PD Smith

The wingbeat of the unknown

Times Literary Supplement, April 6, 2001

Grammars of Creation, by George Steiner (Faber and Faber)

By PD Smith

For George Steiner, the “products of invention” do not share in the grammars of creation. Science and technology, unlike literature, art, music and philosophy, do not attain the condition of timelessness: “A nineteenth-century steam engine is now a historical curio. A novel by Dostoevsky is not.”

The arts offer intimations of eternity, glimpses of a distant horizon beyond the time-bound, lawful hyle that determines our being. Poiesis “authorizes the unreason of hope”:

“In that immensely significant sense, the arts are more indispensable to men and women than even the best of science and technology (innumerable societies have long endured without these). Creativity in the arts and in philosophic proposal is, in respect of the survival of consciousness, of another order than is invention in the sciences. We are an animal whose life-breath is that of spoken, painted, sculptured, sung dreams…. Truth is, indeed, with the equation and axiom; but it is a lesser truth.”

The progress of scientific and technical knowledge is cumulative, argues Steiner. But in art, literature and music, earlier work is never superseded: “major art is not relegated to antiquarian status; Chartres does not date”. Furthermore, technical innovation is always paralleled by the “reborn presence of the distant archetype”. The development of the arts is not linear; rather its motion is that of a “spiral, of a helix in which ascent and descent are equivalent”. The result is a “paradox of timelessness within the context of historical time”. For Steiner, this aspect of the grammars of creation has “underwritten western education and taste”.

Steiner’s account of artistic creation in Grammars of Creation, a book which has its origins in the author’s Gifford Lectures in 1990, is deeply felt and powerful. The description of how writers create characters by breathing “a dynamic, intrusive and unforgettable élan vital into a constellation of words in action” is one among many memorable insights. His perceptive readings of Dante and the Shoah poet, Paul Celan, are typical of a work in which the author’s erudition is matched only by his eloquence. Yet Steiner’s argument is less convincing when it comes to the achievement of science and technology; perhaps because science is cast as the villain of the piece.

In Steiner’s remarkable odyssey through Western culture, “Dante is our meridian”. His works contain an “unbroken meditation on creation”, an expression of wonder at the divinely created world, but also a “sense of the incommensurability” of existence, a need to seek explanations beyond human reason. Uniquely, this is the preserve of the arts; Steiner paraphrases Wittgenstein: “the facts of the world are not, will never be, ‘the end of the matter’”. Poetry embodies this thirst for transcendent knowledge that exceeds facticity: “the wing-beat of the unknown has been at the heart of poiesis”. It is only in the aesthetic modality that Homo sapiens overcomes the biological and historical limitations of his or her being. The artist is Janus-headed, creating visions of the future from the cultural legacy of ur-memories, from the myths of the divine creator and the Prime Mover.

Secularization heralded a paradigm shift in the grammars of creation. In the post-Cartesian, post-Galilean world, aesthetic-philosophic creation was cut adrift from the theological narrative of “cosmic origination”. All that remains are metaphors and images, “a bright ghostliness”. But still we privilege the creator over the inventor; we can no more say “God invented the universe” than we can call Edison the “creator” of the light bulb.

Creation implies the divine act of origination, creation from nothing; invention suggests a mere assembling of available materials. Yet creation is a word that seems strangely out of place in the modern world. The representative artist now is Marcel Duchamp who gave us the objet trouvé — is that creation or invention, or neither? (The same question applies to the striking cover image of Jean Tinguely’s scrap-metal construct Martin Heidegger, Philosopher.) Duchamp saw technology as the “act of poiesis”, but Steiner sounds unenthusiastic: “one senses that in the arts this will be the next chapter”.

Steiner concludes with a bleak view of modern culture, characterized by virtual reality, cyberspace, and communication overload: “like a crazed locust, the cellular phone eats up what is left of silence”. The lack of solitude and personal space in which to confront the reality of individual mortality is the death-knell of creation, at least in the sense defined by Steiner: “Can there, will there be major philosophy, literature, music and art of an atheist provenance?” The “limitlessness” of scientific progress has now replaced the infinite that characterized the God of Aquinas and Descartes. In the century of Sprachkritik, the truth of the world is revealed by the “codes of mathematics” not the theologically underwritten Logos.

Although mathematics is a “lesser truth” for Steiner, he grants that it is “probably the crowning enigma of our so often dubious presence in this world”. He admits honestly to being a “mathematical illiterate”: “If, as Galileo ruled, nature speaks mathematics, far too many of us remain deaf.” The central question for Steiner is whether mathematics describes an already existing world, or does the “act of mathematical imagining” calls into being what it discovers. It is an epistemological conundrum that even Steiner does not claim to resolve. Indeed, he sees this uncertainty as evidence of a “deep-lying congruence between the mathematical and the aesthetic” that goes far beyond Keats’s notion of the equivalence of truth and beauty.

For Paul Erdös, like many mathematicians, a proof could be strikingly beautiful, something he was unable to explain: “It’s like asking why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful. If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren’t beautiful nothing is.”

Surely like beauty, creation is a concept whose presence is felt in many fields. For Steiner the difference between the outdated steam engine and Dostoevsky’s timeless novel is “obvious”. But for anyone interested in the sciences the steam engine is certainly more than a mere “historical curio”. Can one not see in it a timeless narrative of humankind’s troubled relationship to creation and the material realm? The scientist and writer Primo Levi saw in the simple carbon atom an evocative symbol of the eternal cycle of life and told the story in The Periodic Table. And for the mathematically-minded society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We the Time-Tables of All the Railroads was “the greatest of all the monuments of ancient literature”. Proust, too, was an avid reader of time-tables. Perhaps we should all be learning to read the grammars of creation in the languages of science and technology.

[nb. this may differ slightly from the published version]