Feb/Mar 2008

UNWRITTEN RULES

George steiner explores the book projects he abandoned

Nick Tosches


This guy never ceases to amaze me. Here he is, pushing eighty, and instead of dimming the lights and shuffling off to somber senescence, he’s upping the ante and teaching new dance steps.

T. S. Eliot said that the job of poets and saints is “to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time.” This job description can be applied as well to the work undertaken by the last of the great philologists, Ernst Robert Curtius and Erich Auerbach, both of whom passed from this world in the late 1950s, just as George Steiner was beginning his academic career as a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and working on his first book.

If Curtius and Auerbach can be said to have an heir, it is Steiner, who has surpassed them in his investigation of the crossroad where time and timelessness breathe as one. Curtius and Auerbach were clinical in dissecting the historical, literary, and linguistic knowledge they commanded. Steiner has ventured further, wandering from academic confines to where mysterious wildflowers, germinated by Heraclitean and Gnostic elements, blossom forth in light and shadow. Where Curtius and Auerbach illuminated, Steiner has been a weaver of illuminations.

The essence of Steiner’s magic—I really don’t know what else to call it— has been his singular ability to articulate and elucidate, through nuance, allusion, and a peerless precision of language, those Phoebus-rays of wisdom that lie beyond knowledge and almost always elude words. There is no pedantry in him. He teaches as he himself seems to have learned: through Blake’s “holiness of the minute particular,” those “luminous details” (Pound’s phrase of 1911 and forever) that bring great poetry and prose to life, allowing us in turn to bring to our lives the breath, breeze, gale, and all-powerful silent stillnesses of that greatness. To be sure, the search for the meaning of life is the sucker’s racket to end all sucker’s rackets. But there is meaning in life, and as Steiner shows us, much of it can be found in the voices of the ages that have sought to express the nature of things. No one who enters Steiner’s books comes out the same.

I imagine that, as his or her years pass and the distance to the silencing quietus of the Western land shortens, every writer dwells on all that will never be written. After a while, if one is fortunate to live long, the negative future tense must cede with a sigh of finality to the negative past tense, and these vaporous conceptions must be given up as what was not written.

“The true masters,” Steiner wrote in Grammars of Creation (2001), “are those that relinquish their vocation” and bow to silence. I’ve always felt that this bowing was perfectly expressed by Ezra Pound as he embraced that silence:

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move

Let the wind speak

that is paradise.

I wondered as I took up the book at hand whether Steiner might consider a master’s undone works to be fore-wisps of that relinquishing. I sought a response to this question from Steiner, whom I’ve never met, and a response is what I got: “It is only in Paradise, in the eyes of God that supreme mastery means a relinquishing of even the greatest art. That is what the Pilgrim comes to understand. Tolstoy agreed.”

It seemed like a reply one might have received from, say, Charles Olson. “I particularly like his last, two-word sentence,” said someone who saw what had come in from Steiner on his imposing Cambridge College letterhead. His cryptic answer did not prepare me for this book. I will forgo the profusion of superlatives that come readily to mind and say only that it is one of the best and most fascinating books I have had the pleasure to read in a very long time.

Steiner has here transformed the vaporous conceptions of his life, the vapors of what never was and never will be, from their aeriform state to a fine and ethereal substantiality. My Unwritten Books is a gathering of shades, an elegant and eloquent gathering of mind, feeling, and autumnal passion.

If it is terrible for a writer of Steiner’s importance to leave books unwritten, it is even more terrible, for anyone, to be unfreed of words unsaid, of things unexpressed. In the course of bringing the nature of his unwritten books from hidden limbo to open light, he seems also to have brought himself to that freeing, which most never know. Where we feel the force of this freeing is not so much in his telling of the unwritten books, in his masterful evocation of their phantom souls, but in his telling of why they are his unwritten books.

The tales of the unwritten books—there are seven of them—that Steiner tells offer more than roomfuls of books by writers of lesser vision. He begins with “Chinoiserie,” the story of his unwritten book on Joseph Needham (1900–1995), whose thirty-tome Science and Civilization in China Steiner perceived as the focus of a possible study of the world of those driven to look “into the maelstrom of the fact.” He found that Needham’s belief in principles of universal harmonies had resulted in his “monumental labours” leading to “propositions of a most dubious kind.” Nevertheless, he now sees Needham, with Proust, as one of the two most “industrious archaeologists of consciousness,” a phrase that again brings to mind Charles Olson, and his beautiful “archaeologist of morning.”

Joseph Needham meeting Zhou Enlai, 1964.

Steiner allows us to vividly glimpse that archaeology. “Chinese insights into the hexagonal and systematic configuration of snowflake crystals antedate by more than one millennium the erroneous conjectures of Albertus Magnus” in the West. We encounter “occult women alchemists, such as the wandering poet Li Shao-Yün,” from whom Needham turned “to a compendious survey of the transition from magic to modern chemistry and the Chinese synthesis of active insulin in 1965.” Along the way, we meet the scientist-magician Wang Chieh, “a secretive man versed in collecting the saliva of foxes.” Even the consummate publication of the volumes of Needham’s lifework by Cambridge University Press presents “a saga in its own right.” Steiner describes pages on which “half a dozen languages and alphabets figure together with algebraic and chemical symbols. The visual impact alone is one of arcane wizardry. Chinese characters proliferate. Mushrooming footnotes pass from the chemistry of sealing wax and the blowing of red glass in Nimrod’s Babylon to Assyrian composites of lead oxide.” The good Dr. Steiner, who does not indulge in e-mail, reminds us that all this was done before the age of the computer.

