NO PASSION SPENT

Essays 1978-1995

By George Steiner

Yale University Press. 430 pp. $30

WHAT IS the secret of writing good literary and cultural criticism? T.S. Eliot's answer was bluff and irrefutable: "Be very intelligent." George Steiner might add "Read everything." Certainly Steiner -- the aptly named Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge -- would appear to have mastered every major author of the Western literary tradition, not to mention the complete works of such daunting philosophers as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, as well as the intricacies of modern linguistics and literary theory. Equally fluent in French, German, English and Italian, this tireless polymath has also written hundreds of book reviews (many for the New Yorker, most still uncollected), published a small body of fiction of which The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. already seems a minor classic (Hitler is discovered alive in South America), and addressed, with considerable panache and authority, subjects as varied as chess, the death of tragedy, Homer, the Hebrew Bible, translation, the Holocaust (he prefers the term Shoah), and many aspects of religious belief.

To his admirers, Steiner (born in 1929) is the leading literary intellectual of our time, the heir to both Edmund Wilson and Erich Auerbach. To his critics, however -- and their name is legion -- George Steiner is a pompous, prolix laughingstock, the very archetype of the windy pedagogue who shamelessly parades his learning to little purpose and whose actual thought is conventional or nebulous and obfuscatory. The man's work has been dismissed as "elegant fuzz," as "semi-opaque and barbarous abstraction," and as the "incessant babble of an over-rich vocabulary loosely displayed." What, asked Pilate, is the truth?

A critic, of course, ought to stir up controversy, make people think, argue, get excited or angry about books and ideas: After all, c'est son metier. In this regard, Steiner, like Harold Bloom or Susan Sontag, possesses an electricity denied to some contemporary literary thinkers of equal or greater gifts. Frank Kermode and Robert Alter exhibit a similar range of learning and linguistic competence, but they write equably, in measured gentlemanly prose, quietly marshaling their points, slowly building a cogent argument. At the close of their reviews or essays, one is convinced by their aptly applied learning, obvious intelligence and generous sensibilities. And yet something is missing. They lack the gonzo craziness of the critics who win our hearts as well as our minds: an F.R. Leavis or William Empson, a Kenneth Burke or Roland Barthes.

Or a George Steiner, despite his manifest and sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing quirks, of which No Passion Spent offers an excellent anthology. In fact, to the devoted reader, the delectation of Steinerisms may become an end in itself. No late essay, for instance, seems complete without at least one appearance of the word "instauration," though admirers of "pericope" will have little to complain about. Particularly savory too are the avowals attesting the excellence of some work one has never heard of, let alone read: "Thomas Otway's Titus and Berenice of 1676 is just about the only inspired attempt in English to come to transferable' terms with the towering fact of Racine." Still, my own favorite example of the Steiner magic occurs in the essay, "Two Cocks" -- not anything scabrous (alas), but rather a series of, in truth, quite brilliant reflections on the deaths of Socrates and Jesus: "The guilt' of Socrates (a paradoxical issue already pursued in a number of fascinating and legalistic, though little known, eighteenth-century tracts, notably in France and Italy) is seen by Kierkegaard in ironic counterpoint to the innocence of Jesus." Note Steiner's admirable concision, the deft compacting of multiple layers of pedantry into a single sentence. The parenthesis is, of course, the real triumph, each word -- especially "already" and "fascinating" -- adding its particular fillip of superciliousness, building to that rapier thrust of "little known eighteenth-century tracts," before the masterly diminuendo of "notably in France and Italy." One does not achieve such consummate effects by accident. As a dividend, Steiner naturally eschews any footnote, so one hasn't a clue as to the titles or authors of these invaluable works.

IN THE END, though, Steiner's seriousness about serious issues (declining literacy, religion, the Holocaust), his absolute devotion to the life of the mind and the claims of scholarship, the sheer joy he conveys in simply knowing so much, of having read so widely, saves him. No Passion Spent can be hard slogging at times -- I can't make heads or tails of the Husserl piece but it is also astute, provocative and eye-opening. Any paragraph here can suggest vistas; a sentence may encapsulate a sweeping assertion or a lovely truth: "The intellectual is, quite simply, a human being who has a pencil in his or her hand when reading a book." After finishing the essay on Peguy, one wants to rush out and find Victor Marie, comte Hugo, "among the half-dozen preeminent acts of criticism in our century"; "Totem or Taboo" persuasively delineates how the Dreyfus Case provides a mirror to the 20th century's fixation with race, nation and religion; an introduction to Kafka reminds one of the symbolic density of the great parable "Before the Law." Moreover, like Eliot, Steiner quotes stunningly: Consider Wittgenstein's last words, "Tell them I have led a happy life."

In Steiner's most controversial essay, "The Archives of Eden," this Chicago-Harvard-Princeton educated critic finds America a custodian nation for European culture and then goes on to examine the devil's algebra of civic oppression and cultural achievement: The United States, he suggests, has opted for democracy at the expense of artistic greatness. A delightfully learned excursus on the symbolism of the cock in history and the imagination is worthy of E.R. Curtius -- or T.H. White. As an exemplar of central European humanism, Steiner writes frequently, with justifiable pride and anguish, about the Jewish experience in the 20th century. The later essays, mixing religious speculation and cultural criticism, repeat the conviction that great literature requires a belief in transcendence, in God, to achieve the sublime. In short, by the end of No Passion Spent -- as at the end of The Death of Tragedy, In Bluebeard's Castle or George Steiner: A Reader -- one has learned a great deal, though sometimes in spite of the author and his quite irrepressible, indeed almost boyish, zest for scholarly display.

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Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World. CAPTION: George Steiner