03 January 2007

Deaf to the Most Moving Literature

I once heard Wim Kayzer interview George Steiner for the Dutch TV series entitled 'Van de Schoonheid en de Troost'['Of Beauty and Consolation']).

During that time, a friend and I were debating whether or not artwork exists when there is no audience, a question that always sounds to me like, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it still make a sound?"

Steiner said, "And one of the great passages which illustrates all my worries about people no longer recognizing great references, people becoming deaf to the most moving literature, is in one little passage from the novel: The Sun Also Rises....

Two very close friends are on a bus and they think they love each other. They think they are really, totally true to each other."

(and then he read the passage from Hemmingway):
We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land and out ahead of us was a rolling green plane and the dark mountains beyond it.

These were not like the brown heat-baked mountains we'd left behind.

These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green planes stretched off.

It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plane towards the North.

As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plane and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal sheath roof of the monastery of Roncevaux.

'There's Roncevaux,' I said.


'Way off there where the mountains start.'

'It's cold up here,' Bill said.

'It's high,' I said, 'Must be 1200 meters.'

'It's awful cold,' Bill said."
After reading the passage, Steiner finished his commentary by explaining that Roncevaux was the place in the great medieval epic of Roland where someone within their group betrayed Roland and his friends.

They were butchered in an ambush of the Saracens.

Steiner explains, "The genius of Hemmingway is not to say so.

Only the word Roncevaux tells us that these two friends are going to betray each other.

That they are on the edge of the end of their relationship and then the repetitions, 'It's cold up here,' Bill said, 'It's awful cold.'

And of course it is the cold of the heart and only a very great artist can say everything without saying anything."

Steiner explained that no one recognizes the symbol of Roncevaux any longer, not even his students from Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard.

He said that our next editions will have to have a footnote, which "kills the whole thing."

He explained that during Hemmingway's time, he had written this 'success novel' to the 'pop' audience and he could assume that the word Roncevaux was all that was needed.

Steiner expressed dismay with the idea that soon other symbols such as 'Elsinore' and 'La Mancha' will have to be footnoted.

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