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Notes on George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (2001)

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George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, Yale University Press, 2001.

(George Steiner: Real presences (1989) notes here)


Plato maxim: in all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent. To begin is to act essentially. But our perception now is afternoon, twilight. Century of progress liberalism -> ‘long summer of 1914’. Collapse of humaneness not from distant steppe, nazism, fascism, stalinism from within the context of civilization.

Shoah (wind out of blackness) not ‘holocaust, a technical greek designation for religious sacrifice.

Future tense came relatively late into human speech. Ability to discuss possible events on the day after one’s funeral or in stellar space in a million years. Every use of ‘to be’ is negation of mortality. Every ‘if’ sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, the despotism, of the fact. Hope and fear are supreme fictions empowered by syntax. Fear has mustard seed of hope. Hope encloses fear of unfulfilment. ‘Hope to god’.

Out of Mosaic and prophetic Judaism grew two major branches or heresies. Christianity with promise of kingdom to come, reparations for unjust suffering, eternity of love through the son. Jesus very future tense. [Islam?]. And utopian socialism. Here, claims of transcendence immanent. 20th c put in doubt theological, philosophical and political-material insurance for hope. Eclipse of the messianic. Paradox: messianic can be independent of any postulate of god: stands for man’s access to perfectibility.

The ‘word’ that was in the beginning, for pre-socratics as well as st john comprised a generative, dynamic eternity out of which time could spring forward. Take away energizing anticipation, ‘life-expectancy’ no longer messianic project but an actuarial statistic.

With eclipse of messianic, grammars of nihilism.

Human sciences present a spiralling motion, eternal return, double helix dna. knowledge proceeds forward technically in methods, scope, but seeks out origins. Before big bang, no time-space./ domestication of fire -> culture, history.

[insists that socialism as utopian vision dead. legacy from plato to lenin, ‘no longer available to our syntax’. Like easter island stone faces. We now remember the futures that were.]

Theology is nothing more than a poem of/on god. (Boccaccio in Life of Dante.)

Thomist and cartesian faith consider the infinite to be proof of presence of god. But that is still captive to reason. We reason on formal-mathematical plane which has no beginning.

Intuition, sense of otherness out of reach gives our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfilment. Will to ascension from ‘because it is not there’. Pragmatic negation. It is not yet there = human condition. Homo sapiens rather homo quaerens. Anarchic = un-begun.

Creation of cosmos, the absolute singularity, the only act of authentic creativity. From god’s pov, human discoveries only re-cognition and deja vu. But did god create only once? Kabbalah astrophysics plurality of universes, either sequential or concurrent.

Newton laws: inertia, force = acceleration x mass, action-reaction. Not apply in black hole./ nothing in buddhism. ‘There is nothing’ oxymoron. Active silences plotted in music. Abstract expressionist kandinsky mystical meditative.

Radical unease of artists when finished. Could have been better, flawed. Complex dynamic of guilt and disillusion in serious creativity. Work of art attended by twofold shadow: that of its own possible inexistence, and that of its disappearance. [or outmoded, spoiling as cliche ex mona lisa]

Rousseau La Nouvelle Heloise: such is the nothingness of things human that, except for the being which exists self-created, there is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist. p33.

[music gives moment of self-creation ie beauty then ceases to exist. beauty/ love fleeting./ create image of beautiful nature ie act of creation in the moment. When ceases, ‘nothing’ is that natural beauty. No need for art. Perception/apperception of reality deepened.]

The Flood stands for the menace of the maker’s second thoughts, the whitewash of his canvas. When finish work, creator exiled/ alienated from it. Maybe creator created our universe in a moment of inadvertence. (nietzsche citing luther). Blackness not from his absence but his absent- mindedness.

Rhapsode not will his finest songs. ‘Not himself’. ‘absent-mind’. He is inadvertent medium. Fatal inattention in creation (achilles, scribe missed one diacritical sign in torah -> via erratum evil seeped into creation.

Only altruism can validate and make acceptable the terror of existence. Transcend being in order to ‘be with’. Are humans just unwelcome guests? (king lear, beckett). Luckas: if philosophy/ art can be enlisted by political oppression, commercial mendacity, there must be germ of corruption, of untruth. E.g. plato in sicily, sartre, heidegger. [no. plato not serious. Others capitalism perverts.]

Job cries out for sense, not justice. (but augustine: if you grasp it, it is not god.) is god feeble, sadistic? Created then torments his creation. Job demands to know the purpose of creation, the intention of the builder. The clay, made abject, turns on the potter. Job 38--41. The creation of the world is justice, not recompensing justice, but distributive, a giving justice. Beyond good and evil, beyond reason and social-ethical accountability, rages the drive to create, to engender form. The refusal of the potter to hold himself accountable to the clay, is implicit in the tautology of the burning bush: i am what i am. Satan is acid critic. Role to provoke god into creating, then seeks out its flaws. Nietzsche: art affirms, job affirms.

