by Amit Majmudar
from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2012
We don't have many examples of writers embarking on a fresh enterprise this late in life. Sophocles was said to have written tragedies into his ninetieth year. In our own time, we have the examples of Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, and Samuel Menashe. But these writers, for the most part, replicated their earlier successes. It is much rarer for a writer to set out in a truly new direction in the seventh or eighth decade. Goethe, the exception in this as in so many other things, was an octogenarian when he published the second part of Faust (1831)—probably the closest thing we will ever have to a poem written for the screen.
A man of letters in old age usually grows quiescent or retrospective. This is the time for admiring interviews from the reverent young: an autobiography, stray writings collected and bound, or the occasional introduction to a retranslated classic. In the worst case, the graybeard can become merely repetitive, stating one or two fixed ideas until they sound truer and truer to him: Harold Bloom, who himself recently published an autobiography, has settled on the absolute primacy of Shakespeare for some time. It is no surprise that Bloom's introduction to Edith Grossman's Cervantes is actually about—you guessed it—Shakespeare.
We had every reason to believe George Steiner had entered this phase of his career. The autobiography, Errata (1997), was followed by a volume describing various books he would have liked to have written. This book in particular had a distinctly valedictory, if-I-had-world-enough-and-time air. Finally, New Directions issued a collection of essays Steiner wrote for the New Yorker. The process of getting the papers in order seemed complete. The big investigations, it seemed, were over. The older works, fortunately, all rewarded rereading—from the earlier, more purely literary criticism, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), to the frankly theological riffs of Grammars of Creation (2001). We could follow the progression as Steiner gradually left off writing as a "critic" and began writing as what he is: a polyglot polymath, sucking everything into the discussion. He asked the best questions, and his best guesses were as good as non-answers got. But a new question, we assumed, was not going to be asked.
This is one reason why The Poetry of Thought (New Directions, 2012) is so fascinating. This fascination is quite apart from the interest of the book itself. The startling thing is the Goethean persistence of Steiner's energy and interest in the universe—and, as a result, this book's air of youth. Steiner, synapses firing as fast as ever, has set out on a new Steiner voyage, this time "from Hellenism to Celan." It reminds me of Tennyson's "Ulysses," taking to the sea again. Which is only appropriate: to read Steiner is, above all, to be reminded of everything you have ever read or meant to read.
Steiner, in spite of his reputation as a "mandarin," comes across in his writing as a brilliant student—the kind who raises a hand and asks the question no one else has thought of, much less can answer. A Steiner Question is not a question with a specific answer. He simply wonders aloud and starts speculating. The speculations are insights. The question itself is an insight. How could the country that produced Handel and Goethe go on to produce Hitler and Goring? Whatever happened to capital-T Tragedy? Or, as in this book: how are thought and style related?
In other books, Steiner has traced a single idea through all of literature—the idea of "beginnings" (Grammars of Creation) or the Antigone legend (Antigones). These are works where he has served as an intellectual tour guide, taking us from Greece or Genesis to the present, pointing out the sights along the way.
Steiner's new book, The Poetry of Thought, combines these two approaches. It is, formally, a synthesis. The Steiner Questions are there. The book begins with such questions about music: "What are the philosophic concepts of the deaf-mute? What are his or her metaphysical imaginings?" It ends with similar answerless questions, this time about the meeting between Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan at Todtnauberg: "What could, what would Heidegger have said in extenuation, in remorse for his own role and omissions in the time of the inhuman? ... Was anything said on those long walks in the sodden uplands?"
The larger question that gives rise to the book is very Steinerian: intelligent, interdisciplinary wonderment. (Perhaps "interdisciplinary," in this specific case, is inexact: Steiner is making a case for the oneness, or at least the inextricability, of literature and philosophy.) Steiner does not conclusively "answer" this Steiner Question. Such a book would exhaust its utility after the first reading. Instead, he speculates aloud about the relationship between linguistic expression and philosophical thought.
This kind of inquiry is better off treated unsystematically. Steiner has constructed The Poetry of Thought by searching Western culture for examples and connections, but he derives no larger principles or easily summarized "key concepts." Steiner has always distrusted the simplifications of bullet-point thought. He offers us none here.
So, broad in scope though it is, the book does not diminish itself by generalizations. Instead of one answer to its Steiner Question, The Poetry of Thought answers it the only way a Steiner Question can be sort-of-answered: by offering dozens of smaller insights. For the purposes of this book, Steiner has arranged his insights in more or less chronological order, structured, as the subtitle has it, "from Hellenism to Celan." Steiner has always been well equipped to embark on these journeys from the source to the delta. The Poetry of Thought combines the questioning, speculative thinker and the tour guide through literary history—the best of both Steiners.
