The mailman’s authority


‘Alert always to “Wittgenstein’s distinction between all the trivia you can talk about, and all the essentials you can’t,” Steiner has labored not ever to obscure that distinction.’

George Steiner at the New Yorker (2009)

I read this sentence in Robert Boyers’ introduction to George Steiner’s collected essays for the New Yorker. My interest was pricked by the idea that Wittgenstein might have written on the limitations of what can be known, in ways that might connect with my own thinking about the limitations of scientific epistemology. It’s always nice to be able to call a great philosopher as expert witness to support an argument.

On reflection, of course, it was evident that the ‘distinction between all the trivia you can talk about, and all the essentials you can’t’ might mean several other things. Without a reference, without even being sure if the phrase between inverted commas was written by Steiner, it is not easy to check what he (if it was Steiner) meant. Or indeed, what Ludwig Wittgenstein might have meant in the first place.

It’s like a nest of Russian dolls. Wittgenstein wrote something that is commented by Steiner (probably) and reported by Boyers; and now I’m writing about it. Is it a relay race in which the baton is securely passed? Or a game of Chinese whispers—a series of mishearings, misunderstandings and misuses that creates new (non)sense at each iteration?

Contemporary art discourse makes much use of citation. Artists, critics and academics protect their positions with sandbags of fashionable names. They mine their speech with fragments plucked from other writers’ texts and lob references like intellectual hand grenades between trenches. It can be discreditable and dispiriting.

C R Nevinson, 'After a Push' (detail)But our growth, individually and collectively, depends on being able to draw on the thinking of other human beings. And, since no one can read everything, see everything or hear everything, we often have to trust the reports of others. Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 1996, George Steiner spoke about this role:

‘There are light years between the acts of creation and even the finest criticism and commentary, which is our job. Pushkin had a wonderful image, he said, you’re the mailmen. Please carry the letters. And it’s fun and it’s exciting; I am immensely grateful for my life and profession. I’m a mailman. Sometimes I’ve been able to carry the letters to the right box, to the right readers, saying read this, look at this. I’ve never mixed it up with writing the letter.’

George Steiner, 18 February 1996, BBC Radio 4

Authority is gained by accumulating the trust of many people. George Steiner has certainly read Wittgenstein and has equally certainly the intellectual capacity to understand his thought.  Since I have neither, I must—and happily can—trust Steiner. And the editor of a collection of Steiner’s essays can be trusted, one hopes, to know his subject equally well. So the relay handover can be relied upon, if those involved act with integrity. Scholarly standards are not after all tiresome pettifogging. They are the guarantors of the integrity of transmission. They ensure that the post reaches the right boxes.

We furnish our minds and hearts with what we read, see, hear and feel of the work of others greater than ourselves. We can accept their authority, partly because others we trust do so first. But we are still responsible for testing it, in so far as we can. We still have to be aware of how partial our knowledge remains. And, in the end, we still have to make up our own minds whether to accept the mail that is delivered.


  1. This observation works in so many places….I’ve just finished watch politicians from the major parties debating on TV. I doubt their statistics, their thinking and reference points. Because of this distrust none of them can act as thought leaders for me and lack any authority.

    Thanks for the observation.


  2. I think the distinction between the creative artist and the
    mailman is fuzzier than in the definition given by George Steiner,
    who is something of an artist himself though perhaps not creative?
    I found myself thinking of John of Forde, who wrote a Life. Does
    this make him an artist or a mailman. Most of his subject matter
    was given, but he had to arrange and interpret it, whereas my
    postman simply hands stuff over. He also put a lot of himself into
    it: he plays a role alongside his subject. Nonetheless he remains
    essentially the mailman. Wulfric is the performance artist, la
    Tracy Emin, though I dont suppose either would appreciate the

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