Tag Archives: Essays

Chinoiserie and Invidia: My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

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…


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Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Errata by George Steiner

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.


Filed under British Literature, Nonfiction

The Early Essays of Virginia Woolf

I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912.  In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays.  She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:

But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished.  Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be.  Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.  And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.

I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written  in the 21st century?  In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?

Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money.   I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read.  Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:

Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.

Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.

Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book.  I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience.  Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:

‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture.  Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word.  Genius,  however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort.  But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted.  There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, Nonfiction, Virginia Woolf

Soul as the Prison of the Body: The 2016-2017 Seagull Books Catalog


Seagull Catalog 2016-2017

The diverse offerings of thought-provoking and interesting literature in translation from around the world has made Seagull Books one of my favorite publishers.  Naveen Kishore, Sunandini Banerjee and their staff at Seagull publish a catalog each year that not only tempts us with descriptions and photos of their books, but they also include pieces of writing from authors and translators around the world.  This edition is very special to me because Naveen invited me and a few of my favorite bloggers to be contributors.

Naveen begins by sending out a provocation and asks each person to write a response or a reaction to his provocation.  As you can see from this year’s provocation Naveen is a master of creating poetic prose that is beautiful and thought-provoking:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

For my own response, I wrote what I know and what I experience every day—Ovid, teaching and my daughter:

Ovid, in Book XV of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, lays out the stoic vision of the transmigration of the soul. Ovid challenges the human race not to fear death because the underworld is merely a transition, a brief holding place until the spirit takes on another form. Animae semperque priore/relicta sede novis domibus vivunt habitantque receptae: And our spirits, with an old place always being left behind, and having been received by new homes, live and dwell in them.

In my Latin 2 course when I teach the passive voice I give my students this passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with which to practice their translations. This is always one of the most animated and lively classes of the year for my students as they decipher the Latin as well as the Stoic argument that the soul is never destroyed but that it is the part of us that always lives on. As a contrast, I also give the class an explanation of the Epicurean view of the soul, which is quite the opposite; the Epicureans believed that this life is all there is for us and once we are gone there is nothing left, neither a physical body nor a spirit.

Every year, without fail, my students unanimously reject the Epicurean idea of the afterlife and embrace the Stoic notion that our souls, the very essence of who we are, survive in some form. Out of the dozens of lines of Latin prose and poetry I translate with my students over the course of their five years of study in my program, this is the one passage that they always remember; this is the passage that they quote back to me long after they have graduated and this is the passage that a few of them have even had tattooed onto their bodies. Morte carent animae: Our spirits lack death. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit: All things are in flux, nothing is lost. Ipsa quoque adsiduo labuntur tempora motu, non secus ac flumen: Time itself glides in continual motion, not differently than a river.


We were recently translating another passage of the Metamorphoses in an upper level Latin course, the suicide death of Pyramus. The students were horrified by Pyrmaus’ impulsive decision to take his own life because his soul will be stuck in limbo for eternity. The Romans believed strongly that the punishment for taking one’s own life hastily because of what Vergil calls a durus Amor (a harsh love) or unrequited love was that the soul would forever wander in the Underworld. Even though Ovid tries to take away the fear of an afterlife, it is the fear of the unknown that still lingers. Will we come back into a body as something better than before, will we come back as human or beast, or will we come back as anything at all?

Ovid’s writings about the soul are the very things that keep his work relevant and immortal even in the twenty-first century. It is his discussion of the human soul that saves the literary soul of the Metamorphoses for generations to come. Ovid’s own words can be applied to each new class, each new year, each new generation of students’ interaction with his writings. Nova sunt semper. There are always new things. Momenta cuncta novant: All moments are renewed.

The optimism of believing in an undying soul reaches even farther back into the spirits of children. When my daughter was three or four years old she started asking questions about death and dying. We are not raising her under any particular religious doctrine, so my husband explained to her what various religions believe about the soul and what might happen to us when we pass from this world. Her favorite explanation was the idea that we are reincarnated and that the soul lives on and takes on new forms. Even today, as a fourth grader, she is still a Stoic in her belief that some part of our spirit remains even when we pass from this life. It is my hope that she will learn Latin so I can translate Ovid with her and witness her reaction to Ovid’s writings about the soul.

My interactions with my students and my daughter have led me to believe that there is a youthful optimism and hope that the soul, the spirit, the very core of who we are, lives on and on. Do we retain this same optimism as we grow older? Is this an extension of the idea that young people think they will live forever? Or is this even a faint hint of a memory from some life in the past?


Anthony, one of my favorite bloggers, whose site is aptly entitled Times Flow Stemmed, takes a deeply philosophical approach and reaches all the way back to Aristotle for his inspiration. He responds:

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Was and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

Joe, who blogs at his site Rough Ghosts , provides a response that is, like his book reviews and essays,  poetic and contemplative:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

     I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

     But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they set us free.  We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in  circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem to touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be.

