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This review is taken from PN Review 114, Volume 23 Number 4, March - April 1997.

COMETS AND INFLUENCING MACHINES GEORGE STEINER, No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1996 (Faber); The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction (Faber)

Theology, wrote Walter Benjamin in those enigmatic Skizzen scribbled down in the last spring of his life in 1940, is wizened and hunchbacked and has to keep out of sight in an elaborate mirror gallery, but even in such a diminished position can still guide the hand of a hookah-smoking chess-playing puppet called historical materialism, so that it wins against all comers. A strange story, as if Poe had reworked Kleist's marionette theatre - a no less strange puppet. Historical materialism? It has clearly had the stuffing knocked out of it since, but the chess-game looks set to go on interminably, and the name of the barker drawing in gawking faces outside the automaton's tent is not - surprise, surprise - Marx but Nietzsche.

Nietzsche is the true tutelary figure behind George Steiner's latest collection of essays No Passion Spent. While Nietzsche's habit was to take sides against himself (invoking values he did not espouse), and Benjamin for his part found freedom in a certain style of ambivalence as a 'left-wing outsider' (most notoriously, of course, in relation to that then formidable Marxist puppetry of historical determinism), Steiner goes time and again for prescription and pronouncement - for what he might call the inevitabilities of major form. These are essays which roam over cultural epochs like comets, epochs defined only by the high mountain peaks of cultural endeavour. Nietzsche wrote that the world was only justifiable as an aesthetic phenomenon, and Steiner comes passionately close to trying ...

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