Friday, May 31, 2019

The U.S. and self-perception

In short: the Puritan programme of a break with the ‘corrupt ancientness’ and hereditary taint of European history, the great hunger of successive waves of immigrants for a new dispensation free of the terrors and injustice which had marked their communal past, have played a central role in the American imagination and in the rhetoric of American identity. But they do not afford the actual products of American culture a calendar of Arcadian youth, a time of special grace. On the contrary. American culture has stood, from its outset, on giant shoulders. Behind Puritan style lay the sinew of English Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean prose. Behind the foundation of American universities lay the experience of Oxford and Cambridge, Aristotelian logic and the mathematics of Galileo and Newton. British empiricism and the world of the philosophes underwrite the Jeffersonian vision of an American enlightenment. Goethe stands behind Emerson as Shakespeare and Milton do behind Melville. It may be, as D. H. Lawrence found, that American culture is ‘very old’ precisely because it has been heir to so much. The New England divines would concur. By the early eighteenth century, William Cowper testified to ‘God’s withdrawal’ from a new world whose conditions of spirit and civil practice were no better than in the old. The idiom of his testimony was that of Jeremiah and the Cataline orations, of Juvenal and the Aesopian satirists of the European reformation.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 270

Thursday, May 30, 2019


I was cleaning up some files on my computer today and ran across this. I discovered I had originally posted it in November 2006, but it bears reposting, even though I might word it differently in places if I wrote it today:

<idle musing>
Veneer is a handy thing. You overlay a thin layer of an expensive wood over cheap wood and it looks good. Nobody suspects that the underlying wood is just particle board. No one that is, until you try to put a load on the shelf and it breaks.

It can be the same with people.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time with someone I hadn’t seen for a while. Others had told me how much this person had changed and how much they had grown in Christ. I was excited to see it; I always like to see what God does in a person.

At first it seemed that it was true. The person acted the part of a Christian; the vocabulary was Evangelical, God was part of the discussion. But, then came a time of pressure. Pop! The shelf cracked and the particle board of old unredeemed self shown through.

Does it have to be that way? Do we have to go through life play-acting? Recent events raise this question even more starkly. Is Christianity just a sop thrown to give us hope after death, while we struggle and fail here on earth? Is there no victory over sin? Does the enemy of our souls have the upper hand?

Scripture says, “No!” Emphatically. Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, was able to say, “I have overcome the world!” Note the tense, not I will, not I am, but I have (perfect, active, indicative in the Greek). Paul was able to say, in Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (present active indicative in the Greek). John, in I John says, “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.”

So, why the disconnect? Why don’t people seem to be experiencing this in their daily lives?

Well, there can be any number of reasons, but I submit that the main one is that most Christians have never really died to self. Evangelical Christianity is big on justification, but short on sanctification. We want big numbers, and frankly, death isn’t a good calling card if you are looking for a large following: “Hi, Jesus loves you and wants to put you to death!” But, that is exactly what Jesus calls us to, “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16.24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23, 14.27 (RSV)

Paul develops the theme even more in Romans 6. According to Paul, we died with Christ in baptism and now we are alive in Christ. But, it is in Christ, not in self. As long as we function in self, we function in sin. As long as we seek what we want, when we want it, we are dead to Christ and alive to the world. As long as we live in Christ, we are dead to self and the world. It’s too simple—maybe that’s the problem. We want to make it harder; we want to do it.

The reformation happened almost 500 hundred years ago. Its basic truth was sola gratia, all God and not man. Why is it that we are now trying to do it ourselves? Sola Gratia means just that, by grace alone, or does Galatians 3 not ring true anymore?

