George Steiner’s Phony Learning


George Steiner’s new book.

As a literary critic and essayist George Steiner is distinguished by his erudition, which is not just impressive but even intimidating. A quick glance through his books reveals that he’s a writer confident enough to sit in judgement of a vast range of cultural figures ranging from the poets of antiquity to great composers like Bach and Beethoven to the Russian novelists of the 19th century to modern philosophers like Heidegger. “Is he a man or an encyclopedia?” you ask yourself as you read his essays.

Another question worth asking is, how much of Steiner’s erudition is real, based on actual familiarity with the artists and thinkers he’s writing about, and how much is just name-dropping? Is Steiner just the high-end equivalent of a Hollywood hanger on who has tales of chance encounters with “Angelina” and “Bobby DeNiro”.

I’m a great admirer of the poet, short story writer, painter and translator Guy Davenport, who really was a polymath. I’ve always had a soft spot for Steiner because he once lavishly praised Davenport in The New Yorker, a review that did much to bolster Davenport’s reputation and visiblity. “Davenport is among the very few truly original, truly autonomous voices now audible in American letters,” Steiner wrote. (Steiner’s review was recently republished in the essay collection George Steiner at The New Yorker, published by New Directions).

Recently while reading Guy Davenport’s letters to the publisher James Laughlin, I discovered that even Steiner’s commendable act of celebrating Davenport carried with a whiff of fraud.

“I was dashed last night to learn (from Joan Crane) that when George Steiner wrote his piece on me in The New Yorker years ago … he had read two stories and faked a general knowledge of my oeuvre,” Davenport wrote in 1995. “He has since, to his dismay, read more, and decided that I’m an awful and evil writer. That’s his problem. He should have done his homework in the first place.” (from the book Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W.C. Bamberger. Laughlin was, coincidentally and amusingly, the publisher of  New Directions).

Many years ago, in the pages of The New Criterion, John Simon wrote the definitive take-down of Steiner, which is worth recalling:

But what can you expect from a critic who, in his Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, performed stylistic analysis on a passage from the Russian on the basis of its uses of ‘a’ and ‘the,’ even though Russian has neither the definite nor the indefinite article? Or a scholar, moreover, who in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly settled the vexed ‘Homeric question’ (without knowing Greek): the Iliad and Odyssey are the works of the same poet, the former of his angry youth, the latter of his mellow old age? Or of a fellow (sorry, Extraordinary Fellow, his title at Cambridge University; in Geneva, he is a professor) who published a two-part essay in The Kenyon Review arguing that Robert Graves was an overrated minor poet, but an underrated major prose writer, and cited as evidence, among others, Grave’s two novels about the Argonauts, The Golden Fleece and Hercules, My Shipmate – without realizing that they were the same novel under its British and American titles? And when a reader wrote in pointing out this and other comparable errors, Steiner’s printed rejoinder was not an apology but a string of insults hurled at the hapless correspondent.

For a more balanced assessment of Steiner, the reader might want to go to this earlier essay I wrote.


12 thoughts on “George Steiner’s Phony Learning

  1. It’s always a special pleasure to find out that a particularly awe-inspiring critic has more than a little similarity to the so-called “wizard” of Oz. I read Bluebeard’s Castle a couple of months ago (my first Steiner at book length) and now wonder if I should read it again with a more skeptical eye.


  2. I was a big Steiner fan back in the day; I was among those who admired his (apparent) erudition and vast learning.

    Thought it’s been a lomng while since I’ve read him, I’ll bet I’d still find him to be quite insightful on the question of language, silence and barbarism.

    And yet.

    (Recognize that phrase?)

  3. I’ve always loved Dr. Steiner, even though he steals from Catholic Theologians like Henri De Lubac’s “The Drama of Atheist Humanism” to cut and paste his ‘Tolstoy & Doestoevsky’. Anyway, I’ve always loved his voice in text.
    William Holland

  4. I got here via comic conservatism (the topic of which was mentioned by Rick Perlstein in his keynote speech for tea parties now at UC Berkeley).

    I noted this:

    “I was fascinated by mid-century Catholic intellectuals who did so much to inform our understanding of modernism (Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Hugh Kenner).”

    and wondered what you thought of Jacques Ellul? “The Technological Society” had a tremendous influence on me.

  5. I don’t doubt that some of George Steiner’s vaunted erudition is ersatz, but I also don’t doubt that the same is just as true of John Simon: one preening name-dropper recognizing his own reflection in the mirror of another’s books, and not liking what he sees.

    Simon’s piece is deliciously venomous, but even if one concedes this “whiff of fraud” to Steiner’s learning, one can’t help noticing this same “whiff of fraud” clings to a good deal of Simon’s own oeuvre: Simon’s own polymathy has plenty of breadth, but rarely much depth. Simon’s true talent is for invective, not illumination. This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    And whatever Steiner’s faults – and they are legion – his first book, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, is still very interesting and readable, and more genuinely insightful about its subjects than anything I’ve ever read by Simon.

  6. Your entry re Steiner above is just lazy gossip. Did it take you two, or three minutes, to put it together? Hope you enjoy shooting rubber bands at the moon.

  7. I finally slogged through Steiner’s /Real Presences/, and left a review on Amazon:

    The guy has lots of interesting ideas, but his snobbery is so deeply-seated that he continually praises everything he does as transcendent merely because he’s too narrow-minded to see anything else as worthwhile, and his commitment to post-modern theories of meaning has “freed” him from the “slavery” of logic and reason.

    So the first two chapters tediously construct a poorly-supported argument, in which the primary mode of arguing is long learned digressions full of citations which have no impact on the argument other than to impress the reader with Steiner’s erudition. The third, final section wanders off into the aether for 65 pages, then on page 200 the book suddenly ditches everything said before it and states its “conclusion,” which is Steiner making a just-so psychoanalytical story about artistic creation that he says must apply to every artist ever, even though AFAIK he’s never created any art himself.

    He’s smart and creative, but he’s corrupted his own thinking process with bad ideology, to the point where he can’t reason.

  8. That anecdote about Steiner analysing the “the”s and “a”s in a translated passage from Russian (which has no articles) keeps popping up, but I think it’s a myth. I’ve read through an old copy of Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky” and I can’t find any such passage. As for the quality of that book, Caryl Emerson herself praised it recently as still one of the best studies of Russian literature in English, the author’s ignorance of Russian notwithstanding.

  9. Apart from some reviews of his that I’ve doubtlessly read in The New Yorker, my first (and hopefully last) encounter with Steiner’s work was In Bluebird’s Castle. The first page left me curious, the second raised eyebrows … within ten pages there could be little doubt: the man is a thorough charlatan. What is incomprehensible is banal. The rest is namedropping gibberish. I’m always astonished at how such people gain their reputations, and more astounded still to see intelligent people scratching their heads over this guy. If it walks like a charlatan …

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