Into the Summer Sea

Bob Dylan’s nod in his Nobel prize acceptance speech to Shakespeare was in tune with Charles O’Brien’s musing on the dailiness of genius in his pre-millennial take-down of George Steiner (which is posted below).

I know I just dropped too many names on you, but please allow me to introduce one more. I was reminded of O’Brien’s music again recently when I came across a Steiner quote in the introduction to a reprint of an early work by the Marxist polymath Max Raphael. The intro’s author cited this bit of Steiner in wannabe mandarin mode–”not only the humanities, but humane and critical intelligence itself resides in the always threatened keeping of the very few”–to sum up assumptions about Mind that Raphael instinctively resisted. Like Raphael back in the day, O’Brien has always been repelled by the yen to equate humanism with prerogatives of “traditionally delimited professional circles.”

I’m reminded now of Kurt Vonnegut’s generous response to O’Brien’s model of creative marginality. When Vonnegut read “Into the Summer Sea” in the first First, he sent a $100 check and punchlines worth more than gold: “I was thoroughly demoralized by awareness that brilliant pro-bono writing was was going all over the fucking country. Now Claremont Avenue, for Christ’s sake. Checks in!”

A British literary critic once tried to define qualities that enabled a book to last 10 years. He wouldn’t have stooped to wonder what kept an essay alive, but someone else might want to consider why O’Brien’s wild light shines on 20 years after. B.D.

I remember reading somewhere in an article somewhere an account by the author wherein his teacher one day leaned over and told him softly that you should always keep two passports handy; and, the text went on in its proairetic way, that teacher was none other than George Steiner. And I, who do precisely that, that is to say, keep two passports handy, I wonder: what’s he yelling about? For George Steiner comes recommended.

Very. Steiner publishes, in books and in a variety of magazines, and lectures prolifically. He has and has had numerous academic appointments. He is often spoken of as a great critic. His range of languages! His prose! (his prose!) And what has he not read?  The recent Reading George Steiner, a sort of Festschrift with, up top, in lieu of the maraschino cherry, “A Responsion” by Steiner himself gives the flavor. There we are told of the “passionate seriousness,” of the “puissant majesty of his oeuvre,” and we learn that:

A month after the second moiety of lectures began…Steiner offered some fascinating reflections on modern music, especially on rock and acid house.” (So many questions have been raised about this new dance craze!)

There often comes a time in the career of a writer who has over a while inspired doubts that these doubts get resolved against him. With Steiner, this book, No Passion Spent: Essays, 1978-1995, is that time. This is a poorer collection than his 1984 best-of, George Steiner: A Reader, which began with 1965’s “To Civilize Our Gentlemen” (a title that at least had the virtue of unfailingly calling up a smile and the thought of a rope). But since nothing here is exactly new, it probably only seems that he’s getting worse. Impressive from a distance, a long one, seen closely, the book is more than a little repellent. So much industry, what good can come of it? And Steiner’s many celebrated gifts, will they come when he does call? Random quotation would be sufficient to show what is wrong, but would be more cruelty than justice. Let’s look instead at a few passages – none unrepresentative – that cover the main problems.

From “The Uncommon Reader:”

To accumulate paperbacks is not to assemble a library. By its very nature, the paperback pre-selects and anthologizes from the totality of literature and thought…It is only when we know a writer integrally, when we turn with special if querulous solicitude to [an author’s] “failures” and construe our own vision of his presentness that the act of reading is authentic. Dog-eared in our pocket, discarded in the airport lounge, lurching between ad hoc brick bookends, the paperback is a marvel of packaging and a denial of the largesse of form and spirit…Can a paperback have seven seals?

The critique of the paperback is old as, no doubt older, than, the paperback itself, but this one is the most worthless I can recall. As an exercise in but-abandoning-oneself-to-it it is simply stunning. Where it is not flatly untrue, it is blithely beside the point. What, for instance, is a library? In this view, it is, really, the room that books do furnish. Would the library of Alexandria qualify? If yes, then only because it could produce references. Aleksander Wat, in his memoirs, talks about reading in the Lubyanka as a guest of the GPU. Books unavailable to the rest of the Soviet population were given, if haphazardly, to the inmates, and there Wat read, among others, Proust. Was that a library? Not by Steiner’s standards (although it did have at least seven seals). Yet that is how reading, in the world, gets done and more “authentically” than with Steiner’s fancied “querulous solicitude.”

