The Prime Minister of Culture
ERRATA: An Examined Life
By GEORGE STEINER
Yale University Press
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, hed 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, Chomskys 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 Fischers ordeal at Reykjavík 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 Bluebeards 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 Steiners ponderous profundities and sonorous solemnities did little to illuminate. In a devastating review of InBluebeards Castle, Irving Howe analyzed Stein ers "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." 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. Steiners 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 lycée, 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 Steiners 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 Stein er 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 lycée. 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. Its a pity hes 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. Steiners 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:
Theres also this glorious single-sentence reverie:
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.
Get the Arts Newsletter
Get the latest news and offers from the LA art scene sent directly to your email address. Exclusive events and art related sales you won't hear about anywhere else!