GEORGE STEINER is militantly old-school. Even though he is au courant with the latest permutations of French structuralism and poststructuralism, and writes regularly for the New Yorker , it is clear that spiritually he inhabits an earlier century. In his first book of criticism, tolstoy or Dostoevsky (written in 1959 when he was still in his twenties, and appropriately subtitled "an Essay in the Old Criticism") he challenged the regnant "New Criticism" by insisiting upon going beyond the text to the moral, philosophical, and historical aspects of literary study. Back then he was also gloomily predicting disaster for Western civilization, railing against the "new illiteracy" and warning that "in excess of relativism lies the germs of anarchy." He has been lucky enough to see critics starting to abandon New Citicism. Western civilization, however, has proven more intractable than the literary establishment, and, for Steiner at least, Culture has continued its swift slide toward perdition.
Steiner's critical acumen is often overwhelming. Seemingly trite texts, squeezed dry by excessive exegesis, are rejuvenated and made to shine again in his hands. Over the last few years, however, he was ranged further than literary criticism and produced an impressive body of work on language itself, the stuff of which literature and a whole lot else, is made.
His magnum opus, After Babel , appeared in 1975. In this monumental critique of modern linguistics, Steiner offered the radicial notion that the world's many diverse languages (4000 plus, at last count) were created to disguise and hide things from outsiders, rather than to assist communicaton, as we often assume. A corollary is that the vast majority of our day-to-day language production is internal, and is not meant to communicate at all. The present text, On Difficulty and Other Essays , represents a collection of further thoughts on the issues raised in that earlier book.
His first major concern is with the relation of privacy to what he sees as the pathological openness our society insists upon in all realms. In this regard, he poses a significant question: "Could it be that vital resources of inwardness, of disciplined remembrance, of meditative clarity, fundmental to a classical culture, are being eroded by new ideals of extrovert and total utterance?" His other theme is that of the changing status of reading. "Are there ways," he asks, "in which current practices of an attitudes towards the written word are making it more difficult for us to read with natural immedicay and pleasure the works, the structures of language, on which our literacy has been founded?" Not surprisingly, the answer to both questions is yes.
The book's first and last essays echo one another (Steiner is nothing if not attentive to pattern, rhythm, structure), and provide answers to both rehtorical questions. In the first, "Text and Context," he complains that the "shared habits of biblical-classical reference" are apparently lost forever, mostly because "knowledge by heart of the 'texts' has been done away with by the organized amnesia which now pervades schooling." (This image of education as "organized amnesia" reappears several times).
The last essay, "After the Book?", posits possible scenarios for the future, when the Book is dead and Culture has disintegrated. He maintains, with many structuralists, that we overestimate the importance of the writer's individual vision because "most books are about previous books," and "the act of writing... is intensely... conventionalized, however fresh and turbulent the author's impulse." He allows (with a slight sneer) that music is far more popular because it permits "that democracy of emotion which literature, particulary difficult literature, denies." His most profound notion in this essay is that in our rush to "modernize" libraries into electronic storehouses of information, where the book will be merely an interesting curio, we may very well "bring on alterations of sensibility, modifications in our habits of discovery, as significant as any since the invention of moveable type."
Several of the other essays in this collection are exceptional, buy may be of less interest to the general reader. "On Difficulty" is not, as you may have thought, about why things are always so hard; instead, it's an elaborate discussion of hermeneutics -- what it means to "interpret" a text -- posits four different sorts of "difficulty" that may be encountered in a literary work. "Eros and Idiom" is a fascinating exploration of the dynamic relationship between the dynamic relationship between the sexual consciousness of writers from Jane Austen to Jean Genet and the actual expression of Sexuality in the language of their novels.
The two essays, "A Remark on Language and Psychoanalysis" and "The Distribution of Discourse" are probably the most interesting, for in them Steiner continues the investigation begun in his earlier books of the inner speech that he contends is so vital to man and which is "the terra incognita of linguistic theory." It is the decline of this inner language that Steiner sees as the root cause of many of our problems. He believes that "where much more is, in fact, being heard, less is being said," and that this shift from the inner to the outer may be responsible "rather than any political-economic crises" for the "phenomena of anomie, of alientation, of anarchy of feeling and gesture in the current situation.... "
By now, it must be obvious that one of the principal reasons for reading Steiner is for the sheer pleasure of his prose. It is a luxuriant growth whose beauty stems from a certain Latinate elegance which provides the very proof for his thesis that the classics can and should inform one's entire being. Yet this same linguistic predilection occasionally results in pompous hieroglyphs which seem purposely meant to exclude the uninitiated, as for example when he magisterially proclaims that "autonomy is diacritical to reciprocity" or that "the receptor of the interior vocative can be one of the multitudinous fictions of the self." The limitation and danger of this brilliant book is that it will only be understood by those most likely to agree that the deliberate formation of intellectual and cultural elites is a good thing, after all (in spite of their antidemocratic nature), as Steiner implicitly argues throughout.