An epilogue to empty pages
A magisterial cultural critic and scholar meditates on seven books he planned to write, but never did.
By George Steiner
New Directions. 209 pp. $23.95
'Of all sad words of tongue or pen," poet John Greenleaf Whittier scribbled in a Hallmark moment, "the saddest are these: 'It might have been.' "
The thought drifts through our minds in almost every area, but there's no pro-life movement in publishing. No one expects or demands that every book imagined, begun or even contracted for will, or should, reach fruition. (OK, publishers expect authors under contract to meet their deadlines, but they're hopeless idealists by nature.)
For serious writers - those more concerned with shaping superb books than issuing
between hard covers every season - the decision to write a particular book requires an almost sacramental commitment.
George Steiner, the magisterial American cultural critic and scholar, has seen his familiarity among readers fade since the New Yorker ended his regular book-reviewing stint. His career remains a grand one, though - no apologies necessary for any tomes terminated.
Born in Paris, educated at Chicago, Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne, a polyglot shuttler for much of his career between a University of Geneva chair in comparative literature and a post as Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, Steiner has given the world classics - among them
Tolstoy or Dostoevsky
(1975) - whose loss would have been tragic.
Here, at age 78, Steiner offers, pensively rather than remorsefully, seven essays about subjects he decided not to pursue at book length. In each, Steiner includes a brief explanation. Meanwhile, the essays barrel into their subjects, permitting the reader to ask, "Would I read a whole book on this?"
"Chinoiserie," Steiner's opening effort, ponders Joseph Needham (1900-1995), the Marxian British biochemist who became
great autodidactic scholar of Chinese science after beginning to master the language at age 37.
In his 30-volume
Science and Civilization in China
, written and edited with other scholars, Needham explored an overarching puzzle: Why, given China's lead on everything from gunpowder to the waterwheel, hadn't Chinese science "taken off" and eclipsed that of the West?
In the case of Needham, Steiner's project disintegrated after Steiner met him and asked about his claim, as an activist against the Korean War, that the United States had used bacteriological weapons. "The temperature in the room plummeted," recalls Steiner. Needham's "irritation, his anger, were manifest. . . . I never wrote the little book. But the wish to do it has stayed with me."
We say: Go ahead! Steiner on Needham, "who took all knowledge and theory for his domain," would be a heavenly match given the parallels between Needham's "baroque compendiousness" and the critic's own.
Might Steiner also change his mind about the subject of his second essay ("Invidia"), the 13th-century Italian writer Cecco d'Ascoli? Best known for his heretical epic poem
, d'Ascoli was burned at the stake - along with all his written works - by the Inquisition in 1327. His purported last words: "I have said it, I have taught it, I believe it."
Here, Steiner weaves intriguing threads - one being the psychology of envy - that should be extended into tapestry. "Already during his lifetime," Steiner writes, "d'Ascoli was regarded as a contemner of Dante, as one lacerated by envy of Dante's supremacy."
Steiner thus explores (too briefly) an eye-opening historical story: "What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophical aspirations when Dante is, as it were, in the neighborhood?"
Steiner's cold feet here emerge from the last half of the essay, an arabesque about being a literary loser: "[It] came too near the bone."
Truth be told, all seven of Steiner's essays merit expansion.
"Zion" shrewdly meditates on what it means to be a Jew. Steiner contends he "lacked the clarity of vision" and "Hebrew" to continue. "School Terms" masterfully scrutinizes formal education in different countries, closing with an impassioned vision of what "literacy" means today.
"Of Man and Beast" mulls over the "borderlands" between humans and animals, drawing on Steiner's relations with his family's dogs. Our critic "did not have the guts" to engage in the "raw introspection" an entire book required. In "Begging the Question," Steiner ruminates on his politics "of privacy and intellectual obsession," his "unclubbable" nature.
The greatest "book" loss, however, is "The Tongues of Eros," which introduces a Steiner unleashed from the primness of his usual literary venues. In it, he recalls romantic escapades, "the interplay between sexuality and words," mixing highbrow thoughts on "semantic Don Juanism" with teasing details about his international lovemaking.
Publishers should sign this up first, especially if they can cajole Steiner into expanding on Ch., who would cry out, "
Nepomuk the Lesser!" when approaching climax (N., Steiner's French lover, settled for, "
Mon brioche, mon brioche!
") or V., who analogized sex practices to her native Vienna in phrases such as "taking the streetcar to Grinzing."
Steiner says he didn't write
book because indiscretion "must have its limits." Might a six-figure advance stretch those limits? Where's Judith Regan when you need her?
So many books, and so many we've lost. George Steiner's splendid
My Unwritten Books
suggests we need a pro-life movement in the publishing world - now.