Steiner is one who, in Samuel Johnson’s contemptuous phrase, reads books through. But he even wants points for what he hasn’t read. Well who wouldn’t want that. But nobody like Steiner:

I have a dozen times slunk by [Paolo] Sarpi’s leviathan history of the Council of Trent (one of the pivotal works in the development of western religious-political argument); or the opera omnia of Nikolai Hartmann in their stately binding. I shall never manage the sixteen thousand pages of Amiel’s (profoundly interesting) journal currently being published.

Slunk by! (Where?) An even dozen times!  Stay off the pipe! But if Steiner isn’t – couldn’t be – going anywhere with this, he’s careful to cover himself. If he hasn’t read it, he is willing to bet nobody else in the room has. What should be concession is further grandiosity.

From “The Archives of Eden:”

The most voluptuous of central European chocolates is named after Mozart, the most seductive of steak-dishes after Chaateaubriand and Rossini. Such kitsch (!) pays tribute to a formidable recognition. Why are American streets so silent to the remembrance of thought?

Steiner has his facts wrong, and they are truest thing here. There are plenty of “American streets” with toney names – and let’s not for a moment forget the Parthenon in Nashville, TN. And after pigging out on the weekend specials at a Frenchish restaurant that’s seen better days, and a couple of Mozart candies (which are not exactly chocolates) we can crack open a bottle of Rembrandt mouthwash and – live a little! – rinse and spit. But even granting Steiner the facts, what could any of it matter? If scorpions lived on sense and logic, such an argument as this would be the carapace left behind. Is there anything Kantian about a street named after Kant? When Goebbels called Germany “the great country of Kant,” what was that a “formidable recognition” of? What do Chateaubriand and Rossini, of all people, have to do, of all things, with “thought?” And is it any favor to Steiner to note the possibility of some lumbering levity in this passage?

From “What is Comparative Literature?”

Labor as we may, bread will never wholly translate pain. What in English, French or Italian is Heimat?

Among the many claims made by/for Steiner is that he is so fluently multi-lingual, with, for example English and French and German as his first language. Such skills are certainly useful for a guide up the Amazon or a pimp in Berlin and indispensable for someone, like Steiner, whose fondest aspiration is to be the Peter Lorre of American criticism. But, what’s in it for the rest of us? Steiner, having experienced, in English, the inexpressible, is here to tell us that it is inexpressible, that and no more. “Bread will never translate pain” stripped of the trivial and tautological, the little truth is that the place of bread in Anglophone cultures is not that of bread in French culture. But that is not an issue of translation. And anyone seeking to “wholly translate” a freighted word by its easiest pocket dictionary equivalent has not worked at all: how, then, does the phrase, “Labor as we may” apply? As so often in Steiner, underneath the sonorities, it’s all arpeggiated fuck-ups. Note too, Steiner’s insistence on italicizing foreign words as often as he can. Good English wouldn’t; advertising does. There’s more: the world is full of imperfectly multilingual people, not “wholly translating” from one language to another. The differences are not the situs of a problematic. Wise men and others, fish in those lacunas, and few people come away with nothing. Polyglossy is more commonly a pleasure than a sorrow.

From “Two Suppers:”

Two deaths continue to characterize western moral and intellectual history. (Would that history have been markedly different, could there have been a steadier light in the landscape of western consciousness if the axiomatic events had been that of two births?)

Where to pick this up?  The “two suppers” are the Symposium and the Last Supper. Hackneyed as the Socrates-Jesus comparison is, “Incomparable” Steiner, as he deserves to be called in Eighteenth-Century style, should have foregone comparison. One hint: a three hour agony is observed; twelve days of Christmas are celebrated. What is there in what we know of Socrates to set against the Magnificat? What could an Angel of Philosophy have prophesied to his expectant mother that would not leave her groaning. “Just great! Another fucking lumpen?” The last 59 pages of this dismal book are devoted to these specific deaths, to those two, or any other births, part of one sentence. What steadier light is to be found here? Elsewhere in the book, Steiner pronounces, “It is a Socrates, a Mozart, a Gauss or a Galileo who, in some degree, compensates for man.” Man may need redemption, or not, but not compensation; and compensation is not to be found where Steiner would send us looking. Whatever needs making up is to be looked for in the world, somewhere, as we may find it, and not in the greater retentions of [somebody else’s name here]. Steiner, so much of whose work is an extra-long I’m-with-incomparable-genius t-shirt, is not to be trusted on matters of the everyday or the domestic. In a (favorable) review of Althusser’s genuinely loopy, rather pathetic memoir, I Want to Tell You, Steiner observes, “There is something vulgar, almost absurd in the notion of Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon.” I don’t know, but as James M. Cain’s characters liked to say, You shoulda seen the other guy. There is an account of Elvis Presley, in the flush of his first fame, appearing in front of an audience, and before starting the first number, in that moment, pink and black, spitting on the stage. I don’t mind that such a measure is quite lost on Steiner – let him mind – but he could have been expected to know such things as that the world must be peopled, and those people fed, and with something more nourishing than a spectral died of pain, seductive steaks and voluptuous marzipan bonbons.

