The Poetry of Thought

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

“When God sings to Himself, he sings algebra, opined Liebniz.” p.18

“Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilises our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulative futurity. Hope is the future tense.” p.21

This dialogue, Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought, a dialogic embrace of metaphysics and literature, thrilling as any novel, a book of life, a book for life, one I have no desire to leave. Pencil in hand, note-taking. Lashings of tea.

A reading list that is ever-swelling, transforming.

“To listen closely–Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”– is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.” p.34

One wants to read everything. To reread everything, better. Did one ever understand anything?

“Does difficulty in the Phenomenology and the Enzyklopadie prepare that in Mallarmé, Joyce or Paul Celan, the displacement of language from the axis of immediate or paraphrasable meaning as we find it in Lacan or Derrida (an annotator of Hegel.)” p.88

“Is it possible to reconcile the hermetic with the didactic?” p.88

“What was, lazily, deemed fixed, eternal in the conceptual–that Platonic legacy–is made actual and fluid by the breaking open of words.” p.89

“The muteness of animals remains vestigial in us.” p.90

Stricto sensu consciousness should revert to silence. Beckett is not far off. Yet only language can reveal being.” p.91

“Philosophy, however, outranks even great literature.” p.91

“Human labour both manual and spiritual defines the realisation of the conceptual. This insight translates into the fabric of a Hegelian treatise. The reader must work his way through it. Only the laborious in the root-sense can activate understanding. Passive reception is futile. Via the hard labour of concentrated intake “disquiet is made order” in our consciousness.” p.93

“Hegel produces ‘anti-texts’ aiming at collision with the inert matter of the commonplace. They are, says Adorno, ‘films of thought’ calling for experience rather than comprehension.” p.96

“There was darkness also in Bergson’s outlook, notably toward its close. But he did not wish to extend such darkness to his readers.” p.127

There’s a lifetime’s reading here just tracing the patterns of Steiner’s thought. More than one lifetime.

8 thoughts on “The Poetry of Thought

  1. He circles around many of these same thoughts even in My Unwritten Books. It’s interesting to see the thought patterns that emerge and how they are applied to different things.

    • It is what I find most rewarding about reading his books one after another, the way he repeats and layers his grand themes, but they are always developed and enriched with new frames of reference.

  2. Just before you began blogging about George Steiner, I read his introduction to Iris Murdoch’s collected essays on philosophy and literature, EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS, When I came to the end of his (very appreciative, very precise) introduction, my thought was, “Well, here’s someone who knows what it means to “mean,” and doesn’t get silly about it.” And as much as I’m savoring Murdoch’s essays (they give much weight and light to her novels, if light can be said to weigh anything,,,), I keep turning back to Steiner’s introduction. How odd that I’d never thought to read him, or hadn’t thought about it much, and how glad I am that you’re reading him with such jubilance and sharing it with us. How wonderful that the vast house of literature and criticism has more rooms than we can ever hope to explore or exhaust. That may be a tired metaphor, but as you know, there’s a whole body (ha!) of criticism devoted to metaphor. There’s always more.

    • Ours is an age of specialists. Steiner belongs to an era we are leaving behind, of readers like Montaigne, Dr. Johnson and Iris Murdoch, readers that set no limits on their range of interests, that saw philosophy, poetry and science as essential components of a cultured mind. It is, for me at least, impossible to read Steiner without a sense of jubilation, because he reads and writes with such exhilaration and breadth. On p.141 in Poetry of Thought he writes of Murdoch’s alertness to the erotic and its essential role in the transmission of philosophic wisdom. That same page references Paul Bourget (new to me, a rabbit hole to follow), Nietzsche, Spinoza, Negri, Plato, Sartre, Arendt, Heidegger, Pythagoras and Marx. I can imagine today’s specialist finding Steiner’s eclectic exuberance rather frustrating but I find it all rather thrilling. Just rereading p.141 makes me want to reread the entire book.

    • Wonderful, John. Thank you for sharing that piece and I can immediately identify that addiction. It is quite possible I might continue reading his corpus to completion, and decide to start again from the beginning. The only remedy to this addiction is my conviction to follow up many of Steiner’s references and to reread more carefully some of the texts I read with insufficient comprehension.

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