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Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

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How do we evaluate the power and utility of language when it has been made to articulate falsehoods in certain totalitarian regimes or has been charged with vulgarity and imprecision in a mass-consumer democracy? How will language react to the increasingly urgent claims of more exact speech such as mathematics and symbolic notation? These are some of the questions Steiner How do we evaluate the power and utility of language when it has been made to articulate falsehoods in certain totalitarian regimes or has been charged with vulgarity and imprecision in a mass-consumer democracy? How will language react to the increasingly urgent claims of more exact speech such as mathematics and symbolic notation? These are some of the questions Steiner addresses in this elegantly written book, first published in 1967 to international acclaim.


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How do we evaluate the power and utility of language when it has been made to articulate falsehoods in certain totalitarian regimes or has been charged with vulgarity and imprecision in a mass-consumer democracy? How will language react to the increasingly urgent claims of more exact speech such as mathematics and symbolic notation? These are some of the questions Steiner How do we evaluate the power and utility of language when it has been made to articulate falsehoods in certain totalitarian regimes or has been charged with vulgarity and imprecision in a mass-consumer democracy? How will language react to the increasingly urgent claims of more exact speech such as mathematics and symbolic notation? These are some of the questions Steiner addresses in this elegantly written book, first published in 1967 to international acclaim.

30 review for Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    RIP to a great thinker. Reading this aged 19 or 20 had a transformative effect on me: We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humani RIP to a great thinker. Reading this aged 19 or 20 had a transformative effect on me: We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanising force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

  2. 4 out of 5

    George Siehl

    Writer and teacher George Steiner gives us some new perspectives on how we think about silence. His view transcends the simple absence of physical sound. Rather, he shows us silence as both a raw wound, and a tool in communication. The 'author's voice' of literary criticism will never sound quite the same after reading Steiner's essays. The edition I read is the one published in 1967. While musicians Simon and Garfunkle enchanted crowds with their song, The Sound of Silence, the ecology of their Writer and teacher George Steiner gives us some new perspectives on how we think about silence. His view transcends the simple absence of physical sound. Rather, he shows us silence as both a raw wound, and a tool in communication. The 'author's voice' of literary criticism will never sound quite the same after reading Steiner's essays. The edition I read is the one published in 1967. While musicians Simon and Garfunkle enchanted crowds with their song, The Sound of Silence, the ecology of their "silence" was personal and introspective. Steiner's Silence is an academic and moral approach to the subject; his silence is framed in the world of literature and relates to a society-wide audience, not just the individual. His body of work is heavily weighted with the premature silence of the six million: the men women and children murdered in the death camps of Nazi Germany. He gives us reason to broaden our first interpretation of the topic of the sounds of silence. He writes of a question raised by a fellow faculty member, and adds his answer: Recently one of my colleagues, an eminent scholar, inquired of me, with genuine bafflement, why someone trying to establish himself in an English Literature faculty should refer so often to concentration camps; why they were in any way relevant. [Steiner replied:] They are profoundly relevant, and before we can go on teaching we must surely ask ourselves: are the humanities humane and, if so why did they fail before the night? His several essays probe and evaluate the intellectual structures of the humanities to provide the deep background to his answer. He returns to key points about silence throughout these essays. Here I use four of his 1960 essays, and one from 1959 to provide a look at three of his interpretations of literary silence. Readers will find that there are many more essays and interpretations in this rich volume. The first facet is that literary silence results from writers not writing. Under the repressive governments of wartime Germany and Russia, on which he focuses, the publication of dissenting opinions could be lethal. Beyond this obvious concern with self-preservation, Steiner explores the constructive use of silence in communication. He writes, "In much modern poetry silence represents the claims of the ideal, to speak is to say less." Adding later, "When the words in the city are full of savagery and lies, nothing speaks louder than the unwritten poem. He also elaborates on the general decline in cultural literacy in which fewer readers recognize the allusions, even the references, an author makes. Classic mythology and historical figures ring fewer bells in our time. This effectively renders many literary messages silent from the reader's lack of knowing. Steiner raises as a second cause of literary silence the death of the German language. Here, he addressed the failure of many German writers to produce new literature after the war. This essay, he notes, remained controversial in Germany for more than a decade after it was published. He wrote, "The thing that has gone dead is the German language ... Something immensely destructive has happened to it. It makes noise. It even communicates, but it creates no sense of communion." The cause, he reasons, is that the language was so mangled by wartime jargon and propaganda that it degraded "human speech to the level of baying wolves." Thus, many German writers felt bereft of their native tongue. A third interpretation of literary silence may be best understood through the old adage, "Action speaks louder than words." (My phrase, not Steiner's.) By that reckoning, inaction is equivalent to silence. Steiner writes, "We do not know; and surely there is something rather terrible in our doubt whether the study and delight a man finds in Shakespeare make him any less capable of organizing a concentration camp." He reminds that inhuman acts can occur in democratic nations that pride themselves on their high culture: "Ten years after the Gestapo quit Paris, the countrymen of Voltaire were torturing Algerians and each other in some of the same police cellars." Such disconnects between the ideal and the action, that is, between the humane and the human, returns us to Steiner's opening question, "are the humanities humane?" Steiner posits a saddening response: "I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further; it is a least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text ... diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response." Might Steiner be delivering a message he heard in that great silence of the six million? The literary style of his writing is captivating, but that style is enriched with thoughtful commentary and compelling ideas. His array of topics is broad enough that the book does not call for straight through reading. It does call for sampling, however.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jerónimo Alayón

