22 April 2010


(This photo by Rico Schacherl. It and the others are from Nieu Bethesda, the Karoo, in which thoughts such as the ones in this post have ample space to breathe)

‘I break open stars and find nothing, and again nothing,
and then a word in a foreign tongue.’

George Steiner quotes these lines by Elisabeth Borcher in Language and Silence (1974, New York: Atheneum, p 51). Anne Michaels quotes the same lines as an epigraph to her poem ‘What the Light Teaches’ (Poems 2001, New York: Alfred A Knopf, p 117).

I’m intrigued by this kind of literary overlap. It’s not a coincidence; Steiner and Michaels are both speaking of language as traumatised by events like the Holocaust in the Second World War. ‘Because their language had served at Belsen, because words can be found for all those things and men were not struck dumb for using them,’ Steiner points out, ‘a number of German writers ... despaired of their instrument’ (p 51). (He acknowledges also that ‘the failure of the word in the face of the inhuman is by no means limited to German’ (p 51).) Michaels, too, refers to language – German, Polish, Russian – that has been stripped of its more humane meanings (her implication: by the Nazis), just the alphabet remaining the same, the victim’s language revealing only ‘the one who named him’ (p 124).

Behind these texts lies Theodor Adorno’s well-known injunction (which he later qualified) about the barbarism of the notion of poetry after an ‘event’ such as Auschwitz. Whether or not he would agree with the statement, Steiner does not suggest that writers stop writing; rather he wonders, in 1966, whether they are writing too much – people speak far too much and far too easily, he feels, ‘making common what is private’ and creating of their culture ‘a wind-tunnel of gossip’ (p 53). In his view, ‘silence is an alternative’ to this situation (p 54). Michaels, among many other poets and writers, chooses not to remain silent, and refuses to accede to the pressure that squeezes and twists language out of its ethical shape. For her, language can take a vitally recuperative form. Her conclusion in ‘What the Light Teaches’ is that language is ‘a country; home; family’; ‘for those who can’t read their way in the streets, / or in the gestures and faces of strangers, / language is the house to run to / ... when you have no other place’ (pp 128–9).

The overlap is also not a case of appropriation. Michaels’s research is meticulous; although she doesn’t list Steiner among her sources in the acknowledgements page of Poems (nor in the acknowledgements page of Fugitive Pieces, which deals slightly differently with the same theme), she may well have come across his reference to Borcher. But that’s not the point; Steiner and Michaels’s uses of Borcher’s poetry are independent and legitimate – I’m simply identifying their congruence as an interesting phenomenon in literature.

Here’s another overlap:

The concept of the ‘aha moment’ as used by Oprah is well known to her fans (not so surprisingly, there’s even been a court case over it). AS Byatt knows about it too: in an ‘aha experience’, she suggests, a ‘structure felt to be defective or inchoate suddenly appears formed and harmonious’ (Still Life 1985, New York: Simon & Schuster, p 260).

In Oprahdom, these moments are memorable, connect-the-dots moments when everything suddenly clicks into place.* For Byatt the moment occurs when a human being feels a relaxation, a ‘release’, of tension caused by desire (p 260). If someone is hungry, they will have an aha experience not through the final goal itself, not nourishment, say, but rather in the act of eating (p 260).

While Oprah and Byatt are not speaking of quite the same thing, in both cases it brings satisfaction.

* Among all the definitions of this concept on the internet, it's difficult to find the original