A George Steiner Rabbit Hole

Saint Joseph Charpenter by Georges de La Tour (The Faber edition of Real Presences uses a detail from this painting as its cover)

Lost on none of the regular readers of this blog is my plummet headlong down a George Steiner rabbit hole, which may continue unabated until I’ve read all of his appreciable oeuvre. When outlining my reading intentions less than a month ago I warned of my fickle reading disposition. If you dislike Steiner’s work–he is a writer that attracts both passionate critics and acolytes–you may wish to ‘look away’ for a further few months.

Presently I am reading Real Presences in which he argues that “Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art) incarnates a real presence of significant being”. The argument and Steiner’s wager of transcendence may prove unsuccessful but undoubtable is its force, virtuosity and autobiographical engagement.

The more I read of Steiner’s work the more I’m convinced that he is our age’s Montaigne or Dr. Johnson, not to be diminished by the term ‘critic’, which would suggest a purely parasitic relationship to literature and the arts, but a writer to which we can attribute ‘greatness’ as the most acutely sensitive reader of our age. Steiner often defends what he calls his “old” critical approach, “when the work of art invades our consciousness, something within us catches flame. What we do thereafter is to refine and make articulate the original leap of recognition”. This approach, abetted by Steiner’s astonishing polymathic erudition casts brilliant light on whatever the target of his attention.

The Sweet Session of Silent Thought

This is such a wonderful anecdote:

“It was 1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. People disappeared like flies everyday. They told [Boris] Pasternak, “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer, police killer. It was a three day meeting and every speech was thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — not a word from Pasternak. On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.” He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. He got up and I’m told you could hear the silence still Vladivostok. And he gave a number. A number, and two thousand people stood up. Thirty. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts, so Shakespeare: when I summon up remembrance of things past. A sonnet of Shakespeare on memory. And they recited it by heart, the two thousand people, the Pasternak translation. It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”