Errata: An Examined Life

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Overview

George Steiner, one of the great literary minds of our century, here relates the story of his own life and the ways that people, places, and events have colored the central ideas and themes of his work. Brilliant and witty, his memoir reveals Steiner's thoughts on the meaning of the western tradition and its philosophic and religious premises.

Selected as a 1998 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review

"One of our great literary and cultural critics reflects on his life and the themes that have aroused his passion. . . . A beautifully written and intensely stimulating book."-Kirkus Reviews

"No prominent critic shows us better why the great books matter and how to bring to our reading of them what concentration and awareness we're capable of."-Stephen Goode, Washington Times

"This intriguing and thoughtful book is, and is not, Steiner's autobiography. Writing about his ideas comes more naturally to him than writing about his lived experience."-Victoria Glendinning, The Telegraph

"A minor literary masterpiece."-Scott Stossel, Boston Phoenix

Winner of the Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award in Literary Criticism in 1999 George Steiner was recently Lord Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford University. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other American and European journals. He is the author of numerous books that have been translated into a dozen languages.

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Editorial Reviews

Scott McLemee

Among the best collections of essays by a contemporary literary critic is one gathering George Steiner's work from the New Yorker over the past three decades. It's comprised of around 200 pieces: miniature dissertations on literature and philosophy (mainly European), composed while Steiner wrote his own books on tragedy, linguistics, chess, Homer, Hitler, Heidegger and other matters. At this point, I ought to mention the title of this volume -- but there's one small problem. It doesn't exist. You could assemble your own copy in the library, at the Xerox machine, with some patience and a lot of quarters. Why Steiner himself hasn't reprinted them (the way Edmund Wilson used to do every few years) is difficult to imagine.

Excessive modesty does not appear to be the reason. Steiner's latest book, Errata, is a slender tribute to his own genius. It is an autobiography, of sorts. It rehearses most of the characteristic ideas and problems explored in his earlier books. But Steiner, for all his customary eloquence and learning, sounds bitter. Fellow professors have dissed and/or ignored his work, while pilfering shamelessly from his bounty. (They have been especially unkind yet kleptomaniacal about After Babel, his prodigious work on the theory of translation). And some of his protégés turned out to be ungrateful bastards. This is a self-portrait etched in acid.

The slices of personal information here are few, and thin. Most readers of his earlier work will already know that Steiner was born to a German-Jewish family, and that he grew up hearing several languages and constant, familiar references to the classics of European culture. Only an accident of geography saved him from the Holocaust, a fact that weighs heavily on his mind. The sketches of his academic career are perfunctory. As for his personal life, this is the sort of memoir in which the author mentions his wife, and you think, "That's funny, he didn't say anything about getting married. I wonder if she has a name?" Evidently not.

Instead, we get an anthology of brief (yet somehow rambling) essays on the questions that have defined his career. Didn't the monotheism and the ethical demands of ancient Judea place an unbearable burden of consciousness on the rest of humanity -- to which anti-Semitism has been a persistent, murderous response? A German concentration camp guard could go home at night and read Goethe -- so can we take seriously the notion that the humanities are, in any way, "humanizing"? What are we to make of the fact that there have been thousands of distinct languages -- when the existence of even one is, when you think about it, rather miraculous?

Steiner has returned to these questions constantly over the years, without ever really answering them. That's OK. They are good questions. The trouble is, he's written about them more engagingly in previous books and essays -- and without such a chip on his shoulder. And in Errata, Steiner indulges, at some length, in his single most self-aggrandizing impulse: the tendency to assume a tragic posture as the Last European Intellectual, mournfully clutching a volume of Montaigne as he surveys the Nintendo ruins of postmodern culture.

