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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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.