Manning the Barricades
- No Passion Spent by George Steiner
Faber, 421 pp, £20.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 571 17697 6
Railing against academic vogues and the cant of critical fashions is what academic literary critics typically do, and George Steiner is no stranger to the game. He has never been seduced by changing fashion and, at its best, his writing is fluid and incisive. As a critic he has always thought of himself as fiercely independent, but the essays collected in No Passion Spent fit all too well into the current scene of literary criticism: on one side, the practitioners of various forms of post-structuralist and cross-disciplinary Post-Modern criticism; on the other, the defenders of classical canons and criticism in its traditional modes. That Steiner has aligned himself with the latter camp is hardly surprising given his exceptional command of the tradition (much of it in the original languages), his ability to comment astutely on the intricacies of poetic and critical language, and his overall seriousness of purpose.
Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996
I was frustrated with the issue of LRB which carried reviews of recent books by Christopher Ricks (LRB, 1 August) and George Steiner (LRB, 1 August). Both Ricks and Steiner hold notoriously reactionary, anti-theoretical views. Why devote such attention to them? True, both Marilyn Butler and Andreas Huyssen expressed polite scepticism. But surely to dedicate such space to their work is a tacit endorsement of its spirit? Both men made important contributions to the field around thirty years ago, but are now markedly at odds with things. I would urge you to devote space to really important contributions of our decade, ones that are being talked about at the most interesting conferences in literary and cultural studies.
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996
Ruth Parkin-Gounelas’s parody (Letters, 5 September) of the new academic conformism was amusing, but a little overdone. Young academics are not this close, yet, to being the Red Guards of our intellectual life.
University College London
Andreas Huyssen (LRB, 1 August) claims that George Steiner ‘maintains the Archimedean point of view of a selectively circumscribed high culture from which differences in the landscape below can no longer be defined or become simply irrelevant’. I assume, via Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that the expression derives from Pappus’ report that Archimedes boasted: ‘Give me a place to stand and I can move the earth.’ Plutarch’s earlier version is differently expressed. Unfortunately, although she gave the correct transliteration of the Greek, in English she replaced ‘place’ by ‘point’, presumably because Kafka had done so in German. Whether or not Pappus quoted Archimedes correctly is not my point. In the Sand-Reckoner, Archimedes excoriated Aristarchus of Samos for the blunder of giving dimensions to a point; he would never have allowed therefore that ‘Archimedean point’ had any meaning, let alone a mathematical one. Kafka’s usage seems to me interesting, but misapplied. Its meaning in Huyssen and Arendt has defeated a student of Archimedes, but Arendt did have an excuse that Huyssen lacks. For it is now a dead metaphor. The astronauts who had to repair the satellite that relayed the Barcelona Olympics were able to do so because they, unlike Archimedes, had a lever and a place to stand outside the earth.