George Steiner’s Phony Learning

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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.

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