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Steiner, George. The ephemeral genre and the end of literature. In New
Perspectives Quarterly Fall 1996, v13, n4, p46(4).
OXFORD - I imagine many of you will already have seen it, so I
apologize. The current issue of that key journal of comparative
papyrology of the Romanian Academy has an enormously interesting
fragment, recently deciphered. It appears to be a conversation from
5th century BC Corinth about the first public readings of the Iliad
and the Odyssey It is quite clear from the conversation that these
are judged to have no future whatsoever. The issue is whether to
waste expensive sheep skin - and a great many sheep - on
transcription when the story is so manifestly too long, too
repetitive, full of endless formulas, with that rosy-fingered dawn
every 10 lines, so full of dull patches and with such a messy ending.
Is Odysseus going to stay at home, or is he leaving? No one can
really make it out. It was a very brave effort, but destined for
The point is obvious. When did literature have a future? Probably
never. What we know as literature has had a very, very short run.
Scholars say we can start with St. Augustine's famous observation of
his master and teacher, St. Ambrose, in the courtyard in Milan.
Augustine says: "This is the first man in the West who could read
without moving his lips." A man reading in silence, having a
relationship to a text which is more or less that of a modern act of
reading. This sense of a private and personal relationship to the
text, of remembrance and return, and of text engendering text, breaks
down around 1914 - the beginning of the catastrophe of our culture in
Today, we need to address these themes again for two reasons:
technology and talent. Gutenberg was not a fundamental revolution. It
extended the life of the written word. In the 80 years following
Gutenberg, there were more illuminated manuscripts produced and
commissioned than in the previous century. It was not a revolution of
the kind we may now be experiencing. What will virtual reality mean
for the imagination, for the habits of narrative and imagining of its
practitioners? It is not only virtual reality. My colleagues in the
Cambridge engineering department tell me that they are very close to
a "small-scale, portable, total display" computer - meaning that you
will carry with you or have on your desk or by your bed, for bedtime
reading, this small and versatile screen. It will be online to the
libraries of the world; the 14 million books of the Library of
Congress will be at your fingertips and it will be clearer, easier to
carry, infinitely more responsive to your interests and needs than
any book. Then, we are truly in a new world.
But it takes two. There can be no literature without readers. Readers
shape literature. Literature shapes readers and has done so since the
beginning of the notion of literacy. So if readers change altogether,
as they will with the new possibilities, what they are reading will
change also, however ancient it is. A CD-ROM presentation of Homer,
now available, is completely different from the papyrus version, the
print version, the comic book version. They all have a metaphysic of
their own in terms of narrative, pace, excitement, stimulus.
>From my boyhood I remember the smell of books, immensely different,
the different kinds of savor, the paper, the print. Books are complex
phenomena. The way we hold them. Where we store them. The way we can
return to them. The paperback is a revolution of its own, as was the
folio, the quarto, the duodecimo. Books, and the libraries in which
they were kept, shaped much of what we think of as literature,
history and philosophy. If the book is to be replaced by electronic
means, many of them as yet unimagined, if it is to become an archive
of remembrance, an archaeology of dead love, then literature itself
will change very profoundly.
Marxism taught us a brilliant, simple observation (the big thoughts
are so simple and yet one does not have them]): that there is no
chamber music before chambers. That is to say, what you and I know as
chamber music - particularly the quartet, the dominant form of high
music - could only occur under very specific spatial, economic and
sociological conditions. If there are no more private spaces for
chamber music, no new chamber music will be commissioned or written;
and that vast musical literature will have to find, as it does now,
an essentially museum character. It will be the historical
reproduction of conditions which are no longer immediate or natural
to performer and listener. This will also become true of literature
and the book.
PRODIGALITY AND PLETHORA
Let me move from technology to talent. We do not know why it is, but
in any given historical moment, the amount of creative talent is not
infinite. There are phenomena here which we do not understand. Thank
God there is something for us not to understand] Why should certain
periods produce a floreat of great writers and others be barren for
long periods? Why should great literatures - Portuguese, Spanish,
Italian are cases in point - know two or three high moments of
concentrated force? What determines, on a distribution curve, the
cluster of talent in a given moment and what that talent wants to do?
Very roughly - and these figures, of course, are always open to
challenge - the latest evidence we have on IQ curves or any
comparable measure (to be treated with care, of course) is that over
80 percent of the top of the curve today are in the sciences. Less
than 20 percent are doing anything we could identify as the
humanities at the top end of the curve - top in intelligence, will,
energy, ambition. If I had lived in Florence in the quattrocento I
would, from time to time, have begged breakfast off a painter.
