Passwords to Hope

“… where I take grammar to mean the articulate organisation of perception, reflections  and experience, the nerve-structure of consciousness when it communicates with itself and others.”

“The future tense, the ability to discuss possible events on the day after one’s funeral or in stellar space a million years hence, looks to be specific to homo sapiens. As does the use of subjunctive and of counter-factual modes which are themselves kindred, as it were, to future tenses. It is only man, so far as we can conceive, who has the means of altering his world by resort to ‘if’ -clauses, who can generate sentences such as: ‘If Caesar had not gone to the Capitol that day.’ It seems to me that this fantastic, formally incommensurable ‘grammatology’ of verb futures, of subjunctives and optatives, proved indispensable to the survival, to the evolution of the ‘language animal’ confronted as we were and are, by the scandal, by the incomprehensibility of individual death. There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an ‘if’ -sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. ‘Shall’, ‘will’ and ‘if’, circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden centre or nucleus of potentiality, are the passwords to hope.”

George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

3 thoughts on “Passwords to Hope

  1. I’m sure you know one of my favourite stories, of Philip II of Macedon on his consideration of an attempt to capture Sparta:

    He asked whether he should come as friend or foe; the reply was “Neither.” He sent a second message:

    You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.

    The Spartan ephors replied with a single word:

    If.

    Liked by 2 people

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