Genesis and high gossip

May 4, 2001

<P style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px"> Roy Harris applies a Dionysiac breathalyser to the puzzle of creativity.

"In the illusory babels of language," wrote the American sculptor Robert Smithson, "an artist might advance specifically to get lost, and to intoxicate himself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors, or voids of knowledge..." Reading Grammars of Creation prompts one to add: <P style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px"> "So might a critic." Based on his Gifford lectures of 1990, this is probably George Steiner's most intoxicating book since After Babel . It is certainly his most ambitious. Tackling the grandiose concept of "creativity" in fewer than 300 heady pages already suggests ivresse des grandes profondeurs . It invites the Dionysiac breathalyser. <P style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px"> Grammars of Creation displays a formidable range of reading. The index of names alone reads like a roll-call of western cultural giants, with a few Arabs (although no Chinese - apart from the villainous Chairman Mao) thrown in for good measure. This says something about the Eurocentricity of Steiner's approach. On every other page we are referred to the Bible, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Kant, Freud, Hegel et al . These and their minions reappear repeatedly in various conjunctions, often in the same paragraph. One is reminded of Hollywood films in which famous actors appear fleetingly in walk-on parts. They are rarely allowed to stay long enough to perform an identifiable role. Their mere appearance and recognition is supposed to be enough to spice and sustain the entertainment.

With commendable diffidence, Steiner straightaway throws doubt on the questions he will be raising. "Are such questions worth asking seriously, or do they merely invite vacuous high gossip?" His (preliminary) answer appears equally honest: "I am not certain." The sceptic will point out that if that were true, he would not have written the book in the first place. In any case, "vacuous high gossip" is as good a description as any for the way Steiner proceeds to conduct his investigation.

Creativity, for Steiner, seems to be an impenetrable problem posed by the western gurus of high gossip. It is shrouded in mystery. Hardly surprising, the sceptic will say, since they wanted it to be mysterious. Does Steiner want anything different? My sense of his book is that this is the last thing he wants. For if creativity were unveiled for all to understand, professions such as Steiner's would be on their beam-ends. So, while Grammars of Creation purports to be an investigation of the mystery, it is actually dedicated to reaffirming it.

What Steiner brings under the intellectual umbrella of creation includes such diverse issues as the genesis of the universe and the genesis of a poem. I am quite happy for Steiner to insist ad nauseam on the fact that throughout the western tradition, poets, musicians and other creative artists have assumed for themselves a role comparable to that of whatever divinity or demiurge brought it all into existence. That is the foundation of what was once upon a time known as poetic licence. But Steiner wants me to believe much more than that. He implies that I have to take such claims at face value. I have to accept that there really is one primal mystery to which not only literature, but religion, mathematics and science in general are addressed. Sometimes this mystery is called "the origin of the cosmos", sometimes "the origin of life", sometimes "artistic inspiration" and sometimes "the beginning of time". All these are misleading names - such being the inadequacy of words - but they are verbal clues to an inescapable puzzle confronting humanity: how do you get something out of nothing?

Here I have put it much more simply than does Steiner, who is no adherent to any "plain English" campaign. Far from it. In his labyrinthine prose, the more convoluted the figure of speech the better. The more hidden allusions per line, the higher the level of discourse. There is something so continentally manicured about Steiner's sentences as to make you rub your eyes and wonder whether this can be genuine English at all. He seems at times to be vying in some international competition with Barthes and Heidegger to see who can get the maximum number of quotations into Pseuds' Corner. I think it would be difficult to beat Steiner: "In any totalisation of temporality, the question of genesis is no less indispensable than that of the coda." Or: "To the artist each masterpiece communicates a recurrent defeat." Or: "Spoken aloud, a Hamlet soliloquy manifests and makes honest the sociology of the self."

To find the gems in Grammars of Creation you have to wade through gushing torrents of verbosity. Steiner's preferred topoi are well worn: the isolation of the poetic genius, the inexorable collective march of science, the immortality of great works of the imagination and so on. It all leads up to a long jeremiad in the last chapter about the communications explosion, meretricious new technologies, the breakdown of language, the demise of the book and the triviality of modern art, where the rot set in with Dada.

