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George Steiner

George Steiner’s many books include The Death of Tragedy, In Bluebeard’s CastleAfter Babel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. and Lessons of the Masters. He taught at the universities of Geneva, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. He died on 3 February 2020, at the age of 90.

Do-It-Yourself

George Steiner, 23 May 1996

A theory becomes ‘classical’ when it is thought to have been understood, which is to say left behind or constructively challenged. Where a theory is forceful enough, there is, inevitably, a sense in which it consumes its object and, thus, itself. These are Hegelian concepts and they bear directly on the theory of the evolution of literary forms which Lukács derived critically from Hegel. Roughly put, Hegel attached the origin, maturity and decline of the major genres in Western literature to corresponding epochs of consciousness. These, in turn, generated and were generated by (the dialectic) historical, ideological and social realities. The heroic epic enacted conditions of life and perception of an archaic social order. It yielded to the conflicts between individuation and society, between the familial and the political represented in drama. Out of the erosion of the mythological-polytheistic or theistic components in drama came the novel.

Homer and Virgil and Broch

George Steiner, 12 July 1990

A suggestive history of Western moral, literary and political sensibility could be written in terms of the relative status, at given periods and in different societies, of Homer and Virgil. The actual Homeric texts come late into European Christendom. Dante knew of the ‘sovereign poet’ only by hearsay and via derivative epics. The Virgilian presence is continuous. Christological readings of the Fourth Eclogue bestow on Virgil an aura of prophetic illumination. He is known as a magician and sibylline prognosticator in Medieval Italy. The Renaissance ranks Homer as almost divine, but is Virgilian in its poetic practices and aesthetics. Generally, the Enlightenment and early Romanticism – Shelley would be an instance – are Homeric in preference. But an artist such as Turner sees in Virgil the prophetic witness to the imperial politics and aesthetic tone of the times. Angles of incidence and of interpretation are complicated by the deepening understanding of the decisive but often oblique status of the Iliad and Odyssey ‘inside’ the Aeneid, and by the realisation, even more challenging, of the ways in which Virgil’s epic retrospectively alters our responses to Homer.’

Affinities

George Steiner, 19 April 1990

Oddly enough, philosophers, even of the most technical and abstract tenor, can generate personal mythologies. Very early, the aura of legend haloed Pythagoras and Empedocles. Wittgenstein is now the object of a considerable corpus of poetry and fiction in which the strangeness, the sometimes histrionic apartness and reputed violence, of his truth-seeking takes on a romantic, mythical cast. Baruch Spinoza has been a perennial source of imagery or fable. Even those unacquainted with his writings know of a thinker of utmost purity, of utmost abstention from mundanity, who ground optical lenses for a precarious living. They will have some intimation of a pariah of exigent genius wholly committed to meditations of the loftiest, most abstract order, of a man whose brief life (1632-1677) was spent in sombre isolation from his native community and contemporaries. No matter that this picture is, in decisive aspects, false. It adheres with a kind of obstinate radiance to the author of the Theologico-Political Treatise and the Ethics.

Darkness Visible

George Steiner, 24 November 1988

Roll out the drum and blow the fife. 1989 is close at hand, and with it the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Well over a hundred international colloquia will mark the occasion. They will range from platitudinous immensities – ‘the rights of man’, ‘Europe and America after the fall of the Bastille’, ‘the French Revolution and the Third World’ – to genuinely worthwhile specificities (‘music and drama during the Jacobin regime’, ‘clandestine presses and the dissemination of revolutionary doctrines’). Publishers are poised to pour out a veritable cornucopia of books, acta, learned monographs and anthologies on the history of France and of Europe from 1789 to 1800. The monumental Dictionary of the Revolution, put together by Furet and a galaxy of Continental historians, is out in France. A day-by-day calendar of events throughout France, beginning with the disorders in the provinces during 1788, is in process of publication. Museums, national, civic, metropolitan and local, are announcing pertinent exhibitions. Plays, operas, ballets, old and newly-commissioned, on French Revolutionary themes, will be staged. Hymns pro and con, by Cherubini, Beethoven, Berlioz, will echo to the searchlit skies. Arguably, though that word is inappropriately cautionary, the 14th of July 1789, that day proclaimed by Fox to be the most glorious in the history of man, is more immediate to world-wide remembrance than is any other (the date of the birth of Christ is problematic and its resonance far from universal).’

Whereof one cannot speak

George Steiner, 23 June 1988

Why should there be biographies of philosophers? Nietzsche held every philosophical-metaphysical doctrine to be the confession of its begetter. Husserl, on the contrary, believed that a philosophical argument was worth considering only if it aspired to the universality, to the truth-conditions of the anonymous. On neither count is there any need for biographical treatment. In the nature of the case, ‘lives’ of philosophers will either consist of more or less systematic accounts of their teachings, or of gossip. The originator of the genre, Diogenes Laertius, plainly exemplifies the dilemmas and superfluities of the enterprise.

