Thursday, February 24, 2011

I break open stars and find nothing: Why did the music not say, No?

A short keynote lecture by George Steiner for the Nexus Conference 2010, intriguingly titled, "What's Next for the West: Superman Meets Beethoven." With Steiner there is always a sense of summing up, of saying something profound before The End. His themes have often remarked upon the darkening light of the times, this evening in Western Culture. This lecture is no different. The elaborate, at times Piranesian, machinery of his many books is present in the authority of his oratory. However, there is a compressed elegance to this lecture making it at once accessible and also Zen-like, perhaps Gnostic. In fact, it would not do serious violence to Steiner's master themes by reducing them into that one crucial question:

Why did the music not say, No?

Der Tod als W├╝rger | Alfred Rethel | 1851

“Rethel was inspired by an account the celebrated poet Heinrich Heine wrote of a sudden outbreak of cholera at a masquerade during the carnival of Paris in 1832. We see death playing his own violin whilst the musicians flee. The emaciated and shrouded figure in the background represents cholera.”

From Steiner's 1966 essay, Silence and the Poet, in Language and Silence:

 Because their language had served at Belsen, because words could be found for all those things and men were not struck dumb for using them, a number of German writers who had gone into exile or survived Nazism, despaired of their instrument. In his Song of Exile, Karl Wolfskehl proclaimed that the true word, the tongue of the living spirit, was dead:

Und ob ihr tausend Worte habt:
Das Wort, das Wort ist tot.

Elisabeth Borcher said: "I break open stars and find nothing, and again nothing, and then a word in a foreign tongue." A conclusion to an exercise in linguistic-logical analysis, which Wittgenstein carefully stripped of all emotive reference, though he stated it in a mode strangely poetic, strangely reminiscent of the atmosphere of Holderlin's notes on Sophocles, of Lichtenberg's aphorisms, had turned to a grim truth, to a precept of self-destructive humanity for the poet. "Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent."