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George Steiner

Those who have opened a book by George Steiner and who have then closed it, forever, within the hour, may enjoy David Martin’s comments in the Times Literary Supplement for May 2, 2008, excerpted below. Martin is reviewing Steiner’s recent My Unwritten Books:

Words, words, words; speech, speech. George Steiner is the embodied speech act, a class act, a man, in his own phrase, “linguistically well-endowed”. Now, mindful of mortality, he has written seven books at one blow: exquisite little chapter-sized septuplets rather than just one big one.

Yet it appears he has always felt mortified by the proximity of original genius and would mortgage his intellectual kingdom for just one immortal line. Singular men endure such singular sufferings. His self-presentation emphasizes being bookish and Jewish, and therefore the perennial outsider.

Yet the CV he recites at length shows him haplessly condemned to wander from one élite university of the Western world to another, and bowed low with honours. He also lays proleptic claim to being an octogenarian, as though even Time’s winged chariot did not run fast enough for him.

So many academic books are articles long drawn out, and a little library in short order, such as we have here, invites reflection on the nature of the academic exercise. One academic strategy is to mine intensively in a specialized field, say the music of Thomas Crecquillon or scattered tablets recording property relations in ancient Babylon, and acquire en route the necessary penumbra of linguistic, historical and technical skills.

George Steiner works in the reverse direction, though notionally focused on comparative literature and the interface of poetics and philosophy from Plato to Heidegger. He sprang fully armed into the world from a trilingual background, though the role of universal swordsman regularly incites other roving cavaliers to beat him over the head for insouciant sallies into their territory.

Steiner is a kind of busy junction, a cortex or vortex of the academic mind. Book the Second, entitled “Invidia”, begins characteristically, “Not many today, I presume, read the words of Francesco degli Stabili, better known as Cerco D’Ascoli”. This particular Renaissance man was professor of astrology at Bologna, and in true Renaissance fashion dispensed and attracted poisonous envy.

Among other indiscretions, he may have gone so far as to cast Christ’s horoscope, so raising questions about God, freedom and determinism. He was also credited, or discredited, with having been lacerated by envy of Dante’s supremacy, and it is this theme of invidious comparison that Steiner might have treated at book length, had it not come “too near the bone”.

He is fascinated and horrified by the high-flyer incinerated by the intellectual sun. Of course, academics can always find satisfaction in “my station and its duties”, but George Steiner seeks out encounters where, as in mathematics or chess or artistic ability, one person decisively bests another.

Some pages of his “book” on Zion are surprising in tone and content, given the acute treatments of religion in Steiner’s previous writing… There is so much dubious imputation here one is spoilt for choice, but I would have thought setting St Paul in the context of Jewish self-hatred not only anachronistic but flat contrary to the kind of authoritative analysis of Paul found in the work of E. P. Sanders.

But Steiner’s ex cathedra style, without notes, holds at bay any scrutiny of an evidential base, even if that were possible with this kind of speculation. I revert to my initial comment about Steiner as a junction of ideas, constantly stimulating connections and mapping terrain.

A junction of ideas is not the same as a coherent government of them, and such government as Steiner exercises often occludes the nature of the terrain, especially when it falls within the unglamorous remit of the social sciences.

Perhaps the angle of his lens is too wide for proper focus. The darting aperçu comes all too easily, as do psychologistic insinuations operating slyly in the middle ground between analysis and taking the very high moral ground.

The above extracts are from David Martin’s review of George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008. Martin’s own books include Does Christianity Cause War?, 1997.

Posted in Language, Notes.

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