A son who found his homeland

November 21, 1997

There is something singularly paradoxical about George Steiner. He is an avowed elitist and also a tireless populariser, both authoritarian and open. As the doyen of silence and ineffability, Steiner never seems to stop speaking or writing. Such is, as he puts it, his "too loquacious life". He is disdainful of literary criticism and yet produces fiction only at painfully slow intervals. However assured he may sound, Steiner appears more than ever to be divided against himself. Errata: An Examined Life provides ample evidence for this inner conflict rather than the bellowing certainties of his more public persona. A non-confessional autobiography, this short book blends together the personal orthodoxies of an "examined life" with the unexamined undertow of doubt and despair.

A reader who approaches this quasi-memoir wishing to know more about Steiner's childhood and adolescence will, for the most part, be frustrated. Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Viennese parents, and educated at the lycee and at the universities of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. This experience has always underpinned and fed into his intellectual concerns to the extent that much of his oeuvre can be read as disguised or extended autobiography. His trilingual family background - German, French and English - enabled Steiner to act as a welcome "courier" between the lost world of Central European humanism (Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Berlin) and the parochiality, as he saw it, of Britain and the United States. For this reason, Errata slips in and out of confessional mode and continually juxtaposes moments of private revelation with his wider intellectual project.

The overpowering presence of his father (as opposed to his mother) can be found in the early chapters of the book. It was Steiner's father who decided to move to Paris in 1924 well before the "lust for reunification" overwhelmed Austria and, then, on to the United States in 1940. Such prescient decisions undoubtedly saved the life of Steiner's immediate family. Surprisingly, perhaps, Steiner does not present himself as a "kind of survivor" in this book (a title of an earlier autobiographical essay) but instead as a son who has disappointed his father (hence, "errata"). It was his father who, after all, encouraged his only son to become a scholar and educated him in the classics. Born into a family of emigres, and an only child to boot, Steiner's early passionate inwardness is movingly recounted.

As any reader of his fiction will note, Steiner is able to enact playfully many different versions of himself usually from the perspective of the outsider or enemy. It is baffling, therefore, that his poignant memories are too often interspersed with issues long since raised in his earlier writings. As an adolescent, Steiner remembers being transfixed by a book on heraldry. But his move is always from this moment of child-like wonder to the later "distrust of theory" or his philosophical understanding of the bewildering plurality of "swarming existence". What is astonishing about Errata, and much of his more recent work, is the sheer cussed repetition of familiar themes. Steiner's world of words and his personal history - "my homeland the text"- are increasingly, and strangely, interchangeable.

At its most generous, one can view this uneasy shift from the inner life to the life of words as a refusal to write in a too easy confessional mode. After all, Steiner was among the first to point out the dangers of the erosion of privacy in the modern world. Perhaps he is rightly resisting what has been called the "Oprah-fication" of contemporary life. But the problem for Steiner is that his emotional history is in dialogue with a potted account of many of his favourite hobby-horses such as the western canon, or the Jewish question, or the impossibility of translation. Are these hobbyhorses, especially in precis, finally an adequate "homeland"? Steiner's dour mood in much of the book would indicate otherwise.

Where he succeeds, however, is precisely at those points when he writes against his well-known orthodoxies. For a figure who is pure voice, it is surprising to hear how often Steiner reacts bodily to poetry or philosophy or music and traces this back to his early quasi-sexual relationship with the written word. Steiner is quite explicit about his "dialectical" view of history - "victimisation, ostracism, and torture are dialectic"- and, to his credit, he constantly searches for the underside of his own defining theories. This is not simply a restatement of Theodor Adorno's belief in the barbarism of culture. Such self-interrogation is at the heart of Steiner's fascination with masochism in his fiction and of his own intense empathy with apologists for anti-Semitism.

As this book makes clear, there is certainly something profoundly self-destructive in Steiner's refusal to make any one area of expertise his own. On the one hand, he holds up the ideals of pure scholarship or philosophy or poetry, studied in his perfect Platonic university. But, of course, it is this model of scholarship - his father's model it seems- that he has failed. He dismisses Freud, where the son wishes to kill the father, and evokes instead the unattainable classical and biblical absolute of the patriarch. And yet, Steiner can only ever punish himself in these terms. No wonder he thinks of the subtext of his fiction, perversely perhaps, as being about a "lamed or powerless God".

One can only admire Steiner for continuing to pursue the violence at the heart of our most humane activities - the "arrogance of reason" - and for championing the necessity and madness of scholarly "autism". It is hard to disagree that the Cambridge English faculty that rejected him upheld the myths of a "national" literature tied somehow to "blood and land". Steiner's refusal to succumb to any one "homeland" of scholarship, or any one national culture, has proved courageous and isolating. But the problem with textual homelands is that they can be as safe and as cosy as any other familiar surroundings. Let us hope that Steiner once again argues vociferously with himself and his own dearly held beliefs in the one place where he does this best: his fiction.

Bryan Cheyette is reader in English and Judaic studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

Errata: An Examined Life

Author - George Steiner
ISBN - 0 297 81838 4
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £11.99
Pages - 186

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