    Lenguaje y silencio de George Steiner es un libro que, a pesar de haber sido escrito en la década de 1960, mantiene una vigencia extraordinaria en sus planteamientos. Steiner gira en torno de la decadencia del lenguaje cuando este es manipulado por quienes detentan el poder, y para ello se afinca no en su vivencia de la Shoá, puesto que él logró huir con su familia poco antes de ser alcanzados por la invasión nazi a Francia, sino en su interpretación de la misma como judío que la piensa en Lenguaje y silencio de George Steiner es un libro que, a pesar de haber sido escrito en la década de 1960, mantiene una vigencia extraordinaria en sus planteamientos. Steiner gira en torno de la decadencia del lenguaje cuando este es manipulado por quienes detentan el poder, y para ello se afinca no en su vivencia de la Shoá, puesto que él logró huir con su familia poco antes de ser alcanzados por la invasión nazi a Francia, sino en su interpretación de la misma como judío que la piensa en la distancia. Pese a ello, las reflexiones no son ni distantes ni desentendidas. Por el contrario, la contundencia de sus afirmaciones recuerda a Primo Levi, por ejemplo. De entre los ensayos del libro, «Posdata» tiene la peculiaridad de ser aquel en el que su autor expone su intimidad sin la reserva que apreciamos en el resto del libro. Allí también se hacen ciertas afirmaciones que dan cuenta de la extraordinaria ética de Steiner como filósofo, tanto que pueden considerarse como interpelaciones a quienes también se han dedicado a pensar sobre el horror perpetrado por los nazis. Para muestra valgan este breve extracto: Treblinka [alude a la obra de Jean-Françoise Steiner] ha sido objeto de amragas críticas por parte de otros autores (entre ellos, David Rousset y León Poliakov) debido a sus supuestas inexactitudes, a su racismo, y al respaldo que su tesis general sobre la pasividad judía puede brindar a la señorita Hannah Arendt. Han sido feas recriminaciones, como también lo fueron las del caso Arendt. Y esto, aunque humillante y subversivo para la inteligencia, es oportuno. Y ello porque en modo alguno es seguro que el discurso racional pueda abordar estas cuestiones, que se encuentran fuera de la sintaxis normativa de la comunicación humana, en el ámbito explícito de lo bestial. Y tampoco está claro que quienes no se hayan visto personal y plenamente involucrados puedan aludir a estos padecimientos y salir indemnes. Quines lo vivieron desde dentro –Elie Wiesels en La noche, Les Portes de la fôret, Le Chant des morts, Koppel Holzmann en Die Höhlen der Hölle– logran hallar el discurso adecuado, a menudo alegórico y con frecuencia muy próximo al silencio, para lo que deciden relatar. Todos los que llegamos después hablamos unos de otros con estridencia y malestar, realizando afirmaciones con enojo o con una percepción imparcial. El señor Poliakov habla de los «escándalos» sucesivos que acompañan a todos los libros que abordan la cuestión del asesinato de los judíos, desde el de Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, hasta el de Hochhuth, El vicario, y últimamente el Treblinka. Silencio durante el asesinato, pero escándalo por los libros. Solo le puedo reclamar al autor el ritmo lento y tedioso de algunos ensayos, pocos, la verdad, que contrastan con el carácter brillante de buena parte de la obra. Mi otra queja tiene que ver más con el aspecto editorial. Lenguaje y silencio , a mi juicio, es un libro que se halla entre la crítica cultural, la filosofía del lenguaje y la crítica literaria comparativa, que abunda en referencias cultas y reflexiones a veces casi barrocas, que no son asistidas para su más cómoda lectura por el diseño de esta edición de Gedisa en lo que respecta al tamaño de fuente y al interlineado, ambos deficientes. Por el contrario, la traducción de Miguel Ultorio se hace muy fluida de leer, lo cual se agradece dadas las condiciones del diseño de la mancha. Aun así, recomiendo ampliamente la lectura de este libro de George Steiner, que merecería ya una revisión a la luz de los acontecimientos dramáticos que sacuden actualmente a la humanidad, y que nos hace preguntarnos por el valor, vigencia y futuro del lenguaje en una sociedad que lo manipula no solo hasta vaciarlo de su significado, sino que incluso es capaz de hacer, en algunos contextos, que significantes que hasta ayer eran innegociables hoy se carguen de significados opuestos.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chris and Yuri

    A critic who writes well: who'd a thunk? George Steiner's essays on Paul Celan, Martin Heidegger, and Franz Kafka are rapturous and illuminating. I wish more critics had his grace and humility! A critic who writes well: who'd a thunk? George Steiner's essays on Paul Celan, Martin Heidegger, and Franz Kafka are rapturous and illuminating. I wish more critics had his grace and humility!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jorge Esquivel

    Un libro que quisiera haber descubierto hace mucho tiempo (y es que presiento que el autor y su obra pasaran a ocupar un lugar privilegiado entre mis favoritos de todos los tiempos). Preguntas acerca de filosofía del lenguaje, de la literatura y del arte acuciosamente presentadas como temas de conversación que invitan a la reflexión y al debate: "¿Cómo debemos valorar la función del lenguaje después de que haya servido para expresar falsedades en los regímenes totalitarios, después de que haya si Un libro que quisiera haber descubierto hace mucho tiempo (y es que presiento que el autor y su obra pasaran a ocupar un lugar privilegiado entre mis favoritos de todos los tiempos). Preguntas acerca de filosofía del lenguaje, de la literatura y del arte acuciosamente presentadas como temas de conversación que invitan a la reflexión y al debate: "¿Cómo debemos valorar la función del lenguaje después de que haya servido para expresar falsedades en los regímenes totalitarios, después de que haya sido arrastrado a la vulgaridad y la imprecisión de las democracias de consumo masificado? ¿Cómo responderá el lenguaje futuro a las exigencias científicas de expresiones más exactas, como la matemática o la lógica? Steiner consagra este volumen a la vida del lenguaje a través de los tiempos, desde la Grecia clásica y la Edad Media hasta los logros siempre inalcanzables de Shakespeare, las luces y sombras de Baudelaire, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Broch o Beckett. Sus reflexiones se centran en las posibilidades de los distintos géneros literarios y en las sacudidas que las complejas energías de la palabra provocan y encauzan en nuestro mundo. Pero también evoca los límites del lenguaje. Ante los extremos de lo atroz o lo sublime parece imponerse el silencio. Sin embargo, a los seres hablantes el lenguaje impone el deber de transmitir incluso aquellas experiencias que están en el límite de la imposibilidad de articularlas".

