15/03/2008

the high master of aloneness

George Steiner – My Unwritten Books
Unread books nag at us silently from the shelves, but unwritten books?

Authors only reluctantly advertise their failures; and the unwritten book usually remains an itch at the back of the mind. Or else the miscarriage of an idea finds its home in the wastepaper basket and that's that... There might exist embryonic traces of it in the pages of notebooks or correspondence, or the odd dropped drunken aside. Or someone might, unwisely, release a public statement of intent: T.S. Eliot announced a trilogy exploring his ideas of classicism, royalism and Anglo-Catholicism: The School of Donne, The Outline of Royalism and The Principles of Modern Heresy, alas, for Eliot scholars at any rate, never appeared. Who knows, perhaps these works cram the stacks in some Borgesian alternate reality. Borges himself foreworded his Ficciones:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them ... A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man [than Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Butler], I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.


'The Laborious Madness of George Steiner' might do as the title of one more unwritten book, a huge, lumbering, indexed and cross-indexed critical monograph with footnotes upon footnotes... George Steiner: the cavalier servente of high culture, the last of the Old World intellectuals, elegist of a European civilization embattled by modernity. A generalist and polymath, Steiner confronts the reader today as a paradoxically vital anachronism. Like Isaiah Berlin, he 'founded no school', initiated no new strain in Western intellectual growth. His abiding conviction of the centrality of cultural values, of a vaunted elitism of the spirit, looks awkward when set beside the levelling influences unleashed in the post-war era. His manner smacks a little uneasily of an ancien régime. His prose – its luxuriant periods, its cadenzas of eloquence – is instantly recognizable and, to many, a touch rebarbative in its casual superior assurance. (Its high-toned fruitiness borders on the camp.) Steiner ought to have been born a century or two earlier. You can imagine him enjoying the boon companionship of the Encyclopaedistes, or debating Jansenism with Montaigne in the Tower of the Chateau. Burgeoning technologies like the internet seem only to dismay and confound him.

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the 'relative' spirit in place of the 'absolute'. Ancient philosophy sought to arrest every object in an eternal outline, to fix thought in a necessary formula, and the varieties of life in a classification by 'kinds' or genera. To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions...


So Walter Pater, writing of Coleridge in 1889. “Now the literary life of Coleridge,” Pater goes on, “was a disinterested struggle against the relative spirit ... he is ever restlessly scheming to 'apprehend the absolute', to affirm it effectively, to get it acknowledged. It was an effort, surely, an effort of sickly thought...” To 'apprehend the absolute' is an ambition that may fairly be ascribed to Steiner; so too his sorrowing hostility towards the 'relative spirit'. Steiner's career – from The Death of Tragedy to Lessons of the Masters – thundered along in Juggernaut-fashion, each work a bold mission-statement, powered by his lust for the Absolute. And precisely because of this, his public reputation has hardened into a kind of mineral intractability, the quaintness of his attitudes open to ridicule: dare one say it, he's almost become a public monument bespattered with pigeon shit. Steiner's awareness of this lends to his later work an odd self-pitying note, regretful and valedictory. He yearns for the prestige of a vanished era. But Terry Eagleton, of all people, called him 'one of the last of the great breed of European humanists,' and the 'great hedonist of ideas'. Informing his work at the deepest levels – thrumming through it like a demonic tattoo – is the barbarism of the twentieth century, and the insoluble problem of reconciling culture and anarchy. That Europe can at one and the same time be the cradle of civilization and the Gehenna that Nazism made of it, torments Steiner. He finds himself the thanatographer of a dying world.



His seminal collection Language and Silence bears most of the thematic hallmarks found in all Steiner's work. Some insights he has worried over for decades. The ambiguous involvement of language and sex is given preliminary notice in his 1963 essay 'Night Words' (reviewing the Olympia Reader, he deplores its imaginative exhaustion, its cheapening of sex) – and what we might term this 'Steinerian problematic' recurs in My Unwritten Books, in a meditation on eros and logos that is disarmingly frank. The Shoah tutored mankind in its own appetite for nihilistic cruelty. Steiner grieves for the waste and unimaginable horror of it – and, to some degree, taunts himself for his marginality to its epicentre, having fled Europe at his father's insistence before the war. Again, the theme chimes throughout the oeuvre. Steiner broods especially on those moments – historical and personal – when language as conveyer of intelligible meaning simply fails. Always, something agonistic pulses somewhere in his work, a threat and a warning.

