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This article is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

The Humanities - At Twilight? George Steiner


Clichés are truths grown tired. But they can be woken, and have in them the unnerving force of the insights from which they arose. They are animate with the potential of recurrence. Thus the term crisis is of itself a cliché and banality. It is invoked so diffusely, across so many modes of explication or prognosis, as to have lost almost any responsible definition. It knocks about like a portentous spectre in an empty playhouse. What period, what evolution of social structures, of beliefs or philosophic constructs, of aesthetic codes, have not known, have not testified to crises? Retrospection, itself strategic in that utopias are, fundamentally, of the past, characterizes as triumphant, as bathed in noon, moments in history, communities of speculative intellect and poetic creation, specific decades - in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medici, in Elizabethan London, in the Paris of Louis XIV, or the Vienna of the 1900s - which generated confident excellence. Yet in each of these sovereign composites, an intuition of crisis can be documented. The radiant galaxy has its dark matter. The very harvest of creation, of visible harmonies, breeds doubts. There is to felicity a distinctive anguish, an ominous prevision. Will splendour last? What is its cost (Walter Benjamin's inescapable question)? An intimation of incipient ruin - the Peloponnesian wars on the horizon - shadows Periclean pride. The transit to the Jacobean darkens the later years of the Elizabethan. For Corneille in his winter years, even ...

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