Plato Ion: how can aesthetic represent that of which it possesses no direct, existential knowledge? Artist as medium. Timaeus math, music, mysticism interactive. Why is there not nothing? Why is there not chaos? Moral sense merges with aesthetic. True logic at one with beauty. Math materialized in music. Musical harmonies and modulations meld as statecraft, make primal creation resonant. Justice is musical echo to divine making beauteous in shape, harmonic in relationships, ethically admirable. Math and aesthetic congruent. Both spaces of freedom, disinterested play. [improvisation, just playing fine music, skating, different ie creative each time.] The ‘made’ throws the shadow of its imperfection, corruptibility, on the maker.

Euripides: human morality and insight into reality principles have outgrown the horizon of the archaic divinities. Need for men to re-create their world (social, political, philsophic) not in image of the ancient gods, but that of reasoned hopes and evolving ideals. Sartre: dieu a besoin des hommes.


Islamic mysticism not have creatio ex nihilo. Creation emanates from the potentialities inherent in god’s being, radiates into the coming into visibility and intelligibility (epiphany) of all that surrounds us.

Mozart/ mahler music formally slow but builds up to a stressful thrust and sense of immanent urgency. Schopenhauer: music will be even after our universe is effaced. Music independent of biological/ physical laws. Relates to death and refusal of death. Tam (text, art, music) give man freedom of his otherwise mortal city.

Jesus divides human history, sets end to time. Perception of flesh not ‘created in god’s image’ but radiant/ tortured son. radiance/ torture, resplendence/ abjection.

Dante: theological, philosophical and poetic fields of creation organically made one. Hell, purgatory, heaven time-spaces. Maps time in space bent by gravity, literal, of evil or grace. Bent into bounded infinities of suffering in places of damnation. In purgatory, time-dimensions alter in accord with progress of the soul towards everlastingness. -> proust re-creates and conveys pull of time on space. Shakespeare secret catholic? Healing mind-restoring powers of music, musicality ~ eros. Had power to become both iago and cordelia, ariel and caliban ~ god. (tolstoy begetter of anna karenina, ivan ilyitch felt himself to be god’s competitor. ‘Two bears wrestling in forest ~ jacob and angel). Pride and dread. Dante imitatio dei sanctioned by thoism epiphanic legitimacy of poetic imagination. The ‘true fiction’ of commedia continues creation, creates on a second level. Ability of craftsman to impose order on recalcitrance of matter (augustine). [ie, affirms existence of god via analogy.] Aesthetic success musical ‘harmonic’, orders human feelings. [catholicism destroyed -> agnostic] Flaubert bitterly alert to paradox of his own death but survival of his ‘puppets’, bovary born of semantic markers on page.

Dante motifs on creation: harold bloom ‘anxiety of influence’ ie distorting reactive pressures of works of predecessors and contemporaries. Internalized images. In goethe, joyce ‘foreshadows’ of heirs. Stendhal predicted his novels popular after century. tolstoy/ kafka projection of negative futurity. Hope that no need for their works because mankind matures. (-> ‘withering away of state’). But 1/ crucial collaboration (goethe/ schiller, brahms/ schumann). Fellow-travellers. 2/  Inward speech, unvoiced soliloquy is bulk of speech-acts 3/ ontological aloneness of creative moment, autism of poet/ artist. The ‘other’ is time and imaged god, only begetter and patron of the work. 4/ dead or living master whom artist has invited into his internal work-shop, the qualified witnesses to his intent and craftsmanship, creative critic of his project, the partisan of his aesthetic cause. Pace each other like great runners. (shakespeare not mention artists.) grammars of creation those of the erotic, shaping intellect/ spyche in a condition of eros. (logos in arms of love ie plato symposium narrator, virgil in commedia). Dante’s virgil because bk vi aeneid prevision of birth of christ. Purgatory natural locus of the arts. Beatrice: creation via mythology, math, astronomy. Time made out of eternity, matter out of olight, space bounded but not the beyondness which is god. God created in an act of pure freedom so his ideas could take on autonomous substance. The long pilgrimage ends in dante’s homecoming to a poetic-revelatory achievement which no outward banishment can negate. Truth and fiction made one, imagination is prayer, plato’s exile of the poets refuted.


Lack of humour of creator, instinct with seriousness of creation. Invention humorous. Surprises. Science construes changing worlds tailored to its own investigative means. Edison invented light bulb [ie controlled electricity. No light bulb in nature. Invented method of tapping energy.] creation/ invention/ discovery. Are platonic realities pre-existent to intellect, whose deployment is universal necessity of reason? Or human contrivance, an invention of man’s instinct for play? (math discovered or invented?).