To admirers of Steiner (the only people likely to pick it up to begin with), Errata is bound to disappoint and embarrass. It certainly did not satisfy my own curiosity about the details of his life and work -- questions like: How can you write so much and still have time to research, for example, the interpretations of Sophocles presented by Danish Hegelians in the 19th century? Does this involve sending grad students to the library, like pack mules down a mine shaft? And if so, could you maybe have them do some photocopying from the New Yorker while they're at it? -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is 'difficult because it is excellent'... are the excuse for life." It is this postulate that reigns supreme throughout the eminent literary critic's latest book. The subtitle to the work implies an autobiography of some sort, but those who come to this slender volume with that notion will be disappointed. Steiner knows that real life is the life of the mind, and so he dazzles his readers with the raison d'être of his passionate existence. Each chapter exists as a separate essay, and each essay is witty and rewarding. Steiner argues for the benefits of classical education, the underestimated importance of grammar, the supremacy of classical music. What little autobiographical information there issnapshots of an upper-class childhood in Vienna, Paris and New York, praise for overzealous instructors, cold nods to jealous academics at Oxford and Chicagoonly prefaces meditations on that which Steiner holds to be true and most dear, as when a description of his own trilingual life leads us to a discussion of the Babel myth, the power of language and the important role of the future tense in the drama of humanity. One would think that this might distance the reader from the author as subject; on the contrary, it allows us an intimate and captivating glimpse into Steiner's mind and thought. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This is ostensibly a memoir by the noted critic, scholar, and novelist Steiner, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cambridge and the University of Geneva and author of many books, most recently No Passion Spent (LJ, 4/1/96). In a series of elegant and thoughtful essays, he traces important episodes in his intellectual growth and passion for high culture and learning, first inculcated by his father. At the same time, and more significantly, Steiner uses these episodes as the occasion for a series of meditations on the nature of literary studies, higher education, language, and music. He also contemplates the origins of anti-Semitism and the survival of Judaism. Provocative and profound, this fine work is recommended for both public and academic libraries.Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.
Brian Phillips
A profoundly beautiful autobiographical work which is all the more enlightening for its notes of humility and its deference to ideas and cultural landmarks in lieu of the customary chronicle of career and company. -- Literary Review
NY Times Book Review
Reminiscences from the literary critic best described as a polyglot polymath.
Anthony Gottlieb
George Steiner is a literary critic who can turn to almost any subject, and has. -- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Composing in a minor key, one of our great literary and cultural critics reflects on his life and the themes that have aroused his passion. Steiner has published 12 or so remarkable books of criticism, depending on how you count them, and sundry other volumes of fiction and essays. As a senior book reviewer at the New Yorker, he did much to call attention to books that might otherwise have slipped by unnoticed. Lately, he has taken a chair in comparative literature at Oxford, the first ever. Not a bad track record, by any standard. Alas, Mr. Steiner is not satisfied, for no Steinerian school of thought has sprung from his brow. Despite undertones of self-pity and outlandish self-regard, Steiner once again offers a beautifully written and intensely stimulating book. This one is a retrospective of the main influences on and themes of his career: the relationship of high culture to cruelty in the 20th century; the superior authenticity of diaspora Judaism vis-&3225;-vis Israel; the undefinable link between language and music; the sheer miracle of language itself; the modern retreat from the word; and the meaning of God for the modern mind. Steiner explores these themes anew from a biographical point of view, explaining how he came to them and what they have meant to him. Oddly, Steiner's tone is elegiac, for he thinks his work has been underrated and occasionally plagiarized. At the same time, he is proud to be an outsider to recent decades of literary criticism. Justifiably sohe really is an extraterritorial critic, belonging to the tradition of exceptional figures such as Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. This new book amply rewards both casual readers and specialists.Steiner's work is a tribute to a single-minded originality that has been successful against the odds. He is inimitable; a Steiner school of criticism is a contradiction in terms.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300080957
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 214
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.49 (d)

First Chapter



CHAPTER ONE

Rain, particularly to a child, carries distinct smells and colors. Summer rains in the Tyrol are relentless. They have a morose, flogging insistence and come in deepening shades of dark green. At night, the drumming is one of mice on or just under the roof. Even daylight can be sodden. But it is the smell which, after sixty years, stays with me. Of drenched leather and hung game. Or, at moments, of tubers steaming under drowned mud. A world made boiled cabbage.

The summer was already ominous. A family holiday in the dark yet magical landscape of a country condemned. In those mid-1930s, Jew-hatred and a lust for reunification with Germany hung in the Austrian air. My father, who was convinced that catastrophe was imminent, and the gentile husband of my aunt still blandly optimistic, found conversation awkward. My mother and her fitfully hysterical sister sought to achieve an effect of normality. But the planned pastimes -- swimming and boating on the lake, walks in the woods and hills -- dissolved in the perpetual downpour. My impatience, my demands for entertainment in a cavernous chalet which was increasingly chill and, I imagine, mildewed, must have been pestilential. One morning, uncle Rudi drove into Salzburg. He brought back with him a small book in blue waxen covers.

It was a pictorial guide to coats of arms in the princely city and surrounding fiefs. Each blazon was reproduced in color, together with a brief historical notice as to the castle, family-domain, bishopric, or abbey which it identified. The little manual closed with a map marking the relevant sites, including ruins, and with a glossary of heraldic terms.

