(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the first line of his new book, Grammars of Creation, George Steiner announces that “We have no more beginnings.” The trope of beginning, of inception, of origin, once so central to Western civilization (“In the beginning . . .” ) he believes has now lost much of its hold. Instead, Western culture is drawn to images of twilight. This is the end foretold by T. S Eliot, culminating with a whimper and not a bang. With dusk falling, Western civilization roots aimlessly through the detritus of a devalued heritage. It is culturally played out. As Steiner phrases it, it is afflicted with a “core-tiredness.” It is time to say good-bye.

This is a chilling observation, even coming from George Steiner, a distinguished literary scholar emphatically not known for an optimistic sense of the intellectual and spiritual course of the twentieth century. Arriving as it does at the juncture of two millennia, Grammars of Creationmight be dismissed as yet one more fin de siècle jeremiad, an expression of fashionably morose introspection. However, Steiner’s book does not fall easily into such a category. Though profoundly disturbed by what he sees around him, Steiner is no academic Chicken Little. His tone throughout his book is quiet and measured, rueful rather than strident. Whatever Grammars of Creation is, it is not a polemic. In fact, Steiner’s latest essay is the logical outgrowth of a body of work extending at least as far back as The Death of Tragedy (1961), in which he has explored the atrophy of various Western art forms. With Grammars of Creation, Steiner’s ongoing critique of modernity achieves fruition by addressing an issue utterly fundamental to thought and artistry, the nature of the source of things, the idea of creation, of genesis. In doing so, Steiner takes on something of the manner of a cultural pathologist, gingerly examining the moribund state of Western culture’s collective soul. Over a century ago, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) boldly declared that God was dead. Steiner is skillfully conducting the postmortem.

As a writer, Steiner is not for everyone. His prose can be a dense thicket from which not every wayfarer will emerge. As a thinker, Steiner strives for clarity and precision. Unfortunately, this quest places a heavy burden on language, as he attempts to convey the subtleties of his insight, and even at times grapple with the inexpressible, moods and concepts that defy conventional encapsulation in words. In this conceptual ambition, and literary viscosity, Steiner is akin to the German academic philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), whose tomes are legendarily forbidding. Words like “diachronic,” “aleatory,” and “instauration” blossom all too frequently on Steiner’s pages, likely sending the general reader to the dictionary, if not out of the room altogether. Steiner’s prose is sinuous in its twists and turns, frequently parenthetical, and punctuated on occasion by rhetorical questions and flourishes. At its worst, it seems opaque and fragmentary; at its best, it attains a lucidity and epigrammatic suppleness of astonishing force. Happily, these enlightening flashes come with enough regularity to redeem the less digestible passages in between.

In the case of the American edition of Grammars of Creation, any discussion of the author’s style demands consideration of its packaging. The old truism that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” holds doubly true here. Yale University Press has attractively mounted Steiner’s book. The dust jacket is striking, the binding tasteful, and the typesetting and composition graced by a number of interesting touches. Unfortunately, the editing and proofing leave much to be desired. Typographical and spelling errors abound with a frequency that is shocking coming from a distinguished academic press. The index lists most, but by no means all, of the names mentioned in the text, and no rational principle of selection seems to justify the omissions. At times the reader is left wondering in what relative measure the obscurity of a paragraph is due to the vagaries of Steiner’s rococo style, or to the incompetence of his copy editors. Author, press, and public are all done a disservice by this editorial sloppiness.

The blow that Steiner has been dealt by his editors is ironic, and perhaps profoundly telling. Although he does not speak of it in these terms, Steiner in Grammars of Creation is concerned with the problem of order, and order’s necessary relation to meaning. He prefers the linguistically grounded term “grammar.” As he explains early on, a grammar is a mode of organizing and disciplining thought. Moving easily from the strictly linguistic, with which most of his readers will associate the word, Steiner hypostatizes grammar as a mode of marshaling both experience and understanding of the world. Only shared grammars make it possible to communicate an...

(The entire section is 2047 words.)