Grammars of Creation
By George Steiner
FABER pounds 16.99
Most of George Steiner's books have mildly sensationalist titles. The Death of Tragedy, After Babel, In Bluebeard's Castle: these are the works of a man for whom ideas still have the power to shock and exhilarate, scandalise or enthral. Steiner may be one of the last of the great breed of European humanists; but he is also an intellectual showman with a canny sense of theatre, a flamboyant conjurer who pulls author after author out of the apparently bottomless hat of his erudition.
A book by Steiner is as instantly recognisable as a sculpture by Henry Moore. There is the polymathic range, the burnished, high- pitched rhetoric, the elegiac mood, the magisterial tone. Steiner's favourite mode is the interrogative, which sometimes means posing questions to which neither he nor anyone else could conceivably know the answers. "What was the average lexical capacity of a Castilian peasant of the early 15th century?" would be a (semi-fictitious ) example. "Who, today, reads Statius?" he asks at one point. To which the only honest answer is: who? But Steiner knows who Statius is, as he seems to know about everything from music to mathematics, nuclear physics to negative theology.
"Knows", however, is a chequered term. There are times in his work when Steiner seems to be coruscating on thin ice, and patches of his formidable learning, which he wears heavily enough, might not bear too persistent a probing. The philosopher Wittgenstein did not say that the unwritten half of his celebrated Tractatus was the most important part, nor does the New Testament have Jesus announcing: "When Abraham was, I am". Neither is most of what Jesus says in the future tense. But these, like other minor errors in this book, are not the point. One does not go to George Steiner, any more than one goes to the National Enquirer, for the facts. One turns to this great hedonist of ideas to renew one's sense of the mighty rollercoastering adventures of the intellect, as well as to savour the distinctive aroma of a European humanism now almost exhausted. Steiner's range of cultural reference is extraordinary. On a single, randomly selected page of this book, about 350 words in all, he alludes oracularly to Homer, Flaubert, Mozart, Cervantes, La Fontaine, Aeschylus, Dickens, Thomas Mann, Proust, Chaucer and Moliere. He is one of the most imaginatively audacious thinkers of our time, though usually more provocative than precise. The Steinerian tone is liturgical, rhapsodic, and his reverence for the life of the mind is well-nigh religious. He is, indeed, a reluctant rabbi, one of those wounded refugees from the ruins of classical European culture who set up home with art because - however much they may yearn to do so - they cannot find shelter with God.
Poetry, music, mathematics, speculative metaphysics: these, Steiner announces, are the great domains of human creation. One might notice, less euphorically, that they are also all refuges from the torture chamber of history for the aloof, unhoused, abstract mind. …