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This article is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

George Steiner: The Clamour of Babel Nicolas Tredell

I have just heard a performance on the Steiner. A similar remark was once made about Conrad, and in Steiner, as in Conrad, there will always be brilliant passages. These are especially evident in Errata when it celebrates the post-Babel polyphony, 'the incommensurable gift of tongues', 'the inexhaustible wealth of Pentecost', 'the cornucopia of different languages poured out on the human species' (p. 84). But it has to be said that the Steiner is showing its age. There are too many echoes of previous texts by the same author; there are crudities, contradictions and confusions which were previously partly concealed because Steiner knew when to stop; and there are fatal signs of losing touch, of fighting corners that have long since been evacuated, like a battered old boxer throwing punches at phantoms, when the real fists are flying elsewhere. One would never want to join the ranks of those, in English culture, who dismiss or denigrate Steiner because of his difference, his doubtful scholarship, his disregard, at times, for detail; how could one align oneself with those who concurred in Cambridge that 'he is not one of us', or with the lecturer at a once-'new' university who dismissed him, on the strength of a slip, as 'the man who thought that Gloucester jumped off Dover Cliff'. But it would be dishonest - and, in a sense, a betrayal of Steiner's own best example - not to register a profound disappointment with Errata.

Errata stands as the failure ...

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