"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

George Steiner: Going Soft?

A new book from George Steiner promises many things: intellectual stimulation (or intimidation - is there anything this man hasn't read?), insight, incidental laughter at his occasionally hyper-polysyllabic performances, hamperloads of food for thought. But there is also the penitential streak as we submit ourselves to the withering critique of English philistinism and lack of intellectual ambition that Steiner has been directing at us for many years. His latest book, My Unwritten Books (my own multi-volume part-work would be called My Unpublished Books or The Books the B*****s Wouldn't Publish) is a series of seven essays each dealing with a subject that he has for some reason or other failed to write a book about. It's a fascinating read and, contrary to what some reviewers have suggested, it isn't full of false modesty and abject humblings that sound like boasts. If Steiner sometimes lets us know that he's astoundingly well-read and philosophically literate, well, it's true isn't it? It's hard to decide which of the seven books I'd most like to have seen realised but I would in the end probably plump for "The Tongues of Eros" about sex and language (the dependence of the one on the other and the variations, in both departments, between different language speakers) even though some of the candour about Gorgeous George's erotic manoeuvres was more than explicit enough for me. What I found quite striking, however, in Steiner's essay on contemporary education, was a new note of something like acceptance of what he once would have scourged. For example, though he coins the nice phrase "cultural masochism" for the recent British frenzy of dumbing-down, he actually says (p130 if you don't believe me) that British anti-intellectualism may actually be "therapeutic" in some sense. He even suggests that there should be "a subdued celebration of" the British way. Is George Steiner going soft? There is also a slight blandness in the chapter on "Zion" where he implies that all criticism of Israel (he himself wouldn't dream of living there he clearly states) is either brute anti-Semitism or "Jewish self-hatred". I'm afraid it isn't quite as simple as that. But in a final chapter about his politics and beliefs - or rather his lifelong reluctance to nail his colours to the mast - he makes a fine attack on the cultural and intellectual damage done by the current worship of money (today, the papers tell us, Gordon Brown triumphs again with his "Mac A Level" wheeze) as the summum bonum of contemporary life: "The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so, as that of political despotism." Good on yer, G.


Mark Thwaite said...

I found the first chapter on Needham -- the astonishing Chinese scholar -- fascinating, but a little dry. But then the book started to warm up, and I raced through the rest of it. GS's startling candour about his "erotic manoeuvres" notwithstanding! For sure, the chapter on Israel was weak and confused, but as he said at the end of it, that's why he never wrote a book on the subject -- good job too. Overall it is a feast of intelligence -- much to argue with, of course, but very much to admire.

Nicholas Murray said...

I think that's true. For a typical example of the standard British book page line on GS see: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article3130055.ece