Authors: George Steiner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic and philosopher

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism, 1959

The Death of Tragedy, 1960

Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman, 1967

Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution, 1971

In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture, 1971

Fields of Force: Fischer and Spassky at Reykjavik, 1974

Nostalgia for the Absolute, 1974

After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 1975

On Difficulty, and Other Essays, 1978

Heidegger, 1978, revised and expanded 1992 (also known as Martin Heidegger)

Antigones, 1979

Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say?, 1986

What Is Comparative Literature?, 1995

No Passion Spent: Essays, 1978-1996, 1996

Errata: An Examined Life, 1997

Grammars of Creation: Originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990, 2001

Long Fiction:

The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H., 1979

Short Fiction:

Anno Domini, 1964

Proofs and Three Parables, 1992

The Deeps of the Sea, and Other Fiction, 1996

Edited Texts:

Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962 (with Robert Fagles)

The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation, 1966 (also known as Poem into Poem: World Poetry in Modern Verse Translation, 1970)

Homer in English, 1996


George Steiner: A Reader, 1984


George Steiner (SHTI-nur), one of the most influential comparatists, critics, and translation theorists of the late twentieth century, was born on April 23, 1929, in Paris. His parents, Austrian émigrés, were both university professors, and, as the author notes in After Babel, his early youth was spent in multilingual surroundings–so much so that some critics consider him equally a native speaker of English, French, and German. He studied at various universities and subsequently filled professorial positions at universities in Europe and the United States. Steiner became a United States citizen in 1944 and is generally considered an American critic, although he has spent considerable time in Europe. After some time at Yale University, Steiner accepted a professorship in English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, where he later became head of the comparative literature department.{$I[AN]9810000812}{$I[A]Steiner, George}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Steiner, George}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Steiner, George}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Steiner, George}{$I[tim]1929;Steiner, George}

Steiner emerged as a critical force before his thirtieth birthday with his first long work, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, published in 1959. This work is based on the premise that the function of the critic differs from that of the reviewer in that the critic distinguishes not between the good and the bad but between the good and the excellent. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as a gauntlet thrown in the face of the then-prevailing critical current of New Criticism, also proved that there was still much to say about literary greats through the employ of “old” critical methods, centering on the various nontextual forces that mold the literary work and that aid in its interpretation.

The Death of Tragedy appeared two years later. In this book the author locates the tragic tradition solely in the classical world (and in truly classically oriented works), which regard the forces that govern the fate of human beings as blind. The decline of the dramatic tradition is necessarily paralleled by the waxing of the Christian worldview of justice and redemption, as well as by the artistic heritage of Romanticism, with its cult of genius. This interesting volume ends with the (optimistic?) hint that the twentieth century world, with its unspeakable cruelty and totalitarian systems, might see the rebirth of this ancient dramatic genre. Steiner’s next book was a collection of essays entitled Language and Silence. This volume is an attempt to understand the scope, importance, and future of language and linguistic culture in the face of the antihumanistic history of twentieth century totalitarianism. Steiner speaks of a certain “retreat from the word”–the inability of modern language to function in the face of bestiality as well as of the necessary role of the spoken and written word faced with inhumanity.

Steiner was also working on his theories as editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation. This anthology, with its enlightening introduction (published later as the essay “Poem into Poem”), became one of the most important texts in verse translation theory, and set translation into verse–the re-creation of a poem in one given language into another poem in another tongue–as the only viable and honest method of translating verse. The magisterial study After Babel derived from this preliminary essay. Like the foregoing, it battles the notion that “what remains untranslated in verse translation is the poem itself.” In After Babel Steiner suggests that all linguistic interpretation–even in everyday conversation–is a type of translation and delineates the re-creative process of the verse translator as a hermeneutic method, which he considers literary criticism of the highest caliber. (This idea is connected with Steiner’s conviction that literary criticism should be vivid, engaging, and text-rather than theory-centered).

Steiner’s volume entitled Extraterritorial continues in the vein of Language and Silence. Again, he speaks of the “lost center” of linguistic expression of the mid-and late-twentieth century. This collection of essays reexamines Steiner’s earlier thesis of the deep relationship between poetry and linguistics and deals with various linguists and their theories, including Roman Jakobson and Noam Chomsky. On Difficulty, and Other Essays was published in 1978. By Steiner’s own admission, the essays collected in this volume are “working papers” or “position papers,” designed to provoke a response from his colleagues. On Difficulty, and Other Essays addresses many of the same questions discussed in After Babel, though here the linguistic element is more pronounced. Among others, there may be found articles dealing with linguistics theorists Noam Chomsky and Benjamin Lee Whorf and their relationship to literature.

Steiner’s work of short fiction “A Conversation Piece” concerns the arguments of Talmudic scholars in response to Abraham’s dilemma regarding the sacrifice of Isaac at God’s command. Eleazer, son of Eleazer of Cracow, insists that Abraham was forced by God to offer his beloved son Isaac to God as a sacrifice, for God had issued a command. Baruch of Vilna counters that Abraham had free will and possessed the opportunity to question God’s word. The scholars next consider whether God had foreknowledge that Abraham would obey, thus possibly rendering the first question moot. The argument then involves the concomitant question as to whether God had complete faith in Abraham. The scholars ponder whether God could have allowed the sacrifice, since he had promised Abraham that his lineage would create a new people; thus, Isaac had to survive. The work illuminates several important questions regarding Jewish theology.

Steiner’s novella Proofs concerns one man’s reaction to the fall of communism in Europe. The protagonist faces the decline of communism as he loses his eyesight. Because he neglected to visit an ophthalmologist earlier, has cataracts, and possibly has some congenital defects, he may go blind. One way to save what remains of his eyesight is to avoid the strain on his eyes, which would entail quitting his job as a proofreader and text editor–an occupation that he enjoys because of his devotion to Marxism. In fact, the protagonist correlates communism with precision, with the exactness that proofreading entails.

Holocaust scholars often quote from Steiner, who has become an integral critic regarding the subject of the Holocaust language and art. In Language and Silence, Steiner claims that because the Nazis employed the German language to justify genocide, a new harshness has infiltrated the language: The Holocaust created a new sadism and deception that have become part of the language. As for the language of the survivors who write about the Holocaust, Steiner claims that their words speak for themselves and should be “review[ed]” but not embellished by writers. In his work In Bluebeard’s Castle, Steiner claims that the Holocaust was like art because the Nazis attempted to stage–literally–a living hell on earth for Jews. Steiner states in Language and Silence that the Holocaust is so tragic that it defies words, that language cannot do justice to the sufferings of those in Auschwitz. He asserts that the most effective and powerful response to the Holocaust is not art but suffering.

Unlike many contemporary critics, Steiner has always emphatically insisted on the distinction between creative work and the criticism, commentary, and theorizing that feeds on it. He has spoken frankly of the critic’s envy of the great writer (with the implication that to be anything less than great is not worth the game). In 1964 Steiner published a collection of three long stories or novellas, Anno Domini; the book was respectfully received but created no stir. His only other venture into fiction was both more substantial and more controversial. The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H., a short novel first published in The Kenyon Review in 1979 and later issued in book form, tells of the capture of Adolf Hitler (who is supposed to have survived the war and who is in his nineties as the story takes place) in a South American jungle. Controversy over Steiner’s portrait of Hitler dominated critical responses to the novel, which is in fact an engaging work written in a clean, poetic style with striking imagery. In this novel Steiner dramatizes the almost magical power of the Word, which in the hands of an evil master can invest ghastly cruelty with a seductive charm.

In 1984 Steiner published Antigones, a wide-ranging critical study of the metamorphoses of Antigone in Western literature from Sophocles to the twentieth century. In 1985 Steiner was invited to deliver the annual Leslie Stephen Memorial Lecture at the University of Cambridge. That lecture, published in pamphlet form in 1986 under the title Real Presences, argues the thesis developed at greater length in Steiner’s 1989 book of the same title. The title alludes to the “real presence” of the divine that has permeated world literature for thousands of years. In recent memory, Steiner suggests, modernism has denied the existence of God, and in doing so has left literature prey to the meaning-destructive methods of deconstruction. Although he does not foresee any large-scale re-acceptance of the divine as an informing presence, Steiner defends this “outdated” approach to literature as a valid manifestation of the ideal toward which art strives, and he offers a hopeful prediction for the regeneration of art. However, his conclusions on much the same topics in Grammars of Creation, published twelve years later, are considerably more pessimistic. No Passion Spent collects essays on a wide range of literary topics, ranging from the Hebrew Bible and the Greek poet Homer to Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, and Søren Kierkegaard. The subtitle of Steiner’s 1997 autobiographical essays, Errata: An Examined Life, refers to the remark attributed to the classical Greek philosopher Socrates: An unexamined life is not worth living. Steiner’s life, recounted in episodes rather than a continuous narrative, is the starting point for a series of meditations on literature, language, music, and scholarship.

BibliographyChayette, Bryan. “Between Repulsion and Attraction: George Steiner’s Post-Holocaust Fiction.” Jewish Social Studies 5 (Spring/Summer, 1999): 67-81. Discusses the dramatization of Steiner’s academic concerns in his fiction.Lojek, Helen. “Brian Friel’s Plays and George Steiner’s Linguistics: Translating the Irish.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 1 (1994): 83-100. Uses Steiner’s literary theories to analyze the works of Irish playwright Brian Friel, focusing on the playwright as both the product of and shaper of his culture.Sharp, Ronald A., and Nathan A. Scott, Jr., eds. Reading George Steiner. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Several important articles on Steiner appear; the book includes essays on Steiner as a cultural critic, as a literary journalist, as an interpreter of literature and scholarship, as a Jewish critical moralist, as a theologian, as a writer of fiction, and as a thinker influenced by Martin Heidegger.Young, Michael. “Real Presence and the Conscience of Words: Language and Repetition in George Steiner’s Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H.” Style 26 (Spring, 1992): 114-128. Analyzes the way in which Steiner sees the relationship between language and the Holocaust in his novel.
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