From “A Preface to the Hebrew Bible:”

Time and again, I have sought to imagine, albeit indistinctly, Shakespeare remarking at home or to some intimate on whether or not work on Hamlet or Othello had gone well or poorly, as the case might be. I can picture him, just, expressing satisfaction over Feste in Twelfth Night or the compactions of syntax (still unique) in Coriolanus. And then inquiring as to the price of cabbage…What I am unable to do is to arrive at any thought-image, however naïve, at any impression of literary technique of rhetorical transport, however masterful, when confronting the author(s) of God’s speeches out of the whirlwind in Job, of much of the Qoheleth, of certain Psalms or considerable portions of “Second Isaiah.” The picture of some man or woman lunching, dining, after he or she had “invented” and set down these and certain biblical texts, leaves me, as it were, blinded and off-balance.

What is not wrong with all this? “I can picture him, just, expressing satisfaction over Feste…” Why just? It is hard to imagine Shakespeare, working actor-playwright, shareholder, impresario, and presumably as gregarious as today’s show-folk, not discussing the clown role with the company clown. Hamlet …and the others would be similarly subject to discussion. A poet the very height of whose eloquence is reached in such lines as

Never, never, never, never, never


Pray you, undo this button: thank you sir

surely is more capacious than Steiner lets on. And Coriolanus’s “still unique” compactions of syntax, while we’re at it, are a little less unique than those of The Winter’s Tale.

Could someone write Ecclesiastes and then go to lunch? It is precisely the book of someone who has never wanted for lunch. These biblical texts are the very last ones to support the kinds of distinctions Steiner would impose on them. Erich Auerbach, who insisted on the commonness of Biblical style, writes:

But what a road, what a fate lies between the Jacob who created his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast! – between David the harp player, persecuted by his lord’s jealousy, and the old king, surrounded by violent intrigues, whom Abishag the Shunnamite warmed in his bed, and he knew her not

Here is a prose that, even in translation, communicates brilliantly, a prose caught up in the wonders it speaks of. It is also a prose that, for all it says about the texts it addresses, speaks achingly, but without so much as a sideways glance, of the actual situation to which its author, “really cast down,” had been brought. Steiner, not really saying anything about his chosen texts, says nothing about anything else.

It is hardly worth quoting, but what was in the ellipsis in the above Steiner passage, that is after the Shakespeare and before the Bible, was a sentence about (or “about”) Schubert and Einstein. What do they have to do with it? Chez Steiner, even those texts, the Bible and Shakespeare, that are most common property, that are most freely, sluttishly, accessible – and the better for it – are to be kept behind glass.

From “Two Cocks:”

It is in Marxism that post-Christian western messianic hopes were invested, that newfound expression was given to the hunger for justice on earth. Both the Sermon on the Mount and the communist Manifesto proclaim their origins in Mosaic teachings and in Amos. The downfall of the Marxist ideal may bring the final enfeeblement of Christianity, Wrestlers succumb to mutual exhaustion.

And this too the wind beareth away. Passion in here invoked not with passion, but with guesses, and mistaken guesses. In a similar context, Steiner speaks of “hope of hope.” No comfort, and no such thing. If hope that is seen is not hope, neither is hope that is speculated on. Steiner is something of a diminished Ernst Bloch. He has long and very chastely flirted with Revolution (see, if you must his book-length fiction, Proofs). Let’s tease out Steiner’s schema. “Marxism” supplants Christian messianic hopes. The “Marxist ideal” then falls. Christianity itself than succumbs. Nothing of this corresponds to anything that may be observed in the world. Aspiration has never been institutionally or textually bound. “Marxism” is, to Steiner, pre-eminently the Marx of 1844; and that is only a moment, and not a particularly big one in the history of the Nineteenth-Century workers’ movement. The “Marxist Ideal,” (confusedly), is far more the brainchild of Engels and Lenin. What specifically had a downfall is hardly the death of hope. As if the likes of Suslov and Markus Wolf worried their evil heads about love for love.

