The Magazine

Exile's Voice

Between the cartoons and the Talk of the Town, deliberate erudition.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By JAMES GARDNER
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George Steiner
at 'The New Yorker'

by George Steiner,

introduction by Robert Boyers New Directions, 304 pp., $17.95

It is fairly easy to dislike George Steiner.

An unapologetic know-it-all and acrobatic show-off, he is a gifted writer and linguist whose undeniable intelligence is broader than it is deep, and whose incessant posturings in print add up to something less than he inclines to believe. Though he is an adoptive American whose family fled the Nazis and came here when he was 10, he has lived much of his professional life in England and on the continent, and thus he seems so little American as to seem almost un-American.

But then, you could argue that his whole point is not to fit in anywhere. The modern writers whom he most admires are those elegantly displaced persons, exiles voluntary and otherwise, who wandered through the early and middle years of the 20th century: Conrad and Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov and Broch. It is for this reason as well that he has been, at best, a tepid supporter of Israel, since he views the Jewish condition as being essentially that of the Diaspora. Perhaps Steiner's one point of fixity is his identifying with the culture of Vienna, the city of his birth, but even there it is for a culture that was dying or dead by the time he was born, 80 years ago this year.

Coincident with his eightieth birthday New Directions has published this broad sampling of essays that he wrote for the New Yorker over three decades, from 1966 to 1997. True to type, Steiner does not exactly fit in at the New Yorker, either: His interests are too European, too unabashedly highbrow for the magazine. Though he can achieve, at times, a towering sarcasm, after the fashion of his revered Karl Kraus, he has little use for the moderated, recreational irony of that publication. Rather his preferred tone is one of hyperventilating conviction, elevated, intellectualized, and incessant.

The 53 essays included here, out of the 130 he wrote for the New Yorker, appear under four rubrics: History and Politics, Writers and Writing, Thinkers, and Life Studies. The last and briefest section comprises a mere three articles: on chess, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the University of Chicago, where Steiner studied as an undergraduate.

But those demarcations are artificial and ultimately unnecessary. For all of Steiner's work is always literary and always political. Thus he discusses Bertrand Russell as a writer, albeit in the Thinkers section, and Céline as a political creature, albeit in Writers and Writing. But to say that Steiner views culture politically is to risk suggesting that he has any sympathy for certain quarters of the left, which is far from the truth: first because few writers of our time have as unapologetically elitist a regard for high culture as he has, and second, because his sense of history is far too dark and tragic for the left. If anything, he squares with Joseph de Maistre, whom he describes as "the great thinker of counterrevolution and antidemocratic pessimism."

For Steiner, the defining, immovable truth of modern times is the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Russia (he has little to say of China) and the West's dysthymic response to it. The first three words of his essay on Simone de Beauvoir-"Our vexed century"-could serve as his personal devise. His is not, however, a tragic sense of life, as that would require the sort of prompt and expansive sympathy for man's existential plight that Steiner, at least publicly, does not avow. Rather he seems almost happy in his pessimism, as though, after many years, he has become so comfortable in his lugubrious dissent as to be oddly heartened by it.

Thus in an essay on Brecht from 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of communism, Steiner writes that "Marxism, being itself the product of an intelligentsia, notably in East Germany, felt committed to certain archaic, paternalistic ideals of high literacy, of literary-academic culture .  .  . [by which] much of what was shoddiest in modernity, in the media, in down-market entertainment was kept (partly) at bay." One has the impression that Steiner has come to feel a proprietary relation to the myriad tribulations of the 20th century and is loath to disown them any time soon, for all the satisfaction they bring him.

Because of these sundry attitudes it is easy, perhaps too easy, to dislike the man, or at least his writings. Ultimately, Steiner's great strengths far outweigh whatever weaknesses he has. In an age of diminished expectations, he is spectacularly ambitious. Everything is always at stake in all of his writings, as though history and the future of mankind itself hang in the balance. And so what if that is not the case? You have only to read a few salvos of his prose to understand just how spare are the aspirations of most of his latter-day colleagues of the scribal class, just how little faith they have in the power of words to do anything more than meet a deadline.

Steiner's abiding reverence for words is apparent in every sentence he writes. Yes, he has his silly tics. For some reason he seems to feel that he is accomplishing something valuable by making a plural out of words conventionally used only in the singular: "The vanities of eloquence .  .  . the aggressive certitudes of the self-taught man .  .  . [Guy] Davenport's publications are in fact privacies"-and so on. Then there is such euphonious palaver as "Masters of clairvoyant sadness .  .  . the annals of insight .  .  . the anonymity of the proverbial." Most of all, Steiner seems rather to indulge in the mellifluous methodologies of the nonscientific-if I may be pardoned a Steinerism of my own-and thus, in energetically overrating Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Steiner announces that it is "formed of dualities, binary oppositions, presences, values, codes of utterance in conflict."

And yet, for all his linguistic oddities, he has a rare sense of style. Take this wonderful opening of an essay on the French Annales historian Philippe Ariès:

I do not know what goes on at the Institute of Applied Research for Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, outside Paris [where Ariès was director of information]. I prefer to imagine. There must be white-robed mandarins equipped with the panoply of competitive qualifications that in France are indispensable to every professional caste, from literati to chiropodists. .  .  . The seeds of a rare fly-eating plant, smuggled out of the New Guinea uplands, sprout in the window box. As the Institute is housed at Maisons-Laffitte, discreet libations are, from time to time, poured from the noble vintage of a kindred name.

From these few sentences it should be clear that few living writers can summon the syntactical powers of English as skillfully as George Steiner.

And just as Steiner does not write quite like anyone else, so he does not read like anyone else. At the risk of penning the sort of magniloquent generality that Steiner favors himself, a truly original reader is almost as rare a thing as a truly original writer. Most readers, even or especially professional readers-
critics, students of literature, culturati, and the like-tend to read more or less the same things in more or less the same way. Those who are well read have consumed more of these things than others have, but they have consumed them to much the same purpose.

What is so impressive about George Steiner the reader is not how much he has read, but how inspired he has been in selecting the authors who mean most to him. It is here that Steiner's reverence for the exile, the displaced person, the "dépaysé," reaches its fullest fruition. Most people who take letters seriously view their native literature with a parochial, even tribalistic sense of proprietorship, just as they regard foreign literature as-foreign. But both of these postures necessarily entail a falsification of literature. Because Steiner is, in a sense, nowhere a native, it follows that he is foreign to no culture, at least no European culture. And so he can and does view the scattered artifacts of world literature as inhabiting a kind of free-floating critical ether, as partaking of an essentially trans-
national conversation.

Certainly, like all powerful critics, he errs on occasion, as in his bizarre assertion that Racine is "the greatest of all French writers." But what is so impressive about his essay on the Romanian-born French philosopher Emil Cioran is how he begins it with a history of the epigram in France and Germany. Surely it is one thing to research a subject in preparation for having to write about it: Any cultured and intelligent writer can pull that off with reasonable success. But in Steiner's case you have the sense that his familiarity with authors such as Chamfort and Vauvenargues, with La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, and Nietzsche is the residue of many years of deep and passionate acquaintance.

There are always scholars, somewhere in the world, who are reading Ludovico Ariosto, tienne Jodelle, and Luis de Góngora. But I know of no other important essayist in English who, like Steiner, has bothered to read these poets as a committed critic. For this and similar reasons, we need more writers like George Steiner.

Perhaps not many more, but surely a few.

James Gardner recently translated the Christiad of Marco Girolamo Vida (Harvard).