Beware the false prophet. George Steiner is celebrated and reviled in equal measure. Is he the most influential critic of his generation, as some say, or merely a fraud? Edward Skidelsky weighs the evidence

Grammars of Creation

George Steiner <em>Faber & Faber, 288pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0571206816

Remember the genius? In his black Victorian hat and cape, with his flowing white beard, he was the scourge of philistinism and a terror to his wife and children. What has happened to him? Why do we regard this figure, once so venerated, with a combination of amusement and censure?

We have become more modest, more democratic, in our attitude to creation. Poets are no longer the unacknowledged legislators of mankind; they are merely the curators of a dead tradition. Philosophers no longer strive to penetrate the mysteries of existence, but only to resolve certain esoteric conceptual confusions. Artists content themselves with devising witty and provocative visual effects, a job that is increasingly indistinguishable from advertising. In all these spheres, talent is no longer regarded as an excuse for bad behaviour. Biographies regularly appear lambasting the shoddy private conduct of this or that artist or writer.

But behind all these changes lies a single fact: we no longer believe in the possibility of what was once called genius. We no longer believe that it is possible to create something out of nothing; we have lost what Proust called "the faith that creates". This loss is often dignified with the name "postmodernism". The work of art, according to postmodernist theory, is not a creation ex nihilo - out of nothing - but through a mere rearrangement of items already in existence. This theory was first developed in relation to architecture, an art form that has always relied heavily on traditional elements, but was subsequently extended to the other arts. The prototype of the postmodern artist is perhaps the DJ, who mixes records made by others. It is the DJ, and not the creative musician, who has become the representative figure of modern youth culture.

These are among the themes of George Steiner's new book, Grammars of Creation. Much of it is familiar stuff. The awestruck reverence before the Great Works of Art; the intimations of some peculiarly deep but never quite defined relationship between genius and evil; the nervous flurry of reference - all these are well-known "Steinerisms". Some people find them insufferable. But I view them as part of an elaborate game that Steiner plays with his reader. Steiner knows how to pull off a good act. His pyrotechnics are redeemed by a sense of irony - easy to miss in his prose, but which becomes apparent in his verbal performances. He once began an Oxford lecture on "the siren song in European literature" by telling the audience that he had recently consulted an entry of the same title in an encyclopaedia of world literature. There was an audible murmur of derision (ha, so he really is a fraud after all). Steiner allowed it to die down before delivering his riposte: "The entry was seriously incomplete!" He then proceeded to recite a long list of works - many of them astonishingly obscure - not mentioned in the encyclopaedia. The audience laughed, and the lecture continued in the same vein.

Steiner is the intellectual equivalent of a Rothschild; he has a well-stuffed mind and is not embarrassed to display it. This renders him vulnerable to the very English kind of anti-Semitism that conveys itself in hints about "vulgarity" and "ostentation". These charges are silly, as well as mean. Steiner's showmanship should be enjoyed for what it is - a knowing and self-conscious act - rather than subjected to snooty disapproval.

Grammars of Creation has no argument as such. It is a series of intellectual arabesques around the theme of creation. The creation in question is that of both the artist and God. The work of art is a genuine "second creation", the artist an imitator or, in more Luciferian versions, a usurper of God. It was neo-Platonism that first discerned this analogy between the artist and God; the idea was revived in the Renaissance and assumed its modern form in the aesthetics of the German enlightenment. But there is a crucial difference between classical and modern versions of the analogy. Plato's demiurge imposes form on the raw material of chaos, and Plotinus's artist-creator imitates him in this primal act of form-giving. But the God of Christianity and Judaism does not merely form the universe from some pre-existent stuff: He creates it ex nihilo. "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth."

The great innovation of Romantic aesthetics was to apply this idea of creation ex nihilo to the production of artworks. Understood literally, this application is, of course, false; no artist actually creates his work from nothing. But as a metaphor for the kind of originality after which the Romantic artist strives, it has proved hugely potent. The Romantic artist seeks not merely to rearrange elements given by tradition - think of all those tedious nymphs and satyrs that adorn classical poetry and painting - but to create a new heaven and a new earth. His creation strains after the vitality of the real world; his characters are judged successful only if they "come alive". In his struggle to create ex nihilo, the Romantic artist is preordained to defeat. The writer's medium is language - and language, as Steiner writes, "transports with it the cargo of the world". However hard he tries, the writer can never replicate the absolute originality of God; the world is too much with him.