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? —if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
</idle musing>

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The source of the law

If, in the Judaic perception, the language of the Adamic was that of love, the grammars of fallen man are those of the legal code. It is the modulation from one to the other, as commentary and commentary on commentary seek to hammer it out, which is one of the centres of The Trial (kabbalistic geometries know of ordered constructs with several centres). Set beside Kafka’s readings of Kafka, ours are, unavoidably, feeble.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 241

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Live as guests

To be a guest among other men is a possibility. All of us, I firmly believe are guests of the planet, of its ecology. We did not make our world, we were thrown into it. We are born without knowing why. We haven’t planned it. We are trustees of a dwindling space for survival. We had better learn very quickly that we are guests, or there will be not much left to live in.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 237

Monday, May 27, 2019


Those who have produced canonic texts and textualities by which they organize their politics — be they the Koran, the Scriptures, the Kapital — are not everywhere. And there are many cultures that have, until now, refused textuality, and which are now paying a bitter price for what may be a perfectly natural condition of their being.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 236

Friday, May 24, 2019

In praise of the liberal arts

There's a marvelous blog called Bob on Books that I read regularly. Normally he reviews books—a wide variety of books, but mainly Christian ones. But sometimes he offers musings on other things. Today is one of those days. Here's an excerpt, but please take the extra couple of minutes to read the whole thing—and maybe even add him to your daily reading!
A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

It ain't easy!

It would be fantastically arrogant to suppose that we know that we have evolved into a kind of creature that likes living with those that smell different, look different, sound different. Sit in a railway carriage or bus in a land where you don’t speak a single word of the language. Have you ever noticed the panic that starts growing in your civilized soul, the sense that something is hideously wrong, that your very identity may soon be torn apart? It could be that autonomy is the natural form of the social unit, and that those who would thrust others together may be doing so in the name of a transcendent vision of justice, hope, human fairness, but that they may also be hurrying something very complicated. We don’t know. Human beings do tend to be with their own. Not all. Not the exceptional. But most human beings.

We’re speaking across a statistical mean, but it is a very massive one. Environment is heredity, and heredity is environment. That which you are born into — the privileges, the luck or the misfortune — is both heredity and environment. They cannot be separated. Cautionary rhetoric occludes this complicated recognition of interaction. The dialectic, the osmotic, which relate the mutations conceivable or feasible in this interaction, are radically beyond our understanding.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 235

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

And Freud comes crashing down

First published in 1966, Das Dritte Reich des Traums is a neglected classic. In it, Charlotte Beradt summarizes her analyses of some three hundred dreams recounted to her in Berlin 1933–34, That the images, symbols, fantasms which crowd these dreams should so obviously mirror the political changes taking place in Berlin at the time, is not surprising. What is of the very first importance, however, is the degree of depth to which external history penetrates into the subconscious and unconscious. It does not take long to discover that patients dreaming of the loss of limbs or of the atrophy of arms or legs are not displaying symptoms of a Freudian castration—complex but, more simply and terribly, revealing the terrors inflicted on them by the new rules demanding the Hitler-salute in public, professional and even familial usage.

Am I mistaken in feeling that this finding, even by itself, presents a fundamental challenge to the psychoanalytic model of dreams and their interpretation?—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 222–23

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On Dreams

Our knowledge of dreams and of dreaming, the material which constitutes the history of human dreams, are wholly inseparable from the linguistic medium. (I leave to one side the epistemologically teasing possibility that a mute or deaf-mute dreamer can somehow provide a pictorial or gestural mimesis of his dreams.) Dreams are told, recorded, interpreted in language. The phenomenology of dreaming is imbedded in the evolution and structures of language. A theory of dreams is also a linguistics or, at the very least, a poetics. No account of any human dream, whether provided by the dreamer himself, by a secondary source or by the dream-interpreter, is linguistically innocent or value-free. The account of the dream, which is the sum total of our evidence, will be subject to exactly the same constraints and historical determinants in respect of style, narrative convention, idiom, syntax, connotation, as any other speech act in the relevant language, historical epoch and milieu. Dreams were no less splintered at Babel than were the tongues of men.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 217

Monday, May 20, 2019

Do you?

