In 1964, in the days when the Times Literary Supplement maintained its stern anonymity, there appeared a lead review of Claude Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology that catapulted the mighty Normalien into the middle of British intellectual life. The review was as allusive, as subtle and self-mortifying, as eloquent and exhilarating as its great original. Its author was George Steiner.
Since then Steiner has displayed those amazing talents across European and American culture. Prodigiously polyglot, endlessly mobile (he was normally occupying two or three chairs at once), unhampered by self-doubt, sweeping and momentous in his generalisations, he is well named by his appointment at Churchill College, extraordinary fellow. When he made his astonishing riposte to Eliot himself in the T.S. Eliot lectures at Canterbury, uttering In Bluebeard's Castle his headlong condemnation over commercial culture and elaborating his famous contention that the great traditions of Bach and Goethe had done nothing to turn back the Nazi exterminators, his young audience sat spellbound by the certainty of hearing timeless truths cast in mesmerising prose.
Yet it would be difficult to summarise Steiner's life's work, his beliefs and insights. Put roundly, they might sound banal - the greatness of genius, the horribleness of fascism, the repulsiveness of rock, the deterioration of standards, you know, all that - which isn't to say that he's not right.
Despite his zeal for generalisation and the high rhetoric of his manner, however, he is all Fox and no Hedgehog. His originality stems first from an unmatchable breadth of reference; Max Weber spotted in 1918 that intellectual advance comes from specialisation in the divisions of academic labour. But of course we all gaze mournfully backwards at the days of the sage and the polymath, of Herbert Spencer, John Ruskin, Jacob Burkhardt. Steiner keeps that line alive and open.
The other sources of his strength and his weaknesses are what Dr Johnson saw as the gifts of the metaphysical poets: "wanting the sublime, they supplied hyperbole" (this is Steiner, all right); "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together"; "their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before".
Perhaps few scholars would object to being summoned to Johnson's roll call along with Abraham Cowley and John Donne. Certainly no younger scholar of our day can match Steiner for sheer surprisingness, for splendour and volubility of diction, for his swooping flights of fancy across the well-policed frontiers of countries and cultures.
Now he buds again, even while protesting that he can't. The new book tantalises us with seven books he hasn't, alas, time left to write. It's the after-dinner dream of Gerontion. For this is an old man who has lived in the eye of history, who insists with every sentence on the blaze of his own passions as illuminating the passage of arms he summons up.
Thus the first of the seven books would have been - this is a memoir in the imperfect tense of the subjunctive mood - his Modern Masters essay on Joseph Needham. And here we walk slap into Steiner's most unattractive trait, his flat certainty that his feelings confirm the facts. Steiner is sure that Needham is lying when he angrily refuses to endorse claims he had made in 1952 that the Americans used germ warfare against the Chinese troops in Korea.
Steiner trusts his intuitions absolutely, could hear Needham's "mendacity" like "a flaw in a rung glass goblet". He makes no reference to the 665-page report by Needham's multinational commission, ignored and never rebutted by the US. The reminiscence is a gripping hors d'oeuvre but can't be swallowed.
Nor can the characteristic airiness, the sheer vanity of the first sentence of "Invidia": "Not many today, I presume, read the works of Francesco Stabili, better known as Cecco d'Ascoli." One cannot doubt that Steiner loves the hermetics of this 13th-century unknown, and it gives rise to moving recollections on the subject of the friendship rooted in the relationship of teacher and student that he finely broached a year or two ago in Lessons of the Masters. But it really shouldn't lead him to think enviously of the Nobel prize he could never possibly have won.
Lessons of the Masters returns Steiner to the language of sex. It would have made a juicy book. But for a man who in his last chapter professes privacy as the abiding principle of his politics, "The Tongues of Eros" is embarrassingly, well, unbuttoned. Among the crumpled bedclothes of a dozen perfumed speculations, he places with coy indelicacy his own stoopings to folly, sharing with V in (where else?) Vienna a quick glass of pee cocktail, lingering on the honey in his essay title with A-M in, naturally, Genoa, finally finding the freedoms of fornication with C in Paris.
How on earth can a man so vital and intelligent, so cultivated and florid be at the same time so unself-aware, so boastful and, so often, so confidently wrong? In "School Terms" he revisits those old stand-bys, the decline of education and the end of civilisation. Dammit, he runs through his own honours and distinctions for two whole pages, using them to justify all that tired old stuff from The Daily Mail. Then he brings the reader up abruptly short with a splendid new quadrivium for modernity: maths and music just like the Elizabethans, then architecture and genetics.
It's an astonishing, maddening and disfigured book. But there will be none such published by university presses this year, none that is as ardent for the joyfulness of learning, as fierce for the personal significance of knowledge, as thrilled by the giddy intoxication of language. These are not English academic values, but the homegrown academic who is deaf and blind to them will be a dry old stick.
MEET THE AUTHOR
George Steiner is an extraordinary fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University.
"Central to everything I am and believe and have written," he has said, "is my astonishment ... that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate."
Steiner was born in Paris and raised to be fluent in French, English and German. In 1940, his family moved to the US, where he studied at the universities of Chicago and Harvard before moving to England.
He worked for The Economist after his doctoral thesis was rejected at Oxford, later becoming a fellow of Princeton and a founding fellow of Churchill College. His 54-year career in academia has not been without controversy: he is notorious for delivering lectures on banned texts including Kafka in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
Steiner's accolades include an honorary membership of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, honorary doctorates from ten universities, the French Legion d'Honneur and Ordre des Arts et Lettres. In 1997, he published a volume of his autobiography, Errata: An Examined Life.
My Unwritten Books
By George Steiner
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Published 10 January 2008