(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

George Steiner is one of the most widely read critics of literature and culture at large in the English-speaking world. He has written for both specialized academic readers and the more general though largely intellectual audiences reached by The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker. He has taught literature at such distinguished institutions as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Geneva in Switzerland, Cambridge University, and Oxford University. Steiner has both lived and espoused comparative literature with the fervent dedication of a Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, René Wellek, Lionel Trilling, or Edmund Wilson.

Born in Paris of Austrian-Jewish parents, Steiner came to the United States in 1940. He completed his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees at the University of Chicago and Harvard University by the age of twenty-one. Becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he took his Ph.D. there in 1955, and has since come to consider himself primarily a European or, more accurately, an unhoused, extraterritorial writer and teacher. Among the most important of his fifteen books have beenTolstoy 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 inGeorge Steiner: A Reader.

No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 reiterates and expands many of Steiner’s leading concerns. Paramount is his quasi-religious faith in works of high culture and his resolute stand as guardian of the very best achievements in arts and letters. In his opening essay, “The Uncommon Reader,” he deplores the contemporary world’s condition of intellectual crisis as exemplified by the vulgarities of mass culture, the eviction of memory (learning by heart) from schooling, and the systematic suppression of silence in the clamorous, technological consumer societies of the late twentieth century. These influences all militate against the complete engagement of the reader with the text. Our inner spaces, he mourns, are mute or jammed with raucous trivia. Most people are no longer able to identify (let alone quote) the central classical or biblical passages that form the underlying script of Western literature. The egalitarian-populist course of the West’s consumer economies have cast the die against the silence, solitude, and concentration that serious reading demands.

The essay “Real Presences” echoes a 1988 book by Steiner with the same title. He admits that all aesthetic propositions, such as reading preferences, are matters of taste and cannot be termed either “right” or “wrong,” even when they are as ridiculous as Tolstoy’s dismissal of King Lear as “beneath serious criticism.” Yet he insists that there is a best reading, and decries the philosophical skepticism that carries the labels of deconstruction, postmodernism, or poststructuralism. These hold writing to an anarchic play of readings subject to the reader’s own pleasures, politics, psychic needs, or self-delusions. That becomes radically unstable, and the text has no determinate limits or trustworthiness. Steiner regards such nihilism as deadly to literature.

His response to antitextual subversions is vaguely yet decidedly religious. Readers will need to believe that masterpieces “incarnate” a transcendent meaning in the same way that Christian communion incarnates Christ’s flesh and blood in bread and wine. We must read “as if” the text had transcendent meaning—one that no commentary or other decoding can fully exhaust, providing the work is not trivial or opportunistic. Steiner calls this axiomatic conditionality “our Cartesian-Kantian wager, our leap into sense.” For him, to encounter a great work of literature, music, or art is “to experience the commonplace mystery of a real presence.” Insofar as a text tells of the human capacity to express in words innermost truths and intuitions, its source exceeds secular, rational provenance.

Does Steiner believe in a religious or metaphysical inspiration for literature? Undoubtedly and eloquently, but also murkily and more metaphorically than logically. After all, incarnation promises the existence and authority of God, and nowhere does Steiner testify to such a Final Presence. He does, however, devote many of the book’s essays to topics involving religion and such religiously minded writers as Franz Kafka, Charles Péguy, and Simone Weil. Somewhat obsessively, he is haunted by the...

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