The problem for the reader is why Steiner thinks these old chestnuts need re-roasting yet again. And what has it all to do with grammar? He writes:

"I take grammar to mean the articulate organisation of perception, reflection and experience, the nerve-structure of consciousness when it communicates with itself and with others." A far cry from the grammar of the classroom. We duly agonise with Steiner over whether beginnings imply endings and whether there is a difference between creation and invention. None of it to much purpose. We are no further forward than if we had looked up these words in a dictionary. Just when it is beginning to look as if we have lost the plot altogether (about a third of the way through the book), Steiner's definition of creation suddenly appears to guide us on our way. It is "that which is enacted freedom and which includes and expresses in its incarnation the presence of what is absent from it or of what could be radically other".

This sounds as if it came from a manifesto produced by some committee of postmodern pedants. I initially thought my difficulty was that I did not understand what "enacted freedom" was. Is a child skipping unconstrained, just for the joy of skipping, enacting freedom? And if so, is it not a creative act? I would like to think so. I would like to think that Steiner might endorse Collingwood's famous dictum that "every utterance and every gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art". But I doubt that he would. I could be wrong. And then I saw that my basic problem with this book is that I cannot tell what Steiner thinks. It is too full of arcane talk about grammars and grammatologies.

Steiner has a compulsion to window-dress his undoubted erudition in the shop-soiled terminology of linguistics. But his own perspective on language verges on the esoteric. He thinks Saussure was an exception among the great thinkers in this field - exceptional because Saussure was not a Jew. (Chomsky is securely installed in the linguistic pantheon, being of the right race.) Like Derrida (similarly installed), Steiner is fascinated by etymologies, although understanding very little about the process of etymologising.

He picks out just those connections that he sees as significant or as grist to his mill. He espouses a transcendental metaphysics of the verb "to be", the "future tense", the "first person singular" and so on, as if these were unquestionable universals. And meaning? For Steiner: "In the most rigorous sense, meaning is etymology." But is it? And what is this "most rigorous sense"? Rigorous for whom? Is he appealing to the etymology of Varro? Or of Turgot? Or of Horne Tooke? Or of the Oxford English Dictionary ? We need to know. But Steiner never tells us.

This lacuna points to the underlying philosophy of Steiner's history of culture. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose . From Picasso alone, he can miraculously deduce a "transformative inventory" of everything painted from prehistoric caves of Altamira onwards. Steiner believes in universal sempiternal patterns repeating themselves across languages, literatures, mythologies and art forms. What appears to be "creation" is often only "invention", such as variation of the same basic ingredients. Language is just a recombination of sounds or words already given. Linguistic change is marginal.

But this is a blinkered view of the way language works. It is not only linguists who might jib at Steiner's grotesque deployment of "semantic marker" or query the proposition that Emma Bovary was "born of semantic markers on a page". Why suppose that Emma Bovary was just an "invented" reshuffling of given ingredients in the pre-set fictional construction kit for all characters?

Steiner is so trapped in the mesh of high culture that he can scarcely imagine that "creation" might have a more humble meaning that does not require constant references to Plato, Dante, Hegel and so on. Even less, I surmise, can he accept that to understand it might involve stooping as low as lay-oriented questions about creation. The products of fashion designers are known as "creations". Business opportunities are "created". Cooks "create" new dishes. Openings are "created" on the sports field. A slave to his Delphic philosophy of language, Steiner would doubtless dismiss these as metaphors, and insist that he is concerned with some "deeper" sense of "creation".

In Steiner's account of life, we hear little about clothes, or food, or games, with the exception of chess. (He bewails the fact that Kasparov got beaten by a computer.) There are no jokes either. His occasional allusions to the beauty of arithmetic or the aesthetics of quantum mechanics ring hollow. There is no serious attempt to address the processes of creative thought in those fields. He is interested in mathematicians only when they compare maths to poetry, or wrestle with Fermat's last theorem, or dabble in transfinite numbers.

Steiner ushers us into the library, the museum, the art gallery, the university, occasionally the academic conference. He never takes us into the kitchen, or the street, or the factory, or the football match. That, as a writer, is his prerogative. But then he cannot complain if at the end of his book we conclude that he was never interested in elucidating human creativity at all, but in celebrating the mystique of his threatened professional world, and lamenting its passing.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford, and editor, Language and Communication .

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