Someone once said to me that the people in general
cannot bear very much reality.
He meant by this that they prefer fantasy
to a truthful re-creation of their experience.

The people have quite enough reality to bear
by simply getting through their lives,
raising their children,
dealing with the eternal conundrums
of birth, taxes, and death.

– James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro: A Companion Edition to the Documentary Film Directed by Raoul Peck (2017)


In most societies and throughout history, the status of women has been akin to that of children. Both groups are maintained in a condition of privileged inferiority. Both suffer obvious modes of exploitation-sexual, legal, economic-while benefiting from a mythology of special regard. Thus Victorian sentimentalization of the moral eminence of women and young children was concurrent with brutal forms of erotic and economic subjection. Under sociological and psychological’ pressure, both minorities have developed internal codes of communication and defence (women and children constitute a symbolic, self-defining minority even when, owing to war or special circumstance, they outnumber the adult males in the community). There is a language-world of women as there is of children.

– George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975)

Valéry—whom I adore but who could say wonderfully stupid things—declared, “I’m told you can learn English in twenty hours. To that I respond that you can’t learn French in twenty thousand hours.” A silly quip, but it is, in fact, true—I have taught those languages. English can be learned fast, but there’s more: it contains a message of hope. How can I put it? In English there’s a flying carpet to tomorrow. English is full of promises; it tells us, “Things will be better tomorrow.” The American Declaration of Independence contains the famous expression “the pursuit of happiness.” It’s really something to say to humanity, “Go pursue happiness!” It’s not at all obvious. In English there’s no deep despair, none of the great apocalypses of Russian, French, that metaphysical vision of the damnation of humanity, of original sin. Anglo-American has never believed in that.

– George Steiner, A Long Saturday: Conversations (2014)

The unflagging pleasures of contemporary cities leave me unamused. The prevailing boredom — for oh, how desperately bored, in spite of their grim determination to have a Good Time, the majority of pleasure-seekers really are! — the hopeless weariness, infect me. Among the lights, the alcohol, the hideous jazz noises, and the incessant movement I feel myself sinking into deeper and ever deeper despondency. By comparison with a night-club, churches are positively gay. If ever I want to make merry in public, I go where merrymaking is occasional and the merriment, therefore, of genuine quality; I go where feasts come rarely.

– Aldous Huxley, “Holy Face”, Collected Essays (1958)

It is interesting to note that the men who, in the teeth of history, proclaim that, if you want peace, you must prepare for war, are the self-same men who solemnly declare that Experience teaches […]. But as a matter of brute historical fact, Experience generally doesn’t. We go on doing what our own and our father’s experience has demonstrated, again and again, to be inappropriate or downright disastrous; and we go on hoping that “something will turn up”–something completely different from anything which, on the basis of experience, we have any right to expect. Needless to say, it does not turn up. The same old mistakes have the same old consequences and we remain in the same old mess.

– Aldous Huxley, “A Case of Voluntary Ignorance,” Collected Essays (1958)

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach. Si vis pacem, the Romans liked to say, para bellum–if you want peace prepare for war. For the last few thousand years the rulers of all the world’s empires, kingdoms and republics have acted upon this maxim–with the result that every civilised nation has spent about half of every century of its existence waging war with its neighbours. But has mankind learned this lesson of history? The answer is emphatically in the negative. Si vis pacem, para bellum still is the watchword of every sovereign state.

– Aldous Huxley, “A Case of Voluntary Ignorance” Collected Essays (1958)

Every society is a case of multiple personality and modulates, without a qualm, without even being aware of what it is up to, from Jekyll to Hyde, from the scientist to the magician, from the hardheaded man of affairs to the village idiot. Ours, for example, is the age of unlimited violence; but it is also the age of the welfare state, of bird sanctuaries, of progressive education, of a growing concern for the old, the physically handicapped, the mentally sick. We build orphanages, and at the same time we stockpile the bombs that will be dropped on orphanages. “A foolish consistency,” says Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.” In that case, we must be very great indeed.

– Aldous Huxley, “Madness, Badness, Sadness,” Collected Essays (1958)

We may not appreciate the fact; but a fact nevertheless it remains: we are living in a Golden Age, the most gilded Golden Age of human history — not only of past history, but of future history. For, as Sir Charles Darwin and many others before him have pointed out, we are living like drunken sailors, like the irresponsible heirs of a millionaire uncle. At an ever accelerating rate we are now squandering the capital of metallic ores and fossil fuels accumulated in the earth’s crust during hundreds of millions of years. How long can this spending spree go on? Estimates vary. But all are agreed that within a few centuries or at most a few millennia, Man will have run through his capital and will be compelled to live, for the remaining nine thousand nine hundred and seventy or eighty centuries of his career as Homo sapiens, strictly on income.

– Aldous Huxley, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” Collected Essays (1958)

The anthropology or, as it would now be called, ethno-linguistics of child-speech is still at a rudimentary stage. We know far more of the languages of the Amazon. Adults tend to regard the language of children as an embryonic, inferior version of their own. Children, in turn, guard their preserve.

– George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975)

Where there is no true kinship of interests, where power relations determine the conditions of meeting, linguistic exchange becomes a duel. Very often the seeming inarticulateness of the labourer, the thick twilight of Cockney speech, or the obeisant drag of Negro response are a well-judged feint. The illiteracy of the trooper or the navvy were porcupine quills, calculated to guard some coherence of inner life while wounding outward. The patronized and the oppressed have endured behind their silences, behind the partial incommunicado of their obscenities and clotted monosyllables.

– George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975)