There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books. In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national. He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,” sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family. And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages. Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”
Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.
We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax. No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge. More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local). Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare. It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia. A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood. Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives. How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean? What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?
Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience. Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent. He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.” It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.” And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other. He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”
I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English. He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.
Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation. I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering. But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible. Indiscretion much have its limits.” Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…