George Steiner

Tolstoy or Dostoevksy (London 1960; Penguin 1967)
The history of European fiction in the nineteenth century brings to mind the image of a nebula with wide-flung arms. At their extremities the Ameircan and the Russian novel radiate a whiter brilliance. As we move outward form the cenre - and we may think of Henry James,Turgeniev, and Conrad as intermediary clusters - the stuff of realism grows more tenuous. The masters of the American and the Russian manner appear to gather something of their fierce intensity from the outer darkness, from the decayed matter of folk-lore, melodrama, and religious life. (p.35.)

The theatre of the European novel, its political and physical matrix from Jane Austen to Proust, was extraordinarily stable. In it the major catastrophes were private. The art of Balzac, Dickens and Flaubert was neither prepared nor called upon to engage those forces which can utterly dissolve the fabric of a society and overwhelm private life. (Ibid., p.43.)

— Both quoted in Patrick Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism”, Ph.D., UCG 1972), p.125-26.

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975; 1998, 1999)
‘By far the greatest mass of the past as we experience it is a verbal construct. History is a speech-act, a selective use of the past tense.... We have no total history, no history which could be defined as objectively real because it contained the literal sum of past life. To remember everything is a condition of madness. We remember culturally, as we do individually, by conventions of emphasis, foreshortening, and omission. ... We remember culturally, as we do individually, by conventions of emphasis, foreshortening, and omission. The landscape composed by the past tense, the semantic, organisation of remembrance, is stylised and differently coded by different cultures ... The Augustan paradigm of Rome, was, like that of Ben Jonson and the Elizabethan Senecans, an active fiction, a "reading into life". But the two models were very different ... each reading, each translation differs, each is undertaken from a distinctive angle of vision ... As every generation retranslates the classics, out of a vital compulsion for immediacy and precise echo, so every generation uses language to build its own resonant past ... Without the true fiction of history, without the unbroken animation of a chosen past, we become flat shadows.’ (pp.29-30; quoted in large part in C. F. McGarth, Brian Friel's (Post)Colonial Drama: Language, Illusion and Politics, Syracuse UP 1999, p.225.) ... the reality of felt history in a community depend[s] on a never-ending, though very often unconscious, act of internal translation. (29-30)

[The Tower of Babel] did not mark the end of a blessed monism, of a universal-language situation. The bewildering prodigality of tongues had long existed, and had materially complicated the enterprise of men. In trying to build the tower, the nations stumbled on the great secret: that true understanding is possible only when there is silence. They built silently, and there lay the danger to God. (After Babel, 1975, p.286; quoted in Helen Lojek, ‘Brian Friel’s Plays and George Steiner’s Linguistics: Translating the Irish’, in Contemporary Literature, Spring 1994, pp.83-99; p.85.)

All descriptions are partial. We speak less than the truth, we fragment in order to reconstruct desired alternatives, we select and elide. It is not 'the things which are' that we say, but those which might be, which we would bring about, which the eye and remembrance compose. (p.220; quoted in Lojek, op. cit., p.93.)

"When we use past tenses, when we remember, when the historian "makes history" (for that is what he is actually doing), we rely on ... axiomatic fictions. These may well be indispensable to the exercise of rational thought, of speech, of shared remembrance, without which there can be no culture. But their justification is comparable to that of the foundations of Euclidean geometry whereby we operate, with habitual comfort, in ... mildly idealized space. (138; quoted in Lojek, op. cit., p.?

 

On Babel:
The occult tradition holds that a single primal language, an Ur-Sprache, lies behind our present discord, behind the abrupt tumult of warring tongues which followed on the collapse of Nimrod’s ziggurat. This Adamic vernacular not only enabled all men to understand one another, to communicate with perfect ease.  It bodied forth, to a greater or lesser degree, the original Logos, the act of immediate calling into being whereby God had literally “spoken the world”.  The vulgate of Eden contained, though perhaps in a muted key, a divine syntax – powers of statement and designation analogous to God’s own diction, in which the mere naming of a thing was sufficient cause of its leap into reality.  Each time man spoke he re-enacted, he mimed the nominalist mechanism of creation.  Hence the allegorical significance of Adam’s naming of all living forms: “and whatsoever Adam called every living thing that was the name thereof.” Hence also the ability of all men to understand God’s language and to give it intelligible answer.
  Being of direct divine etymology, moreover, the Ur-Sprache had a congruence with reality such as no tongue has had after Babel. .. Words and objects dovetailed perfectly. As the modern epistemologist might put it, there was a complete, point-to-point mapping of language onto the true substance and shape of things. Each name was an equation .. The tongue of Eden was like a flawless glass; a light of total understanding streamed through it. Thus Babel was a second Fall, in some regards more desolate than the first. Adam had been driven from the garden; now men were harried like yelping dogs, out of the single family. And they were exiled from the assurances of being able to grasp and communicate reality. (After Babel, pp.58-59.) [BS Diss. 1979]


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