Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Notes & Comments

The Critic’s Critic

George Steiner and the art of hopeful failure.

Richard Hughes Gibson

© Basso Cannarsa/Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photos.

George Steiner was called many things across his lengthy writing career—sage, pedant, philosopher, snob, the last great European intellectual, a “mimic” staging a decades-long “impression of the world’s most learned man”—but the title he always claimed for himself was simply critic. As we reflect on the meaning of Steiner’s work in the wake of his death in February 2020, that self-characterization cannot be forgotten. Steiner was in many ways a formidable scholar, and his commentaries on core texts (Antigone, The Brothers Karamazov, the poetry of Paul Celan) and enduring themes (tragedy, translation, the inhuman) will surely be cited for many years to come. Yet from the beginning of his career in the late fifties to his last notable works at the turn of the century, he was explicitly engaged in the practice of criticism—the goal of which was to reach the wider republic of readers (not just academicians) with his urgent dispatches on the state of the arts and culture. It was as a critic that he asked to be judged.

Yet Steiner’s impact on criticism is not as easy to measure as that of some of his well-known contemporaries—such as Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye, and Paul de Man—whose analytic techniques reshaped the profession. As Martin Jay observes in his remembrance of Steiner published in Salmagundi earlier this year, Steiner did not patent a distinctive method of criticism, his approach relying instead on his broad range of reference and inimitable “sensibility.” Moreover, though he taught for many years, Steiner “left behind no school of thought to carry on his critical project.” There are, to put it another way, many George Steiner devotees but no practicing Steinerites. How are we to understand Steiner’s place among the critics, then? His significance, I suggest, lies not in a set of protocols or adroit maneuvers but in his diagnosis of, and response to, the conditions of criticism in the postwar decades. An important part of his legacy is his criticism of the critics.

This quality of his work is already evident in the title of his first book: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism (1959). Steiner was chastised at the time (and was for the rest of his career) for having the audacity to write on the titans of Russian literature without speaking a word of Russian. Yet the “old” of the subtitle announced an even bolder move, distinguishing Steiner’s critical practice from the “New Criticism” that during his student days had become the modus operandi of Anglo-American literary studies. New Criticism attempted to inject a fresh rigor into the discipline by making the “words on the page” (one of the movement’s catchphrases) the object of scrupulous critical attention—to the exclusion of such extratextual concerns as the author’s biography, religious or political camp, or cultural milieu. By developing new procedures and technical vocabulary, the New Critics sought to transform literary criticism from a gentlemanly pursuit into something closer to an empirical science that would be at home in the modern university.

Steiner recognized that New Criticism’s concentrated gaze could reveal the virtuoso effects of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s odes, yet he argued that it could not do justice to the hulking, hybrid creations of the Russian masters. That was not just a problem of length and form. Steiner contended that exactly those philosophical, theological, political, and biographical issues that New Critics tended to bracket were of the highest priority when books like War and Peace, Notes from Underground, and Demons came under consideration. In their writings, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky sought vehicles for coming to grips with the biggest and most pressing questions of not just their era but human existence—questions about history, the psyche, the nation, modernity, God. A New Critical ideal was to scrutinize a poem as one would a well-wrought urn. (Indeed, an essay collection by Cleanth Brooks that was considered holy writ by the New Critics took that image as its title.) The reward for such efforts would be sophisticated appreciation. In Steiner’s reading, such a studied posture would have been impossible before Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. These Russian masters were not simply trying to give pleasure or to inform the reader’s understanding. They had designs on the reader’s soul.

As an “old” critic, Steiner endeavored to illuminate how writers wrestled their texts into being. This demanded scrutiny of not just the “words on the page” but the contexts, personal and social, that ignited those words. That meant burrowing into the histories of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as writers in multiple genres, as believers and doubters in political and religious causes, as lifelong (and exemplary) readers. But Steiner held that the “old” critic’s deeper responsibility is to readers: to reveal the claims that literature (among other arts) has on their attention. Critical aspirations to scientific objectivity, Steiner believed, were misplaced. The criticism that really matters is that which speaks to readers’ subjectivity, their inner lives. “Literary criticism,” Tolstoy or Dostoevsky memorably begins, “should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up.”

Yet even as Steiner was lobbying for a return to the old ways, he began to make his career-long case that the situation of the critic had fundamentally changed in the space of a few decades. The cause was the unprecedented barbarism the European powers had unleashed on each other and their own citizens in the twentieth century—in the form of two world wars, Stalin’s purges, and, of course, the Shoah, among still other horrors. Steiner’s concern was not an abstract one. Born to Viennese Jews in 1929, he narrowly avoided becoming one of the Nazis’ victims. Increasingly vehement anti-Semitism led Steiner’s family to leave Austria for Paris a few years before his birth and then to quit Paris for New York in 1940—only a few months before the French capital fell to German forces.

