Polyglot who speaks in tongues
FOR all we vaunt our multicultural society, Australia does not produce polyglots. There are those — notably our Prime Minister — who speak English plus something else and a few who can get by in three, four or five languages. But only people with native fluency in two or more languages should make the claim of being bi, tri or multilingual, as George Steiner can.
Magisterial individuals such as Steiner and Isaiah Berlin are produced partly by the upheavals of history and partly by the propinquity of other countries. Jewishness may also be a factor. Berlin was born in Riga in 1909 but reared in Russia and Germany until he was 12, when the family moved to England. Twenty years later, Steiner was born of German parents in Paris, then schooled in Manhattan from the age of 11.
Both men went on to carve dazzling careers in intellectual history, comparative literary criticism, philosophy and translation, all of the highest order and all drawing on a close yet critical knowledge of several European cultures.
Steiner has written 29 books, including a couple of novels, many of which are essential furniture on the bookshelves of any intellectual. This new publication, however, lists only four items on the ‘‘ also by GS’’ page, which presumably means they are the ones he esteems most highly.
In The Death of Tragedy ( 1961), Steiner argued that the question of the existence of God ( as distinct from the existence itself) has done so much to fuel great art and literature that the ‘‘ death of God’’ deals a mortal wound. Language and Silence ( 1967) asserted that ‘‘ language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality’’, while silence says more; After Babel ( 1975) celebrated the rich variety not only of the world’s many languages, but also of their quite different grammars; and Errata ( 1997) is autobiographical.
The unifying concept of My Unwritten Books is self- evident: seven essays announcing and developing themes on which Steiner has been tempted to write whole books but didn’t because the protagonist would not want it, the theme runs too close to the bone, ‘‘ indiscretion has its limits’’, he lacks both the clarity of vision and the Hebrew, the proposition is anarchic, he doesn’t have the guts for so much raw introspection and, finally, ‘‘ the soul, too, must have its private parts’’.
These reservations have not stopped him writing dense, wide- ranging, passionate essays of 20 to 30 pages on each of the potential titles. Most are mind- boggling in the astounding sweep of their argument and focus. Of Man and Beast , for example, exposes with embarrassed pathos the fierce, joyful, protective love Steiner feels for his dogs, which prompts him to wonder why this is so. Because of an immaturity in his psyche? Because seeing- eye dogs are such glorious creatures? Because it represents what is the least Jewish in him?
Whatever the explanation, it has nothing to do with his disquisition on school terms, which arises out of repeated invitations from UNESCO, the European Commission and any number of other cultural foundations to write comparative studies of the ideals and performance of secondary and higher education in Britain, the US and Europe: perhaps not so surprising for one who has studied or taught at the top 20 universities in the world, and then some. Who better to conjure with the question: ‘‘ What would be a core literacy adequate to the spiritual and practical needs of men and women on a multinational, increasingly intermeshed planet?’’
Steiner’s answer surprises: ‘‘ A central curriculum in mathematics, music, architecture and the life sciences’’, taught historically but apparently without reference to literature.
It is, he admits, a mad project, and the one he rejected as too anarchic.
It is also the one out of the seven that really ought to be taken further.
The topic that he says cannot be expanded