Review by Rex Murphy published in The Globe & Mail, Saturday January 3, 1998
ERRATA: An Examined Life
In the early part of the century, T. S. Eliot wrote a vigorous and quite famous essay on the poetry of John Donne. It may well be that Eliot writing on Donne was Eliot writing on Eliot, but all that is dust now.
Eliot was literary criticism's first and finest centrifuge. Typically, in that essay he sought to isolate those qualities of Donne's poetry (and those of his followers, the awkwardly named metaphysical poets) that marked its essence, accounted for its distinctive presence and force. And those qualities he located in a habit of mind Eliot saw as peculiar to a singular moment in the history of English poetry, mainly but not confined to the early 17th century. In brutal summary, it was characterized by the most lively interplay of intelligence and emotion, a moment when passion was intellect, and intellect was passion. The devouring wit of Donne and his disciples was remarkable for what Eliot called its "sensuous apprehension" of ideas.
In a formulation that teased criticism for at least two generations, he wrote: "A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility." The touchstone Eliot lights upon is the peculiar, dramatic and emotional force with which ideas, play of mind, sheer intellection and the ardour of thought visited Donne and his nimble successors. Whatever the fertility of these terms for an understanding of Donne (or Eliot), they are surely the first items in any glossary of appreciation for the life and work of George Steiner. That life and work is now neatly and elegantly, not to say laconically (186 pages, including index), available in a biographical memoir, modestly and yet not so modestly titled Errata: An Examined Life.
George Steiner is a literary critic (After Babel: Aspects of Language and Traslation; No Passion Spent), a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, an essayist (hundreds of reviews and essays for such publications as The New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement), a novelist (The Portage to San Christobal of A. H.) and one of the very few active men of letters whose work and example vivifies and enhances the vocation of the intellectual.
As for the sensuous apprehension of ideas, Errata is the memoir of a Casanova of the mind. Thought, ideas, culture, literature, art - to continue with Eliot's parsing - in Steiner's case these are not just "an experience." They are life itself. As for "sensibility," so sovereign is Steiner's regard for human genius that he argues the achievements of intellect and imagination are not only the high reaches of the human condition, the consolations of our finite term - they may be (alas) our only passable justification for being in the first place.
He writes: "In the midst of the inhumanity and indifference of history, a handful of men and women have been creatively possessed by the compelling splendour of the useless (the Socratic daimonion). This constitutes the eminent dignity, the 'princeliness' of our kind. It may be that together with the saints, religious or secular, this 'pride' of mathematicians, composers, poets, painters, logicians or epistemologists (the inquirers into inquiry) in some manner ransom mankind. I am haunted by the possibility that out of our mammalian midst, a Plato, a Gauss or a Mozart, justifies, redeems, the species which devised and carried out Auschwitz."
It should be added that even under (because of) the weight of its ardent preoccupations, Errata is a first-class delight.
The delight begins with the sustained eloquence of the style. Steiner is one of the great rhetoricians of our age, and probably among the last to understand the full high-pedigreed glory of the term. He believes greatly, and because belief is a moral stance, he is obliged to persuade. Hence the great charge of his prose - rich, declamatory, full of high sentence, urgent - no one writes of high culture with the eloquence and mandarin force of George Steiner.
He is also in love - with thought and art. Errata is a testament to an urgent and lifelong courtship with high culture, what Steiner has viewed since the early days, when his father inducted him into the severities and ecstacies of The Iliad, as the monuments of Western culture. Hence the passionate assertions of value and alarm, as he seeks to bring others within the circle of that fierce and troubling embrace, and to warn against the abrasions of vulgarity and triviality that would exhaust it.
And yet. About the whole humanistic enterprise he is genuinely and painfully ambivalent. It is the hinge of his entire work that learning and art should "make a difference," should save us. Steiner wishes, desperately, that this should be so. But, with an even greater desperation, he glimpses that it may not be, that the pieties on which generations of artists, writers and intellectuals have rested the case for art are a delusion and worse. An obliging fraud. A lie.
"The fundamental challenge I voiced - How are we to grasp psychologically, socially, the capacity of human beings to perform, to respond to, say, Bach or Schubert in the evening, and to torture other human beings the next morning? Are there not intimate congruities between the humanities and the inhumane?
For a mind such as the one portrayed here, with a character so founded, so anchored, in "the best that has been thought and written" - Steiner's being is tethered to the humanities - merely to ask such questions is an act of great pathos and candour.
There is also great charm on display. My favourite chapter is one that offers five cameos of the teachers, the co-inquirers into inquiry, who have meant most to him. One is the Canadian Ernest Sirluck, then of the University of Chicago, "whose passwords were 'severity,' 'rigour' and 'scruple,' and whose commendations were terse and 'marmoreal.' " The story of Allan Tate challenging fellow poet and critic Karl Shapiro to a duel and consulting the young Steiner on the etiquette of such a challenge - given that Shapiro was Jewish, Tate was uncertain of the delicacies that might prevail and wished to be tactful before any armed encounter - is wonderful. The Oxford tutor and Greek scholar, Humphrey House, walks on, as well as the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur, both men generous, passionate and somehow sad.
Gershom Scholem, however, student and scholar of Jewish mysticism and millennial expectations, a man curse-blessed with "an intimate clairvoyance into the fabric of language and symbolism," is a heroic presence: The introductory description says it all: "That Voltarian mien, the needling eyes, the bat's ears ever alert, the lips given to sardonic dismay, composed a mask of reason."
There is so much more to say about this book, about the thinking it offers on education, language, politics, war, the mass media, about its moments of personal revelation, bitter and joyful. But this is George Steiner. And it really will not do, for me at least, to "review" him. As soon review Niagara Falls.
It's a telling book about a special human being, a Midrash on a life of the mind, and I recommend it without reserve.
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