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The Prime Minister of Culture 

George Steiner's sonorous solemnities

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
A little learning is a dangerous thing, though not nearly as dangerous as a lot of it. George Steiner, for example, would probably write twice as well if he knew half as much. Or better, he'd write twice as well if he cared half as much about letting us know how much he knows.

The polysyllabic, polyglot and slightly roly-poly polymath has covered a lot of ground in his critical career. His first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), was a brilliant comparative study of the two novelists. The Death of Tragedy (1961) discussed English Romantic drama. Language and Silence (1967), his best book, is a collection of essays, including his two most famous, "The Hollow Miracle," speculating about connections between Nazism and a subterranean demonic strain within the German language, and "A Kind of Survivor," a meditation on Jewishness, homelessness and the splendid Central European humanism annihilated in the Holocaust. Extraterritorial (1971), another essay collection, tackled chess, Chomsky's linguistics, translation, "difficult" writers (Beckett, Borges, Celine) and - a recurring preoccupation - the decline of literacy. After Babel (1975) was a rich and wide-ranging study of translation, comparative linguistics and much else. A strange, haunting and controversial novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981), imagined the capture and trial of Hitler, found living in South America.

All these books are solid, enduring achievements. There have been others, widely praised but less accessible to the non-specialist reader: on the Antigone myth, on Homer in English, on Heidegger. And there have been 150 or so reviews in The New Yorker, including two memorable long essays: on chess champion Bobby Fischer's ordeal at Reykjavik and on the great English art critic and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt.

Indisputably a distinguished career. Nevertheless, Steiner has occasionally fallen on his face. He has sometimes tried to be not merely a critic but a sage, pronouncing on such weighty matters as the relationship between European high culture and 20th-century barbarism (In Bluebeard's Castle, 1971) or between deconstruction and the death of God (Real Presences, 1989). These are vexed and obscure questions (possibly even pseudo-questions) to begin with, which Steiner's ponderous profundities and sonorous solemnities did little to illuminate. In a devastating review of In Bluebeard's Castle, Irving Howe analyzed Steiner's "high Mandarin patter" into its components: "a phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy."

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In his new memoir, alas, Steiner is once again in mandarin mode. He was born in Paris, Errata: An Examined Life tells us, five years after his family fled anti-Semitic Vienna. A decade later, the family fled anti-Semitism again, this time to America. Steiner's father, an economist and financier, was one of those secular Central European Jews for whom culture was a religion. This religion was transmitted in pristine form to the young George, and was reinforced at each of the great culture shrines that made up his education: a French lycee, the University of Chicago, Oxford. "It happens to be blindingly obvious to me," he declares, "that study, theological-philosophical argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is 'difficult because it is excellent' (Spinoza, patron-saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life."

This is the central tenet of the religion of culture. Most of Errata, accordingly, is about nothing so mundane as people, institutions or events. It is a long muse, a recapitulation with embellishments of Steiner's familiar themes: the ineffability of music, the miracle of language, the difficulty of translation, the impotence of culture, the incomprehensibility of cruelty, the silence of God, the predicament of the Jews. True, these are inexhaustible subjects. But Steiner has nothing original to say about them here, and he says it as elaborately and portentously as possible. No opportunity is missed to throw in an allusion, apposite or not, as though he were still trying to impress his instructors at the lycee. No periphrasis is passed up, no orotundity omitted. Even those who admire the erudition of his exposition and the catholicity of his curiosity will deplore the extravagance of his consonance and the superfluousness of his mellifluousness.

What I mean to say is, he lays it on pretty thick. It's a pity he's so high-minded, because the few anecdotes Steiner includes are gems. I have already forgotten his dicta about deconstruction, but I will always remember how his father tricked him into studying Greek, how he lost his virginity through the good offices of a college roommate, how his teacher Allen Tate solemnly challenged a fellow literary critic to a duel. Steiner's occasional portraits of eccentric Oxford or Cambridge dons and unworldly Continental scholars are streaked with wit and charm. And a very few times, evoking places, his word-music is exquisite. In a cemetery in the former East Germany:

A number of grave-stones lie fallen; the grass is rank. This is the burial site of Russian infantrymen who died at the approaches to Weimar when the war was virtually over. No more, I reckon, than 30 or 40 graves. A fair number are those of boy-soldiers, age 16 or 17, out of the Asian steppe, out of Kazakhstan and Turkmenia, done to death in a land and amid a language of which they could have had no notion, by the insensate, robotic resistance and military skills of a moribund Reich. This unnoticed graveyard makes manifest the moronic waste and waste and waste of war, the appetite of war for children. Yet it expounds no less the mind-numbing affinities between war and high culture, between bestial violence and the noon places of human creativity. The bounds of Goethe's garden are minutes away to one side. The alleys familiar to Liszt and to Berlioz skirt the rusted gate. There is rest here, but no peace.

There's also this glorious single-sentence reverie:

Marvels have been allowed me: the whip-lash line of changing colours off Cape Town, when the mauve of the Indian Ocean meets the green of the South Atlantic; the leviathan hump of Ithaka at first light; the incendiary set of sun, the dunes made molten copper, in the Negev; the undertow booming of the tides charging the cliff-portals of Etretat on the Norman coast; the sunken roads leading, apparently, into nowhere or into ghost-towns in Nevada; a storm boiling up out of that twenty-first-century bay in Hong Kong; the smoldering, pin-point embers in the eyes of jackals keeping their distance from the fire-pit in a visitors' lodge in Kruger National Park; the scent of sulfur and of salt on the Icelandic tundra (is there any more entranced land?); the tap of thousands, of tens of thousands of footsteps hurrying to line the route of Winston Churchill's funeral procession in an otherwise totally silent, pre-dawn London; those volcanic cones literally floating, like gondolas hewn of snow, on the venomous smog which blankets Mexico City.

Errata is not a book for jaded culturati, whose eyeballs will be rolling in dismay, their lips curling in scorn from the first page to the last. It is, however, just right for intellectually ardent, word-intoxicated, idea-besotted adolescents. I hope there are a few of them left in wired, post-verbal America to enjoy it.

  • George Steiner's sonorous solemnities

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