George Steiner Essay - Critical Essays

Steiner, George


George Steiner 1929–

French-born American critic, editor, poet, short story writer, and novelist.

Steiner is important as both a literary and social critic. One of his basic interests is in the relation of literature to life. In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, for instance, Steiner analyzed the work of the two writers in the context of the political realities of their time and their cultural, literary, and spiritual heritage.

The essays in Steiner's Language and Silence attempt to establish what Steiner termed "a philosophy of language." Believing that language is the expression of the human condition, Steiner pursued the disturbing question of whether or not literature can survive the "barbarism" of the modern world. In his view, the savage acts of modern societies gravely threaten the future of literature. The liberal ideal of literature as "morally redemptive" shatters in the knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the writer, in Steiner's view, must choose between speaking the language of an oppressive, dehumanizing world, and silence.

Several of Steiner's later books develop ideas introduced in Language and Silence. Extraterritorial proposes the idea that new modes of communication must be found. In this work, Steiner asserted that literary criticism will find new life in linguistic studies, multilingualism, and the adaptation of a scientific approach to the study of literature.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

The Times Literary Supplement

In Mr. George Steiner's words, it is necessary in approaching [Tolstoy and Dostoevsky] to think "of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical and political energies."

In the context of Russian literature this might almost be regarded as a truism. It is difficult to think of any serious and useful criticism of the Russian classics in recent years which does not take the principle for granted. Mr. Steiner nevertheless regards it as one of the characteristics which separate what he calls the "old" criticism from the "new." It seems that the new criticism, "the brilliant and prevailing school" which Mr. Steiner describes as "quizzical, captious, immensely aware of its philosophic ancestry and complex instruments," is concerned rather with form than with content; and it is Mr. Steiner's intention to re-establish the old, which is "philosophic in range and temper" and which has been unduly neglected by contemporary critics, "with the exception of the Marxists."…

[But Mr. Steiner's distinction of the two schools of criticisms] is hardly applicable in the Russian context. All fruitful criticism of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky must necessarily be of the kind which he distinguishes as the "old"; in other words, it must be concerned with the philosophical and ideological content of the novels, and even with their biographical and historical background. The task that Mr. Steiner has undertaken [in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky] is therefore not so novel nor even so re-actionary as he suggests. It is nevertheless unusually well done. The analysis of the two masters' novels in terms of their life and thought and historical surroundings is almost a commonplace of criticism, but Mr. Steiner brings to it a freshness and acuteness which are the marks of a profound critic….

He is concerned not with a catalogue of casual, incidental parallels between life and fiction but with the overmastering ideas which so preoccupied the two men that they could not help finding parallel expression in their lives and their works.

Sometimes they were ideas that sprang from incidents, but incidents of such psychological force that they affected the writer's thought for life: Dostoevsky's narrow escape from execution as a conspirator in 1849, for instance, which found expression in The Idiot; and Tolstoy's "symbolic departure," as Mr. Steiner calls it, from St. Petersburg in 1851, which was reproduced in The Cossacks. It is possible that Mr. Steiner rests on these parallels a weight greater than they will bear. Certainly he does so in arguing that they constitute parallels not only between the life and novels of each of the two masters but also between the experiences...

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The area covered by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is vast; Mr. Steiner's arguments are numerous, close in themselves and yet rather loosely connected. The book, therefore, defies summary; it has to be read. In what follows I shall do no more than take up those of his themes that have particularly interested me, and have consequently aroused at least some degree of disagreement.

The fifty years or so before the Revolution of 1905 were, as Mr. Steiner points out, "the anni mirabiles of Russian fiction." As he also points out, "the Russian novel"—he might have widened the judgment to include the Russian theatre—"was conceived under a single sign of the historical Zodiac—the sign of approaching upheaval." Underlying most of what Mr. Steiner has to say about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is the question of their relationship to that "approaching upheaval." On the whole he agrees with Communist criticism in seeing Tolstoy as "for" the Revolution and Dostoevsky as "against." On Tolstoy's Christianity he twice quotes Gorky with approval and with telling effect. On Tolstoy and Christ: "When he speaks about Christ it is always peculiarly poor—no enthusiasm, no feeling in his words, and no spark of real fire. I think he regards Christ as simple and deserving of pity; and although at times he admires him, he hardly loves him." On Tolstoy and God: "With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of 'two bears in one den.'"

This Tolstoy is essentially a man of the Enlightenment, rationalist, authoritarian, supremely confident in a reasoned program for the improvement of man's life on earth, contemptuous of tradition and rituals—in short the Voltaire of the Russian Revolution. With Tolstoy—who said "I love truth more than anything in the world"—is contrasted Dostoevsky who said that he would remain with Christ even if "someone had proved that Christ is outside the truth." And it was Dostoevsky, with his perception of the dark and tragic in human nature, who, on this view, turned out to be right. "The univers concentrationnaire—the world of the death camps—confirms beyond denial," writes Mr. Steiner, "Dostoevsky's insights into the savagery of men" … It was Dostoevsky who foreshadowed, and Tolstoy—provisionally and rather shyly identified with Ivan Karamazov's Grand Inquisitor—who is in some degree responsible for the totalitarian regimes and the brutish delight of the masses in the musical and dance-like rituals of the Nuremberg rallies and the Moscow Sports Palace.

