Approaching his seventieth year, George Steiner has written a compact, eloquent, impassioned, and deeply sad memoir that stresses his intellectual life while subordinating his personal life. As a self-proclaimed champion of canonical values in literary studies and as a mandarin defender of the European intellectual tradition, he regards himself as besieged and the arts and humanities as endangered into obsolescence. Above all, he broods darkly on the twentieth century being the most bestial period in recorded history: “Man has, on a pervasive scale, been diminished.”
Steiner’s accomplishments as a cultural scholar and critic are commanding. He has written sixteen books that span an astonishing arc from ancient Greek literature to chess, philosophy, philology, linguistics, aesthetics, religion, fiction, and poetry. Perhaps his most important studies have been Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), The Death of Tragedy (1961), In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (1971), and After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975). In 1984 Oxford University Press published a selection of his essays in George Steiner: A Reader. In the introduction Steiner called the book “an interim statement.” Errata is another interim report on the intellectual concerns of one of the twentieth century’s most erudite humanists.
Steiner’s parents were Austrian-Jewish, Zionist yet secular. Even though his father was a successful investment banker, he insisted that the family leave anti-Semitic Vienna, Austria, for Paris, France, as early as 1924. A man of formidable will and intellect, Steiner, Sr., had his son learn French and English at an early age and determined that George would be a teacher and scholar, at home not only with books but also in museums and concert halls. At the age of six the boy was introduced to The Iliad and The Odyssey in their original Greek, with the father daily examining the son on his understanding of the texts. In 1940 the family was fortunate enough to reach New York City. George was enrolled in a French Lycée in Manhattan, where he read Greek and Latin authors, Jean Racine and Paul Claudel, as well as William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare evokes a somewhat divided, though admiring, response from Steiner. In The Death of Tragedy, he separates Shakespearean drama from the genre of absolute tragedy as found in classical Greece and seventeenth century France. Rather, Shakespearean tragedy is pluralistic and tragicomic, with the mature Shakespeare refusing to compact the universe into a black hole; even King Lear (1605-1606), Steiner insists, has countercurrents of humane reconquest and hints of dawn. In Errata Steiner is sympathetic to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s critique that Shakespeare’s art lacks an overtly ethical-metaphysical dimension as is available in, for example, Sophocles’ Antigone (441 b.c.e.; English translation, 1729), Euripedes’ Bakchai (405 b.c.e.; The Bacchae, 1781), and Jean Racine’s Bérénice (1670; English translation, 1676). Shakespeare’s characters have no coherent ethics, no mature philosophy, let alone any enacted evidence of a transcendent faith. Discussing the role of religion in the arts, Steiner finds it suffusing virtually all great works, Shakespeare’s being the only “towering exception. There is in his plays a seeming absence of any ascertainable religious position.” This is an overstatement. Modern writers often fail to take religious positions; witness Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Alberto Moravia, and many more.
Steiner’s procedure in Errata is to avoid personal revelations in any depth. Rather, he uses the bare bones of his activities to probe into his abiding passion for the life of the mind. Thus he devotes only a few paragraphs to his study for a B.A. at the University of Chicago. What fascinated him there were classes in Aristotelian-Thomist epistemology, social anthropology, poetics, and philosophy. In a later chapter on his teachers, he paints vivid vignettes of his most memorable Chicago instructors: The Miltonist Ernest Sirluck drilled him in linguistic history and rhetoric, Puritan ideologies, and the importance of historical context. The Thomist Richard McKeon taught him to read Aristotle deeply. The poet-critic Allan Tate showed...
(The entire section is 1847 words.)