The memoir Errata revisits the themes, often more candidly and directly than before. With age, Steiner has become distinctly less bullish, readier to admit his vulnerabilities. My Unwritten Books continues this tendency. The great humanist reveals himself to be touchingly human.

“A book unwritten is more than a void,” Steiner begins. “It accompanies the work one has done like an active shadow, both ironic and sorrowful.” The seven chapters of My Unwritten Books are as densely argued and as ripened as anything of Steiner's hitherto. The pieces are by turns essays in admiration and perplexity. The first, 'Chinoiserie', concerns itself with the biochemist and Sinologist Joseph Needham. An extraordinary tribute, in it Steiner confesses his awe at Needham's obsessive industry, his tireless encyclopaedism and, perhaps, the depth of his knowledge of a subject about which Steiner, eurocentrically, can know little if anything. Needham's Science and Civilisation in China was written out of the tradition of the great anatomies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, with all the crazy compendiousness of their work, Needham's intellectual forebears. Steiner seems to have been cowed into humility by the work of this strange, Casaubon-ish man.

Intellectual cowardice – as Steiner would have it – essentially spiked some of these ideas. Others were deemed too raw, with the abashed intimacy that checks, more often than not, self-revelation. Concluding one of the essays, Steiner admits the reason for being unable to write the book: “I did not have the guts.”

'Invidia' – at its mildest, professional jealousy: but in this essay Steiner tells the tale of Cecco d'Ascoli, the contemporary of Dante who tried, and failed, to give the poet of the Divina Commedia a run for his money. Cecco could charitably be described as the nearly man of Italian Renaissance poetry, but – possibly because this master astrologer made the Schoolman's error of casting a horoscope for Jesus – wound up in an inquisitorial auto-da-fé, (graphically, squeamishly contemplated by Steiner)...

The Jewish destiny comes under consideration in the essay 'Zion'. Here, Steiner courts controversy, reflecting on the perennial apartness of the Chosen People and arriving at the thought, warily, that perhaps something genetically immanent in the Jew sets him at odds with history and the world. The origins of anti-semitism are mysteriously bound up, Steiner argues, with the enormous demand made by Yahweh on mankind, to be signally better, to attain an ideal of moral perfection that we find, poor flawed things that we are, to be gratuitous and impossible. Militant Zionism failed, he suggests, because it made of the Jew an ordinary man. Like the bogus 'Philip Roth' in Roth's Operation Shylock, Steiner is a regretful Diasporist, seeing in the 'peregrine' nature of Judaism its true essence: “Nationalism, of which Israel is necessarily emblematic, tribal ingathering, seems to me not only foreign to the inward genius of Judaism and the enigma of its survival. It violates the imperative of the Baal Shem Tov, master of Hassidism: 'The truth is always in exile'. This maxim is my morning prayer.”

Much of My Unwritten Books does seem a remarkable gamble for so reticent a man as Steiner. Discussing the antinomies of the public and the private, he makes this assertion of the indecency of speaking of one's belief (or unbelief):

If there is anything entitled to final privacy, to enclosure in heart and mind, it is surely one's personal faith as it ripens towards the solipsism of death or the dismissal thereof. Publication, in the direct sense of the term, is an irremediable devaluation, a strip-tease of what we call for lack of a better name 'the soul', the quick and core of our labyrinthine being. It enacts, or so I have held, a tawdry paradox: self-violation, a rape of the self.


Steiner prefers to call himself a 'Platonic anarchist', rather than be drawn on his political leanings. The unfathomable interplay between art and religion – the imagining of god – has been a core fascination of Steiner's, and in the same essay, 'Begging the Question', he finally must admit that neither art nor theology bring us a whit nearer to proving the existence or otherwise of a deity. Indeed Steiner writes with 'scrupulous sadness' of his final estrangement from god, stating that his early hesitations and qualifications were the merest sophistry.


“What I have come to feel with compelling intensity,” Steiner all but closes his book, “is the absence of God.” My Unwritten Books is marbled through with such stark confessional turns. It is the furthering of Steiner's career-long project to attempt the examined life. But it also offers the spectacle of Steiner wrestling with titanic self-doubt, as Jacob with his angel. Often moving, always absorbing, it has all the stateliness of thought, the sheer rapturous obsession with the life of the mind, admirers of Steiner look forward to in his work.

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