on appetite and a mystic chef, george steiner essays, new statesman 1995

George Steiner August 2008

Or; If Kafka were Hindu…

Every now and then I wonder about George Steiner. Mostly it’s positive wondering but something bugs me about him and it’s not what seems to bug most people I know or read that have met him or committed their view of him to print. Much of the latter is merely a distaste for overt intellect, especially a passionate ‘continental’ mind as well as distrust of the whole dynamic of translation, literally and metaphorically.

There are pedagogic and vulgar ego issues when it comes to Steiner but let me say in brief that I dissociate myself from the cynical Brit approach to him. What continues to bug me is essentially what bugged me when I committed myself to print 15 years ago [in the New Statesman, see below]; I hate it that he won’t credit Kafka, Mozart, even little me with the capacity -effort, hours/years of silent striving and error, the beauty of the attempt- to invent.

Instead, it wasn’t Kafka or Mozart it was “god”. Who? you might say. Religious faith is one thing [later, in Errata, he described himself as a “messianic agnostic”, which is anticipated in what I wrote below], but to misrecognise the grand smallness of human effort, endeavour and appetite is wrong as well as pitiful.

Steiner is a man with a good brain and that brain has famous and all too real appetite but it strikes me therefore as worse that he closes it all down when he approaches a peak to indulge in ‘god’-whistling instead. Such vacuity is the opposite of all the thought, mindfulness, appetites, human appetites, that have hauled him up the slope of other all-too human achievements.

When it comes to declarations around ‘god’ or the spiritual in general discretion is necessary, if only to give human makers enough credit and space to exist irrespective of whether one also harbours any kind of religious faith. Imagine, if you need to, the raucous contempt and laughter that greets the invocation, say of Derrida, in an essay or a work of criticism [see below!]. Now imagine how puerile the invoking of ‘god’ at a similar point is and should be.

Faith is not known as a critical faculty though its structure -the leap out of what is, the ellipsis- can be a beautiful thing. The possession/possessor of faith is not something I feel aggressive towards, despite the grotesque legacies all religions own, because as humanity left them behind it carried residual positives with it, not least the books themselves. But it really is pathetic to indulge the numbing silence that faith conjures in a critical context, even, in my view unless brilliantly handled, in any work of art. If works of art can be said, as they so often are, to resemble articles of faith, well fine. I’ll judge them for their compelling or other qualities.

Steiner and others who do this let-me-shock-you-now-by-my-mentioning-‘god’-inappropriately thing, are only coughing up an old presumption and prejudice, there’s nothing new or remotely brave about it. That is mirrored in my view by the current Atlantic-wide egotism of anti-‘god’ squad self-publicists.

However, when the great Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi talks about spirit in his work and in its inspirations, he means a form of ‘god’ -obviously unnameable, immanent in all- but usually describes it in relation to a physical object or space. This ‘spirit’ may or may not lurk in a magically inspiring building or a complex of rock-carved caves but it is at least concretised. If you swapped the word, as he used it to me in many hours of conversation, for the word inventiveness or similar it would cohere.

So, the tracing out of a locale of inventiveness is structurally related to spirit or even faith, but is generative -not least of interpretation and reinterpretation. To call it ‘god’, to say with Steiner that Kafka is so inventive in ways that are very hard to make tangible that it must be because he was doing ‘god’s’ work, worse; incarnating ‘god’, and then to extrapolate that in anyway at all is truly pathetic. It is an abandonment of intellect and the human. In fact, to use Steiner’s coinage; it’s an abandonment of actual difficulty.

None of which nullifies my respect and admiration for Steiner’s work over decades. If only there were more Steiner’s at work in Britain, albeit ones adapted to the present. For one thing, a contemporary Steiner would be polemicising about the cultural riches to be found in Arabic and/or say the Indian subcontinent as well as keeping minds open to Europe. And they would tell us so in slightly in-yer-face polemics.

So perhaps his example has had some influence after all…!


Steiner’s silliness about the Americas [which includes over-polishing the south to knife the north; odd too since he doesn’t speak the language/s. Not sure where Canada ranks in Steinerland] is also just silliness.

