Poly­glot who speaks in tongues

Ju­dith Arm­strong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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