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April 17, 2008

Reading Steiner is like drawing up before an imposing mansion, being ushered through the main entrance, and then immediately finding yourself out at the back, with the dustbins, argues David Womersley: My Unwritten Books - George Steiner

Posted by David Womersley

My Unwritten Books
by George Steiner
Pp. 210. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008
Hardback, £14.99

If anyone were in doubt as to who George Steiner was, they might begin to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of at least the academic side of his life by reading the second paragraph of chapter five of My Unwritten Books, which begins (p. 117):

Born in Paris, brought up trilingually, I grew up in wartime Manhattan, where I first attended a highly regarded American high school but then returned to the French lycée. My university years took me to the university of Chicago, then in a stellar phase, and to Harvard. . . .
- and on and on the unebbing tide of academic honours and employments flows (the founding this, the visiting that, the honorary other) for over thirty lines, culminating in a laughably portentous intimation of ubiquitous acceptability (p. 118):
Theologians, philosophers have made me welcome in Copenhagen and in the ornate halls of Coimbra in Portugal.
Some CV.

The question of who Steiner is arises because his writings always put the author squarely in the centre of the reader's attention. Steiner's books are always a performance, and his mode on the page is barely distinguishable from his mode at the lectern. The idea of self-effacing or objective scholarship is one, it seems safe to say, which does not often trouble him, whether he is being fussed over in northern Europe or deferred to amidst the architectural treasures of the south.

My Unwritten Books is a series of essays in which Steiner outlines seven subjects for books to which he has been drawn but which, for various reasons, he has not pursued. Their range is baffling: a study of Joseph Needham's work on Chinese science and civilisation; a treatise on intellectual envy; a mapping of the experience of sex in different languages; an analysis of the condition of being Jewish in the modern world; a report on differences in secondary schooling in the West; meditations on the relation between men and animals; an encomium on the virtue of silence in matters of theology and private belief.

The last essay is particularly curious. In the course of it, Steiner makes the following claim (p. 177):

An almost pathological revulsion at the curtailments of privacy in modern life - be they the calculated indiscretions of psychoanalysis, the invasive probings of bureaucracy, the exposure of bodily intimacies on the mass media, the confessional in literature, in social intercourse - has long possessed me.
How long exactly have you been possessed by that revulsion, the reader at this point wishes to interject, because only a little over a hundred pages earlier the essay on the idioms of sex in different languages has swerved without warning into the mode of reminiscence, and we have been treated to a series of vignettes from the sex-life of none other than, yes, Professor George Steiner, Founding Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, sometime Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, often to be found in the company of theologians and philosophers in the cities of the Baltic and the academies of the Iberian peninsula.

Highlights from his erotic past of this inveterate foe to self-disclosure include, we are told, the arousing properties of urination (p. 70), and the "dizzy" pleasures of coprophilia (p. 71). Perhaps the doors of the ornate halls of Coimbra would have been opened a fraction less wide, the embraces of the Danish theologians been a shade less fulsome, had these pages already been in print.

My Unwritten Books has a claim to be Steiner's most characteristic piece, since as one looks back one realises that all his books have been, in a sense, unwritten. Even After Babel, by some way his closest approach to a thorough investigation of a subject, finally frays into mere suggestions and possibilities. The typical Steiner book consists of a great deal of preliminary huffing and puffing, involving the naming of many writers and many books in the largest possible number of languages, and the hyperbolical inflation of the importance of the subject. You feel, momentarily, as if you are in the presence of a massive intellect magisterially addressing a question of overwhelming significance. But the pay-off never arrives. As in an alchemical experiment, the philosopher's stone is about to be produced, when - oh no! - the retort cracks, the materials are impure, the temperature fluctuates, and all goes up in smoke. The experience is like that of drawing up before an imposing mansion, being ceremoniously ushered through the main entrance, and then immediately finding yourself out at the back, with the dustbins.

Steiner's writings are a fecund jungle of hypotheses, but the most arid of deserts when it comes to conclusions or findings. The quintessential Steinerian sentence is something like this actual example from My Unwritten Books (p. 59):

How enriching it might be to have nightmares or wet dreams in, say, Albanian.
Well, it's a thought, I suppose; but how one would ever improve it into knowledge is difficult to see. It is a style of writing and thought which has now passed beyond parody.

A phrase of Yeats's to which Steiner is repeatedly and revealingly drawn is "monuments of unageing intellect". The ruling passion (ruthlessly pursued even in the teeth of what now seems increasingly like a simple absence of natural aptitude for academic work, at least in the field of literature) has always been to achieve something tremendous and enduring. The essay on envy includes a significant detail (p. 53):

Twice I have heard the phone-call from Stockholm ring in the office next door. And been invited to join in that evening's celebrations.
The proximity to what Steiner seems to regard as the ultimate accolade of the Nobel Prize is apparently for him a vexatious and humiliating memory. (But you might think that, given the, at best dubious, merit of some Nobel laureates, and the distinction of so many who have never received "the phone-call from Stockholm", it will be a matter of perfect indifference to a wise person whether or not they receive that call.)

And the unvarying outcome of such determination against the grain of talent? Always bathos. For Steiner, in a manner of speaking the phone has rung next door, not twice, but always. It is no accident that the most engaging (and even the most interesting) pages in My Unwritten Books are those in which the author remembers the various dogs he has owned. Here for once the reader is offered a natural, unwilled, unforced, enthusiasm.

To adapt Burke's summary judgement on the English deists of the eighteenth century: who now reads After Babel? whoever read it through? In The Entertainer, Archie Rice's daughter says of her father:

He always builds everything up. And it never turns out.
In the badly-misjudged pages of My Unwritten Books (as perhaps he did also in the ornate halls of Coimbra and on the briny shores of Denmark), Steiner strolls on stage as the Archie Rice of the academy.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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