“Not many today, I presume, read the works of Francesco degli Stabili, better known as Cecco d’Ascoli,” begins the story (“Invidia”) of another unwritten book. (It is my own presumption that Steiner is here, with words such as these, indulging with a smile his own gentle sense of humor, previously never much in evidence but which, surprisingly and refreshingly, surfaces not infrequently through this collection.) The poet, whose work survives only in remnants, was a literary and historical mystery: a contemporary of Dante who was burned alive, together with all his works, for reasons that remain unclear. The forgotten Cecco was to have served as a vaster look at the nature of fame and failure, the fate of the also-ran, and the demons of envy and jealousy that whisper to or consume us. “The sense of an irreparable lack of fair play on the roulette of good and ill fortune can breed venom. Men have betrayed, committed perjury, plagiarized, even murdered out of invidia.”

The dim, spectral figure of the poet is brought to vivid immediacy for a single terrible moment. “I strain every fiber to imagine that night of the 15th of September 1327, in the cold stench of a prison cell in Florence. Can a human being breathe, relieve himself, keep from going mad or trying to commit suicide—even chained to a wall one can smash one’s skull against the stones—knowing that he or she will be burned alive come morning? What expectations, what premonitions of insane pain come to possess every inch of one’s consciousness as the hours both crawl and race towards dawn?”

Steiner’s unwritten books about Judaism (“Zion”), education (“School Terms”), and interactions and interrelations between the absurdly self-classified Homo sapiens and other species (“Of Man and Beast”) yield essays that are as wondrously enlightening, captivating, and provocative as those occasioned by the mystical fractal snowflakes of Needham’s “majestically incomplete” quest and the dark ignominy of Cecco. “Voyaging through the seas of thought,” as Steiner calls it, has rarely been as eventful or as rewarding as in this slim but very full, and very fully written, book.

I spoke earlier of there being a sense of freeing here. I don’t want to disclose too much of what Steiner reveals about why these books were never written—these revelations possess a disarming and distinguishing honesty best left for the reader to encounter at first hand—so I’ll give only one instance. “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli,” he brings to an end his words on the subject. “It might have been of some interest. But it came too near the bone.”

In the paragraph immediately preceding those words, after much brave baring of his own sense of failure, he writes: “In transparent defensiveness, one might entitle one’s autobiography Errata.” This is, of course, the title of the autobiography that Steiner published nearly a decade ago. I found it disappointing. It reminded me of Philip Roth’s autobiography, The Facts. Both seemed to have been written with an air of cool and reticent self-protective distance. The cravat was loosened, but the britches never came off. Little was exposed that would not be revealed in casual polite conversation. Autobiographies fall into two categories: the dull and the fanciful. Even Rousseau, who went where other autobiographers feared to go, warned his readers that “nothing will save them from progressive boredom.”

Exploring with Steiner these freshets flowing from the river of his life into that deep of the damned called posterity, we discover more about Steiner the man than ever before. Erudition and personal anecdote interplay throughout this graceful, sonorous cello suite of a book. As much as anything else, what we have here is—to use a singular word from one of the tongues in which Steiner is fluentVergangenheits­bewältigung, a coming to terms with the past. Nowhere is this more joyous than in “The Tongues of Eros,” about his unwritten book on the private vocabulary of lovers. “What is the sexual life of a deaf-mute? To what incitements and cadence does he or she masturbate?” These are the opening words of a Steiner to whom we have not been previously introduced. Here is a Steiner, looking back fondly in twilight, telling of the German girl who in her jouissance “would cry out, though in a muted register, the name ‘Sankt Nepomuk the Lesser,’” an obscure personage in the church calendar; the Viennese girl whose code words about “taking the street-car to Grinzing” signaled that she was in the mood to take it up the ass and whose code words about “a sip of Heuriger” indicated a less frequent readiness to drink his piss (“the remembrance of that invitation still makes me dizzy”). The philologist and the philanderer are one, as when he tells us of the French girl who, while he was coaxing open her legs, angrily rebuked him for addressing her in the second-person familiar, tu, rather than the more formal vous, which she felt propriety demanded, as he didn’t really know her.

Statue of John of Nepomuk on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

Words from Hesiod and Catullus recur, without quotation marks, without sign of their source—the magnificent, all-saying “works and days” of the former, the eternal heartbeat “odi et amo” of the latter—and this is as it should be. For this is a book of the ages as well as of age, a rare luxuriant lingering at that “intersection of the timeless / With time.”

Steiner’s end piece, “Begging the Question,” addresses the myriad imaginings that have borne the name God. At its conclusion, he quotes an “ancient curse” that he seems to have made up for the occasion: “may mine enemy publish a book.” His closing words follow: “To which I now add: ‘may he publish seven.’”

And that is the lovely irony of this unique little book. None of these unwritten books should have been written. They are better here, as they are, untamed and errant phantoms of a brilliance whose emanations no one mortal lifetime could ever accommodate in full.

Nick Tosches is the author, most recently, of King of the Jews (HarperCollins, 2005).

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