Critical Mass by Peter Washington

Peter Washington

Critical Mass


Some years ago I came across George Steiner at one of those parties where literary London meets Belgravia and haute bohème to their collective satisfaction. Steiner was excited, alert, his eyes shining when I greeted him, but they were not shining for me. He was looking instead for Mick Jagger. Had Mick and Jerry arrived yet? Did I know them? Could I introduce him? The very idea touched me briefly with stardust. When the answer to all three questions turned out to be no, I tumbled back to earth.

Given the reflections in his latest volume, I doubt Professor Steiner would have been comforted to know that I was at least as thrilled to meet him as he would have been to meet Mick. As he makes clear in My Unwritten Books (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 224pp £14.99), looking up, not down, is the essence of hero worship. Several of the essays in this Borgesian collection of books he might have written feature the author’s delight at the mere proximity of genius. At one point he mentions that during his time at Princeton he twice heard telephones ringing in adjacent rooms to announce the award of Nobel prizes to their occupants. I must admit that my first reaction on reading this was not awe but laughter – and puzzlement. How thick are the walls at Princeton? Did a sixth sense alert him to what was afoot? Was there a distinctive Swedish tone to the bell on those occasions? Or could his ear have been glued to the wall? The last possibility appeals to me most.

There is a Pooterish side to this anecdote. Steiner’s reverence for the sublimity of genius combines to comic effect with the sense of his own unworthiness and the absurdity of the circumstances. Nevertheless, the Pooterism is endearing, not least because the ability to acknowledge and describe greatness in others is one of Steiner’s most attractive gifts. It shows humility, abiding enthusiasm, sympathy, and a generosity too often lacking in contemporary criticism. For Steiner, the world is still full of stars.

But, as he has noted elsewhere, stars throw dark shadows. The faults of the great may be in proportion to their stature: here he quotes the odious Robert Oppenheimer taunting a younger colleague with the words, ‘Still so young and still so little done.’ Even worse, the greatness of others can be a reproach to our own insignificance. The reproach is especially painful and fateful for the critic who comes into daily contact with his heroes. Familiarity with any form of power easily breeds self-contempt. Ultimately shut out from the mystery of the poetic creation he must celebrate, each critic, to adapt the poet’s phrase, is killed by the thing he loves.

Steiner’s Jewishness makes him especially sensitive to the dilemma of the outsider drawn to a world that excludes him. As a European Jew, he already feels alienated from society; as a critic he is estranged from the very sources of the culture that is the object of his passionate attention.

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