In July 1966, a fraught encounter took place between the Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger at Heidegger's holiday cottage in Todtnauberg. Celan - who had sought out the philosopher - had hoped for some significant moment of mutual understanding between himself and the thinker whose ideas he admired, but who, troublingly, had never explicitly repudiated the Nazism under which his important early work had been conceived.
No such healing exchange took place, and the two men parted awkwardly. There was, apparently, no meeting of minds to be had between these two subtle intellects; no comfort, or laying of ghosts. In a short poem Celan wrote a few days later, he captured the stark emptiness of the event, the appalling absence of restorative hope, the weight of the permanently unspoken, summed up in the simple act of his signing Heidegger's visitors' book:
a line written in the book
- whose name did it receive
before mine? -
a line written in this book
a line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker's
a hope in my heart...
In the shadow of the history of the 20th century, what words can be called up to give sense to events too painful to recall? This is the question that has haunted George Steiner throughout his long, distinguished career as a critic. If the language in which we struggle to shape our most profound thoughts is indelibly marked by the events and ideas of the past, how, in the wake of European atrocities - above all, the Holocaust - are we to fashion a language rich, flexible and optimistic enough to give meaningful form to the future? If such a literary language is not available, where are we to look for emotional and intellectual succour and inspiration?
Such questions give Steiner's critical work its steady edge of urgency and, sometimes, an apocalyptic tone heavy with foreboding, in meditations on the redemptive power of language and thought such as Language and Silence and After Babel. In his fictional writings, Steiner takes up the challenge of shaping the literary language to find answers to the unanswerable - particularly in The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., in which a young Israeli comes face to face with Hitler, fugitive in the jungles of South America, and the two debate what has been and what might have been.
Nor are art and philosophy themselves immune from blame in helping to shape the crisis Steiner addresses - they have, he maintains, a lot to answer for. He returns repeatedly, in a compellingly plangent refrain, to the moment in Hitler's Germany at which creativity in the arts failed to stop the horrors - failed, as he puts it, to say "No!" to the atrocities around them.
In Grammars of Creation, Steiner arrives at the conclusion that the literary language - and creativity in the arts in general - has at the beginning of the 21st century reached crisis point. We are trapped, constrained by language's given: "The means of all meaning, if communication is to be intelligible, are a prescriptive legacy. They are cumulative out of time past... There is a perfectly pragmatic, verifiable (indeed axiomatic) truth to the rhapsodic and Heideggerian assertion that `we do not speak language: language speaks Us'."
The challenge is, as Steiner sees it, to discover how to shape the legacy of language so that it is capable of yielding fresh meaning. In Grammars of Creation, he argues that what is required is nothing less than a new "grammar" of creativity, a new set of rules, to articulate the riches of language in freshly …