George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967).

Robert S. Leventhal

The Cambridge University Literary Critic George Steiner published Language and Silence in 1967, a book that in a sense develops an entire poetics around what he refers to as the demolition or destruction of language in light of the historical atrocities of the 20th century, most notably the Nazi Genocide of the Jews. In his essay on Kafka entitled "K" in Language and Silence,, Steiner stated: "The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survivance of language as creator and bearer of humane, rational truth. Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life." (123) According to Steiner, Auschwitz and the atrocities of the Third Reich are literally unspeakable, they cannot be adequately expressed or communicated in language for two reasons. First, because of the misuse of language in the Nazi regime, language, and particularly the German language, has suffered a destruction so total that it cannot resume its previous function as the vessel of humane rationality and truth. Secondly, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were of such a nature that they transcend any words we could use to characterize them. Their barbarity goes beyond the referential and representational capacity of language. In an essay contained in the same volume, "The Retreat from the Word," Steiner urges us to follow oriental metaphysics and Wittgenstein and consider silence as a response to the ineffable. And in "Silence and the Poet," Steiner considers poetic modernity as an attempt to enact or "show" the limits of the expressable, the threshold of meaning, by allowing the silence of language, where language can only express its inadequacy, to emerge as such. In "The Hollow Miracle," Steiner stated: "Everything forgets. But not language. When it has been injected with falsehood, only the most drastic truth can cleanse it. Instead, the post-war history of the German language has been one of dissimulation and deliberate forgetting." (109) Or, in one of the most powerful and disturbing statements of the book, Steiner stated: "Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy and cheapness [...] But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it. [...] Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace." (101)

Steiner has been taken to task by a number of different historians and critics on a number of different issues. First, perhaps most notably, Saul Friedländer has claimed that Steiner's remarks are imprecise, that one must distinguish between, say, the demolition of the German language and the demolition of language in general. Furthermore, Friedländer has insisted that to reduce Auschwitz to silence is to participate in another dissimulation and erasure of history. Against "silence," Friedländer has consistently argued for a self-reflective discourse and psycho-analysis of the very ways in which denial, displacement, and disavowal occur in our various "discourses." On this, see Friedländer's Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death.

Another extremely important criticism is directed against the "rhetoric of silence" itself. To assert that "Auschwitz lies outside of speech as it lies outside of reason" is, for many, to simply relegate the Holocaust to oblivion, to rob it of any articulation and thereby to continue, by other means, what the Nazis sought to do in the first place: to erase, wipe out, obliterate the Jewish idiom. Thus, Sander Gilman has argued in his book Jewish Self-Hatred that the task of Holocaust literature is to register, and then to overcome silence, as is accomplished in Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird or, more recently, in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. For more on this reading of the "return of the voice" and the interruption of silence as a possible counter against Steiner, see Shoshana Felman and Dorie Laub's reading of Lanzmann's Shoah in Testimony: Psychoanalysis, Literature, History.

Steiner's discourse can be characterized as a discourse of mourning, in which the critic mourns the death of language. The language in question, however, is principally German, and it can be questioned whether this is the proper focus of mourning, i.e. whether, in light of the destruction of the language of those who suffered, this task of mourning should not be directed at the loss of the languages of the European Jews themselves and not the perpetrators.

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