Textual Omissions (Extract)

Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A prolific literary critic and author fascinates even when he writes about books that he will not write Definitional. Acedia. Oneiric. Optatives. Instauration. Triune. Autarkic. Clerisy. Assiduity. Vestimentary. Survivance. Phenomenality. Combinatorial. Graduands. Polyvalent. Genethliacal. Compaction. Apodictic. Organismic. Panoptic. Tentacular. Fantastication. Inarticulacy. Is this the vocabulary of a master of the English language? Or is it perhaps mere fantastication on the part of a non-native writer suffering from sheer inarticulacy? Or is the explanation possibly combinatorial? Whatever the case, George Steiner's baroque diction throughout "My Unwritten Books" sent me to the dictionary more times than I care to count. Such wearying language is surely enough for many to hope Steiner's unwritten works stay that way. I'm not of that number. I've long admired George Steiner, and this despite the fact that it's not just his foppish intellectualism that over his long career has earned him frequent disdain and enmity. Certainly among his fellow Jews, Steiner has made no effort to win much sympathy. A dedicated internationalist, Steiner has long condemned Zionism and the State of Israel (more on this below), and in his most popular (or notorious) work of fiction, "The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H." (1981), he presented an Adolf Hitler who was rather too clever for comfort. Steiner has written some other very fine fiction (see especially "Proofs," 1992), but he is primarily known as a literary critic. He's written extensively on European literature, the ancient Greeks, the Bible and Shakespeare, but has also produced books and essays on chess, modern poetry, classical music, philosophy, politics, culture and language. He was born in Paris in 1929 to Viennese parents, who made their way with their children to the United States in 1940. He became an American citizen and earned degrees at the University of Chicago, Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford. For 20 years, he was professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, but was also a fellow at Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge (where he currently resides). As if his lifetime's torrent of polysyllabic prose were not enough, Steiner tells us in this new collection of essays that over the years some seven books have clamored on the fringes of his mind to be written, but for various reasons - matters of timing, temperament, inclination, distraction, doubt - they never got put on paper. "My Unwritten Books," therefore, is in a sense a tongue-in-cheek collection of prefaces to a Borgesian bookshelf of nonexistent texts. His topics range from a biography of Joseph Needham, a brilliant but eccentric Cambridge microbiologist and historian of Chinese science, to man's relationships with dogs. (Steiner handily proves Needham a formidable but fascinating subject; the latter essay serves chiefly as a not so subtle attempt to humanize Steiner - George loves dogs!). Another essay, "The Tongues of Eros," comes off as nothing more than sheer intellectual nonsense, dealing as it does with "…the absolutely decisive issue of the semantic structure of sexuality, its linguistic dynamics. Sex is spoken and listened to, aloud or in silence, externally or internally, before, during and after intercourse. The two communicative currents, the two enactments are indissoluble. Ejaculation is integral to both. The rhetoric of desire is a category of discourse in which the neurophysiological generation of speech acts and that of lovemaking engage reciprocally. Punctuation is analogous: The male orgasm is an exclamation mark." And so on for 30 more pages. (Read the above quote again carefully; maybe there's a prize for anyone who discerns any sense in it.) The only reason evident for this essay is that it's an opportunity for Steiner to display his erudition and imagination and, not incidentally, to drop coy hints about his numerous multicultural, multiracial and multilingual experiences with lovers. OK, here's one book we're glad remains unwritten. More stimulating, if not necessarily more pleasing, is Steiner's essay on "Zion." Here he wrestles, and I think with considerable intellectual honesty, with such knotty issues as anti-Semitism, exile, Jewish identity, faith and the like. If he does not come up with definitive resolutions to the questions these matters provoke, there is no shame in that. Where Steiner is definitive is in his reiteration of his well-known rejection of Israel, a state that he initially calls "a phoenix risen from the ashes, but with talons of steel. Its coming into being, its survival surrounded by deadly enemies, are a miracle. As is the clearing of the land, stone by stone, the foundation of a modern, highly educated democratic community, and its integration of a host of immigrants. Every Jew on this earth now has a guaranteed refuge. All of these are wonders without a genuine parallel anywhere else in history." With equal unoriginality, he then shifts to this: "But in order to be, Israel has had to regenerate capacities and values dormant since the book of Joshua. It has had to cultivate, to glorify military skills and ruthlessness. The internal cost has been considerable. Israeli society is of necessity militant and often chauvinistic.... Israel is reducing Jews to the common condition of nationalist man. It has diminished that moral singularity and that aristocracy of nonviolence which were the tragic glory of the Jews." Ah, well, I suppose some aristocrats of nonviolence must be left to their tragic glory. As should be quite apparent, all of Steiner's observations on Israel, both the pro and the con, have the tired, secondhand character of clichés. Yet the writer, usually a man of supreme confidence, reveals some doubts here: "I realize full well that a peregrine state is not for everyone. That the risks it incurs are extreme. The Shoah may have made a mockery of my persuasion...." And with uncharacteristic modesty, Steiner concludes: "I had hoped to hammer out these arguments in a full-scale work. I lacked the clarity of vision to do so. "And the Hebrew." Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.