Even today, I can feel the pressure of wonder, the inward shock which this chance "pacifier" triggered. What is difficult to render in adult language is the combination, almost the fusion of delight and menace, of fascination and unease I experienced as I retreated to my room, the drains spitting under the rain-lashed eaves, and sat, hour after entranced hour, turning the pages, committing to memory the florid names of those towers, keeps, and high personages.

Though I could not, obviously, have defined or phrased it in any such way, that armorial primer overwhelmed me with a sense of the numberless specificity, of the minutiae, of the manifold singularity of the substance and forms of the world. Each coat of arms differed from every other. Each had its symbolic organization, motto, history, locale, and date wholly proper, wholly integral to itself. It "heralded" a unique, ultimately intractable fact of being. Within its quarterings, each graphic component, color, and pattern entailed its own prodigal signification. Heraldry often inserts coats of arms within coats of arms. The suggestive French designation of this device is a mise en abyme. My treasures included a magnifying glass. I pored over the details of geometric and "bestiary" shapes, the lozenges, diamonds, diagonal slashes of each emblem; over the helmeted crests and "supporters" crowning, flanking the diverse arms; over the precise number of tassels which graced a bishop's, an archbishop's, or a cardinal's armorials.

The notion which, in some visceral impact, tided over me and held me mesmerized was this: if there are in this obscure province of one small country (diminished Austria) so many coats of arms, each unique, how many must there be in Europe, across the globe? I do not recall what grasp I had, if any, of large numbers. But I do remember that the word "millions" came to me and left me unnerved. How was any human being to see, to master this plurality? Suddenly it came to me, in some sort of exultant but also appalled revelation, that no inventory, no heraldic encyclopedia, no summa of fabled beasts, inscriptions, chivalric hallmarks, however compendious, could ever be complete. The opaque thrill and desolation which came over me in that ill-lit and end-of-summer room on the Wolfgangsee -- was it, distantly, sexual? -- has, in good part, oriented my life.

I grew possessed by an intuition of the particular, of diversities so numerous that no labor of classification and enumeration could exhaust them. Each leaf differed from any other on each differing tree (I rushed out in the deluge to assure myself of this elementary and miraculous truth). Each blade of grass, each pebble on the lake-shore was, eternally, "just so." No repetition of measurement, however closely calibrated, in whatever controlled vacuum it was carried out, could ever be perfectly the same. It would deviate by some trillionth of an inch, by a nanosecond, by the breadth of a hair -- itself a teeming immensity -- from any preceding measurement. I sat on my bed striving to hold my breath, knowing that the next breath would signal a new beginning, that the past was already unrecapturable in its differential sequence. Did I guess that there could be no perfect facsimile of anything, that the identical word spoken twice, even in lightning-quick reiteration, was not and could not be the same? (Much later, I was to learn that this unrepeatability had preoccupied both Heraclitus and Kierkegaard.)

At that hour, in the days following, the totalities of personal experience, of human contacts, of landscape around me became a mosaic, each fragment at once luminous and resistant in its "quiddity" (the Scholastic term for integral presence revived by Gerard Manley Hopkins). There could be, I knew, no finality to the raindrops, to the number and variousness of the stars, to the books to be read, to the languages to be learned. The mosaic of the possible could, at any instant, be splintered and reassembled into new images and notions of meaning. The idiom of heraldry, those "gules" and "bars sinister," even if I could not yet make it out, must, I sensed, be only one among countless systems of discourse specifically tailored to the teeming diversity of human purposes, artifacts, representations, or concealment (I still recall the strange excitement I felt at the thought that a coat of arms could hide as well as reveal).

I set out, as many children do, to compile lists. Of monarchs and mythological heroes, of popes, of castles, of numinous dates, of operas -- I had been taken to see Figaro at the neighboring Salzburg Festival. The wearied assurance of my parents that such lists already existed, that they could be looked up in any almanac or work of standard reference brought no solace. (My queries about antipopes and how to include them visibly irritated my somewhat ceremonious and Catholic uncle.) The available indices of reality, be they a thousand pages thick, the atlases, the children's encyclopedias, could never be exhaustively comprehensive. This or that item, perhaps the hidden key to the edifice, would be left out. There was simply too much to everything. Existence thronged and hummed with obstinate difference like the midges around the light-bulb. "Who can number the clouds in wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven?" (How did the writer of Job 38:37 already know about rains in the Salzkammergut?) I may not have cited the verse to myself in that drowned August, though the Old Testament was already a tutelary voice, but I did know of those bottles.