It is a confident guess that despite the Enlightenment and positivism, that despite modern agnosticism and Freud, a great majority of mankind—even in so-called ‘advanced’ and technological societies—continues to attach prophetic, oracular values to its dreams.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 214

Friday, May 17, 2019

A change in dream interpretation

In psychoanalysis, on the contrary, dreams feed not on prophecy but on remembrance. The semiological vector points not to the future but to the past. The dynamics of opacity are not those of the unknown but of the suppressed.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 214

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Tread carefully!

Any poetic, philosophic, rhetorical pronouncement worth taking seriously will compact its executive means and meanings. It will resist, it will frustrate to the greatest possible degree, the dissociative, the deconstructive agencies of paraphrase and translation. A major text exposes pitilessly the necessary innocence and arbitrariness of the translator’s assumption that meaning is some sort of ‘packageable content’ and not an energy irreducible to any other medium. Language is, therefore, the adversary of translation. Thus there is more than cautionary allegory in the prohibition which numerous cultures have set against the translation of their sacred texts.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 195

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Good news

Ted Gossard over at Jesus Community has a good exhortation that I needed to hear today. After quoting Phil 4:4–9 and some comments, he closes with this:
Sometimes Christians along with others see it as their moral duty to focus on all that’s wrong, the mess of the world with the goal of exposing and rooting it out, or at least taking a stand against it. There is surely a time to speak and a time to keep silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But one can become completely absorbed in that, totally occupied with it, so that there’s no time to do what we’re called to do in the passage above. I liked what I heard Dallas Willard say online in a talk, that only after one has worked hard all day, and is collapsing should they turn their attention to the news. That might be an overstatement to make a point. It’s not like we’re to ignore what’s unpleasant. But neither should that be our focus. Instead we’re to concentrate on what’s uplifting and helpful to us. Then hopefully that same spirit and practice can help others as we continue to be helped. In and through Jesus.
Do read the whole thing, though.

A matter of perspective

The extinction of a language however remote, however immune to historical-material success or diffusion, is the death of a unique world—view, of a genre of remembrance, of present being and of futurity. A truly dead language is irreplaceable. It closes that which Kierkegaard bade us keep open if our humanity was to evolve: ‘the wounds of possibility’. Such closure may, for late twentieth-century mass-media and mass-market technocracy, be a triumph. It may facilitate the imperium of the fast-food chain and the news-satellite. For the lessening chances of the human spirit, it is destructive.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 150–51

Monday, May 13, 2019

The tragedy of the tragic

Absolute tragedy is very rare. It is a piece of dramatic literature (or art or music) founded rigorously on the postulate that human life is a fatality. It proclaims axiomatically that it is best not to be born or, failing that, to die young. An absolutely tragic model of the condition of men and women views these men and women as unwanted intruders on creation, as beings destined to undergo unmerited, incomprehensible, arbitrary suffering and defeat. Original sin, be it Adamic or Promethean, is not a tragic category. It is charged with possibilities both of motivation and of eventual redemption. In the absolutely tragic, it is the crime of man that he is, that he exists. His naked presence and identity are transgressions. The absolutely tragic is, therefore, a negative ontology. Our century has given to this abstract paradox a tangible enactment. During the Holocaust, the Gypsy or the Jew had very precisely committed the crime of being. That crime attached by definition to the fact of birth. Thus even the unborn had to be hounded to extinction. To come into the world was to come into torture and death.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 129

Friday, May 10, 2019

The strains of translation

For it is in and through the process of translation that a language is made eminently self-aware. Translation constrains it to formal and diachronic introspection, to an explicit investment and enlargement of its historical, colloquial and metaphorical instruments. Simultaneously, translation puts a language under pressure of its limitation. It will solicit modes of perception and designation which that language had left underdeveloped, or had altogether discarded. An act of translation draws up a balance-sheet, as it were, for the target-language.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 94

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Were you there?

‘Who is it that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?’ I am unable to account wholly rationally for the ways of the man or woman who put the question and who asks me where I was when ‘the morning stars sang together’ or whether ‘the rain hath a father?’

