ON DIFFICULTY by George Steiner


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Eight ""working papers"" on language and literature by one of the masters of modern criticism. Readers of After Babel (1975) and other works by Steiner will already be familiar with his brooding intelligence, his astonishing erudition, and his dense, richly orchestrated diction, all of which are fully in evidence here. The collection (oddly named after one of its minor pieces) includes exemplary bits of more or less traditional explication, as in ""Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity""; probing philosophical forays into linguistic problems, as in ""The Distribution of Discourse""; and above all a broad and melancholy overview of cultural history, as in ""Eros and Idiom,"" where Steiner meditates on the disintegration of ""true literacy."" The speculation--to what extent do deep universal structures underlie the chaotic variety of human languages? what is the nature of interior speech (""talking to ourselves"" in whatever form), and how does it relate to its exterior counterpart?--is arresting and prodigiously well-informed, but the book's most powerful moments come from the controlled passion of Steiner's assault on the ""organized amnesia"" he finds pervading Western life. It is through the genius of language, he remarks, that ""men have, at least until now, principally defined their humanity."" But nowadays the cry of the 19th century nihilist Pisarev, ""Boots rather than Shakespeare!"" has come into its own. Still, Steiner doesn't simply wring his hands over the oncoming waves of barbarism. He offers in his own work, with its epigrammatic insight and its dogged loyalty to ""the text"" and all it implies, a countervailing force.

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1978
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press