Usually a review is supposed to paraphrase or summarize the content of a book. While Steiner's argument submits to paraphrase, Steiner's prose, like good poetry, resists it.
The structure can be laid out easily enough. Consider the first hundred or so pages. Steiner begins with an overture on philosophical writing itself—how abstract philosophical thought aspires to music or mathematics, but has to make do with language. This segues to a chapter on the pre-Socratics—the earliest Western philosophers, and the last ones to cast their ideas in verse. Philosophers after Plato have written primarily in prose, so Steiner skips ahead, in this chapter, to some other philosophical poets, including Lucretius and Dante. (This chapter is best read next to Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. You will see the difference between a literary critic and a George Steiner.) After Dante, the "full-scale philosophical poem, the use of verse to express a metaphysical doxa, becomes rare." Poets do figure in the later chapters, but the book starts afresh with Plato and progresses chronologically after that. The next chapter discusses the dramaturgical finesse of Plato's dialogues; the chapter after that follows the dialogue form in general, as practiced by writers from Abelard and Galileo to Paul Valery.
The problem with such a summary is that it misses the best part—the poetry of Steiner's own thought, the connections that make Steiner so precious as a thinker. The discussion on Plato, for example, dwells on Plato's insistence on exiling poets from his ideal polis. Steiner—with his characteristic blend of deep memory and historical conscience—juxtaposes a passage from the Laws with an excerpt from a 1933 speech by Joseph Goebbels. This takes place in the space of a paragraph and a half. The parallel is exact, and the fast-forward effect is chilling.
Connections like that are why Steiner the thinker must be read, like a poet, in his own words. In the course of discussing literature, he can make lightning arc between philosophy and history. "Literary" has become a term suggesting ornament, detached aestheticism, and irrelevance even among writers. In Steiner's vocabulary, "literary" is all-encompassing: a truly "literary" investigation should extend to every department in the university.
Steiner showed this knack for the illuminating connection as early as 1959's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Consider the passage that reveals Dostoevsky's origins in nineteenth-century melodrama: it required an understanding of the now-disregarded tradition of melodrama (superseded on the stage by Ibsen, but given a second life in Hollywood) and a willingness to dissolve the psychological boundary between fiction and drama. Other critics had searched for Dostoevsky in the biographical details, the Diaries, the work of previous Russian novelists. Steiner went to the nineteenth-century melodrama and found him.
Such interdisciplinary moments have distinguished Steiner's work ever since. The leaps have gotten more daring. They crop up throughout The Poetry of Thought—moments when this literary discussion penetrates theology and mathematics:
In mathematical papers, there is often only one generative word: an initial "let" which authorizes and launches the chain of symbols and diagrams. Comparable to that imperative "let" which initiates the axioms of creation in Genesis.
Neither pure theologians nor pure mathematicians (nor pure critics) are capable of thinking like this. Steiner's own thought exemplifies its subject. His consistently unexpected connections possess all the power of poetic metaphor. You stroll with Steiner through the walls in your own mind.
Steiner, often praised as a polymath, understands that the polymath is all too often a curiosity. As Steiner says of Valery: "He [Valery] had no interest in the polymath, but rather in the unifier, the maker of unifying metaphor." Mere ability or knowledgability in a variety of fields makes a polymath's contribution to any one field fall short of significance. The polymath, in that case, is a glorified dilettante, a dabbler in expertise.
The polymath's value is a function of his or her ability to cross-refer and synthesize. Steiner's comment on Valery plays on the etymological import of "metaphor"—to carry over, to transfer. Carrying over religious understanding into the art of fiction, or musical talent into poetry, or scientific keenness into criticism, the polymath serves as a new synapse in the collective mind. The unifying intellect is to be treasured above the many-minded one.
Steiner, the maker of connections, has that unifying intellect. His discussion of philosophical thought and literary form is beyond the ken of the finest critics in the generations after his. These minds are far more comfortable doing shorter reviews of their contemporaries and longer retrospectives on a few twentieth-century, English language favorites. The analytical sweep of an Auerbach—going from Gilgamesh to Flaubert in eleven chapters—is beyond our day-traders in literary reputation. The religious engagement of a Frye, the long literary memory of an Eliot—these, too, are selected against by the compartment-learning of a university education. And so we are left with critics whose idea of a widely read writer is David Foster Wallace. Whether we find it in Steiner (the French-speaking Jew of Austrian parentage who lives in England), Auerbach (the German Jew who wrote Mimesis while in exile in Turkey), Kermode (who was born an Englishman), or Eliot (who died one), this kind of long-memory, wide-lens criticism is, alas, European.
