Thursday, July 9, 2009

George Steiner on Hofmannsthal

Dated 1901, Hofmannsthal's Ein Brief, better known as the "Lord Chandos Letter," has lost nothing of its finality. The eponymous hero, a brilliantly endowed young Elizabethan aristocrat, writes to Francis Bacon. He has already, at nineteen, composed mythological poetry. Much is expected of him, for both world and word have been prodigal. But now "the capacity to think or to say anything coherent has deserted me." At first, this loss bore on those abstractions which normal human beings mouth so readily. Lord Chandos found himself unable to utter such words as "spirit," "soul," or "body." Articulate pronouncements and judgements became literally unutterable. On Chandos's lips they turned to rotten fungi. Even to hear fluent propositions babbled by others became intolerable. "Words swam around me: they turned to eyes staring at me, and into which I had, in turn to stare. Words whirl and it makes me dizzy to look into their incessant spinning, beyond which one enters on emptiness."

Chandos can no longer relate to simple objects and artifacts. A watering can, a dog lazing in the sun, a modest rural cottage on his estate can become "a vessel of revelation" (Gefäß einer Offenbarung) so charged, so brimful with existentiality, as to make impossible any adequate response. Even an assemblage of trivia confronts Chandos with the terrifying presence and unfathomable proximity of the abyss. All that is itself mute overwhelms his bewildered psyche bringing at once terror and benediction. When the moment of epiphany has passed, Lord Chandos is thrust back into the void. During anguished nights, there arises the phantom of a supreme desideratum: of a mode of human thought and perception "in a medium more immediate, more fluid, more glowing than is the word. This medium too is made up of whirlwinds and turning spirals; but unlike language these do not lead into the bottomless, but somehow into myself and into the deepest lap of peace." Chandos dreams of a tongue in which the mute presence of the world can address him truthfully and in which he may, after death, make himself answerable to an unknown judge. This will, in any event, be his last letter to his eminent friend.

from Grammars of Creation
George Steiner, Yale University Press, 2001, New Haven and London

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