The Poetry of Thought

Book Review
The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

George Steiner is a syncretist in the best sense of the word. Like Fredric Jameson, his main powers are those of summary and synthesis, with each of his books being a journey through, and explanation of, the entire Western tradition. The Poetry of Thought is no different. A master stylist and formidable thinker in his own right, Steiner seeks to show the common linguistic ground of literature and philosophy, that both depend upon “style.” As he writes in the introduction, “Argument, even analytic, has its drumbeat. It is made ode.”

In nine chapters totaling 217 pages, Steiner takes the reader whizzingly past all the major touchstones of the European philosophical tradition, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche, Plato to Agamben, Augustine and Aquinas to Sartre and Wittgenstein. He draws on perhaps eight linguistic traditions, mentioning dozens of versions of the Faust legend, emphasizing the importance of Galileo’s reading of Ariosto and Tasso. A typical paragraph, like this one on Hegel’s lack of stylistic grace, reads thus:

To consider Hegel as a writer verges on lèse-majesté. Is there any great philosopher seemingly less stylish, more averse to “spirited language” and elegance – “geistreiche Sprache” – as he found it in the French philosophes? Friends amended Hegel’s tortuous syntax, so often derived from laboriously spoken, opaque lectures, abounding in rebarbative neologisms and Swabian locutions. The young Heine, even before a brief personal contact in 1822, was among the first of many who parodied the master’s idiom. But the crux is not one of literary, rhetorical finish or welcoming suavity, let alone poetic inspiration.

Along the way, Steiner employs his characteristically punchy style. Here he is on the linguistic naïveté of classic psychoanalysis: “For Freud nothing cataclysmic has happened to the Logos since the Nichomachean Ethics.” Giordano Bruno is described as an “imaginer of heretical infinities.” Lucretius as “the most Latin of Roman poets.” Adorno “yielded to the charms of obscurity.” “Disinterested cerebral and sensory passion,” we are told, “can no more be explained than love.”

Yet for all the wonders of his prose, Steiner’s two recurrent flaws become glaringly obvious in The Poetry of Thought: superficiality and Eurocentrism. As to the first, Steiner should not be blamed for such faults; it is part of the trade of the syncretist to pre-digest entire libraries of thought and touch upon them only through allusion and brief quotation. Like Confucius, Steiner lifts up one corner of a subject, expecting the student to pick up the other three (Analects VII.8).

Which brings me to Steiner’s second (and more serious) flaw: his intense Eurocentrism. Although many of Steiner’s books make claims to universality (see also After Babel and Real Presences), he is so steeped in the traditions of classical Europe, especially as it comes to us through twentieth-century French and German philosophy, that he seemingly cannot conceive of the rest of the world. I counted two references to the Chinese tradition in this book, one of which was actually to Borges. Islamic thinkers, too, only receive mention through Borges. Russia is important only as a check on Marx. Not to mention the lack of anything related to the civilizations of South Asia, Africa, non-European America. This ignorance would not be so irksome if Steiner would just fess up to it, state at the outset that he aims to work within a very specific tradition and not make gestures toward universality.

As it is, George Steiner has left us a very valuable essay on the interconnections between literature and philosophy in the classical European tradition. The Poetry of Thought is intellectual candy for the Western humanist, a source of brief, penetrating insights into some very difficult works, written with style and grace. But, like all syncretisms, something is lost in the mix.

One thought on “The Poetry of Thought

  1. My first Google Alert on the new George Steiner book – I reviewed George Steiner: A Reader in 1985 for National Review, just after college, and it’s to a post from a man with the same name as the father of my friend Greg from Burnsville, Minnesota, 1971-1974, while we were in grades 4 through 6. Now there’s a coincidence.

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