Since Western education gave up Greek and Latin—both major elements of Steiner's education in the lycée system—literary memory has gotten shorter and shorter. Teachers of poetry use living contemporaries as teaching texts with no sense of how unusual that is in the history of poetic education. Keats studied, took apart, and wrote his way out from under Spenser and Milton. We would send Keats to school to study Wordsworth. Even our focus on English-language writing (with an inordinate emphasis on the past two hundred years) constitutes, in Steiner's world, a myopia verging on blindness. He treats English as e pluribus unum with other languages.
Both his methods and his ends are different. A Steiner Question generates the insights that flesh out its own elusiveness. Details and quotations are called up because they advance the investigation, not because they support an assertion of taste. Steiner gathers evidence; he does not make points.
Not only does Steiner come from another continent, he comes from another time. Not Europe—Old Europe. About this he is unapologetic. He wonders aloud whether the ownership of slaves and a male-dominated society helped abstract thought flourish in ancient Greece. And he is not afraid to marvel at Hellas for the "miracle" it was. "Out of Africa, what theorem?" No other writer except for V. S. Naipaul would be so frank in 2012. Like Naipaul (born just three years after him), Steiner feels free to point out things that are politically but not factually incorrect.
Steiner's most Old European trait is his approach to literature itself. Consider his casual manipulation of massive writers in the course of working out his ideas. He lifts them, handles them, turns them about, fits them together. Proust, Tolstoy, Sophocles—these are all building blocks in the playroom of his mind, and he stacks them into impossible Babels. Steiner has a very Old European will to global mastery. In the fallen world, that will expressed itself in empire. The same expansive confidence once contemplated the fates of peoples and nations behind closed doors—how to rule the Indians, how to open China, what to do about the Sudan. Europe doesn't do this kind of thing anymore, neither in its parliaments nor its academies. Europe's politics are local now, and so are its critics and writers. Culture is a confidence game for the conquerors and the conquered alike. Before you lose your empire, you produce a Hugo; after, a Houellebecq.
At this point, Steiner can no longer be classified as a "literary critic." He is, rather, a literary thinker. He does not criticize or comment on literature. He articulates larger ideas, philosophical or theological, through literature. Literature is to him what logic is to the logician, what mathematics is to the physicist. The illuminating comparison is with Harold Bloom.
Bloom is a true literary critic. This is why Bloom comes off sounding like a teacher, while Steiner comes off sounding like a student. Even Steiner's most expansive pronouncements sound, in context, like a seeker sharing his discoveries.
Bloom, by contrast, shows the critical obsession with ranking writers. The incessant urge to declare Shakespeare, for some reason or another, the supreme writer ever; the habitual selection of "great" or "greatest" poems or, in one absurd case, "minds" (Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds); the intense satisfaction in declaring some pet poet the best of all at this or that; the presentation of personal tastes as objective truth (and, indeed, the confusion of the two) —these are all telltale signs of the critic. Many other mere critics, like William Logan, take their pleasure in belittling writers; the tendency is actually the same.
Compare Steiner, the literary thinker. He is uninterested in the word-by-word, listen-to-the-o-sounds-in-this-passage analysis on which so many critics pride themselves. He is far more interested in following the "hermeneutic motion" of literary translation in 1975's After Babel or doing an autopsy on the tragic drama.
Both the literary critic and the literary thinker stand in opposition to the literary polemicist. The literary polemicist is interested in using literature to make a political or sociological point. We have all seen this kind of thing—Milton is a misogynist, Shakespeare is an anti-Semite, the Western Canon is a form of imperial oppression, etc. Minds like Steiner's and Bloom's used to dominate university literature departments; now these departments produce Marxist, postcolonial, and feminist "critiques" of literature that antedates Marx, Said, and Steinem by centuries. The practice is as meaningless as the early Church Fathers condemning Plato for not being Christian enough (or, contrarily, exalting Virgil for writing that faux-messianic Fourth Eclogue). You can find swipes at political correctness and ideologically motivated readings in Steiner and Bloom alike. They represent the old guard of literary critics and literary thinkers. The very old guard. It's not that they are apolitical. They simply understand that some things transcend politics, and that literature is one of them.
Which brings us to the ultimate Steiner Question: What is the place of George Steiner in the first decades of the twenty-first century? How should we frame the story—the ongoing story—of his career?
