Cover image for Grammars of creation : originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990
Grammars of creation : originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990
Steiner, George, 1929-
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Publication Information:
New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
344 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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BD638 .S76 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"We have no more beginnings", George Steiner begins in this radical book. A far-reaching exploration of the idea of creation in Western thought, literature, religion, and history, he reflects on the different ways people have of talking about beginnings, on the "coretiredness" that pervades end-of-the-millennium spirit, and on the changing grammar of discussions about the end of Western art and culture.

Author Notes

George Steiner was born in 1929 in Paris, but also lived in Vienna and New York.

Steiner was a critic, novelist, philosopher, translator, and educator. Currently, he is a professor at Cambridge University and the University of Geneva.

He has written for the New Yorker for over thirty years and has published the books No Passion Spent, Errata: An Examined Life, and Martin Heidegger: With a New Introduction.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

"We have no more beginnings," Steiner opens his book abruptly. The words that follow are equally laconic and contemplative. He reflects on the historical notion of creation and how it applies to our present-day use of language. Based on the 1990 Gifford Lectures given at the University of Glasgow, this study marks the high point of a lengthy and productive career. Steiner has a unique mind among scholars. He has the rare ability, patience, and knowledge to associate distant ideas, such as mathematics and the bombing of Dresden, and resituate them in new contexts. These frameworks often give rise to fresh interpretations of well-worn topics. Thoughtfully constructed and written, this book wanders discreetly through the history of Western, Islamic, and Hebraic aesthetics to gain a sense of language's future direction. In today's market society, few books attempt to address such lofty concepts, but this one is a brilliant success, skillfully fulfilling its aim. --Jeffrey Snowbarger

Publisher's Weekly Review

Steiner begins with the ominous phrase, "We have no more beginnings." In the past, danger came from without, but in the 20th century, Nazism, fascism and Stalinism sprang from within, born from the very cultures they corrupted. The trend continues today in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. When barbarism becomes so domesticated, writes Steiner, it can only change our language for the worse, a point he illustrates in a story about a thirsty death-camp inmate who watches his torturer pour a glass of water on the floor and asks, "Why are you doing this?" only to be told, "There is no `why' here." Thus we are living during the "eclipse of the messianic," a time when "grammars of nihilism flicker... on the horizon." The dauntingly erudite Steiner, one of our leading literary critics (Errata: An Examined Life; etc.), makes a forceful distinction between progress in the sciences and in the arts, pointing out that "a nineteenth-century steam engine is now an historical curio," whereas "a novel by Dostoevsky is not." But in the context of our present-day civilized savagery, he says, art's very timelessness means that its time is up. Stories repeat themselves; both King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov are just variations on the Cinderella story. Once instructive or comforting, these fables no longer speak to a world that smiles yet has gone mad, says Steiner ruefully. There is just the tiniest spark of hopefulness in his conclusion, however, a curiosity about the possibility of rich and strange developments in the arts, though he hazards no guess as to what those changes might be. Steiner is so profoundly pessimistic that one might fall into a state of total despair were one not dazzled by a learning and an elegance that, in the minds of others less fatalistic, may yet prove redemptive. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Steiner (Cambridge Univ., No Passion Spent, The Death of Tragedy) has written an important study on the nature of creation. He opens with the Book of Job and Plato's Timaeus as visions of creation in Hebrew and Greek thought. He then uses Dante and Shakespeare as examples of different methods in artistic creation and Hegel and Hlderlin to give insight into the difference between creation and invention. In addition, he discusses science in terms of collective effort while explaining art and music as primarily individual and distinct efforts. Time, language, hope, architecture, Paul Celan, Ren Char, Heidegger, reception theory, the end of art, and the changing meaning of death are among the topics discussed. This is an exciting work, full of insights, bold statements, and thoughts about our present condition. Recommended for literature and philosophy collections. Gene Shaw, NYPL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Steiner (Churchill College, Cambridge) aims to examine the "grammars" (i.e., the "articulate organizations of perception, reflection and experience") through which we endeavor to describe beginnings in the science- and technology-driven culture of modern day. He is motivated by a current climate of millennial obsession precipitated by the failures of 20th-century European and Slavic civilization to make good on the hopes and dreams of post-Enlightenment liberal and positivistic prophecy. The utopian futures envisioned in the West, from Plato to Marx, "may no longer be available in our syntax," Steiner pronounces, leaving us only to "remember the futures that never were." Steiner spends the bulk of his book reexamining our past grammars of "creation" in an act of memorium. But he also aims to examine and assess the significance of the concept of "creation" now. Thus, against his (unargued for) assumption that the meaning of the word "creation" is largely due to a tottering history of religio-mythological narratives, Steiner asks how the notion presently figures into our understanding of art, literature, music, and more. This is a book that emphasizes eclecticism over all else, accounting for its inevitable unevenness. When the book is over, one is left remembering a galaxy of passing mentions, but no sustained argument whatsoever. All readership levels. R. J. Wilburn University of Nevada, Las Vegas