George Steiner once had interesting and unusual things to say, and he said them in a way that was all his own. Since then (perhaps for the greater part of the time that he has been a known name), he has been the very paradigm of one to whom Disraeli’s famous remark applies: he is inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, but to a far greater extent than Gladstone achieved, because Gladstone at least had things to say, whereas Steiner suffers the problem of the anxiously ambitious contemporary intellectual straining to appear clever and original, struggling to maintain a reputation for profundity, striving to keep up a flow of aperçus, insights and conceptual innovations – and producing only pretentious intellectual bombast instead.
This painful truth is confirmed yet again by Steiner’s latest effusion, a book about creation, creativity and invention in the ‘three semantic fields’ of theology, philosophy and poetry. The text originated as the Gifford Lectures for 1990 and, after the lapse of a decade, has come to seem good in the eyes of its author.
The two things Steiner says on his subject are, first, that creation is a higher thing than invention, partaking as it does of theological connotations whereas invention smacks merely of rearrangements among what is already available; and secondly and therefore, that everything of significance in art, music or thought has