14 May 2009

George Steiner at The New Yorker


The front flap of George Steiner at The New Yorker, published as a lovely paperback by New Directions earlier this year, claims that the book "collects fifty-three of his fascinating and wide-ranging essays from the more than one hundred and thirty he has contributed to the magazine." This is an error. The essays are certainly fascinating and wide-ranging, but there are only twenty-eight of them. Perhaps Robert Boyers, the editor, has selected another twenty-five for a later volume. We can certainly hope so.

Subscribers to The New Yorker have access to all of Steiner's essays, though the New Yorker's database is not the equal of, for instance, the database available of Harper's subscribers, and so browsing Steiner's contributions is cumbersome without the guide handily provided as an appendix to George Steiner at the New Yorker.

I've been reading and grading final papers and exams for the past week, and in amidst that I saved the last vestiges of my mind by reading Steiner, a writer I've binged on in the past, but hadn't read in a few years. The New Directions collection proved to be a delightful way to revisit his work.

It surprises me that I like Steiner's writings as much as I do -- he is an avowed devotee of, primarily, the classics of European literature; he has shown mostly contempt for the methods that have come to be called literary theory and cultural studies; he's particularly interested in Greek and Roman languages and mythologies. I, meanwhile, spend about half my reading time with popular fiction; I'm rather fond, depending on my mood, of such writers as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault and am in general sympathy with some of the tendencies within what gets labelled as New Historicism and Queer Theory; I have very little interest in Greek and Roman history or literature and even less interest in mythology. Additionally, I am fluent only with English, while Steiner's second book, The Death of Tragedy, begins by noting that "All translations from French, German, and Italian are by the author" and one of Steiner's best-known works is After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. He is not I.

There is enough poly in the math of Steiner, though, that some of his passions are ones I share -- for much of Modernism in its various forms and modes, for Shakespeare and the Russians and Kafka and Beckett and Celan and Borges, for the ethics of language and literature in an age of atrocity. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Steiner is a marvelous writer. His sentences and paragraphs are rich not only with ideas and information, but music.

George Steiner at the New Yorker provides a good general overview of Steiner's primary obsessions and themes over the years, making it a fine companion to, especially, such previous works as Errata: An Examined Life and My Unwritten Books (also from New Directions, and adorned with one of my favorite covers of recent years). There are essays on Beckett, Borges, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Simone Weil, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin, and Albert Speer. There are surprises, too: one of the most impressive and elegant essays is the first, "The Cleric of Treason", about Anthony Blunt, espionage, homosexuality, and scholarship. There are insightful pieces on 1984 and 1984, on Graham Greene, on Thomas Bernhard, on the OED, and on chess. Perhaps most surprising of all, there is a basically positive review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

One of the critics Steiner most reminds me of is Guy Davenport -- their erudition is similar, and there is much overlap in their interests. George Steiner at the New Yorker contains an essay on Davenport where Steiner, after praising numerous sentences, writes, "There would be no harm in simply using the remainder of this review to make a mosaic and montage of quotes." The same is true for a review of this collection. Consider all that is packed and unpacked in this opening paragraph to a review of a biography of Anton Webern:
There is a great book to be written. It would show that the twentieth century as we have lived it in the West is, in essential ways, an Austro-Hungarian product and export. We conduct our inward lives in or in conflict with a landscape mapped by Freud and his disciples and dissenters. Our philosophy and the central place we assign to language in the study of human thought derive from Wittgenstein and the Vienna school of logical positivism. The novel after Joyce is, in the main, divided between the two poles of introspective narration and lyric experiment defined by Musil and by Broch. Our music follows two great currents: that of Bruckner, Mahler, and Bartók on the one hand; that of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern on the other. Though the role of Paris was, of course, vital, it is now increasingly clear that certain sources of aesthetic modernism, from Art Deco to Action painting, can be found in the Viennese Jugendstil and in Austrian Expressionism. The functionalist, antiseptic ideals so prominent in today's architecture were predicted in the work of Adolf Loos. Political-social satire in London and New York, the sick joke, the conviction that the language of those who govern us is a poisonous smoke screen echo the genius of Karl Kraus. Ernst Mach had a profound influence on the development of Einstein's thinking. The logic and sociology of the natural sciences cannot be formulated without reference to Karl Popper. And where shall we place the manifold effects of Schumpeter, Hayek, von Neumann? One could prolong the roll call.
A reader who has encountered that paragraph and been intrigued will find ideas from it scattered and blooming throughout Steiner's oeuvre in fascinating ways -- the essay on Kraus and Thomas Bernhard in this book, the material about his Viennese parents and Judaism in Errata, the essay "A Kind of Survivor" in Language and Silence. Other connections pop up throughout many of the other pieces in the collection -- "The Tongues of Man" (from 1969, about Noam Chomsky's linguistics) points toward After Babel and a 1974 essay in On Difficulty, "Whorf, Chomsky, and the Student of Literature". Et cetera, et cetera.

