IT IS SOMETHING of a puzzle that George Steiner has not had a more visible impact on contemporary criticism. No one now writing on literature can match him as polymath and polyglot, and few can equal the verve and eloquence of his writing. (Unfortunately, his new book on the varied lives of the Antigone legend is an exception to this stylistic rule, its prose more often ponderous than poised.) And as the just published sampling of his work from 1958 to 1980 demonstrates, Steiner has commented with fine perceptiveness on a dizzying range of literary texts and cultural issues, evincing an indefatigable interest in questions that are, variously or simultaneously, esthetic, linguistic, anthropological, historical, moral, and philosophical.
For all this, George Steiner is not a critic who can be said to have much of a following. If I may cite the crude index of the citation game, for every reference to Steiner in the intellectually chic journals and critical studies one will find half a dozen to Harold Bloom or Paul de Man and twice that many to Roland Barthes. In one respect, such absence from the rolls of names dropped redounds to Steiner's cedit. The selections in George Steiner: A Reader make clear that he has always resisted the temptation of being merely fashionable. In the late 1950s, when the New Criticism was still at its radiant zenith, he rejected the prevalent notion that a literary work could be discussed in isolation as a perfectly wrought esthetic object and insisted on minute and essential links between what went on in both literature and criticism and the general health of a culture. Twenty years later, the imposing apparatus of Deconstruction now overshadowing literature in the academy, he speaks with polemic vigor of "the present edifice of literary-critical studies" as "gossip in jargon" and stigmatizes the critical "mode of narcissist terrorism . . . sustained by the construction of metalanguages of autistic violence and obscurity."
Beyond this bracing quality of unfashionability, Steiner has put off some readers by the occasionally melodramatic flourishes in his prose, or by the little tics of self-promotion with which he invites comparison between himself and Coleridge or Matthew Arnold, or steps forward rather too ceremoniously to take up the legacy of Marx, Freud, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, and the other great Jewish intellectuals of the modern Central European tradition. This solemnity about self might be dismissed as a minor irritant in a writer who, after all, has compellingly interestng things to say, but it does have a connection with what strikes me as a substantive problem in much of Steiner's critical enterprise.
FOR ALL his formidable gifts and extraordinary erudition, he is a great reader who has never quite managed to be a great critic because of his sheer self-concious striving for greatness. Although he can comment quite beautifully on a small detail of a text or on the imaginative cast of an individual writer, he rarely seems happy unless he is generalizing, at the very least, on the last few hundred years of Western literature, or the nature of human languages, or the last 3,000 years of literary tradition, or the shadowy antecedents of our cultural habits in the decisive evolutionary development of the cerebral cortex 100,000 years ago. These vast perspectives do occasionally flicker with some illuminating suggestion, but the very globality of the argument often condemns the writer to the elegant rehearsal of truisms or the deft weaving of unprovable conjectures. Sometimes the impulse to connect everything with everything else pushes close to the brink of absurdity, as when Steiner observes that "Antigone draws about herself an ethical solitude, a lucid dryness which seems to prefigure the stringencies of Kant."
Concomitant with this tendency to conjure with generalities and comprehensive interconnections is a certain reckless drive to make sweeping, unconditional generalizations, against which the reader will be tempted to marshal a host of counter-examples. Thus: "Judaism and homosexuality . . . can be seen to have been the two main generators of the entire fabric and savour of urban modernity in the West." (Joyce? Eliot? Mann? Picasso?) Or: "The vastness of space (in Russia) brings with it exposures to natural forces at their most grandiose and ferocious; only in the Brontes and, subsequently, in D.H. Lawrence does the European novel show a comparable awareness of nature unleashed." (Conrad? Hardy? Victor Hugo?)
Steiner can be much better than this when he is willing to limit himself to a reasonable middle distance, as in some of his fine portraits of literary-intellectual figures that have appeared in The New Yorker. (One of these, his admirable essay on Anthony Blunt, the art historian and spy, is included in George Steiner: A Reader.) He is also usually excellent on language and translation, issues he understands from within as a craftsman, and After Babel may well be his best book.
But the general view of Steiner's career that these two new volumes suggest is of an extravagant expenditure of rich talents with less than satisfying returns. Antigones is a vivid case in point: the shuttle from Hegel to the Greeks to the cave man and back to Hegel and Brecht is a remarkable feat of intellectual agility, but I would hesitate to say that it leaves us with much useful new knowledge of a discernible subject.