Daniel Hannan

The same old song

George Steiner is a deeply erudite, elegant writer, with a profound knowledge of European culture. It’s a pity his latest essay, full of lovely disquisitions, lacks a single original argument

T.S. Eliot liked to recall the time he was recognised by his London taxi driver. Surprised, he told the cabbie that poets weren’t often recognised. ‘I’ve an eye for celebrities,’ the driver replied. ‘I ’ad that Lord Russell in the back o’ the cab the other day. I said to ’im, “All right, then, Bertrand, so wossit all about?” And, you know what, ’e couldn’t tell me.’

I’ve always felt the story reflects well on the cabbie. While it may have been asking too much of Bertrand Russell to condense his philosophy into the length of a taxi journey, he surely ought to have been able to say something useful.

George Steiner is a public intellectual almost of Russell’s stature. Born in Paris to Viennese Jewish parents, he was taken to New York as a child in 1940, a month before the fall of France. Fluent from childhood in English, French and German, he was also taught by his father to read the Iliad in Greek at the age of six. In a transatlantic career as an academic, novelist and critic, he has left his elegant spoor on virtually every discipline, from music to theology, from philosophy to architecture. Who better, you might think, to write about the ‘idea of Europe’?

This is a very slim volume, with its origins in a lecture. As you’d expect, it is erudite and cosmopolitan. Steiner ranges across vast expanses of European thought: Plotinus and Montaigne and Erasmus and Spinoza and Heidegger. He does his readers the courtesy of treating them as his intellectual equals, leaving his many German quotations in the original. The result is — again, as you’d expect — some fine prose:

In one French town, a commemorative plaque to Lamartine, most idyllic of poets, faces, on the opposite side of the street, an inscription which records the torture and execution of resistance fighters in 1944.

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