Perhaps this is as it should be. It is the Hebrew Bible, of all books, which most questions man.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 87

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The pervasiveness of biblical themes

How naked would be the walls of our museums stripped of the works of art which illustrate, interpret or refer to biblical themes. How much silence there would be in our western music, from Gregorian chant to Bach, from Handel to Stravinsky and Britten if we excised settings of biblical texts, dramatizations and motifs. The same is true of western literature. Our poetry, drama, fiction would be unrecognizable if we omitted the continuous presence of the Bible. Nor is there any categorical way of delineating that presence. It extends from the immense volume of biblical paraphrase to the most tangential or covert of allusions.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 82

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Let the mystery remain!

But the possible confusion and, in our present climate of approved sentiment, the inevitable embarrassment which must accompany any public avowal of mystery, seems to me preferable to the slippery evasions and conceptual deficits in contemporary hermeneutics and criticism.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 38

Monday, May 06, 2019

Sitz im leben matters

We must read as if the temporal and executive setting of a text does matter. The historical surroundings, the cultural and formal circumstances, the biological stratum, what we can construe or conjecture of an author’s intentions, constitute vulnerable aids. We know that they ought to be stringently ironized and examined for what there is in them of subjective hazard. They matter none the less. They enrich the levels of awareness and enjoyment; they generate constraints on the complacencies and licence of interpretative anarchy.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 34

Friday, May 03, 2019

Complexity of meaning

We must read as if the text before us had meaning. This will be a single meaning if the text is a serious one, if it makes us answerable to its force of life. It will not be a meaning or figura (structure, complex) of meanings isolated from the transformative and reinterpretative pressures of historical and cultural change. It will not be a meaning arrived at by any determinant or automatic process of cumulation and consensus. The true understanding(s) of the text or music or painting may, during a briefer or longer time-spell, be in the custody of a few, indeed of one witness and respondent. Above all, the meaning striven towards will never be one which exegesis, commentary, translation, paraphrase, psycho-analytic or sociological decoding, can ever exhaust, can ever define as total. Only weak poems can be exhaustively interpreted of understood. Only in trivial or opportunistic texts is the sum of significance that of the parts.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 34

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Ontology of Literary Criticism

The poem comes before the commentary. The poem is first not only temporally. It is not a pre-text, an occasion for subsequent exegetic or metamorphic treatment. Its priority is one of essence, of ontological need and self-sufficiency. Even the greatest critique or commentary, be it that of a writer or painter or composer on his own work, is accidental (the cardinal Aristotelian distinction). It is dependent, secondary, contingent. The poem embodies and bodies forth through a singular enactment its own raison d’étre. The secondary text does not contain an imperative of being. Again the Aristotelian and Thomist differentiations between essence and accident are clarifying. The poem is; the commentary signifies.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, page 32

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The hermeneutic circle

Unlike criticism and aesthetic valuation, which are always synchronic (Aristotle’s ‘Oedipus’ is not negated or made obsolete by Holderlin’s, Hoderlin’s is neither improved nor cancelled out by Freud’s), the process of textual interpretation is cumulative. Our readings become better informed, evidence progresses, substantiation grows. Ideally—though not, to be sure, in actual practice—the corpus of lexical knowledge, of grammatical analysis, of semantic and contextual matter, of historical and biographical fact, will finally suffice to arrive at a demonstrable determination of what the passage means. This determination need not claim exhaustiveness; it will know itself to be susceptible to amendment, to revision, even to rejection as fresh knowledge becomes available, as linguistic or stylistic insights are sharpened. But at any given point in the long history of disciplined understanding, a decision as to the better reading, as to the more plausible paraphrase, as to the more reasonable grasp of the author’s purpose, will be a rational and demonstrable one. At the end of the philological road, now or tomorrow, there is a best reading, there is a meaning or constellation of meanings to be perceived, analysed and chosen over others. In its authentic sense, philology is, indeed, the working passage, via the arts of scrupulous observance and trust (philein) from the uncertainties of the Word to the stability of the Logos.—George Steiner, No Passion Spent, pages 27–28