Hegel time integral to being (-> heidegger). Primal ‘thinking of thought’. Hegel pure presence, ‘the beginning is as yet nothing.’ void is active. Language has stable sense only if its markers were ‘turned towards god’. Hegel: god has most indisputable right to be the one with whom a start, a beginning is made.’ [always doing ‘for allah’, partaking in creation. God creates every moment and every cause-effect.] to enter into being is to take a first step towards nothingness. ~ newborn on the way to death.

Holderlin: human spirit both common to all and specific to each individual. Poet strives to be understood. Executive form made bounded and momentary now radiates towards its own kind of open-ended universality. Poetry restores to life that which abstraction and reduction to local temporal form had taken from it. Concrete -> abstract -> abstract concrete. But also spirit -> abstract -> abstract concrete. Spirit is made immanent in poetic form.

Music is silence interrupted. Dialogue with silence. Leaps across language-frontier. On death watch, socrates composes and sings lyric verse. Zarathustra rebels against prisonhouse of language. Must ‘dance his vision.’ stasis in even most ecstatic of thoughts. Heidegger speech sui generis, neologisms, un-definitions, violences of syntax, deliberately irresponsible strategies of translation, mesmeric/ repellent idiolect. Ego in descartes, rousseau, freud, islam. Hesse glass bead game, magister ludi ‘passing beyond’ language, abandonment of medium irreparably soiled by political inhumanity and mass-market circulation.

celan: i have never invented. Abandon your native language, but merely entering another room in the furnished house. Attempts to break the contract between word and world, to renegotiate it because not party to its signature -> autism, silence of unreason, poetry. But in natural language verbal-grammatical means of meaning never entirely pure. Body language. (but math abstract symbols, no emotion, but limited to rational). Language embedded in its cumulative past and manifold present. All speech rhetorical, aspires to be heard, persuade. Radically choreographed and multi-media. But trapped by cliches, jargon.

Graves: there is one story, that of the muse, submission to eternal feminine. ‘Theme and variation’ linguistically ordained dynamic of literature in toto. Tales mirror biological-social constants of species. Science tells new stories/ paradigms but not reach deep into primal determinants love, hatred, death. Shock of great literature is deja-vu. Collective soul. ~ chomsky’s language innate. Lamarckian transmission of ur-memoires. Literature ‘riverrun’ upstream (vico, joyce). Originality signifies return to origins. -> literature most inventive but least creative of artifacts.

Writer is his dramatis personae. -> creation vs invention. Organic, life-given autonomy of the begotten, not coombinatorial fancies of invented. Divine precedent gives imitative creative powers to writer, where innermost springs remain impenetrable. Read suspends disbelief and allows fust/ mephistopheles to take up residence within himself artist indeed god-like to himself and his public. He creates. But are the ‘great stories’ going to continue to be told, and the characters which enact them continue to be born?


Music, math, philosophy. Math crowning enigma of our dubious presence in this world. Like zarathustra, Nietztsche thirsted for descent into companionship of society, disciples. But divined that would jeopardize the absolute rigour of his dithyrambic (frenzied) vision.

No fully shared chronometry to the duration of pain, nightmare, pleasure. Clock time relates to existential duration in a kind of irrelevant parallelism. Same for torture/ love. Abyss of indifference. Verb tenses past, present future not homologous (shared ancestry) in their pacing of psychic and social experience across different cultures. ‘Hope’ ~ future tense. Each work of art generates its own time-world, temporal space. Futurist paintings represent dizzying speed. Abstract art/ monumental sculpture ‘time must have a stop.’ (moore). Eliot: music moves only in time. Rhythm is time organized. Largos in beethoven whose formal repose seems to generate intense compression of time. (liszt trill ~ unending). Duration =/ time in arts/ philosophy. Math-like logic not move forward and amend prior findings. Plato, descarte, kant. Motion as spiral, helix, ascent = descent. Paradox of timelessness within context of historical time.

We participate in truth-fiction of eternity, liberation from dictate of biological-historical time ie death 1/ religion. 2/ aesthetics. There is no community without music, graphic art, narratives of imagined remembrance. Truths but lesser than math.


