Each of the seven chapters in this book is an essay about a book that George Steiner did not write. The first two chapters, “Chinoiserie” and “Invidia” are dedicated to Joseph Needham and Cecco d’Ascoli, authors whose works were just too large of a scope for Steiner to tackle. But, in usual Steiner fashion, he uses the writings of Needham and d’Ascoli as a starting point to explore other ideas. At times the level of erudition in his essays is astounding.
Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a British scientist, historian and sinologist whose body of writing, even to someone as erudite as George Steiner, is overwhelming:
So far as I am aware, there is no definitive bibliography of Needham’s opera omnia. The catalogue of lectures, articles, monographs and books extends well beyond three hundred. Their range is awesome. It comprises technical publications in biochemistry, in biology and comparative morphology, in crystallography by one of the ranking members of the Royal Society. There are voluminous studies, both monographic and summarizing, on the history of the natural sciences, theoretical and applied, on instrumentation and technology, from antiquity to present.
In addition, Needham published historical novels that dealt with the Cromwellian period. And Needham’s largest work, begun in 1937 and carried on until his death in 1995, is Science and Civilization in China. Steiner discusses and tries to grapple with Needham’s difficult-to-categorize, massive work on Chinese science and culture:
By 1948, Needham had outlined seven volumes. These were to range from Chinese contributions to physics and mechanical engineering all the way to Chinese medical botany, navigation and physiological alchemy. Before long, the proposals for SCC, as it became known internationally, ran to ten monumental parts (some in double volumes). Soon even this manifold blueprint was overtaken by the plethora of new materials and queries. The eighteen volumes which Needham intended to write himself—several installments being simultaneously in the pipeline—would require an estimated sixty years of unbroken labor plus the immense task of preliminary research and bibliography. Literally hundreds of sources, many recondite and difficult to locate, would have to be combed.
Needham would have had to live to the age of one-hundred and seven to finish SCC according to this schedule. It is said that he worked on it up until two days before his death at the ripe, old age of ninety-four. Steiner compares the literary style and scope of the SCC to a number of authors whose work is equally as erudite, comprehensive and voluminous as Needham’s magnum opus. Pieces of A.E. Housman’s body of work, Nabokov’s four volume translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin, Proust’s Recherché and Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy are all discussed in relation to the SCC. But none of these other narratives in their entirety, however, is exactly like the SCC. Steiner concludes, “SCC, however, belongs to a more special genre. One that has not, so far as I can tell, been properly identified, let alone elucidated.” It is no wonder why this project defeated Steiner.
The other author whose writing that Steiner felt was too daunting a task to analyze is Francesco degli Stabili (Cecco d’Ascoli) (1257-1327). The only pieces of d’Ascoli’s writing that has survived is an incomplete epic entitled l’Acerba, two astrological treaties, and a handful of sonnets. Steiner says of d’Ascoli’s literary reputation: “During the sixteenth century, the theme which surfaces is that of Cecco’s intellectual boldness, of an unyielding proto-scientific integrity which makes of him a true predecessor to Giordano Bruno and Galileo.” In later centuries De Sanctis, Carducci, Petrarch and Goethe all praise Cecco’s intellectual and literary merits. So why, then, was Cecco burned at the stake along with all of his writings in 1327 and why has he not obtained the same level of fame as Dante, his literary contemporary?
Steiner speculates that invidia (envy) was at the core of Cecco’s failures and he uses Cecco’s life as a starting point for a fascinating discussion of invidia as it has been portrayed in mythology and literature. Steiner argues that Cecco’s fate, when matched up against Dante’s, was doomed from the start:
What is it like to be an epic poet with philosophic aspirations when Dante, as it were, in the neighborhood? To be a contemporary playwright when Shakespeare is out to lunch? ‘How can I be if another is’ asks Goethe. Outside my door at the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer fling at a junior physicist the demand, ‘You are so young and already have done so little.’ After which, the logical option is suicide. Themes of rivalry, of jealousy, of envy have been perennially cited and dramatized. They are as ancient as Saul’s rage of David’s meteoric ascent and the venomous derisions spat out by Homer’s Thersites.
Steiner ends his essay on Cecco’s life and the theme of invidia on a personal note and gives us the reason for not writing this book: “I did not write the study of Cecco d’Ascoli. It might have been of some interest. But it came too near the bone.”
I’ve only highlighted the first two essays in this collection; Steiner’s level of knowledge and scholarship is astounding. My favorite passages are those in which he inserts personal anecdotes. His chapter on sex, eros, and language are intriguing, to say the least. I have to gather my thoughts first and process his writing if I am going to write about that chapter…