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July 05, 2011


A lovely passage that feels like transformation. One of my goals for today is to find a snip (swath if I can get it!) of time when I can read. My days are too pieced-out.

This is a side of Steiner's writing with which I'm quite unfamiliar! And it's as if Steiner came to the same wonderful realization you did in your previous post. I can see why it resonates, both from your own experience in Quebec and from the beauty of Steiner's prose.

Though he's lived in England for decades now, hasn't he? I guess it's not remarkable that he would find home but then not live there: displacement is such a large part of his past and profoundly informs his criticism.

My next Steiner will probably be No Passion Spent, about which I've read good things. It seems like an eclectic set of essays.

I learned yesterday that Virginia Woolf was a literary critic in Steiner's mold in one big respect: she instinctively didn't trust theoretical criticism, and she believed in the reader's autonomy. "The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. She named her first volume of literary criticism The Common Reader, a title that Mark Hussey thinks is indicative of her reading philosophy.

Marly, I think pieced-out days are a curse of modern life. You have kids, which must make your time even more fragmented. There seem to be two challenges: to find longer swaths of uninterrupted time, and to make better use of the snips. Not easy!

Thanks, Peter, for these insights. I read the Amazon reviews/comments in your link. It's interesting. I suppose that Steiner was an elitist (there are many ways of defining that word) but he also admits his origins and preferences and examines his thought patterns. I respond the same way you did to his dislike of literary theory. In "Errata" one of the essays is about his personal politics, and he is quite hard on himself for championing art and intellectualism during a century which has seen so many people are starve or become the victims of war. He ponders human capacity for nobility and pure achievement, contrasted with our bestiality and cruelty: there are no answers in the end but I come away from the essay feeling he is a lot more honest than many of us, frankly. His is simply a very interesting mind, and one which prompts the reader to think more deeply about his or her own assumptions, beliefs, decisions. I also liked a chapter where he discusses his own teachers. One of the people he describes is someone with whom he disagreed profoundly, but they became good and longtime friends out of mutual respect and the enjoyment they got from their discussions - precisely for the reason I just mentioned. If all we do is surround ourselves with people who share our opinions, life is pretty boring and the mind and spirit can stagnate. I admire him for seeking freshness even when it was uncomfortable.

You know--regarding that comment to Peter--that is one of the things I find so difficult about university life theses days, and why I am so glad that I am long out of it. Faculty tends to be rather lockstep. Students are not as varied either--all under the thumb of technology these days, with all the lack of solitude and thoughtfulness that brings.

Yes, what to do with the pieces: make a crazy quilt hour, I suppose.

Beth, now I really want to read Errata. It's funny how one gravitates to a favorite writer's autobiographical stuff. Who is this man or woman who writes and thinks like this?

As early as the 1950's, Steiner makes the call to reexamine our approach to literature in light of Twentieth Century atrocities. (It's a big theme in his Language and Silence collection of essays. I think he sees that many people were hiding in academics, but his bigger point in Language was that we aren't doing a good enough job of reading. There is a disconnect between our love of culture and our actions, he says. He brings up Nazis who, after a hard day of atrocities, would relax at home with Wagner or Tolstoy or the like. If we read properly, he says, we would take action. In the essay "To Civilize our Gentlemen," Steiner sees the inherent danger in categorizations such as Richards's:

"In I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism, we find the following: 'The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well. If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet's fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.' To which the answer should be: No, we have become men."

When someone accused John Berger of inserting politics into his art, he responded, "Far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics." (Very intriguing quote to me.) Berger's politics are probably the opposite of Steiner's to a large degree, but I love each man. (And they must both plan to live to be a hundred and to work right up to the end. Hey, and they both found their true homes in France, didn't they?) But it's Steiner's and Berger's conceptions of art and reading that forced them to take what action they took. Neither could hide in art and literature -- quite the contrary, in fact.

Wonderful passage.
I wholly agree about Steiner being a very interesting mind and I think the fact that he's completely at ease and fluent in several languages is relevant to the ease with which he moves across so many areas. Also agree with having friends who have different opinions!

A fellow Montreal immigrant, I'm an occasional reader of your thoughtful blog. Fellow Steiner admirers may be interested in a nice 2007 interview with him, which I listened to only today. The two parts are available here:



Hats off to wheoevr wrote this up and posted it.

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