Future of the arts. Homeric epic, mozart sonata do not age as do products of invention. The great stories being dreamt and told in new way. Inhabit language worlds => our sensation of being is primarily semiotic. Made sensible by encoding. ~ science/ math. Like energy, significance and potentialities of transmissible meaning are conserved through the ages. Timon of athens (generosity spends his entire fortune on corrupt hangers-on) bids ‘language end’, ontological nausea. Sprachkitik 1900+ slippage of elemental trust in the world. Shakespear’s linguistic virtuosity, sovereign trust in the power of he world to say the world. Wwi irreparable termination of what was humane in western civilization speech-acts trivialized by mass consumption, falsified by jargon of the bourse, men of law incapable of telling the truth. A world gone made with vacant but virulently contagious chatter. -> nazism, stalinism, manipulative infantilism in mass media of an unbridled capitalism. New scripture newspaper. The anti-matter to the world. Smoothly erosive -> package and routinize all falsehoods, bestialities. Logical positivists, popper narrows authentic meaning to what’s falsifiable. -. Tautologies of formal logic. What’s important ignored, devoid of decidable meaning.

Hofmannsthal: English culture the ideal setting for the artist. the English simultaneously admired Admiral Nelson and John Milton, both war heroes and poets, while still maintaining a solid national identity. the division between artist (writer) and man of action (politician, explorer, soldier) does not exist in England. Britain provides her subjects with a common base of energy which functions as equilibrium, a force lacking in fragmented Germany. Language lost meaning (love, existence, c, self in daily parlance ethical and intellectually indecent. Mundane chi-chat merely prolongs barbarism. Kafka’s Sirens weapon more terrible than their song, their silence. The ambiguous loftiness and terror of the unsayable. Schoenberg’s moses und aron. Moses inarticulate, aaron gold tongue but shallow. freud/ marx ~ moses. Freud non-scientific language strove for ‘adulthood’ of civilization but wanted verifiable criteria of scientific. Broch: the essential, the revelation of death, lies precisely on the other side of the word. Only action may give to death a humane significance. But if man is language animal and language poisoned …? Wwi and sprachkritik is turning point. Deep-lying fractures and tectonic collisions in social c(onsciousness). [have lost sense of responsibility, the sacred, -> postsecularism]. ‘Dead letter’.

Photography gnawed at citadel of speech. Separate word/ image. Word becomes caption. Foundational myths prior to language as we know it. Postulate of existence of god a speech-act. Also adamic nomination of living world, dialectic of plato, inventory of ego in augustine. Heidegger sein und zeit, sartre l’etre et le neant closer to empedocles/ parmenides/ heraclitus than to descarte or leibniz. Darwin found shakespeare boring and childish.

Master players in critique of language, linguistics jews. Rootless and harried in space, j made of the oral and written text his homeland. To torturer spilling water in front of dying-of-thirst prisoner: why? Torturer: there is no why here.

Oral composition, dialogue (homer, socrates) outweighs uses of written word. Some civilizations relegate writing to enclosed, ceremonious spheres. (j hebrew but yiddish.) -> issue of authorship (collective, anonymous -> named, but less so for math). Reading demands solitary, silence, space. Ie elitist/ aristocratic, refusal to belong.

Create in cyberspace of democracy? -> invention? New libraries (BL, mitterand, LofC) ~ fast-breeder reactors, inertial thrust. Virtual realities via virtual communities. Internet uses computer-driven feedback loops to communicate and transact everything. Fundamental categories of community, participatory politics, exchange and codification of knowledge and desire altered. Mutation. Computers mime the cerebral processes which brought them into being.can compose own newspaper, produce illustrative material. Record companies, publishers, BBCs disappear? [no. need return to morality, need censor, need reliable source, dedicated readership. Not possible for individual unless superstar.] stockhausen song of the young men. Pound: frankness as never before, tawdry cheapness via exposure of even most intimate of human acts and relations. Invasion of utmost menace to rep democracies, bars more gifted, complex. Return to choral from heroic egotism of greek tragic c and hebraic narrative. Democracy and internet bid us ‘join in’. Death devalued. Keep alive by demeaning plumbing, makes suicide the sole guarantor of privacy, autonomy of the self. Artists death is god’s self-defense, insurance against promethean storming of the heavens. New code of the collective, the replaceable, the ephemeral, the trop of immortality. Dual of death at the heart of human creations becomes shadow-boxing.

Sprachkritik -> Dadaist Kurt Schwitters Merzbau (1937) reinvents creation. objects trouvees fashioned into functional use. Tinguely self-destructs. (ie terminal logic). Self-annihilation dispells millennial mists of aesthetic pretense.

Time has no meaning prior to the singularity. But elementary logic tells us that is arrogant bluff. The simple fact that we can phrase the question, engage it with normal thought processes, gives it meaning and legitimacy. Same mystique as genesis. Human creativity ~ coming-into-being. The god-hypothesis will not be mocked without cost. Beckett: he doesn’t exist, the bastard.

But architecture becoming more an art, using technology, engineering -> ‘creation’. We have long been, I  believe that we still are, guests of creation. We owe to our host the courtesy of questioning.


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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergIV.html