EXTRATERRITORIAL: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution by George Steiner

EXTRATERRITORIAL: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution

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The question of ""metaphysical significance"" looms over this collection of essays; Steiner is concerned with language -- its integral relation to man, his evolution, his culture, his situation. He approaches these important questions with an admirable tenacity, an obvious concern to be profound, and a seemingly vast erudition. He is most at ease with literature, and his adjectival style encourages pertinent discussions of Nabokov, Borges and Beckett; though the speculative generalization can be a strength of literary criticism, when Steiner attempts to adapt this approach to a broader consideration of the ""language revolution"" in general and Chomsky in particular, he makes some serious errors. He misconstrues the internal coherence of the theory of transformational generative grammar; he seems oblivious to the concept of linguistic levels; distorts the conception and importance of the study of linguistic universals (which he seems to identify primarily with universal deep structures); misestimates the role of formalism within the theory; and fails to comprehend some of its specific implications for adequate methods of translation and the distinction between communication and the study of human language. A critic like Steiner trades on the civility of his sensibility. We can forgive him if he doesn't accurately transcribe the coherence of a theory that he finds ""highly technical"" in many of its details. But it is remarkable that a man who concerns himself so sententiously with the vital connections between culture and civilization and with the relation of ""the human and the humane"" can himself write in a later essay: ""Literary dons, facing classes made up, increasingly, of young women, are not always inclined to refurbish their dwindling stock of obsolete perceptions."" What, for god's sake, do the women have to do with it? This kind of writing may be full of ""metaphysical significance"" but in what way is it humane, in what way true?

Pub Date: June 24th, 1971
Publisher: Atheneum