The same is true of the artist and musician. The most successful parts of Grammars of Creation examine the struggle of individual poets and novelists - Paul Celan, in particular - against the constraints of language. It is in these passages that Steiner's talent for tactful and imaginative close reading comes alive.

Less appealing is the aesthetic theory that underlies the particular interpretations. Is it really true that poetry seeks to transcend the historicity of language, to achieve "liberation from imposed, borrowed, eroded reference"? Were that indeed the case, one might wonder why more poets did not avail themselves of the easy expedient of writing in Esperanto. Esperanto is a language with no history; its words are mere counters, without resonance or depth. Writing in Esperanto, poets would achieve without difficulty that "immaculateness" that historical languages inhibit.

Yet the very notion of "Esperanto poetry" is repellent; it suggests, as Wittgenstein once remarked, a corpse. Why this should be so is an extremely interesting question. At the very least, it suggests that there is something radically wrong with Steiner's conception of poetry. Far from scorning the historicity of language, the poet should, of all people, delight in it. It is only because words have a history, because they teem with ideas not of the poet's choosing, that poetry is at all possible. As English transforms itself into the lingua franca of the global market, as it approaches more and more the condition of Esperanto, poetry in English becomes not easier, but progressively more difficult to write.

Steiner's remarks on poetry belong to the venerable and tarnished tradition of German aesthetics. They express Schopenhauer's conviction that art's purpose is to liberate us from the tedium and brutality of life. This view of art implies a hierarchy. On the bottom rung lies architecture, constrained as it is by the brute facts of engineering and economics. Sculpture and painting, still tied to the physical world but freer from constraint, lie higher up. Literature and poetry - above all lyric poetry - lie higher still. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, a poem does not inhere in a particular physical artefact. A poem need not exist anywhere but in the mind of its creator. Yet even the most exultant lyric cannot entirely escape the world, since its medium, language, refers us inexorably back. Only in music is the bond of reference cracked once and for all.

Music, for Steiner as for Schopenhauer, is the highest of the arts. All art aspires to the condition of music. Yet even music cannot evade the constraints of empirical reality; chamber music, as Steiner once wittily remarked, implies the existence of chambers. Higher than all the arts lies mathematics, the paragon of free creation. "Together with music, pure mathematics, in its disinterested irrelevance, is probably the crowning enigma of our so often dubious presence in the world."

The first thing that strikes one about this schema is its complete lack of historical reference. This is no oversight. Art, for Steiner, is fundamentally an escape from history. He is not therefore very interested in the different historical conditions under which art has been produced, or in the varying historical conceptions of the artist and his task. Steiner's view of European literature is panoptic; he sees it laid out, as it were, on a map before his feet. His references criss-cross wildly from one end to the other. Coleridge was a disciple of the medieval Sufi Ibn 'Arabi; Kafka was a kabbalist. This indifference to accidents of time and place is expressive of Steiner's basic belief that all great minds exist in timeless communion with one another. Creative genius is an undifferentiated substance. Its manifestations may vary, but its essence is always and everywhere the same. This attitude leaves Steiner ill-equipped to resolve what Ernst Gombrich has called the "riddle of style". Why is it that different ages have evolved such hugely different ways of representing the world? Why is it that, as the art historian Heinrich Wolfflin put it, "not everything is possible in every period"?

Disturbing, too, is the distinct note of religious exultation in Grammars of Creation. Steiner's hierarchy of the arts and sciences resembles one of those mystic ladders of medieval art, up which the neophyte must climb on his way to salvation. The higher up the ladder one ascends, the greater one's liberation from the bondage of the senses. Steiner's aesthetics is theological through and through. "The armature of poiesis," he writes, "has been theological."

Yet theology, in Steiner, is not merely the armature of poiesis; it is poiesis. Theology has been thoroughly aestheticised and art, in turn, has become a kind of ersatz theology. Art is a sop to our spiritual hankerings; it supplies us, at little cost, with all the thrills and perils of transcendence. It was precisely this kind of false religiosity that Nietzsche famously discerned in Wagner, and which led him to reject his former mentor in favour of the modest and unpretentious Bizet. Steiner might take heed from his example.

Edward Skidelsky is one of the NS's lead reviewers

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo