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19 October 2009

After After Babel

I've started reading George Steiner's After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. It's my first recent use of Lewisham's library service. Ordered online, the book was delivered to Catford library for my collection for 50p, which is entirely reasonable. The book itself is the hardback first edition, 1975, which doesn't appear to have been read very often.

It begins with a discussion of a passage from Cymbeline, followed by similar discussions of a passage from Sense and Sensibility by 'Miss Austen', as Steiner, unbelievably even in 1975, refers to her on occasion, and one from Noel Coward. The point, heavily made, being that reading a text from the past is an act of interpretation: the meaning of words slips and the further back we go, the more we have to use dictionaries to understand the text.

Steiner's reading of the Cymbeline extract is close, detailed and learned. But underlying it there's an unquestioned (so far) assumption that the text is a decodable, lisible, container of meaning.
To read fully is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs.
There are tools for the job. A true reader is a dictionary addict. He knows that English is particularly well served [...] Skeat's Etymological Dictionary and Principles of English Etymology are an indispensible first step towards grasping the life of words.
I think that use of 'he' to denote the true reader was already dodgy in 1975; it's a signifier that Steiner is avoiding 'fashionability', at least. And he might have considered new theories of reading to be just fashions, too. Certainly, this is pointing so far towards a view of the text as having one true meaning, which it's a matter of knowledge and skill to uncover.

I sometimes have doubts about more relativistic theories, so it'll be interesting to see if the book sticks to this point of view (I'm only on page 25, for heaven's sake!)

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