There are two stories that can be told about George Steiner. One story goes like this: There once was a brilliant man who outlived his time and outstayed his welcome. One day he was the master of all knowledge, and then, knowledge itself expanded. Suddenly it wasn't enough to know everything from Hellenism to Celan. What about Lao Tzu and Li Po? What about the Bhagavad Gita? Surely, when he wrote about the poetry of thought, he should have included a chapter about a philosophical poem central to the lives of millions. What about the Sufi poet-philosopher, Ibn al-Arabi? If he knew Greek and Hebrew, was it too much trouble to learn Arabic?
This multilingual literary cosmopolitan woke up in the twenty-first century and found himself a provincial. His intellectual domain was nothing more than Europe and a few of its colonies. You'd think it would be tough to ignore Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, but he succeeded. The names he dropped in his supposedly "far-reaching" books were mostly those of Caucasian men. In one of his late books, The Poetry of Thought, he actually came out and asked, with an imperial air, "Out of Africa, what theorem?" He was the last of the Eurocentric blowhards: George Steiner.
That is the story a literary polemicist might tell. And Steiner is Eurocentric, or at least focused on the West. He does focus on the writing of men more than that of women, probably because his view includes the vast swath of history before women entered literature in full force. He is, according to his Paris Review interview, a big Jane Austen fan, but "women's writing" has never been singled out for specific discussion. I see no point in defending George Steiner against either of those charges. I am simply going to tell a different story—a story that places him, I believe, in his rightful context.
That story would present George Steiner as the last European. By "European," I refer to a very specific Europe: the strange hybrid culture which arose from a cross of mostly incompatible traditions and tendencies. I refer to the post medieval, peculiarly European enterprise that began with Dante Alighieri. It sought to hold the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the classical pagan tradition, and contemporary events in one mind. It took a monotheistic tradition and crossed it with a polytheistic one. Its dominant religious book, the Bible, remains the only scripture written in languages from two entirely different language families—the Semitic language, Hebrew, and the Indo-European language, Greek. It split its attention between heaven and earth; it developed the calculus at roughly the same time its art was proliferating Madonnas and Christ-children. Considered as a whole, Europe's most representative mind was probably that of Blaise Pascal: at once scientific and religious, mathematical and verbal.
Steiner embodies this hybrid Europe, too, just like its founding father, Dante. In Dante, we find Judas, Minos, and Boniface; in Steiner, we find Babel, Antigone, and Birkenau. We must not forget what a bizarre mix the Commedia is, with its demons borrowed from Ovid, its Paradisal eagle borrowed from the Roman legions, and its intermittent polemics against bad Popes. Steiner shows the same engagement with contradictory pasts and the ignominious present. Steiner the polymath, interested equally in chess, Chomsky, and Celan, shows the Western world's "infinity-seeking" tendency. He would learn everything if he could. Oswald Spengler called this tendency "Faustian," and the author of Faust, Goethe, is another Western mind very akin to Steiner's: universally interested, and tireless into old age, tireless to the end.
Western culture achieved what it achieved as a result of hybrid vigor—the same genetic principle that makes a mongrel stronger than the purebred. This particular recipe, Greece and Rome, plus the Bible, plus worldliness, resulted in six centuries of progressive Western inquiry, accomplishment, and dominance. It ended with a half-century-long European catastrophe. That this catastrophe went global, twice, only illustrates how central this appendage to Asia made itself. With Christianity declining fastest in Europe and the loss of classical education, two of the three Dantean ingredients have evaporated, leaving the residuum we call Europe today.
History has a sense of irony, a sense of timing, even a sense of humor. (The only thing history lacks is a sense of justice.) How perfectly ironic, then, that the last European should have come from the people that suffered Europe's worst. The French lose interest in Racine, thinking him a schoolroom text, a musty classic—while a Paris-born son of Jewish émigrés treasures him, making an eloquent case (Antigones, Chapter 14) for his lasting power. Steiner's life (he was born in 1929) has coincided with the decline of European Christianity and European power, but he contains in his memory the best of Europe, that part of Europe which is worth preserving.
I may seem to inflate Steiner's worth by drawing this line from him back to Dante, but I am not equating their accomplishments. I consider them, rather, as the first and last chapters of the same book. That is the larger story we should tell of Steiner, a story that places him in the largest possible context. Dante was the beginning of something, and that something—the Europe of the thinkers and novelists and poets—will end with the man who contains it whole, the last European, George Steiner.
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About the Author
Amit Majmudar's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, two Best American Poetry anthologies, The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-2012, Poetry, and the Norton Introduction to Literature. His first novel, Partitions, was published by Holt/Metropolitan. His first poetry collection, 0', 0', was released by Northwestern in 2009; his second, Heaven and Earth, was awarded the Donald Justice Prize for 2011. His second novel, The Abundance, is forthcoming in 2013. He is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.
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