The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

The Mailman

“If one could write a single page of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, why in the hell would you want to write a book about them. There are light years between the acts of creation and even the finest criticism and commentary ….. Pushkin had a wonderful image: he said ‘you’re the mailman; please carry the letters’. And it’s fun and exciting; I am immensely grateful for my life and profession. I am a mailman and sometimes I have been able to carry the letters to the right box, to the right readers, saying: read this, look at this. I’ve never mixed it up with writing the letter, as Pushkin most unkindly reassured us.”

In an earlier post I shared a quote on this theme. In his Desert Island Discs interview, George Steiner makes the point differently but with great clarity.

All That is Difficult Because it is Excellent

“It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza, patron-saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which ‘political correctness’ is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is as in the unreason of love, a lie.”

George Steiner, Errata

Ah, George Steiner. Thank you.

The ‘Motion of Spirit’ in Translation

“If the vast majority of translations fall short of the source-texts, there are those which surpass them, whose autonomous strength obscures and marginalises the humbler ‘self’ of the original. I call this betrayal ‘transfiguration’…..What a truly inspired (very rare) act of translation offers in reparation is something new that was already there. This is not mysticism. Any thoughtful translator will know precisely what I mean…..Where it is wholly achieved, great translations being much rare than great literature, translation is no less than felt disc rouse between two human beings, ethics in action”.

– George Steiner, Errata

The Power of the Key

“Creation, infinitely rarer [than invention], can, indeed must, open on to “the terra incognita of the soul” (Coleridge). Its avenues are those of the trackless. It can, as Walter Benjamin argues, wait for us to follow, to catch up with it, although it is implausible to suppose that we will do so.”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

This reminds me of Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollak: “Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.” (There is of course his more often quoted passage about the ‘axe for the frozen sea’.) Steiner’s paragraph above, and in expanded detail in his book, is as good a description of the spirit of extreme seriousness that ought accompany the splendour of reading.

‘Draw breath with me, and go past, go beyond that breath’

“All that authentic poetry and what is most absolute in art and in music can accomplish is to say: “komm it mir zu Atem/und drüber hinaus”, ‘Draw breath with me, and go past, go beyond that breath’. This going beyond, this literal transcendence being that which I am seeking to define: the motion in progress towards realisation and the incompletion which this motion must make sensible. Incompletion as the denial of ‘finish’, with its connotations of ‘polish’, of ‘veneer’, of high gloss.”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation