The Magazine

Curious George

The psuedoprofundity of George Steiner

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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At one point in his text Steiner refers to "mandarin ostentation" and at another he remarks upon using an "orotund flourish" deliberately. But without mandarin ostentation and orotund flourishes, Steiner's prose would not exist and he himself would be out of business. Nearly every sentence he indites contains the title of a book, the name of the author, an -ism, or an
-ology, foreign phrases, and plenty of quotation marks to go round. "Relations with Taoism and Confucianism will be those of rivalry and reciprocal insemination," is a fairly standard Steinerian sentence. Dramatic, slightly surprising juxtapositions are another specialty at Chez Steiner, so that we get "penetrative tenderness," "ironized topography," "incandescent intellectuality," and more, lots more. Things that are not iconic tend to canonic, and a vast number of things are "seminal." Steiner, one begins to feel after reading him for many years, greatly underrates the power of semen.

The "Lessons of the Masters" is a book about the teaching transaction, the dissemination (there's that damn fluid again) of knowledge as it is passed from generation to generation through teacher to student. Why do some teachers so captivate their students that what they convey leaves a lifelong impression? The standard explanations hold that the great teachers know their subject, have boundless passion for learning, widen and deepen consciousness, provide in their persons a model of how a great-souled person ought to live. This only leaves out the key element of magic--which is to say, the unexplainable reason for why some teachers can radically change lives.

Over the course of 185 dense pages George Steiner does not really explain the magic in teaching. Instead he provides partial portraits of some famously great teachers--Socrates (of course), Jesus, the Hasidic masters, Heidegger, Alain, Nadia Boulanger, and others--and takes up a number of issues, questions, and problems surrounding teaching. Among these are the responsibility of teachers for disciples, the tensions (erotic, rivalrous, etc.) between teacher and student, the differing nature of humanistic and scientific teaching, the blights of sexual harassment and political corrections on contemporary teaching, and the increasingly large role of masterly female teachers.

Steiner, who reports that he has former students on five continents, claims to have loved teaching, and now feels himself orphaned and bereft in retirement from the classroom. He is said to have been a mesmerizing lecturer. My guess is that his revved up language comes across better orally than on the cold page, where it may be scrutinized more carefully for emptiness and laughs. Of the experience of teaching a doctoral seminar in Geneva for twenty-five years, Steiner, with characteristic overstatement, remarks that this was "as near as an ordinary, secular spirit can come to Pentecost." He then pulls out one of the two great clichés used by teachers to describe their experience: "By what oversight or vulgarization should I have been paid to become what I am? When, and I have felt this with sharpening malaise, it might have been altogether more appropriate for me to pay those who invited me to teach?" In other words, he would have done it for nothing. (The other standard teaching cliché has to do with how much a teacher has learned from his students.)

I RECENTLY CLOSED DOWN a university teaching career of thirty years, and I would like to go on record as saying that I wouldn't have done it for a penny less. Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition--a teacher, it has been said, never says anything once--interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation. And I should like to add that I don't think I learned a thing from my students, except that, as one student evaluation informed me, I tend to jingle the change in my pocket.

So high does Steiner come at things, so greatly does he dramatize (and self-dramatize) ideas and all experience, that one may lose sight of the fact that he is himself a very considerable clichémeister. Most of his clichés, of course, come from books. One finds little evidence in Steiner's writing that he knows either man or life. T.S. Eliot once said of Henry James that he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Steiner's is a mind that seems to have been violated by just about every idea he has encountered.