George Steiner is probably the most eminent literary critic writing in English. James Wood, a young pretender to his throne, launches a blistering attack on the critic's workby James Wood / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
George Steiner’s prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a statue that wishes to be a monument. Readers of his essays in The New Yorker will be familiar with that prose’s laborious imprecisions and melodramas; the platoon-like massing of its adjectives, its cathedral hush around the great works. Nabokov once complained that one of Steiner’s essays was “built on solid abstractions and opaque generalisations”; but things are worse than that, as this new book of essays shows.
George Steiner has a fear of exhibiting even rhetorical ignorance, and this is accompanied by a superstitious worship of “greatness.” The essay “The Uncommon Reader,” in this book, provides two amusing examples on successive pages. Steiner is discoursing on the decline of “classic codes of literacy.” (“Do not even ask a relatively well prepared student to respond to the title of Lycidas.”) Every true reader, he avers, “carries within him a nagging weight of omission”: the books that he has not read. Apparently there are books that even George Steiner has not read. And yet he knows that they are great: “The eight volumes, unread, of Sorel’s great diplomatic history of Europe and the French revolution haunt me.” Or a page earlier: “I have, a dozen times, slunk by Sarpi’s leviathan history of the Council of Trent (one of the pivotal works in the development of western religious-political argument)… There is so little time in ‘the library that is the universe'(Borges’s Mallarm?en phrase).” David’s lament for Jonathan, he tells us, is “unsurpassed in any poetry.”
All this greatness is memorialised in rippling and indiscriminate lists, whose tic is a consumer’s indefinite article. Just as one asks for a coffee, a piece of pie and a Coke, Steiner asks for “a Socrates, a Mozart, a Gauss or a Galileo who, in some degree, compensate for man”; or “a Mantegna, a Turner or a C?zanne… a Racine, a Dostoevsky, a Kafka.” This is not a trivial habit of style. There is “a coffee,” but there is no such thing as “a Mozart.” There is Mozart, singular and non-transferable, a concretion, not a vapour. Steiner’s use of lists, and of the indefinite article, suggests that the meal of greatness can be had in any order and in any combination; the important thing is to fill oneself up and be bloatedly grateful.