And Tony Malone, who blogs at Tony’s Reading List concludes the collection with a meditation on existential angst:

So, what to do with all this, the soul of literature, the literature of the soul, existential angst and the compost of the day?

I think I’ll just delete it and go to bed.  Sleep’s supposed to be very good for your soul.

Finally, a word must be said about the beautiful and stunning art work in the catalog that is done by Sunandini Banerjee.  She is the graphic artist for Seagull Books and does the art work for their catalog and their book covers.  I did a post about her art and the piece that has been featured on my blog.  The poetry, essays, photography and book descriptions are always amazing, but it is Sunandini’s art that puts that truly unique finishing touch on this spectacular literary catalog.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Seagull Books

Review: Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories by Robert Walser

I received an advanced review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  Please visit their website for a fantastic selection of titles, including more of Walser’s books in translation.  This collection has been translated by from the German by Tom Whalen, Nicole Kongeter and Annette Wiesner.

My Review:
girlfriends-and-ghostsThis collections defies classification as far as genre is concerned.  The introduction to the book calls the writings a collection of eighty-one “brief texts” that were written throughout the course of Walser’s life.  Some of the writings appear to be fictional short stories but others have a distinctly autobiographical feel to them.  Walser even writes a few short dialogues and a book review.  In addition, he has a wide range of topics and themes and writes about anything from nature, to fashion, to death and dying.  This is a collection best absorbed a few pieces at a time so one can savor his pithy and didactic collection.

Walser makes mundane things seem fascinating.  My favorite piece that falls into this category is entitled, “A Morning” in which he describes a Monday morning in a bookkeeping office as the minutes painfully tick by.   The central figure is man named Helbling who unapologetically walks into work almost thirty minutes late.  Walser’s description of the interaction between Helbling and his boss makes us laugh and cringe:

Totally be-Mondayed, his face pale and bewildered, he shoots in a jiffy to his place and position.  Really, he could have apologized.  Up in Hasler’s pond, I mean head, the following thought pops up like a tree frog: “Now that’s just about enough.”  Quietly he walks over to Helbling and, positioning himself behind him, asks why he, Helbling, can’t, like the others, show up on time.  He, Hasler, is, after all, really starting to wonder.  Helbling doesn’t utter a word in response, for some time now he’s made a habit of simply leaving the questions of his superior unanswered.

Walser makes ordinary events like suffering from a toothache, wearing a fashionable overcoat,  having afternoon tea and observing a beautiful woman absolutely riveting.

Another common and enjoyable theme that occurs frequently in his writing is that of nature.  There are pieces dedicated to the description of a peaceful morning and a walk on a beautiful autumn afternoon.One of my favorite pieces, entitled “Poetry” reads more like poetry than prose.  In this brief and reflective writing we get the sense that Walser is constantly fighting against a deep melancholia and he uses the occasion of a winter day as the inspiration for expressing his emotions. He writes:

I never wrote poems in summer.  The blossoming and resplendence were too sensuous for me.  In summer I was melancholy.  In autumn a melody came over the world.  I was in love with the fog, with the first beginnings of darkness, with the cold.  I found the snow divine, but perhaps even more beautiful, more divine, seemed the dark wild warm storms of early spring.

It is not surprising that Walser fought a deep depression and anxiety for which in 1929 he was voluntarily hospitalized in Waldau, a psychiatric clinic outside Bern.  By the early 1940’s he was permanently confined to the hospital and declared that his writing career was over.  There are hints in this collection that even as early as 1917 Walser is fighting some powerful demons.  In the story entitled “The Forsaken One,” written during that year, Walser pictures himself as a lonely, hopeless vagabond who is wandering around on a gloomy night.  He finds a house that is terrifying but he feels compelled to step inside and wander around until he finds an angelic female figure whom he calls a “celestial outcast.”  He feels an affinity toward her and is relieved that he has found someone that is just a lonely and isolated as himself.

It is truly impossible to cover the scope of this collection unless I were to make my review several pages long.  I have tried to sum up the writings that have made the greatest impression on me.  But I am confident that everyone can find something in this collection that he or she loves.  Thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing us this brilliant classic in translation.

About the Author:
walserRobert Walser (1878–1956) was born into a German-speaking family in Biel, Switzerland. He left school at fourteen and led a wandering, precarious existence while writing his poems, novels, and vast numbers of the “prose pieces” that became his hallmark. In 1933 he was confined to a sanatorium, which marked the end of his writing career. Among Walser’s works available in English are Jakob von Gunten and Berlin Stories (available as NYRB Classics), The Tanners, Microscripts, The Assistant, The Robber, Masquerade and Other Stories, and Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912–1932.


Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books