Scott McLemee reviews "Errata: An Examined Life' by George Steiner

Published March 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

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 protigis 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?

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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