The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan
By George Steiner
In this rich, extended essay, the polymathic thinker, teacher, and Tina Brown-deposed New Yorker book reviewer George Steiner argues for and explains the historical co-dependency between high thought and literary style. Progressing through a list of thinkers from Heraclitus and Plato to Descartes, Marx, Heidegger, and numerous others, Steiner, with daunting thoroughness and a brilliant fineness of referring detail, shows how their contributions to philosophy cannot be divorced from the particular way each expressed himself on the page.
Steiner finds in Hegel’s famously obtuse language, his “rebarbative neologisms and Swabian locutions,” a match for the German philosopher’s belief in absolute truths that are always failed by imperfect words and labels. He argues that some thinkers’ literary contributions are even more lasting than their thought, like Freud, whose psychoanalysis he disparages but whom he says is “among the masters of German prose,” comparable to Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant as a “builder of myths” and “teller of tales.” Steiner notes cutely that not an analyst or scientist delivered the speech at Freud’s funeral, but his novelist friend Thomas Mann.
In a delightful segment, Steiner explores the reading habits of bookworm Karl Marx, locating the Dickens, Shakespeare and Hugo references stashed in various essays. He claims that Jean-Paul Sartre succeeded in his youthful ambition to be a combination of Spinoza and Stendhal, and finds “Buster Keaton-style slapstick” in a Wittgenstein quote.
Steiner links the birth of abstract thought to the discovery of metaphor—a literary beginning. Circular though it sounds, Steiner’s best argument for his thesis is his essay itself, in that it’s a work of original philosophical perspicacity told with stylistic élan. His diction isn’t always easy but his phrasings are clear and colorful (“the flogging cadences of Rabelais”). And he ends the penultimate chapter with a vivid, all too apt image—Martin Heidegger strolling with Paul Celan “on the sodden uplands” and peat bogs in the German Schwarzwald (Black Forest), the only meeting between the philosophy giant (and dabbler in Nazi ideology) and the Jewish poet.