George Steiner

By: Jerrold Freitag
April 23, 2014


Aristotle (on Homer), Johnson (on Shakespeare), Benjamin (on Goethe): like these predecessors, GEORGE STEINER (born 1929) is one of the all-time great close readers. In books from After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) to No Passion Spent (1996), to Grammars of Creation (2001), Steiner puts Hermes back in charge of hermeneutics, and calls himself a humble mail carrier — a delivery boy who’ll never underappreciate the value of the cargo he’s taking from one place to another. About that cargo, Steiner is an unfashionable elitist: “No stupid literature, art or music lasts,” he insists. Nor is he interested in theory: Parasitic and cancerous he considers our addiction to secondary literature, to commentary, to “talk of talk.” He wants us to stick to the canonical texts; he laments the loss of rote, the glory of good, shared references.

[…] it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us.

And what references! Gadamer, Heidegger, Briefträger, Il Postino, Neruda, and the earth-shattering use of the word “and” in The Sun Also Rises — a reference to Ecclesiastes — conflate in his essays. In one small pile of his very readable big words is often summa summarum, the wisdom and breathable density of which few thinkers reach in their best books.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Roy Orbison, Lee Majors, Lee Miller.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Literature