Modernity

George Steiner, 5 May 1988

Memories would seem to come in waves. Just now the Twenties and the Thirties have taken on a vivid presence. Their music, their arts, their decorative styles and fashions are being rediscovered and imitated. Vintage cars out of those two decades have become emblematic of a lost nerve and ostentatious brio. There may be pretty obvious reasons for this mode. Our bourses and currencies are haunted by intimations of the previous crash and of the turmoil and recession which ensued. Our sense of the inward connections between the two world wars and of the decline of Europe looks to the armistice of the inter-war years with a new scrutiny. Could saner accommodations have been found? Could the palpable lessons of Armageddon have been learnt in time? And if we now find ourselves, more or less convincingly, at the twilight of Modernism in sensibility, in experimental form, is it not natural that we should seek out the sources and attempt a balance-sheet? But these could well be rationalisations. Shifts of taste, of mimetic focus, are obscure phenomena. The tango is back, and so is scotch.

Re-Livings

George Steiner, 5 June 1980

Critics are legion. Good readers, i.e. those with a complete philological mastery of a major text and the ability to bring this text home to us in its own terms, are rare. Rarer, perhaps, says Borges, than good writers. Because the gifts required are infrequent: technical scruple, historical tact, a just sense for what is both untranslatable, resistant to paraphrase in a classical text, and, at the same time, a vivid enough commitment to the belief that even this ‘untranslatability’, or, indeed, it especially, will, if carefully circumscribed, have a vital presentness to the current reader. Professor Donald Carne-Ross, now of Boston University, is a reader in the best sense.

The Everyday Business of Translation

George Steiner, 22 November 1979

Translation was, until recently, the stepchild of critical attention and literary theory. Translators themselves were poorly-paid drudges. Views on the nature of literary translation turned on a dichotomy as ancient as Horace and Quintilian (who, themselves, took it over from Greek predecessors): as between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’, as between goals of utmost fidelity, represented by an interlinear version of the original, and ideals of active echo or re-creation in the target-language. From Renaissance theorists and Dryden onward, a threefold historical scheme was standard: there are word-for-word transfers; there are attempts at faithful paraphrase but in a style native to the tongue of the translator; and there are diverse orders of ‘free’ translation or recasting which can range all the way from the Augustan stylisation in Pope’s Homer to the ‘variations on a source-theme’ which we find in Mallarmé’s Poe or Pound’s Propertius. With rare exceptions, it is around these two formal poles and in terms of this executive triad that treatises on the theory and business of translation are constructed from classical antiquity to the early 20th century.

Letter
In a purported review of selected essays by Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June), Mr Craig Raine expatiates at some length and with manifold insinuations, sneers and convolutions on an unscripted, entirely ‘spoken’ exchange between Christopher Ricks and myself on the question of T.S. Eliot’s feelings about Jews and Judaism. As I stated in the verbal exchange (the admonition to ‘reconsider...
Letter

Missing Person

5 May 1988

George Steiner writes: I do owe Margot Heinemann an apology. It is correct that the name of George Orwell appears in a footnote. The word ‘poignant’ seems to me a courteous description of this placement (inevitably reminiscent of Stalinist habits).

Like a Meteorite

James Davidson, 31 July 1997

Two thousand seven hundred and thirty years ago, somewhere on the west coast of Turkey, not far perhaps from Izmir, you are attending a feast. Although some of your neighbours are still noisily...

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Manning the Barricades

Andreas Huyssen, 1 August 1996

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...

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Holy Grails, Promised Lands

D.J. Enright, 9 April 1992

‘Proofs’, the longest story here, looks to be George Steiner’s farewell tribute on the passing of Communism; hardly a tribute, but rather more magnanimous than the run of...

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Silence

Wendy Steiner, 1 June 1989

Imagine a republic that bans commentary, ‘a society, a politics of the primary’ peopled with ‘citizens of the immediate’. In this aesthetic utopia, writer and reader share...

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Sisterliness

Jonathan Barnes, 6 September 1984

Who else would refer in the space of a hundred pages to a newly discovered papyrus of Stesichorus, a Zurich medical dissertation on the fear of being buried alive, and four 19th-century Danish...

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Hitler at Heathrow

E.S. Shaffer, 7 August 1980

As the unwary traveller hurries into Heathrow’s international bookstall hoping to light on a good read for the plane, his eye is assaulted by a thwacking array of swastikas on black, gold...

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