Between the cartoons and the Talk of the Town, deliberate erudition.
Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By JAMES GARDNER
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.