George Steiner

george steiner

I like pictorial books: graphic novels, et cetera. I agree with Alice Pleasance Liddell: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Recently I picked up a little book called “Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics,” by a Dutchwoman named Margreet de Heer. It’s a nice mini-summary of Western philosophy, done mostly through illustrated biographies of major philosophers like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle up through Erasmus and Spinoza.

She does a nice little summary of George Steiner which makes me want to learn more about him. He’s a deeply intelligent man, a polyglot who knows everything and has memorized everything, and who has made some very intelligent pronouncements about the modern world.

Steiner says that all of us should have a suitcase packed at all times. We need to be ready for the worst; we need to be ready to move along. We need to acknowledge to ourselves that nothing lasts forever, and that sometimes terrible things happen, and when they do, we have to get away, the quicker the better.

He also speaks (very eloquently) about the need to memorize things. Once you’ve memorized something, it can never be taken away from you. Who cares if they burn the books? You have the books in your head.

Here’s Steiner himself talking about the importance of memorization:

The world is a wonderful and perilous place. So it’s probably a good idea to have a suitcase packed.

Because you never know.

The one, the true, the good, and the beautiful

the one the true the good

I was taught classical philosophy at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution. This means that I was taught Aristotelian philosophy, by way of Thomas Aquinas.

I learned, in my Metaphysics class taught by Father Carney back in 1977, that there are four transcendental properties: the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Everything in the world partakes of these four properties. Take a tree, for example. It’s one tree: it’s a unity, a thing in the world that can be pointed at and identified. It’s a true tree: it’s identifiable, it’s a unique tree, it’s that tree there in the front yard, and it definitely conforms to every definition of a tree you ever heard of. It’s a good tree, in that it conforms to the definition of trees, and in its nature it has never consciously committed any evil deed. And it is a beautiful tree, because it, in its present state of being, is admirable and beautiful, whether or not it’s perfectly symmetrical or delightful.

Then, recently, I ran across this old dialogue between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore:

TAGORE: . . .  Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.

EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?


EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.




This hurts me.  It strikes at the True, and at the Beautiful.  (Well, the Beautiful was little shaky to begin with, in case you didn’t notice.)

Basically, Tagore is saying that, if there were no people in the world, the transcendental properties would not apply.


Beauty becomes a fashion show of stuff that doesn’t matter, and Truth becomes just a set of things that equal other things.

And it goes without saying that the Good goes right out the window.

And – given what we know about the subatomic universe – who can say what’s a unity? What’s the One?

The Universe is a scary place, kids, when you take away the transcendental properties.

Somebody please hold my hand.



I discovered a nice sansevieria plant in the garbage at work recently.  I rescued it and repotted it and put it in my window; then I looked online to see how best to take care of it.  On one particular website I found these two gems: “Likes bright sunlight,” and “Keep out of bright sunlight.”



Welcome to Bananaland.



I first learned about Bananaland from my friend Joanne, when we were both in graduate school.  She was doing philosophy, I was doing Italian literature.  “What did you cover today?” I asked her one day.



“Well,” she said, “we learned about Bananaland.”



“Do tell,” I said.



“In Bananaland,” she said, “two things are true: ‘all chairs are green’ and ‘no chairs are green.’”



“Are there no chairs at all?” I asked, puzzled.



“No,” she said.  “That’s the thing.  It’s possible to have two statements that clash with one another.”  She grimaced.  “It’s a paradox.”



It happens almost every day.  Sometimes I see a store with both an OPEN and CLOSED signs displayed, and think: Welcome to Bananaland.  How about at the supermarket?  One salad dressing for $1.79, two for $4.99.  How about street signs?  Those are the commonest Bananaland combos of all: MERGE and DO NOT ENTER on the same signpost, or NO PARKING and PARKING 6:00AM – 9:00PM ONLY. 



In Bananaland, everything is permitted without argument.  You can be blonde and brunette at the same time, tall and short, fat and skinny. 



I think the entire crazy world may be Bananaland.



It’s a lot of fun, actually.



The sansevieria is thriving in my office window, by the way.  I’m giving it a lot of direct indirect light, and watering it frequently once a week. 



I expect a nice crop of bananas any day now.



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