Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time
A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday
September 17, 2021
from “A Kind of Survivor”
by George Steiner
in Commentary, February 1965
“…a country is “a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.”—George Steiner
George Steiner was born on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1929 and died on February 3 of last year. The author of Language of Silence among many other essay collections he wrote prolifically on language and society as well as on the Holocaust. “A Kind of Survivor” first appeared in Commentary magazine in 1965 and it still resonates today. You can read the original article here.
The Paragraph of the Week
Nationalism is the venom of our age. It has brought Europe to the edge of ruin. It drives the new states of Asia and Africa like crazed lemmings. By proclaiming himself a Ghanaean, a Nicaraguan, a Maltese, a man spares himself vexation. He need not ravel out what he is, where his humanity lies. He becomes one of an armed, coherent pack. Every mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on nationalism, on the drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall, across ten yards of waste ground. Even if it be against his harried will, his weariness, the Jew—or some Jews, at least—may have an exemplary role. To show that whereas trees have roots, men have legs and are each other's guests. If the potential of civilization is not to be destroyed, we shall have to develop more complex, more provisional loyalties. There are, as Socrates taught, necessary treasons to make the city freer and more open to man. Even a Great Society is a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.
Is there a paragraph that speaks more to our troubled era than this prescient one by George Steiner? It is from his essay, “A Kind of Survivor,” which argues that Jews, killed by Nazis and scattered in the Diaspora no longer had a homeland. Those who survived atrocities lost family members, their countries, their homes, and even their languages as they spread abroad. Setting aside the state of Israel as a solution—a “sad miracle” Steiner rejects as another form of nationalism—Jews had “to develop more complex, more provisional loyalties” than that of patriotism. They built a homeland of “secular thought and achievement” with the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein in the vanguard. They discovered that a country is “a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.” In this they can be our models as our country drifts into the dangerous, even barbarous nationalism that every “mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on,” the “drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall.”
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We at The Humble Essayist Press are proud to announce publication of Put Off My Sackcloth: Essays by Annie Dawid. Her book was runner up in the category of biography/ autobiography/ memoir at the Los Angeles Book Festival this year! You can learn more about her book and our fledgling press at our website here. You can read The Humble Essayist feature on the book in the Archives here.
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Folly Beach, my newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
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