In the beginning was the word. Of the end, more later. For over half a century, George Steiner has pondered, written and spoken about words conscientiously and controversially. He is something of a cultural anomaly in having three first languages: French/German/English.

He was born in Paris in 1929 of an Austrian father and a mother from Alsace. The family, Jewish by birth if not religion, emigrated to the United States in 1941, just in time to escape Nazi rule in France.

Since the late fifties, Steiner has produced what some consider to be passionate and radiant books, which have been regarded by others as little more than pompous and bogus rantings. He has written about Russian literature and Greek tragedy, twentieth-century totalitarian politics and the immense global pressures warring against the powers of language. He has explored literary criticism and music in the rousing rhetoric of his essays and lectures, and has written an interestingly thought-provoking body of short fiction. His novellas and stories have been collected in the volume entitled The Deeps of the Sea. The most well known little novel of Steiner’s is The Portage To San Cristobal Of A. H., which was turned into a successful stage play by Christopher Hampton twenty years ago.

During the past ten years he has trodden somewhat gingerly into the domain of theology. With the book Real Presences (1989), he asks if there is anything in what we say, and has managed to come up with an affirmative answer, creating, characteristically enough for George, both new friends and enemies. Well thought-of philosophers such as Chris Norris and Terry Eagleton, by no means the most hard-line Steiner sceptics, would surely dismiss the book as mystical twaddle. Here he seems to be telling us that words can evoke the spiritual, i.e. real presence.

Well, nothing new in this, you might say: in fact just a mite disturbingly old style. But “only the modern goes out of date”, as Oscar Wilde once reminded us over a hundred years ago. The oneness of God with “the word”, the logos or speech act, is a theological common place. Yet Steiner goes a little further in combining the theological with the aesthetic by arguing that the same process applies in music, painting, poetry and novels. He plays wittily with the word “character”. A “character” in a play or painting, he argues, is more than just markings or “characters” on paper or canvas - is in fact somehow mysteriously more substantial than the audience, the reader or the actor. We are often hurt and humbled by - taken over by such “presences”, he suggests. Again, so old hat that we perhaps need to be re-minded of it?

The fact that something, some one - a presence - is there that was not, tells us, says Steiner, something about the act of creation itself. Why is there something rather than nothing? 'Real Presences' says, rather elaborately, and somewhat tentatively, that God is. For the sheer risk of being irritated or even thrillingly disturbed, Steiner is certainly worth reading. His habit of reminding us that in the beginning was the word, that in the end we grapple with the wonders and the nightmares of technology is something that concerns us all.

© : David Reid, June 2002.

Other articles by David Reid :
Beyond the glitter : a look at some recent Irish writing

The picture of Dorian Gray

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