An interview with Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times about ten yrs ago exemplifies the popular picture of pomposity but during it she tests him on US innovation and William Gaddis. His response is to spit, “No one reads Gaddis.” Surely this deflates his ‘argument’ somewhat? It also reveals how little he’d been reading such that he’d missed Gaddis’ significant influence. Gaddis can look after himself -and of course, I do, don’t you? [in the UK Atlantic Books republished most of his books, see here]

On a related note, the book choice or recommendation of the year that gave me most surprising pleasure -amongst the little map of same-old same-old- so far was Geoff Dyer’s discovery and heavy recommendation of David Markson and in particular This Is Not a Novel in The Guardian [here]. The Markson is a brilliantly realised and uniquely contemporary [nearly!] work of the fictive imagination and while it can’t refute Steiner’s attitude alone it’s a diverting shaddapyerface -in the Dantian sense.

Markson’s novels are in print with different presses -Dalkey Archive, Shoemaker & Hoard, Counterpoint; real publishers one and all- and easily available online.


James Wood wrote an excoriating review of this same collection of essays in The New Republic, which hones in on the same negatives but hugely inflates them [speaking from experience; this is a Steiner-effect, to accuse GS of melodrama, melodramatically] in a piece that seems driven by personal animus -as good as it is in places. Steiner was and can still be a very welcome champion of a demanding if too narrowly defined literature in the actual context of his life and work, while exhibiting all the flaws I point to and JW trumpets.

JW is most unforgiving about what he argues is Steiner’s false religiosity. I don’t quite follow the argument, which culminates like this; “Steiner wants to enjoy a supernatural aesthetic without the obligation of supernatural belief.” That is, he may be merely replacing “the presence of the divine” with “the easier presence of undefined greatness.” Sure, but for me the substantive negative is the convenience of the undefinedness; the numbing silence, divine or otherwise, a whole top-slice of singularity or difficulty about which Steiner has nothing to say!


Screenshot 2018-03-28 11.20.36



By George Steiner

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott – 05 January 1996


Reports on a Thirst

Is there a place for George Steiner in a “history of literature”? This is the question that Jacques Derrida asks about Mallarmé in an early version of ‘The Double Session’. It is mischievous to adapt it to Steiner for several reasons, not least because I ask it commonsensically. That is, despite his achievements as a writer of fiction and the undisputable  seriousness and range of his critical writing over nearly four decades, Steiner is peculiarly absent from contemporary literature. I am taking “a place”, then, to be encapsulated in reference and quotation, or engagement with Steiner’s thinking. But I ask the question because the crisis of meaning in language represented by Mallarmé’s dividing of the word is vital to both Derrida and Steiner. Of course, Derrida reads it with radical affirmation while for Steiner this threshold of Modernity represents a fatal breaking of the bonds of understanding that have underwritten Western culture since its beginnings in Hellenic and Hebrew texts.

A century on from Mallarmé’s ending, we have witnessed an accumulation of endings and they crowd out this millenium. Overlapping with postmodernism’s versions, however, has been a recovery of ethical thinking. One of its figurations is the rediscovery of Judaism “at the end of the end of philosophy” as Gillian Rose describes it. If her “end of the end” refers to a potential “new ethics”, the end of philosophy  refers both to the “end of ‘metaphysics’ from Kant to Nietzsche and Heidegger … and the end of ‘philosophy’ from Hegel and Marx to Adorno which raises the question of the realisation of philosophy.” Steiner is still reeling from Mallarmé which leads him to describe Modernity as the antinomian “epilogue” to a Western culture whose essence lies in the ceremonial privacy of ingesting canonical texts.

Steiner does not mind being at odds with his time, indeed, conscious of the phrophetic paradigm, he relishes it. But there has been a making-explicit or rediscovery of Judaism in his thinking too. He is particularly self-conscious about his faith, but makes what he calls “scandalous” declarations of it in his most recent essays. The coyness contrasts with his ferociously judgemental and absolute God, but doubles as a circuitousness that characterises his speculative approach. The essays collected in No Passion Spent are intended as “position papers”, open to the risk of getting “it wrong fruitfully”. Steiner’s writing is filled with partial re-statements of his core beliefs, and to read him is to reassemble these parts. Tellingly, the most systematic expression of his approach is in an interview in Nicolas Tredell’s Conversations with Critics,  where Steiner also says “All I can do is report on my thirst.”

What is Steiner thirsty for? Well, knowledge certainly, but more specifically for revealed meaning. This is most clearly manifested in his last book Real Presences [1989] in which he conjures this presence throughout an agonised wrestle with, and disputation of, deconstruction. In the new essays he puts it -variously- like this: “Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning we do so as if the text … incarnates [the notion is grounded in the sacramental] a real presence of significant being.” For Steiner, everything flows from here, as he laments the “lost Arcadia of linguistic equivalence with truth.” This is the tautological moment where “Word and world were one.” He believes that the most rigourous interpretation of texts cannot quite reconstruct this unity, that grammar is theological and music’s “supreme abstraction” is the rhythm of God. Nevertheless; “there is a best reading”, the poem always precedes commentary and instruction must be learnt by heart.

In No Passion Spent Steiner faces his divine source and drinks from the Bible, Homer and Socrates, Jesus, Freud and Shakespeare as well as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Husserl and Simone Weil. It is a deep glass and contains many other names from his passionately defended canon as well as equally resonant silence about everything excluded from it.

Steiner’s thirst produces an excellent introductory essay to the Hebrew Bible which historicises the dissemination of that Book and is particularly persuasive about the impact on the English language of Tyndale’s translation, for example. He evokes the “state of ‘excitation'” that the language was in at the end of the 16th century, having embraced the Bible and Homer, a state which enabled Shakespeare’s further forgings. But the same thirst half-blinds him to American culture in an essay entitled ‘The Archives of Eden.’ It reveals a truly scandalous contempt for Modernity, Democracy and popular culture which coheres in his bizarre notion that there is no American writer to rank with the “great” Russian and German writers of this century, like Solzhenitsyn and Christa Wolf.

A favourite topic of Steiner’s is the messianism of Jesus and Marx. “Marxism is,” he says “in essence, Judaism grown impatient.” This is almost platitudinous, but Steiner widens it to accuse modern society of idiotic impatience, and yet a striking constant of these essays is his impatience and abbreviated curiosity about the world in which he lives. There is also a hastiness about some of his prose which is borne of punctuating it with God. Borne too perhaps, by the fact that most of his work -including his fiction- has originally been published in newspapers and periodicals, which has its ironies. More importantly though, it contrasts with the earlier Steiner of Language and Silence [1967] and On Difficulty [1978] who applied a sceptical rigour to western cultures and was instrumental in developing curiosity in European literatures.

Fortunately, it is that Steiner, a fully European writer inspired by Kafka, that produced the fiction collected in The Deeps of the Sea. His fiction rehearses the same concerns -which pivot on the Shoah or Holocaust- but coats his severity with sugar and dissolves his certainties within the ambiguous vitality of literary language, such that they exceed his intentions. These stories are deliciously compacted, linguistically rich and flamboyant in their risk-taking. In The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. he gives Adolf Hitler speech, in Proofs he is bold with metaphor and idea, and both of these will always earn another reading.

Steiner is best represented here by his essay on Kafka’s The Trial, which he regards as literal phrophecy of Nazism and the Shoah/Holocaust. Specifically, he thinks it’s parable, ‘Before the Law’,  is  “informed by revelation” and “may” belong with the sanctified texts of Jewish Law because, as with certain passages in the Bible, ûhe cannot conceive of “normal” -i.e. human- “authorship.”  Steiner also notes though, that Kafka is writing this “phrophecy” in German, and here is wisdom: “the translucency of Kafka’s German, its stainless quiet, suggests a process of borrowing at high, very nearly intolerable interest.” Steiner provokes us to compare his approach to Derrida’s which is concerned with the boundaries and authorisation of texts. Derrida’s essay, ‘Before the Law’, suggests that Kafka’s text is self-identical so that it is an impossible story about impossibility. The text then, “is the law, makes the law and leaves the reader before the law,” it does not reveal or “incarnate” the Law. The comparison leaves Steiner’s Kafka locked away, beyond reach, closed to active reading, against his expressed intentions.

Ultimately, I admire and share Steiner’s thirst and passion and will fight beside him for the book, but cannot trust his thinking which seems violently distorted by dogmatic religious faith. History is the “place” for those metaphysics, because they do not address the difficulty of being in the present and they corrupt the future.

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