Instead, I have tried all my life to be among scientists because
today that is where the joy is, that is where the hope is, the
energy, the sense of world upon world opening up.
There are fewer and fewer prerequisites to studying the humanities.
But in today's Cambridge, in today's MIT, in today's Princeton or,
until recently still, in Moscow, the entrance exams in mathematics
and physics for the first-year student now include what was
classified as post-doctoral research only 15 years ago. That is your
accelerando. That is the measure of what is being asked of the young
and what they are able to supply.
There is no law which says that great literature gets produced in any
given time or that a language will renew its poetic and creative
energies. There are periods of tiredness and exhaustion in certain
great literatures. Probably fewer people are at the top end of
excellence today in the production of literary artistic works. Does
this mean that less is being produced? No. We have a paradox of
prodigality and plethora. More books are being published and
remaindered and pulped very rapidly. There is a huge amount being
produced; very little of it seems to be of commanding stature. Talent
is going into the competing media of television, film and their
allied arts. Again and again there will crackle off our screen a
piece of dialogue, a confrontation, a scene, where you say - "My God,
that is better than any novel I have read in a long time." It is more
insightful, it is better written, it is sharper.
Film is already in a condition where it can proudly speak of its
classics, of classics which have changed perception, which have
changed imagining, which have altered our sense of what a narrative
is - of how you tell a story. It is not the same thing as in the
novel. It can resemble the novel, and it is fascinating to watch the
interaction between classic fiction and television.
The commissioning of a book is now often done with a view to its
production in other media. The calculation of the print run is almost
unimportant compared to the hope of its acquisition for television or
film rights which, in turn, presses on the structure of the written
text. There are masters of this form who write knowing that if the
television or cinema production is a great success, people will
return to the book. It is a creative boomerang of the most
interesting kind. There are even cases where the book has been
commissioned after the film or the television version. The book is no
longer the pretext, it is the post-text of its distribution.
None of us can measure the quantum of intelligence, of imagining
going into the media. It is prodigious - even the quantum of
intelligence that can go into a great advertising campaign. The
difference between poetry and jingles is difficult to distinguish.
There are advertising people who can write one-liners of which
Restoration comedy would have been proud - you can compare the skill,
the caricature skill of a human situation exploding into an
unforgettable bon mot or repartee. Imagination, fun, energy, even
serious political and social comment often see in the book a form
that is too slow, when in other media they can get through
immediately on a vast scale to a great public and to the shapers of
But can "literature" be preserved? A very, very difficult question.
Some years ago, you remember, a number of young publishers began
publishing film scripts. It did not work out well. That does not mean
it will not. Certain great television artists, Dennis Potter and
others, have hoped that their works would be preserved in some
literary form so that people could read with the play or film.
There is an oral dimension as well. This became clear to me on a
recent visit to Harvard University. Casablanca was being shown for
the millionth time. There was a queue outside of students who had
seen it 10 or 15 times. At a certain point, about 10 minutes from the
end, hands shot up and they switched off the sound and the students
got up, crossed their arms, and recited in chorus the last 10
minutes, which are quite complex. I was yelling with them: "Arrest
the usual suspects." These are students who, if you said to them,
"Would you please learn a poem by heart," would blench with dismay;
but they see no difficulty whatsoever in learning the polyphonic, six
or eight voices of those last 10 minutes.
This suggests a tenacity in the oral form. Poetry has an immense
future - limitless, I think. Russian poetry survived orally and then
in readings to 10 and 20 thousand - Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andre
Voznesensky. Also Allen Ginsberg. Poetry always has behind it the
probability of the oral, of being spoken together and learnt by heart
if you love it. We are in a period of great poets and many, many are
to come; they will work with music and drama, with choreography,
forms as yet unimagined, which go back to the origins of poetry in
ancient Greece so far as we can make them out.
Poetry means every form of drama, and I would like to be around for
it. Television drama, amateur drama, audience participation. The
world of drama for children seems, at the moment, almost boundless.
The theater in the largest sense - the art of the human body - is
opening up. The elimination of the human body from so much of high
literature is a brief phenomenon which took place roughly between
Christianity's triumph in late Hellenism and the academic, mandarin,
high bourgeois cultures at the beginning of this century. It is no
longer so. The body is reasserting its presence at every range of the
culture. Language is, after all, a bodily function, deeply and
Hegel said it so clearly. The novel is inseparable from the triumph
of the middle classes, their habits of leisure, of privacy, the space
for reading, the time for reading; the novel philosophically is a
narrative in a large, rich, stable, social context, even if its own
particular narrative is one of chaos, revolution or disorder. The way
George Lukacs, the greatest of Marxist critics, put it was: "No novel
ends unhappily." That is not a stupid statement. What he referred to
was the fact that after you have read a novel, you can go back to it;
there is always a window on the future, on the story continuing, and
it is in essence a middle-class story.