Mr. Steiner's...

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Richard Gilman

[Near the end of The Death of Tragedy] George Steiner expresses a credo that might more serviceably have appeared at the beginning. "I believe that literary criticism has about it neither rigour nor proof," he writes. "Where it is honest, it is passionate, private experience seeking to persuade."…

Mr. Steiner is no literary sociologist or patriot, nor is he a Houseman poised at his mirror ready to slice his throat at the memory of some devastating line. You will find here almost as close a reading of texts as is being performed at Chicago or Gambier, Ohio.

You will also find as brilliant, thorough and concerned a contemplation of the nature of dramatic art as has appeared in many years. Steiner doesn't have a profoundly original thesis, which along with the self-imposed limitation on his subject—there is scarcely any discussion of comedy—keeps me from placing his book in the company of such ur-works of recent drama criticism as Eric Bentley's Playwright as Thinker, Francis Fergusson's Idea of a Theater and H.D.F. Kitto's Form and Meaning in Drama, but The Death of Tragedy seems to me to rank not far below.

Steiner starts from the obvious fact that there has been no high tragic art since Corneille and Racine and the Elizabethans, and from the only slightly less evident truth that the history of the drama since then has been largely a simultaneous flight from the tragic and an unending attempt to resurrect it….

[Steiner's] chief premise is that what gave the death-blow to tragic drama was the great change in Western habits of...

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John Gross

Tragedy is plentiful in life but scarce in literature; since the 17th century the tragic drama has been in bad shape, and George Steiner now pronounces life to be extinct [in The Death of Tragedy]. Since his inquest only takes into account the theatre, it would be possible to accept his verdict and still ask whether the novel and the cinema haven't usurped what was once the playwright's territory. But although he confines his attention to the stage, Mr Steiner refers to theatrical history only in passing; his concern is with the tragic spirit itself, and its diminished role throughout Western culture.

Like all the indispensable categories of literature, tragedy is a slippery and approximate...

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John Simon

In The Death of Tragedy, Mr. Steiner's thesis is that tragedy, after its glorious heyday in Greece, and again, though in quite different trappings, in Elizabethan England, made its farewell appearance in 17th-century France. Thereupon, because science and optimism, commercialism, and the rise of the masses replaced myths, heroic individualism, and the sacramental-tragic view of life, tragedy went into an inexorable decline. The romantics tried to redeem it from its dreary neoclassical crawl by crossbreeding the prize-winning stables of Pericles and Elizabeth, but because the novel and prose had by now come into their own, the old and true verse tragedy was doomed except for a few flukes. With Ibsen and Chekhov...

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Theodore Solotaroff

If you are interested in contemporary literature and are looking for intelligent direction, then [Language and Silence, a] collection of George Steiner's essays and reviews, is the book for you. Steiner has been mostly known for his two dazzlingly precocious works of scholarship, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and The Death of Tragedy, but he now emerges as a cultural journalist who is as pertinent as he is erudite, a kind of latter-day Arthur Koestler. Language and Silence casts a bright and searching light into the murky disarray of current letters and literacy: it looks back to a darkness and disruption of Western culture that continues to plague and challenge the moral purpose of literature,...

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The Times Literary Supplement

[Steiner's themes in Language and Silence] are established in the first two sections, which fill nearly 200 pages and might really have been used, with a select sprinkling of the other items, to make a more tightly argued book. The problems set out there are important, often disturbing and largely neglected ones, and it is part of the author's unique merits as a critic that he keeps them always in the forefront of his mind. His concern is with language as the richest and closest expression of the human community at any given time or place—hence his interest in Lévi-Strauss, who treats human activities as analogous to language—and particularly with those instances where he feels that language has been...

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D. J. Enright

There is so much that is admirable in George Steiner's attitudes [in Language and Silence], so much in both his desiderations and his abominations to agree with, that his faults are all the more distressing. Or rather his one fault: a histrionic habit, an overheated tone, a melodramatization of what (God knows) is often dramatic enough, a proclivity to fly to extreme positions. The effect is to antagonize the reader on the brink of assent….

The difficulty with Mr. Steiner's reflections on "the retreat from the word"—as with those of some other recent writers on this theme—is that one cannot be sure whether he is lamenting the retreat, accepting it as inevitable, or anticipating an...

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Nicolas Krasso

Language and Silence is George Steiner's collection of those articles he published between 1958 and 1966. It deals with a great many cultural events and preoccupations in that period and as such is interesting and useful. Some of the essays have real merits. One need not see Thomas Mann's Felix Krull in quite the same way as Dr Steiner to recognise its good qualities. Generally Steiner exposes much European cultural history that is normally unstudied, and exhibits, in his literary commentaries, culture and erudition.

