Another thing you’ll find is that the years of illusion aren’t those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they’re the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head.

– Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)


Art dies when we lose or ignore the conventions by which it can be read, by which its semantic statement can be carried over into our own idiom-those who have taught us how to reread the Baroque, for example, have extended the backward reach of our senses. In the absence of interpretation, in the manifold but generically unified meaning of the term, there could be no culture, only an inchoate silence at our backs. In short, the existence of art and literature, the reality of felt history in a community, depend on a never-ending, though very often unconscious, act of internal translation. It is no overstatement to say that we possess civilization because we have learnt to translate out of time.

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

When we read or hear any language-statement from the past, be it Leviticus or last year’s best-seller, we translate. Reader, actor, editor are translators of language out of time. The schematic model of translation is one in which a message from a source-language passes into a receptor-language via a transformational process. The barrier is the obvious fact that one language differs from the other, that an interpretative transfer, sometimes, albeit misleadingly, described as encoding and decoding, must occur so that the message ‘gets through’. Exactly the same model–and this is what is rarely stressed–is operative within a single language. But here the barrier or distance between source and receptor is time.

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

Consider the bottle-nosed dolphin. Male dolphins, programmed to play win-win games, team up with other male dolphins to form a coalition. The coalition then abducts a female dolphin from a competing coalition, forcibly detaining her and taking turns having sex with her. Coalitions even play non-zero-sum games with other coalitions. Coalition A helps coalition B steal a female from coalition C today, and coalition B returns the favor tomorrow.

This is quite a display of cooperation—cooperation on top of cooperation—and is yet another tribute to natural selection’s genius.

– Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (1999)

Why did certain languages effect a lasting grip on reality? Did Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Chinese (in a way that may also relate to the history of writing) have distinctive resources? Or are we, in fact, asking about the history of particular civilizations, a history reflected in and energized by language in ways so diverse and interdependent that we cannot give a credible answer? I suspect that the receptivity of a given language to metaphor is a crucial factor. That receptivity varies widely: ethno-linguists tell us, for example, that Tarascan, a Mexican tongue, is inhospitable to new metaphors, whereas Cuna, a Panamanian language, is avid for them. An Attic delight in words, in the play of rhetoric, was noticed and often mocked throughout the Mediterranean world. Qiryat Sepher, the ‘City of the Letter’ in Palestine, and the Syrian Byblos, the ‘Town of the Book’, are designations ·with no true parallel anywhere else in the ancient world. By contrast other civilizations seem ‘speechless’, or at least, as may have been the case in ancient Egypt, not entirely cognizant of the creative and transformational powers of language. In numerous cultures blindness is a supreme infirmity and abdication from life; in Greek mythology the poet and the seer are blind so that they may, by the antennae of speech, see further.

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

Ordinary language is, literally at every moment, subject to mutation. This takes many forms. New words enter as old words lapse. Grammatical conventions are changed under pressure of idiomatic use or by cultural ordinance. The spectrum of permissible expression as against that which is taboo shifts perpetually. At a deeper level, the relative dimensions and intensities of the spoken and the unspoken alter. This is an absolutely central but little-understood topic. Different civilizations, different epochs do not necessarily produce the same ‘speech mass’; certain cultures speak less than others; some modes of sensibility prize taciturnity and elision, others reward prolixity and semantic ornamentation. Inward discourse has its complex, probably unrecapturable history: both in amount and significant content, the divisions between what we say to ourselves and what we communicate to others have not been the same in all cultures or stages of linguistic development.

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

He likes to tell about how in the nineteen-twenties, in Germany or somewhere, there was a movement for a poetry of the everyday. Advertising, he claims, is realizing that poetic project after the fact. It transforms the simple objects of life into poetry. Thanks to advertising, everydayness has started singing.

– Milan Kundera, Identity (1997)

Between 1800 and 1900 the doctrine of Pie in the Sky gave place, in a majority of Western minds, to the doctrine of Pie on the Earth. The motivating and compensatory Future came to be regarded, not as a state of disembodied happiness, to be enjoyed by me and my friends after death, but as a condition of terrestrial well-being for my children or (if that seemed a bit too optimistic) my grandchildren, or maybe my great-grandchildren. The believers in Pie in the Sky consoled themselves for all their present miseries by the thought of posthumous bliss, and whenever they felt inclined to make other people more miserable than themselves (which was most of the time), they justified their crusades and persecutions by proclaiming, in St. Augustine’s delicious phrase, that they were practicing a “benignant asperity,” which would ensure the eternal welfare of souls through the destruction or torture of mere bodies in the inferior dimensions of space and time. In our days, the revolutionary believers in Pie on the Earth console themselves for their miseries by thinking of the wonderful time people will be having a hundred years from now, and then go on to justify wholesale liquidations and enslavements by pointing to the nobler, humaner world which these atrocities will somehow or other call into existence.

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

About politics one can make only one completely unquestionable generalization, which is that it is quite impossible for statesmen to foresee, for more than a very short time, the results of any course of large-scale political action.

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

Diseases must be very grave indeed before they become completely coextensive with their victims. That men are affected by their illnesses is obvious; but it is no less obvious that, except when they are almost in extremis, they are something more than the sum of their morbid symptoms. Dostoevsky was not merely personified epilepsy, Keats was other things besides a simple lump of pulmonary tuberculosis. Men make use of their illnesses at least as much as they are made use of by them.

– Aldous Huxley, “Meditations on El Greco,” Collected Essays (1958)