The Limits Of Language

"The holy man, the initiate, withdraws not only from the temptations of worldly action; he withdraws from speech. His retreat into the mountain cave or monastic cell is the outward gesture of his silence. Even those who are only novices on this arduous road are taught to distrust the veil of language, to break through it to the more real...Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence."

-- George Steiner, Language & Silence

"It as if, through becoming involved in literature, I had used up all possible symbols without really penetrating their meaning. They no longer have any vital significance for me...A civilization of words is a civilization distraught. Words create confusion...There are no words for the deepest experience. The more I try to explain myself, the less I understand myself. Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth."

-- Eugene Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal (quoted in Steiner)

The passages below have been excerpted from George Steiner's Language & Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp.12-13, 25-27, 39, and 41. Steiner is a respected essayist, literary critic, teacher, and polymath. Among his many acclaimed works are Grammars of Creation, Real Presences, and Errata: An Examined Life.

"In certain Oriental metaphysics, in Buddhism and Taoism, the soul is envisioned as ascending from the gross impediments of the material, through domains of insight that can be rendered by lofty and precise language, toward ever deepening silence. The highest, purest reach of the contemplative act is that which has learned to leave language behind it. The ineffable lies beyond the frontiers of the word. It is only by breaking through the walls of language that visionary observance can enter the world of total and immediate understanding. Where such understanding is attained, the truth need no longer suffer the impurities and fragmentation that speech necessarily entails. It need not conform to the naive logic and linear conception implicit in syntax. In ultimate truth, past, present, and future are simultaneously comprised. It is the temporal structure of language that keeps them artificially distant. That is the crucial point.

"The holy man, the initiate, withdraws not only from the temptations of worldly action; he withdraws from speech. His retreat into the mountain cave or monastic cell is the outward gesture of his silence. Even those who are only novices on this arduous road are taught to distrust the veil of language, to break through it to the more real...Very few Western poets -- perhaps only Dante -- have persuaded the imagination of the authority of transrational experience. We accept, at the lambent close of the Paradiso, the blindness of eye and understanding before the totality of vision. But Pascal is nearer the mainstream of classic Western feeling when he says that the silence of cosmic space strikes terror. To the Taoist that selfsame silence conveys tranquillity and the intimation of God.

"The primacy of the word, of that which can be spoken and communicated in discourse, is characteristic of the Greek and Judaic genius and carried over into Christianity. The classic and the Christian sense of the world strive to order reality within the governance of language. Literature, philosophy, theology, law, the arts of history, are endeavors to enclose within the bounds of rational discourse the sum of human experience, its recorded past, its present condition and future expectations. The code of Justinian, the Summa of Aquinas, the world chronicles and compendia of medieval literature, the Divina Commedia, are attempts at total containment. They bear solemn witness to the belief that all truth and realness -- with the exception of a small, queer margin at the very top -- can be housed inside the walls of language.

"This belief is no longer universal. Confidence in it declines after the age of Milton. The cause and history of that decline throw sharp light on the circumstances of modern literature and language...

"The language of Shakespeare and Milton belongs to a stage of history in which words were in natural control of experienced life. The writer of today tends to use far fewer and simpler words, both because mass culture has watered down the concept of literacy and because the sum of realities of which words can give a necessary and sufficient account has sharply diminished.

"This diminution -- the fact that the image of the world is receding from the communicative grasp of the word -- has had its impact on the quality of language. As Western consciousness has become less dependent on the resources of language to order experience and conduct the business of the mind, the words themselves seem to have lost some of their precision and vitality. This is, I know, a controversial notion. It assumes that language has a 'life' of its own in a sense that goes beyond metaphor. It implies that such concepts as tiredness and corruption are relevant to language itself, not only to men's use of it...

"There is in the handling of the English language in the Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean periods a sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition, which has never been wholly recaptured. Marlowe, Bacon, Shakespeare use words as if they were new, as if no previous touch had clouded their shimmer or muted their resonance...This is how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seem to look upon language itself. The great treasure of it lies before them, suddenly unlocked, and they ransack it with a sense of infinite resource. The instrument now in our hands, on the contrary, is worn by long usage. And the demands of mass culture and mass communication have made it perform tasks of ever increasing tawdriness.

"What save half-truths, gross simplifications or trivia can, in fact, be communicated to that semi-literate mass audience which popular democracy has summoned into the market place? Only in a diminished or corrupted language can most such communication be made effective."

Music and the Transcendent

" is decisively the fact that language does have its frontiers, that it borders on three other modes of statement -- light, music, and silence -- which gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvelously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours. What lies beyond man's word is eloquent of God. That is the joyously defeated recognition expressed in the poems of St. John of the Cross and of the mystic tradition.

"Where the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins...

"[There] is the recurrent acknowledgement by poets, by masters of language, that music is the deeper, more numinous code, that language, when truly apprehended, aspires to the condition of music and is brought, by the genius of the poet, to the threshold of that condition. By a gradual loosening of transcendence of its own forms, the poem strives to escape from the linear, denotative, logically determined bonds of linguistic syntax into what the poet takes to be the simultaneities, immediacies, and free play of musical form. It is in music that the poet hopes to find the paradox resolved of an act of creation singular to the creator, bearing the shape of his own spirit, yet infinitely renewed in each listener."

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