But it would be a derogation of Steiner's overall aim in this collection merely to comment lightly on a few individually excellent essays. Such wider intentions Steiner...

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Geoffrey Grigson

[Steiner] is a very clever man (in which he reminds me of one very clever man in a Cornish town, whose story can wait for a paragraph or two). He is prodigiously informed (a fact his writing parades). If some colleague of his told me that, between anthropology, linguistics and archaeology, he kept a triple diary in Tupi-Guarani, Old Friesian, and Tocharian, I would believe it. He is adroit in [the essays collected in In Bluebeard's Castle]; you think 'I've got him', and up he comes with your own objection. Am I being motivated personally? Could I be exaggerating? Or misinterpreting? But was it ever different? Of course 'there is a good deal of millenarian naïveté and recoil from adult politics in the current...

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Eliseo Vivas

Mr. Steiner's "T. S. Eliot Lectures" for 1971 [published as In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture] return us, we are told, to issues posed by Eliot in his 1948 Notes towards the Definition of Culture. As far as I can make out, Mr. Steiner's problems arise from the barbarism of our century, on which Eliot had almost nothing to say. Steiner has a great deal to say about it in a tone of sustained eloquence, while seemingly presenting a causal account of its origin. I say, "as far as I can say." and "seemingly," because protracted effort to get past the eloquent fuzz to the warp of the argument was not altogether successful….

Do these lectures add anything...

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Richard Freedman

[In Extraterritorial] Steiner pursues the trail he blazed with Language and Silence: an investigation into the very roots of communication; into how the special patterns of the some 4,000 languages now spoken in the world determine not only the course of the literature, but of the psychology, philosophy, and even the physiology of the people who speak and write them.

He maintains that if ever literary criticism is to transcend the facile or nit-picking minor art it has become, if it is not to go the way of the theological controversies of the late 19th century, it must somehow incorporate the discoveries of science (including mathematics), and that therefore the most fertile field for...

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Jonathan Culler

In Language and Silence and In Bluebeard's Castle Dr Steiner spoke of the 'retreat from the word', the distrust of language that has made us increasingly ill at ease in the interpreted world. This is still a major theme of [Extraterritorial], which takes Borges, Nabokov and Beckett as representative men, unhouseled and unhoused, warming themselves by rubbing two languages together. Their 'extraterritoriality', however, has compensatory graces: for the loss of confidence in language, the inability to feel truly 'at home' in it, is in substantial measure a reluctance to take it for granted, a painful awareness of its importance, which can lead to elegant, self-conscious artifice as well as to...

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Raymond Oliver

For some years now, George Steiner has been writing books and essays that deal with vast cultural problems on the one hand and subtleties of literary texture on the other; After Babel is a very large, dense, insightful study that puts together in a new way the intellectual and stylistic emphases of Steiner's previous work. His device for fusing the philosophy of culture with fine technical analysis is to examine translation: its history, practice, theory, and its almost infinite ramifications.

The book is, first of all, a compendium of ideas and data not only about translation in the strict sense but also those areas concerned somehow with translation, which means virtually everything....

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James Fenton

[Professor Steiner's most recent publications are On Difficulty and Heidegger. We do not yet know what his] next book will be 'about', but we may guess, on the basis of such texts as are available, that the aboutness will direct itself—will aim its most urgent responsions—towards some great zone of silence ('topic' would be too restricting a term, too banal and ungiving in its locality) about which we do not, as yet, 'know' anything at all.

You think I am mocking. Perhaps I am not. For such speculation is the favourite Steiner mode. It is true that knowledge and tradition have accumulated in this one mind to such an extent that the loss of that mind (one pictures for instance a...

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P. F. Strawson

[Martin Heidegger], George Steiner's treatment of this over-and underestimated figure, is exemplary, or very nearly so. Only very nearly so, because he too shares, to different degrees, in both the under- and the overestimation. He admits, modestly, to lack of professional expertise in philosophy; and this doubtless accounts for his limited recognition of the large measure of good sense which is discernible in Heidegger's strictly philosophical criticism. On the other hand, it is hard not to feel that Steiner overestimates the ultimate importance of Heidegger for philosophy and for the history of human thought in general. There is, after all, something absurd in the suggestion that he belongs in the class of...

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David H. Stewart

The recent preoccupation of all thoughtful practitioners of the humanities with language is [Steiner's] preoccupation. Semantics, semiotics, psycho-linguistics, structuralist literary criticism: these are his concerns. These he orchestrates in his continuing effort to explain how human beings communicate and what their manner of communication does to the content and style of their minds. Always well informed about the latest turns of Western discourse, he gives us astute extrapolations, so that we may contemplate many consequences (or at least implications) of the ideas and words that color intellectual life today.

[On Difficulty and Other Essays] is apparently the residue of After...

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