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    Reading George Steiner, I discovered that discussions about the future of the humanities, and their decline or demise are not limited to the present. This collection of essays, written between 1959 to 1967 give us a window into the conversation in Steiner's generation, particularly concerning the place of literature, as well as the other arts, in our society. Steiner contends that the thread that holds this collection together is the attempt to articulate a philosophy of language after the Holoca Reading George Steiner, I discovered that discussions about the future of the humanities, and their decline or demise are not limited to the present. This collection of essays, written between 1959 to 1967 give us a window into the conversation in Steiner's generation, particularly concerning the place of literature, as well as the other arts, in our society. Steiner contends that the thread that holds this collection together is the attempt to articulate a philosophy of language after the Holocaust and the totalitarian regime of Stalin. What is evident in reading these essays is the trauma of this period on literature, as words were twisted in ways that represented black as white, and where people could read Goethe and listen to Schubert and preside over the extermination of the Jewish people and consider it all in a day's work. The first group of essays in this book particularly explore this theme and whether in fact "Humane Literacy" can have a transformative effect for good. The essay on "To Civilize our Gentlemen" particularly explores this idea and the possibility of reading that fails, in the words of Kafka, "to wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull". In this same collection, we see the despair of some artists and the lapse into wordless silence where words seem inadequate to the human condition. Equally, in "Night Words" Steiner explores the real problem with "high pornography" which is the utter banality of the writing. In subsequent sections, he gathers essays under the titles of "Language out of Darkness", "Classics" (which includes a fascinating essay on Homer and the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey), "Masters", "Fiction and the Present", and "Marxism and Literature". I found much of this heavier going not only because I don't live in the world of literary criticism, and even less, am I aware of the critics, and many of the works that were being discussed in the early 60s. Nevertheless, Steiner draws very fine portraits of critics like F.R. Leavis, and Georg Lukacs, and particularly the literature emerging out of Central Europe in the post-World War II, Stalinist purge era. We have his fresh take on the advent of the media age heralded by Marshall McLuhan and the shifting consciousness of moving from an age of print to an age of the image. Steiner seems dubious of McLuhan's prophecies, yet it cannot be argued, I think, that in the years since Steiner wrote, we have indeed witnessed and are continuing to witness a media revolution that is continuing to shape and change our relationship to the word and verbal discourse. Equally, Steiner draws fine portraits of other writers and their work. I think particularly of the essay on Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in her early 30s ("The Art of Dying") and his essay on the life of Leon Trotsky, a tragic figure in Marxism. The puzzle for me was how all these fit his proposed theme, and yet the exploration of these figures was worthwhile. Recommendations? I'm not sure I would recommend starting here in reading Steiner (even though I did!). Bettter places to start are his early works, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and The Death of Tragedy or the works for which he is most known, In Bluebeard's Castle (in which he explores anti-Semitism) and After Babel, where he devlves more deeply into language. This might be best for those acquainted with Steiner's other work, and the literature of this period.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ana Builes

    Un libro bastante interesante, que planea una posición crítica acerca de la literatura y el lenguaje. Lleno de referencias históricas, que en algunos casos lo hacen bastante pesado. El ensayo sobre el abandono de la Palabra (con P mayúscula) es de los mejores, si no el mejor, en mi concepto. Los ensayos sobre las teorías marxistas, consideró que hay que leerlos con algo de recelo y duda, pero son un punto de vista crítico e interesante. Si estudias Literarura, creo que hay que leer este libro, comp Un libro bastante interesante, que planea una posición crítica acerca de la literatura y el lenguaje. Lleno de referencias históricas, que en algunos casos lo hacen bastante pesado. El ensayo sobre el abandono de la Palabra (con P mayúscula) es de los mejores, si no el mejor, en mi concepto. Los ensayos sobre las teorías marxistas, consideró que hay que leerlos con algo de recelo y duda, pero son un punto de vista crítico e interesante. Si estudias Literarura, creo que hay que leer este libro, completo!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lorena