If the revelation of incommensurable "singleness" held me spellbound, it also generated fear. I would come back to the mise en abyme of one blazon within another, to that "setting in the abyss." I would consider a fathomless depth of differentiation, of non-identity, always incipient with the eventuality of chaos. How could the senses, how could the brain impose order and coherence on the kaleidoscope, on the perpetuum mobile of swarming existence? I harbored vague nightmares about the fact, revealed in the nature column of some newspaper, that a small corner of the Amazon forest was habitat to 30,000 rigorously distinct species of beetles. Gazing at, recopying with water-colors, the baronial or episcopal or civic arms, pondering the unlimited variations possible on formal and iconic motifs, I felt a peculiar dread. Detail could know no end.

A subtle queasiness emanates from such infinities. Greek classical sensibility flinched from irrational numbers and the incommensurable. My juvenile reflex was to attempt to devise a coat of arms, tabard, and heraldic pennants for one Sixtus von Falkenhorst, an imaginary prelate, bellicose and sensual, nesting in an almost inaccessible mountain eyrie, in whose central tower lodged the list of all lists, the summa summarum of all that is. This imbroglio of enchantment and terror proved consequential.

I have conducted my emotional, intellectual, and professional affairs in distrust of theory. So far as I am able, I can attach meaning to the concept of theory in the exact and, to some degree, applied sciences. These theoretical constructs demand crucial experiments for their verification or falsification. If refuted, they will be superseded. They can be mathematically or logically formalized. The invocation of "theory" in the humanities, in historical and social studies, in the evaluation of literature and the arts, seems to me mendacious. The humanities are susceptible neither to crucial experiments nor to verification (except on a material, documentary level). Our responses to them are narratives of intuition. In the unbounded dynamics of the semantic, in the flux of the meaningful, in the uncircumscribed interplay of interpretations, the only propositions are those of personal choice, of taste, of echoing affinity or deafness. There can be no refutations or disproofs in any theoretical sense. Coleridge does not refute Samuel Johnson; Picasso does not advance on Raphael. In humane letters, "theory" is nothing but intuition grown impatient.

My persuasion that the current triumph of the theoretical in literary, historical, sociological discourse is self-deception, that it enacts a failure of nerve in the face of the prestige of the sciences, goes back to those irreducibly individual coats of arms which leapt to unsettling life for me in that summer of 1936. Later, I was to learn that formal rules and exact conventions do underlie the code, the quarterings of heraldry, that there are systematic figurations and allegories. If one so wishes, a "theoretical" reading of armorial meanings is possible. To me, however, this abstract program cannot alter or communicate the life-force of individuation. It cannot substantiate the existential circumstance -- temporal, familial, psychological -- of the dramatic persona who bore that shield. No two lions rampant roar the same saga. Possessed by Blake's "holiness of the minute particular," by the dizzying knowledge that there are in chess, after the initial five moves, more possibilities than atoms in the universe, I have found myself isolated from the now-dominant turn to theory. The games played in deconstruction, in post-modernism, in the imposition on the study of history and society of metamathematical models (the mathematics being, often, pretentiously naive) largely condition the climate of academic-critical pursuits. The theoreticians in power consider my own work, if they consider it at all, as archaic impressionism. As heraldry.

But art and poetry will always give to universals "a local habitation and a name." They have made the particular, even the minute, inviolable. Nowhere more so than in Canto IV of Pope's The Rape of the Lock:

A constant Vapour o'er the palace flies; Strange phantoms rising as the mists arise; Dreadful, as hermit's dreams in haunted shades, Or bright, as visions of expiring maids. Now glaring fiends, and snakes on rolling spires, Pale spectres, gaping tombs, and purple fires: Now lakes of liquid gold, Elysian scenes, And crystal domes, and Angels in machines.

Unnumber'd throngs on ev'ry side are seen, Of bodies chang'd to various forms of Spleen. Here living Tea-pots stand, one arm held out, One bent; the handle this, and that the spout: A Pipkin there, like Homer's Tripod walks; Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pye talks; Men prove with child, as pow'rful fancy works, And maids turn'd bottles, call aloud for corks.

That last couplet cries out, doubtless, for reduction to the psychoanalytic. Yet how little of its surrealistic magic such reduction can theorize. Pope's ironic self-subversions can, indeed, be grist for a deconstructive mill. Ground to theoretical dust, what have they yielded of their nightmare-charm? The most penetrating gloss on this passage is Beardsley's illustration in which, if not God, the devil lies in the detail. Ask any child whether that "living Tea-pot" can suffer deconstruction, whether theory can arrest that walking pipkin.

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