Errata is a Latin perfect passive participle, neuter, nominative plural that means “these things having been done in error” or “these things having been done by mistake.” Errata are oftentimes issued as corrections to a published text and are not a usual part of a book. George Steiner’s Errata, an usual book itself being part memoir and part essay, is a reflection of and commentary on those accidents of fate that launched him on the path of being a teacher, polyglot, critic and scholar. There is an underlying tone of gratitude for the fortuitous errata that have made up what he humbly considers to be happy accidents in his life.
Steiner was born in Paris in 1929 to Jewish Viennese parents who escaped Austria just as Nazism was taking hold. His words about his father’s perceptions of Austria in the early twentieth century are chilling: “With gram clairvoyance, my father perceived the nearing disaster. A systematic, doctrinal Jew-hatred seethed and stank below the glittering liberalities of Viennese culture.” Steiner’s father, whom he fondly calls “Papa” in his narrative, moved the family once again to America in 1940, one month before the Germans invaded Paris. Of the many Jewish children in Steiner’s Lycee in Paris, there were only two that survived. Steiner’s parents not only had the foresight to save his life, but they also had a profound effect on his education and his passions.
There is a beautiful passage in Errata that I’ve already written about which describes Steiner being introduced to Ancient Greek and the Iliad by his father. An enthusiasm for learning that goes even deeper is instilled in Steiner by his father from a young age:
I accepted, with unquestioning zest, the idea that study and a hunger for understanding were the most natural, the determinant ideals. Consciously or not, the skeptical ironist had set out for his son a secular Talmud. I was to learn how to read, how to internalize word and commentary in the hope, however chancy, that I might one day add to that commentary, to the survival of the text, a further hint of light. My childhood was made a demanding festival.
Steiner’s mother was also a great influence on him as he was brought up in a truly trilingual household: “My radiant Mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another.” He uses this as a background for a beautiful discussion on language. These are some of my favorite passages about Steiner’s observations on the errata of language:
It is my conviction that these liberations from the constraints of the physical, from the blank wall of our own death and a seeming eternity of personal and collective disappointment, are in crucial measure linguistic. Bio-socially we are indeed a short-lived mammal made for extinction, as are all other kinds. But we are a language-animal, and it is this one endowment which, more than any other, makes bearable and fruitful our ephemeral state. The evolution in human speech—it may have come late—of subjunctives, optatives, counter-factual conditionals and of the futurities of the verb (not all languages have tenses) has defined and safeguarded our humanity. It is because we tell stories, fictive or mathematical-cosmological, about a universe a billion years hence; it is because we can, as I mentioned, discuss, conceptualize the Monday morning after our cremation; it is because “if”-sentences (“If I won the lottery,” “If Shubert had lived to a ripe age,” “If a vaccine is developed against AIDS”) can, spoken at will, deny, reconstruct, alter past, present, and future, mapping otherwise the determinants of pragmatic reality, that existence continues to be worth expecting. Hope is grammar.
One final thought I had about Errata is that the Latin verb Erro also means to wander or to roam Steiner’s life also involves a lot of wandering, not just between languages but between countries. He has a wonderful chapter that describes his favorite places in France, England and The United States. He also discusses the many teachers and memorable students he has met in the various places he has taught and held academic chairs. When Steiner says, “I have scattered and, thus, wasted my strength” he is, in my opinion, being humble to the extreme.