    A fascinating collection of essays. I particularly liked the first section where the essays focused on linguistics and the last where the focus was on communism/Marxism and literature. I picked through this book over a little more than two years, and the nice thing about essays is that you can do that!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Quotations here. Steiner died in February 2020. Quotations here. Steiner died in February 2020.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jay Rothermel

    Steiner is very generous in the time and thought he pays to Marxism and the writings of leaders of the communist movement. But like many others, he takes for good coin the Stalinist claims to continuity with Lenin. Whereas Stalinism represented a murderous break with and burial of that continuity.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Erwin Maack

    Vejo que a primeira edição desta obra data de 1.958 e ainda hoje ela é atualíssima. George Steiner é um escritor que não deixa ninguém indiferente. Creio que a maioria se entusiasma com o que ele escreve, eu sou um deles. Ele prevê, naquela data, algo que está ainda em pleno desenvolvimento, isto é, a gradativa desimportância da palavra, a ineficácia da cultura para conter selvagerias e derrocadas. E especula a troca da palavra como meio de expressão eficaz, no campo científico, pela matemática Vejo que a primeira edição desta obra data de 1.958 e ainda hoje ela é atualíssima. George Steiner é um escritor que não deixa ninguém indiferente. Creio que a maioria se entusiasma com o que ele escreve, eu sou um deles. Ele prevê, naquela data, algo que está ainda em pleno desenvolvimento, isto é, a gradativa desimportância da palavra, a ineficácia da cultura para conter selvagerias e derrocadas. E especula a troca da palavra como meio de expressão eficaz, no campo científico, pela matemática ou pela música. Campos em que a eficácia e clareza são bem maiores quando se quer explicar, descrever, ou utilizar a "verdade". Magnífico o autor e obra. Ele consegue manter um ritmo impressionante sem nenhuma queda, ou elevação, mesmo quando escreve sobre o marxismo. Sempre perto do seu ouvido, desafiando-o, chamando sua atenção e fazendo-o sentir que tudo mais não tem importância.

  12. 4 out of 5

    GONZA

    Interesting book, even if sometimes really heavy: the writing of Steiner is particularly convoluted, also some quotes are too educated and the book is dated. Having said that some essays are brilliant. Libro interessante anche se a tratti veramente pesante: la scrittura di Steiner é particolarmente arzigogolata, inoltre fa citazioni troppo colte ed il libro é datato. Detto questo alcuni saggi sono brillanti. THANKS TO NETGALLEY AND OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA FOR THE PREVIEW!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Karolien

    I immediately wanted to read this book when my literature professor mentioned it in class. The book is a bit old-fashioned now but a lot of theories are still topical. War can influence our view on literature but we should look at it unprejudiced.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Chris Lawrence

    Steiner's technique is in my opinion advanced, exponential name-dropping. Please see: Whispers of the gods. Steiner's technique is in my opinion advanced, exponential name-dropping. Please see: Whispers of the gods.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    Interesting look into the issues and style of literary criticism in the '50s by German-Jew looking at German literature...but only so interesting before it seems out of date. Interesting look into the issues and style of literary criticism in the '50s by German-Jew looking at German literature...but only so interesting before it seems out of date.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Joni

    very, very good

  17. 5 out of 5

    Peter Kussell

    A goldmine of interesting, personal essays, full of contradiction and self-serving analyses, but never boring.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Yifat

    I really don't like George's writing. I really don't like George's writing.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lysergius

    As fresh after 40 years as it was the first time around. Excellent

  20. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katarzyna Domagala

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dagerman

  23. 4 out of 5

    Will

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dick

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Crisafi

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mark

  27. 5 out of 5

    Parallel Internets

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jorge Barros

  29. 5 out of 5

    Francesca

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rafael

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