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236Philosophy and Literature On Difficulty and Other Essays, by George Steiner; xi & 209 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, $3.95 paperbound . In this brilliant collection of essays, written between 1972 and 1978, George Steiner touches on central concerns expressed in his previous books. The immediate focus of the key essay, "On Difficulty," is reading, but its upshot is echoed in the rest of the anthology. Despite the author's disclaimer, the book has a remarkable unity of theme and conclusion. The question, Why is a poem difficult?, serves as a vehicle for a wider and deeper thought: What is the status of contemporary culture? With regard to both questions, the phenomenon under examination is the written word, literature—the field in which Steiner's erudition and penetration are astonishing. Reading a difficult poem requires homework, looking up words we do not understand; this difficulty is theoretically remediable, it is contingent. A modal difficulty leaves us uncertain as to what the poet is up to; it cannot be solved by clarifying words and phrases, but the reader must be receptive to the poet's intent. There can be also an undecidability about the poem; the difficulty is tactical because the poet "may choose to obscure in order to achieve certain specific stylistic effects" (p. 33). Finally, there are ontological difficulties, and those have to do with the circumstances where writer and reader find themselves "in an environment of eroded speech" (p. 44). The most that even the greatest poet can do is to point us in the direction he is looking. In following him we are on our own and must be aware of the likelihood that our attempt at interpretation may be an intrusion. Only in a rare, authentic poem is the subjectivity of the poet consonant with the language he is using, but even that language makes possible only "a momentary fusion of word and referent" (p. 46). Because serious writing leads us to the frontiers of understanding, it is inherendy difficult. Not accepting the necessity of struggling with these conditions of understanding, we in effect no longer read. The organized amnesia of our schools, and "the near-dyslexia of current student reading-habits," preclude "that enigmatic act of penetrative elicitation." Steiner concludes that "If we are serious about our business, we shall have to teach reading" (p. 16). The essay on Dante makes this need abundantly clear. The theme of the ontological difficulty is implicitly present in other essays. Inner speech and solitary reflection, "our autonomous energies of diction and plenitude" (p. 59), are eroded by contemporary developments, which include psychoanalysis and mass media. There has been a marked "shift from an internalized to a voiced convention of personality and utterance" (p. 94). A telling example of this shift is found in the treatment of sexuality in novels from Jane Austen to Jean Genet. The philosophical dispute between the monadists and universalists in linguistics is also concerned with determining the ontological reach of language. For this reader, one idea in Steiner's writings especially stands out. Deeply Shorter Reviews237 appreciative of what the masters of the written word have accomplished, he would like to see that accomplishment echoed and re-echoed in individual consciousnesses . He is worried that the "inscape" of humanity is becoming barren, desolate—filled with the din of outer distractions. The difficulty he speaks of is an antidote to such distractions. It is not something that should be corrected or shunned but rather gratefully and wholeheartedly embraced as a condition of finding what is best in us. Our spiritual homecoming can have a measure of success only if we listen to the voices of those who have felt and thought deeply about their, and our, humanity. Rice UniversityKonstantin Kolenda Positions, by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass: vii & 114 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, $11.95. Presumably it is safe to say that apart from Heideggerians, and by no means all Heideggerians, Derrida's impact on English and American philosophy has not nearly matched his remarkable influence in academic departments of literature . The curious discrepancy becomes an issue once again with the appearance in English of this slim book of three interviews with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 236-237
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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