Early in his career, Steiner’s insistence that these events could not be calmly set aside, as other critics seemed to think, put him at odds with some of the other faculty at Cambridge, where he was a founding fellow of Churchill College. “Recently, one of my colleagues, an eminent scholar, inquired of me with genuine bafflement,” he reported in a 1965 lecture, “why someone trying to establish himself in an English literature faculty should refer so often to concentration camps; why they were in any way relevant.” The camps were relevant, Steiner argued again and again in the coming decades, because they gave the lie to a doctrine that had been operative in the West across the nineteenth century—promoted by such intellectual eminences as Thomas Jefferson and Matthew Arnold—that education, particularly in “the best that has been thought and said” (Arnold’s phrase), would elevate humanity, bring peace and progress. “The spheres of Auschwitz-Birkenau and of the Beethoven recital, of the torture-cellar and the great library, were contiguous in space and time,” Steiner wrote in 1984. “Men could come home from their day’s butchery and falsehood to weep over Rilke or play Schubert.”

Criticism, Steiner demanded, must mind this gap. It cannot take for granted—as so many past generations had—that the arts and humanities automatically humanize. Indeed, critics must consider how high culture was implicated in the wars of the twentieth century and their civilian horrors, and not only by recalling the conspicuous bigots and militarists among the ranks of the writers, artists, and professors. Perhaps, Steiner speculated, spilling out our emotional lives on fictional people, paintings of haystacks, and moody sonatas can diminish our moral reserves, making us deaf to the cry of the man in the street—or to the sight of women and children being loaded into cattle cars. “There may be a covert, betraying link,” Steiner suggested in the 1965 lecture, “between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential for personal inhumanity.”

There is an obvious tension between the two qualities of Steiner’s criticism that I have named. One the one hand, Steiner made one of the twentieth century’s most impassioned cases for the deepening, quickening, humanizing benefits of encountering literature and the arts, while, on the other, he marshaled one of the postwar years’ most devastating critiques of the old faith in humanistic education. Steiner was well aware of this paradox. Indeed, he embraced it. For its two sides spoke to the need for the right kind of critic, one who acknowledged the full range of human impulses and emotions—sublime and barbaric—and who could thereby speak words of both invitation and warning to his fellow readers. Just as he had resisted the New Critics’ technique of reading only the “words on the page,” without regard for the text’s messy relations with the writer’s existence, Steiner, in his writings on the inhuman, would prevent us from reading our way out of the bloody business that is the world. Poems may speak to the better angels of human nature, he taught, but even the cultured are inhabited by demons. “It is the task of literary criticism,” he wrote in 1963, “to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, ear, and delight” (italics mine).

When, in the later decades of the century, Steiner took on the writings of the new wave of literary theorists—Derrida, Foucault, Lacan—and their critical epigones, he sought to safeguard the fullness of the transaction between text and reader. His critique of poststructuralism was not strictly philosophical; on its own terms, he admitted, it was forceful, even unanswerable. Rather, his chief complaint was critical. Texts withered under theory’s attention, Steiner observed, and criticism turned into mere showmanship. Steiner’s famous counsel was to read as if there were indeed meaning, even profundity, awaiting us in the text, an act of risk taking he likened to Pascal’s wager and Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. The religious dimension is apparent in the title of the lecture-turned-book in which these ideas took definitive shape: Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? (1989). To “wager” on meaning, Steiner argued, is to believe in the possibility that art “incarnates” meaning, through which a great mystery (thus the reference to the Eucharist) is conveyed by the media of language, brush strokes, scripts, and musical scores.

Yet on one point Steiner was in agreement with the theorists: that the text does not have a single meaning. But, pace his opponents, Steiner did not mean by this that the text dissolves, becoming an occasion for the critic’s invention or free play. Rather, he meant to testify to the irreducibility, the inexhaustibility, the fullness of great art. “Above all,” he counsels in the 1985 lecture “Real Presences,” “the meaning striven towards will never be one which exegesis, commentary, translation, paraphrase, psychoanalytic or sociological decoding, can ever exhaust, can ever define as total. Only weak poems can be exhaustively interpreted or understood.” This was Steiner’s critical version of what the historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy called “the principle of plentitude,” the notion that “the extent and abundance of the creation must be as great as the possibility of existence and commensurate with the productive capacity of a perfect and inexhaustible Source, and that the world is better, the more things it contains.” Within the Steiner cosmos, critics are destined for a sort of hopeful failure, being unable to express all that there is to say about a great work of art. Even when done well, the work of the critic is never done.