The presence of “post” and “exhaustion” are tip-offs. Steiner’s reading of 1989 is, in essence, the standard rightist one: an engulfing capitalist order defeated Marxism. In truth, though, the Eastern European states fell in response to pressure almost exclusively from within and mostly from the left. The opposition there, far from being “exhausted,” was audacious, sustained, principled, and intelligent. A good representation can be found in Adam Michnik’s collection of essays, The Church and The Left, which covers the same ground that Steiner purports to. But how differently Michnik’s honorable, somewhat messy book has wrestled with his subject. Steiner’s posturing is so much easier and so without point. In a recent article on the killing of Aldo Moro, Steiner makes a passing reference to “Red Brigade covens.” It is not only that this is the sort of lunacy you would expect to find in the Congressional Record, but for him not to spare a kind word for The Terror is to have labored in vain. Can such a “hunger for justice on earth” as some “messianically hopeful” corner of Steiner’s being would claim, and so tiny a thirst for blood dwell together? Yes – but not often, and not easily. No Future can be gleeful; Steiner’s is only enervating – and not even credible.


The single least agreeable thing about this book is reading it. It is as if the slogan, No poetry after Auschwitz, were a prescription for bloated prose. His style is vaguely Baroque, but waxy and overdressed, like a defendant or a corpse. It would be fun to make up a list of Steiner’s tic-words – actually you’ve met a few – but “floruit” should not go unnoted. His adverbs usually come announced fore and aft, as if trying to capture the speech rhythms of Frank Costanza. He refers to the Jewish refusal to convert as gran rifiuto. Dante tells us nothing about the discussion, and the discussion tells us nothing about Dante. But I suppose Steiner had gone too long without anything in italics.

At some point, Steiner quotes a few lines from the first scene in Hamlet: They are, predictably, in original spelling. There is, of course, nothing wrong with unmodernized spellings and, in some cases, they will be preferable. Not here. Here, it is for effect, another flourish, such as are to be found in about every line in Steiner, and even when he shuts up for a few, and such as “when they seldome come, they wisht for come.”

Steiner’s manner is central to the Steiner effect. He comes with the face you put on walking into a wake or a job interview. As effusively as he offers praise, it hardly seems with any affection. Instead, it is courtier-like, a duty done, and really no more. Steiner’s suggestiveness, his implied lines of inquiry are the crabgrass of the graduate seminar. We know so little about, he says over and over, and so much work remains to be done on, but if we know anything, it is that the work isn’t going to get done here. His most challenging inquiries, his star turns, e.g., why have the Jews refused conversion?, are worse than difficult, they are insoluble; and they are insoluble because, well, because they are dumb.

Steiner is perhaps most prized for his high seriousness. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory offers the right response, a stool painted by Van Gogh shows up the insufficiency of the “great,” the “august” subject. Or see Adorno kicking Heidegger in the head – and loving it! – “a poesie concocted from Parmenides and Jungnickel,” and then see with what owl-like solemnity Steiner always treats Heidegger. And it is not so much that Steiner is wrong and Adorno right. It is that Steiner couldn’t be right. You can’t get there from here.

The gloomy Steiner appears to suffer from the Soame Jenyns syndrome, a condition first diagnosed by Dr. Johnson:

A head thus prepared for the reception of false opinions, and the project of vain designs, the [the malign gods] easily fill with idle notions, till in time they make their plaything an author…Then begins the poor animal to entangle himself in sophisms, and flounder in absurdity, to talk confidently of the scale of being, and to give solutions which himself confesses impossible to be understood.

Reversing Dante’s lines in Canto V of the Inferno, Primo Levi once wondered if perhaps there were no greater joy than the remembrance of pain in a later tempo felice. For him, it was a fugitive hope, as it turned out, but that he entertained it is proof of his integrity. There is, by contrast, a willed quality to Steiner’s so frequent recursion to Auschwitz. Where you can come to be so at ease is probably not hell.

Steiner has lately, especially in Real Presences and also in a good bit of this book, acquired a reputation as a theologian of sorts. I am reminded, first, of the title of a book by Leszek Kolakowski: God Owes Us Nothing, and then of a news item Jay Leno once read on the air. Charles Manson had just been hospitalized after acid was thrown in his face by another inmate. The assault took place, said Leno, “during a religious argument.” He added, “Now, there’s two major theologians.” Sure; then throw in Steiner, Dr. Cornel West, and a carton of cigarettes, and you will have one wicked game of whist.

It’s hard to know just what the title, No Passion Spent, means. But, say, you’re walking down the street, and you see a rubber half-unfurled. Curiosity might drive you to peer inside, to see if anything’s there. On a good day, you’ll think better of it.