Most of the reviews collected here are at least generally positive about their subjects, but Boyers has included two sharply critical pieces, and they're valuable not just because they are, in my opinion, basically correct in their criticisms, but also because they help give some context to Steiner's praises and passions -- to understand why a critic likes one thing, it can be helpful to understand why she or he dislikes something else. Thus, we have Steiner calling John Barth's novel Letters prolix, narcissistic, and "a more or less indigestible classroom soufflé"; and finding little of merit in E.M. Cioran's aphorisms, which he describes as banal, derivative, and predictable:
There is throughout Cioran's jeremiads an ominous facility. It requires no sustained analytic thought, no closeness or clarity of argument to pontificate on the "rottenness," on the "gangrene," of man, and on the terminal cancer of history. The pages on which I have drawn not only are easy to write, they flatter the writer with the tenebrous incense of the oracular. One need only turn to the work of Tocqueville, of Henry Adams, or of Schopenhauer to see the drastic difference. These are masters of a clairvoyant sadness no less comprehensive than Cioran's. Their reading of history is no rosier. But the cases they put are scrupulously argued, not declaimed; they are informed, at each node and articulation of proposal, with a just sense of the complex, contradictory nature of historical evidence. The doubts expressed by those thinkers, the qualifications brought to their own persuasions honor the reader. They call not for numbed assent or complaisant echo but for reexamination and criticism.
Despite his erudition, I don't find Steiner to be a particularly difficult writer to read, especially when he is writing for a general audience, as here. These essays don't feel as incisive as some of Steiner's other works, ones where he has more space to expand his ideas, but that's not entirely a bad thing -- I much prefer this book to such books as Grammars of Creation, where Steiner himself lights up some tenebrous incense of oracularity. His years of teaching, about which he has often written (especially in Lessons of the Masters), have made him a kind of exemplary popularizer of Western culture. It is not in his theories that he is at his strongest, but in his enthusiasms -- his ability to convey his passions. In theorizing about tragedy, for instance, I much prefer Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, but I still read The Death of Tragedy with interest and even fondness, because the connections Steiner makes are productive and sometimes unique ones -- his comparison of Woyzeck and King Lear is, alone, more than justification for the book still being in print, not because it's necessarily "right" but because it allows us to think about both texts and authors in ways we -- by which I mean I -- would not have otherwise, and thus to pay closer attention to implications and emphases previously invisible and silent. (Similarly, I reject some of the basic premises of Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky while also realizing that it taught me more than any other book how to appreciate both writers.)

I have no quarrel with Robert Boyers's choices for what to include in George Steiner at the New Yorker, but some of the omissions are unfortunate -- we really would benefit from that lost fifty-three-essay collection. After reading the book, I spent a few days looking at Steiner's other pieces for the New Yorker, and found, just by following some of my own interests, excellent essays on Alexander Herzen (8 Feb. 1969), Samuel Johnson (28 April 1975), Glenn Gould (23 Nov. 1992), and Louis Althusser (21 Feb. 1994). "Closing Time", about fin de siècle Vienna (11 Feb. 1980), would have paired well with the piece on Webern. And three of the pieces I read seemed like real losses. A review of the first volume of Brian Boyd's biography of Nabokov is a particularly thoughtful appraisal both of Nabokov and the biography ("learned hagiography"), but more than that: Steiner wrestles with what are, he says, for him, as someone who doesn't read Russian fluently, unresolveable questions about Nabokov's greatness and the humanity (or lack of it) within his work. Steiner's review of Michael Hamburger's translations of Paul Celan's poems (28 Aug. 1989) would also have been a valuable piece to include, because Celan is particularly essential to many of Steiner's ideas, especially in Language and Silence (but he had not yet read Celan by the time of that book's writing). It's not an extraordinary essay on Celan, nor a particularly outstanding example of Steiner's work, but it's a useful piece in the puzzle of his thought. Finally, the essay that ends the book, on Robert Hutchins and the University of Chicago, is interesting and insightful, but it is not as affecting as similar material in Errata, and it might have been better to end with Steiner's last essay for The New Yorker, a review of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading titled "Ex Libris" (17 March 1997), although the final paragraph might have been a disturbing one to finish the collection with:

Books do continue to be produced and published in large numbers. Handwritten illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced well after Gutenberg. Periods of transition are difficult to make out. They are also intensely stimulating. One can intuit deep-lying seismic shocks affecting our cultural perceptions of time, of individual death. These will put in question the claims of literature, of written thought, to individual glory, to survival "for all ages." Milton held a good book to be the "lifeblood of a master spirit." Doubtless this precious liquor will continue to flow, but, perhaps, in altogether different channels and test tubes. The boys and girls at their computer keyboards, finding, stumbling onto insights in logic, in fractals, may neither read nor write in any "book sense." Are they illiterate?
As a boy at a computer keyboard, I will simply say here that George Steiner at the New Yorker -- even with twenty-eight essays instead of fifty-three! -- makes me grateful for the bits of my own literacy that have made the book such a pleasure over the past week, and grateful for the greater, and generous, literacy of George Steiner, who continues to make the idea of a literate life itself seem like something to be aspired to more than something ever truly to be attained. We must keep learning, writing, reading.

1 comment:

  1. I too would enjoy some Ruskin-blogging. In some ways my encounter with him (at the age of 20 or so) made me a reader, but not much remained with me (passages of Stones of Venice, the autobiography).

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