NOVELS AT THE MARGIN
It is no accident that the industrial revolution, the French
revolution, occurred in the great age of the novel. It is almost
axiomatic that today the great novels are coming from the far rim,
from India, from the Caribbean, from Latin America - from countries
which are in an earlier stage of bourgeois culture, in a rougher,
more problematic form.
We are getting very tired in our novel writing; that makes perfect
sense, there is nothing apocalyptic about it. Genres rise, genres
fall, the epic, the verse epic, the formal verse tragedy, all have
great moments, then they ebb. Novels will continue to be written for
some time, but increasingly the search is on for hybrid forms, what
we call fact/fiction. This alerts us to something important. What
novel can today compete with the best of reportage, the best of
immediate narrative? Not only the media, but also journalism in the
high and legitimate sense, the masters of the immediate whom we can
read every day.
James Joyce was certain that Finnegans Wake would be the end of the
novel. It is a very deliberate attempt, marvelously arrogant, to say:
"Not after this, that is it. In Ulysses I had once more done the
totality, once more held the world in one grasp, now Finnegans Wake
is the chaos of the night," and when told it was unreadable he said,
"Of course, that is the point, then you have understood. This is
meant to be the epilogue." There are still excellent novels after
Finnegans Wake. But my guess is that nothing at the moment is more
artificial, in some ways more a gamble against reality, than a first
novel, and I think many publishers know this.
We have a very exciting time ahead, when literature itself will have
to re-examine what literacy is. Who is literate today? There are
children who are finding "beautiful" solutions to problems on their
computers, on their holographic screens.
I meet one of these children; I am told he can neither read nor
write, or barely; he resents any attempt to pull him away from the
screen and make him read. I lose my temper and shout, "You are
illiterate?" and the child says, "You are illiterate" because,
indeed, I cannot follow what he is doing. If you have watched some of
these children, their fingers are like those of a great piano
virtuoso. I cannot put this intelligently - their fingers are
thinking and creating. The way the fingers move is the way a musician
with a motif, or the sketch of a motif or a bar relation, comes back
to it through his fingers to re-examine its possibilities, to correct
it. And the child says I am illiterate. Dialogue de sourds. We stare
at each other.
DEATH OF IMMORTALITY
And what next? Who is going to be literate? Who will define basic
literacy? It is a very frightening period. That is what makes it so
exciting and rewarding. Underlying it may be a slow, glacial shift in
Western culture's attitude toward death. The way we think of death,
the way we experience it, imagine it; the way we turn our
consciousness toward it. Literature, as we have known it, springs out
of a wild and magnificent piece of arrogance, old as Pindar, Horace
and Ovid. Exegi aere perennius - what I have written will outlive
time. Stronger than bronze, less breakable than marble, this poem.
Pindar was the first man on record to say that his poem will be sung
when the city which commissioned it has ceased to exist. Literature's
immense boast against death. Even the greatest poet, I dare venture,
would be profoundly embarrassed to be quoted saying such a thing
Something enormous is happening, due in part to the barbarism of this
century, perhaps due to DNA, perhaps due to fundamental changes in
longevity, in cellular biology, in the conception of what it is to
have children. We cannot phrase it with any confidence, but it will
profoundly affect the great classical vainglory of literature - I am
stronger than death] I can speak about death in poetry, drama, the
novel, because I have overcome it; I am more or less permanent.
That is no longer available. A quite different order of imagining is
beginning to arise, and it may be that when we look back on this time
we will suddenly see that the very great artists, in the sense of
changing our views - of what is art, what is human identity - are not
the ones we usually name but rather exasperating, surrealist, jokers.
Marcel Duchamp. If I call this pisoir a great work of art and sign
it, who are you to disprove that? Or, even more so, the artist Jean
Tinguely, who built immense structures which he then set on fire,
saying: "I want this to be ephemeral. I want it to have happened only
That is the contrary of literature as we have known it, literature
which always says: "I want to be returned to over and over and over."
This does not mean that the new work will be any less exciting. It
does not mean that it will be any less inventive. It just means that
to be a publisher in the next century is going to be a very chancy
GEORGE STEINER IS LORD WEIDENFELD PROFESSOR OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
AT OXFORD. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK OF ESSAYS, No Passion Spent, WAS
PUBLISHED THIS YEAR.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions