One of the best ways to improve your tennis game is to play with people who are better than you. It is in this spirit that one reads George Steiner. Born in Paris, reared in “wartime Manhattan,” he went to the University of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. He’s taught at some of the world’s finest universities. He’s written books on literature and philosophy as well as criticism and commentary for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Yup, he’s a mandarin, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes aggressively self-effacing. No matter. When you put his books down it’s as if you’re in a great and beautiful hall, feeling the endless potential of the human mind.
“My Unwritten Books,” seven essays on the seven books he has not written, is bravely done. After all, we are talking about failure -- but admitting it takes the kind of confidence born of success. The failures are variously explained, but they can also be thought of as crises of faith.
The first, a book on the microbiologist Joseph Needham, was never written because, Steiner says, he wasn’t up to the enormity of the task. The second book, on 14th century mathematician/philosopher Francesco degli Stabili, also called Cecco d’Ascoli, was to be about envy of the “beta plus plus,” the genius we can never quite achieve. This, Steiner writes, was too close to home. The third book, on sex expressed in various languages (Steiner admits to speaking four) would have been fun but was not worth the risk to his private life. The fourth, about being Jewish, foundered on what he calls a lack of clarity and not enough familiarity with Hebrew.
The fifth book (see how they exist after all?) would have compared secondary education in the United States, Britain and elsewhere in Europe, making the case for a beautiful curriculum of architecture, music and life sciences. This project failed, Steiner writes, because he lacked the bureaucratic skills to implement his plan. The sixth, a book on the love between humans and animals that often transcends love between humans, “would have necessitated raw introspection. I did not have the guts.” The final book would have been about his lack of political conviction: “At best, I think of myself as a Platonic anarchist. It is not a winning ticket.”
In the end, Steiner suffers a crisis of faith in his chosen medium: words. (It is the fate of the intellectual -- worse, the punishment for having the hubris to try to know it all -- to be forever excluded from faith.) “Words, words, words on the one hand, interminably eloquent and ingenuous; the scream of the suffocating child, of the tortured, of those dying from avoidable diseases and starvation on the other.”
Hampered by his humanity, Steiner takes refuge, hunkers down deep within that lack of faith.