourteenth-century epigraph is a sin against the spirit and in the afternoon or evening transmits to the agents of Soviet intelligence classified, perhaps vital information given to him in sworn trust by his countrymen and intimate colleagues. What are the sources of such scission? How does the spirit mask itself?"

"As the glossaries lengthen, as the footnotes become more elementary and didactic, the poem, the epic, the drama, move out of balance on the actual page. As even the more rudimentary of mythological, religious or historical references, which form the grammar of Western literature, have to be elucidated, the lines of Spenser, of Pope, of Shelley or of Sweeney Among the Nightingales, blur away from immediacy. Where it is necessary to annotate every proper name and classical allusion in the dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in the garden at Belmont, or in Lachimo's stealthy rhetoric when he emerges in Imogen's bedchamber, these marvelous spontaneities of enacted feeling become "literary" and twice-removed."

"Cheap music, childish images, the vulgate in language, in its crassest sense, can penetrate to the deeps of our necessities and dreams. It can assert irrevocable tenure there. The opening bars, the hammer-beat accelerando of Edith Piaf's Je ne regrette rien — the text is infantile, the tune stentorian, and the politics which enlisted the song unattractive — tempt every nerve in me, touch the bone with a cold burn and draw me into God knows what infidelities to reason, each time I hear the song, and hear it, uncalled for, recurrent inside me."

"Creation of absolutely the first rank — in philosophy, in music, in much of literature, in mathematics — continues to occur outside the American milieu. It is at once taken up and intelligently exploited, but the "motion of the spirit" has taken place elsewhere, amid the enervation of Europe, in the oppressive climate of Russia. There is, in a good deal of American intellectual, artistic production (recent paining may be a challenging exception) a characteristic near-greatness, a strength just below the best. Could it be that the United States is destined to be the "museum culture"?"

"Do the identifications with fictions, the inner, tidal motions of pathos and libido which the novel, the film, the painting, the symphony unleash within us somehow immunize us against the humbler, less formed, but actual claims of suffering and of need in our surroundings? Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street?"

"In the Soviet Union, he knew, great art hangs in public galleries. No scholars, no men and women waiting to mend their souls before a Raphael or a Matisse need wait, cap in hand at the mansion door."

"Even where it is manipulated by major talents, deconstruction tends to bear either on marginal texts (Sade, Lautréamont), or on secondary work by a great writer (Barthes on Balzac's Sarrazine). The classics of deconstruction, in Jacques Derrida or Paul De Man, are "misreadings" not of literature but of philosophy; they address themselves to philosophical linguistics and the theory of language. The masks they seek to strip off are those worn by Plato, by Hegel, by Rousseau, by Nietszche or Saussure. Deconstruction has nothing to tell us of Aeschylus or Dante, of Shakespeare or Tolstoy."

"Fantasizing about action out there in the 'real' world, spinning dreams abut the secret centrality, about the occult importance of the labours in which he has interred his existence — labours that the vast majority of his fellow men would deem wholly marginal and socially wasteful if they knew of them at all — the pure scholar, the master of catalogues, can sup on hatred. At the ordinary level, he will exorcize his spleen in the ad-hominem nastiness of a book review, in the arsenic of a footnote. He will vent his resentments in the soft betrayals of an ambiguous recommendation or examination report and in the scorpion's round of a committee on tenure. The violence stays formal. Not, one supposes, in Professor Blunt."

"For it is a plain fact that, most certainly in the West, the writings, works of art, musical compositions which are of central reference, comport that which is "grave and constant" (Joyce's epithets) in the mystery of our condition."

"For let us keep one fact clearly in mind: the German language was not innocent of the horrors of Nazism. It is not merely that a Hitler, a Goebbels, and a Himmlerhappened to speak German. Nazism found in the language precisely what it needed to give voice to its savagery. Hitler heard inside his native tongue the latent hysteria, the confusion, the quality of hypnotic trance."

"I am and remain a Marxist, because otherwise I could not be a proofreader… If California triumphs, there will be no need of proofreaders. Machines will do it better. Or all texts will be audiovisual, with self-correctors built in. Night after night after night, Carlo, I work till my brain aches. So as to get it absolutely right… Getting it right. The holiness of it. The self-respect. Gran Dio, Carlo, you must see what I'm driving at. Utopia simply means getting it right! Communism means taking the errata out of history. Out of man. Reading proofs."

"If future society assumes the contours foretold by Marxism, if the jungle of our cities turns to the polis of man and the dreams of anger are made real, the representative art will be high comedy. Art will be the laughter of intelligence, as it is in Plato, in Mozart, in Stendhal."

"If, in the Judaic perception, the language of the Adamic was that of love, the grammars of fallen man are those of the legal code."

"For many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in."

"In the United States dramatically, here fortunately much less so, the book store as we have known it is dying. In the United States it is now largely an emporium, featuring music, records, Christmas cards, a large range of semi-cultural and kitsch products with books fighting for their actual spatial lives. In some of the great university towns such as New Haven, or Princeton, within the past decade, the last good book stores have had to close, and what we have now are text book emporia which are not book stores, but store-houses bracketed according to set reading lists: in other words—where there is none of the genius of waste which a great book store has, where you cannot find what you are not looking for, which is the very essence of a book store."

"Increasingly unable to create for itself a relevant body of myth, the modern imagination will ransack the treasure house of the classic."

"It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility."

"It was a brilliant, mutinous period. Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classic and Mediterranean tradition. These years, 1920-33, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit."

"Literary criticism has about it neither rigor nor proof. Where it is honest, it is passionate, private experience seeking to persuade."

"Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. To borrow an image from another domain: he who has truly apprehended a painting by Cézanne will thereafter see an apple or a chair as he had not seen them before. Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford."

"Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, messianic socialism: these are the three supreme moments in which Western culture is presented with what Ibsen termed "the claims of the ideal." These are the three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence."

"In aesthetic discourse, no interpretative-critical analysis, doctrine or programme is superseded, is erased, by any later construction. The Copernican theory did correct and supersede that of Ptolemy. The chemistry of Lavoisier makes untenable the early phlogiston theory. Aristotle on mimesis and pathos is not superseded byLessing or Bergson. The Surrealist manifestos of Breton do not cancel out Pope's Essay on Criticism though they may well be antithetical to it."

"No phonetic sign, except at a rudimentary, strictly speaking pre-linguistic level of vocal imitation, has any substantive relation or contiguity to that which it is conventionally and temporally held to designate."

"Nothing in a language is less translatable than its modes of understatement."

"Literature and the arts are also criticism in a more particular and practical sense. They embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain."

"More and more lower-middle-income families either live their lives in debt or leave the city altogether. The boom is strictly at the penthouse level."

"Talk can neither be verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense. This is an open secret which hermeneutics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Croce, have labored to exorcise or to conceal from themselves and their clients. This ontological, which is to say both primordial and essential axiom (or platitude) of ineradicable undecidability needs, none the less, to be closely argued."

"Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guide-books in hand."

"Often the children went alone, or held the hands of strangers. Sometimes parents saw them pass and did not dare call out their names. And they went, of course, not for anything they had done or said. But because their parents existed before them. The crime of being one's children."

"Self-projection is, more often than not, the move of the minor craftsman, of the tactics of the hour whose inherent weakness is, precisely, that of originality."