- My Unwritten Books
“I Went to a Marvellous Party,” among the best of Noël Coward’s lyrics, uses the word extraordinary in the usual English way: “And young Bobbie Carr / Did a stunt at the bar / With a lot of extraordinary men.” Extraordinary Fellow is George Steiner’s title in Cambridge. On the other hand, when I was young and impressionable and a frank enthusiast of Steiner’s writing, the only words of encouragement I heard came with British accents. Academic mentors in America spoke of his carelessness, his polymathic range of interests (in the United States, polymathic is not a compliment), his suspect use of perhaps-too-many languages. Their advice, “do not emulate him,” was tacit but duly registered. Whereas in England, Steiner’s being extraordinary meant that one could not emulate him: he was, for better or worse (and probably both), unique. As a Briton in America, Donald Davie spoke up once for Steiner: I recall his saying that, while Steiner was not given to meticulous or exhaustive development of his ideas, those ideas opened up worlds that others, if they chose to, could spend their academic lives exploring. I wondered if Davie was remembering, perhaps backward, a remark [End Page 492] of T. S. Eliot’s to the effect that, at most once in a generation, a critic of genius will — out of countless fussy facts established by scholastics — come up with a stunning new understanding of literature.
It emerges that what appeals to enthusiasts in Steiner’s work is what, thus far, he has not said in print. There are seven books he has declined to write, but, in retrospect, when told about them, we can see that the unwritten ones have underwritten all the rest. I am doubtful that a book about unwritten books wants a book review, so I think I will quote My Unwritten Books instead.
What is absolute, can anything be? is a question Steiner has asked many times, under many guises and in many contexts, over the course of his extraordinary career. The question, it turns out, was never rhetorical, and now, in the end, he has answered it. “What can be absolute,” he writes, “is our love for the animal or animals in our lives.” Dogs, in particular, “can be loved with every nerve and fiber of one’s being,” and “when our dog dies, our existence fractures. The house turns empty. The blanket, the bowl left behind seem unbearable.” Bathos, one thinks — and then Steiner moves, as he always moves, up from bathos into second and then third gear. “A troubling paradox,” he informs us, “attaches to this love”:
. . . Ruth Padel, poet and voyager, reports the screams of a boa constrictor being skinned alive. I wish to God I had never read that passage. It sickens my dreams, also in daylight. To cherish animals more than men may testify to some visceral though undeclared contempt for man’s inhumanity, for his “bestiality.” There is an intuition that animals may possess a dignity, a loyalty, and endurance under pain and injustice denied to all but a handful of women and men. This might account for the disturbing fact that a particularly acute love and compassion for animals occurs in men of a despotic and hateful ideological temper. They are not a reassuring lot: Caligula and his horse; Wagner and his Newfoundland; Nietzsche’s mental collapse at the sight of a horse being flogged; Hitler, if legend is correct, wept when his beloved Alsatian Blondie had to be put down in the hell of the Bunker. I have every reason to believe that I am a physical coward, a bourgeois mandarin repelled and frightened by violence. Yet I know that if danger threatened my dog, if anyone offered him hurt, my rage, my impulse to interpose would turn homicidal. If torturers set about my wife or children, I would cry out to them to hold fast and strive to do so myself. Were they to beat my dog or put out his eyes, I would break immediately, betraying all. These are...