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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Grammars of Creation

by
George Steiner


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Grammars of Creation



Title: Grammars of Creation
Author: George Steiner
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 338 pages
Availability: Grammars of Creation - US
Grammars of Creation - UK
Grammars of Creation - Canada
Grammaires de la création - France
Grammatik der Schöpfung - Deutschland
  • Originating in the Gifford Lectures for 1990

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting, well-presented considerations of beginnings and their end

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard B- 26/3/2001 Francis Spufford
FAZ . 9/10/2001 Wolfgang Frühwald
The Guardian A 17/3/2001 Roy Porter
The Independent . 17/3/2001 Lisa Jardine
The Irish Times . 12/5/2001 John Banville
The LA Times B 23/4/2001 Merle Rubin
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/10/2001 Martin Meyer
New Statesman B+ 19/3/2001 Edward Skidelsky
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/9/2001 Roger Kimball
The Observer A 11/3/2001 Adam Phillips
San Francisco Chronicle . 22/4/2001 Kenneth Baker
The Spectator B 31/3/2001 Hugh Lawson-Tancred
The Sunday Times A- 25/3/2001 Humphrey Carpenter
The Times A 14/3/2001 Peter Ackroyd
The Washington Post A 15/4/2001 Sven Birkerts
Die Zeit B (41/2001) Otto Kallscheuer


  Review Consensus:

  On the whole fairly enthusiastic and impressed, though lots of snickering about Steiner's showy erudition and style. And a wide variety of opinions (lots of confusion ?) concerning what the book is actually about.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(H)is mode is apocalyptic, as it has been ever since the beginning of his career, and his intention is total. One sign of this is his perpetual wish to expand the already gigantic range of his references, even if it takes him inadvertently over the border of his competence. (...) But the greater price of his desire to unite all the knowledge within his reach -- to turn every mathy into polymathy -- is an inordinate juggling with generality in his prose." - Francis Spufford, Evening Standard

  • "Zumindest gefährdet sind heute Gedächtnis und Erinnerung, Einsamkeit, Stille und Privatheit, der wirkende Zufall und jetzt auch -- das ist George Steiners Thema -- die Idee der Schöpfung und der Kreativität. Sie wird ersetzt durch bloßes Erfinden und Entdecken, wobei die Vorstellung der Kosmogonie ebenso unter Druck gerät wie ihr Analogon, die schöpferische Phantasie des Künstlers." - Wolfgang Frühwald, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) study that is philosophical in conception, yet deeply humane too. (...) An astonishing wealth of ideas has been compressed within the compass of this book. However, significant omissions and blind spots remain. (...) Overall, however, this is a mesmerising book that demands and amply repays the closest attention. (...) Grammars of Creation is a sustained outpouring of strenuous thinking, but it is expressed in prose that is unfailingly apt, luminous and evocative. From its earliest propositions." - Roy Porter, The Guardian

  • "Steiner has always been an exciting and provocative writer, but he is also a master of English prose. (...) In passages such as these, criticism spills over into the heady realm of art." - John Banville, The Irish Times

  • "In many cases, it is more stimulating and rewarding simply to follow him down one or another of these fascinating byways than to stand back and consider the thrust of the book's main argument." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Grammars of Creation has no argument as such. It is a series of intellectual arabesques around the theme of creation. (...) 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." - Edward Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "Grammars of Creation is full of disquieting questions." - Roger Kimball, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)n Grammars of Creation, he has come out as the remarkable grammarian that he is, to write a kind of summa of his work (.....) He is, as ever, grandly erudite and thrilled by crisis. (...) It's impossible not to argue with Steiner, partly because with every turn of phrase he wants to impress something upon us. But he can make us feel that reading is a kind of privilege, which is itself strange now." - Adam Phillips, The Observer

  • "One reads Steiner not for his pessimism, though, but for the many sharp insights and speculations that fill all of his books. There is no shortage of them, across a needlessly intimidating range of allusions, in Grammars of Creation." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Steiner's travel sketches of the Web are as brilliantly suggestive and tantalising as everything else in this dazzling tour de force but, ultimately, as unsatisfying. (...) It is hard not to smile at the murine output of so mountainous a parturition." - Hugh Lawson-Tancred, The Spectator

  • "Indeed, reading the first three and a half chapters often feels like being lost in a pathless thicket. There are occasional glimpses of something vivid (.....) But there is no sense of where we are going. (...) The book seems to have ground to a halt when suddenly, in the middle of the penultimate chapter, the prose style changes abruptly and becomes crystal-clear; because finally Steiner has something new and powerful to say." - Humphrey Carpenter, The Sunday Times

  • "This book about beginnings is, in fact, a threnody upon endings; it records the passing of the Enlightenment and the extinction of human hopes. (...) Steiner is a passionate writer who turns vast theoretical concepts into prose poetry as if he were engaged in the ancient pursuit of uniting truth with beauty. He moves swiftly from argument to argument in a conceptual glissade, throwing out references and allusions like the gold of a spendthrift. (...) This is not an easy book, not by any means, but it always a suggestive one." - Peter Ackroyd, The Times

  • "Now, in Grammars of Creation (...) he outstrips all previous enterprises in scope and suggestion. The work is Steiner Agonistes, a full out grappling with history, theology, and the import of the long-prophesied triumph of the technological. (...) Grammars of Creation is a searching and dispiriting book, exhilarating in its local instances, but somewhat exhausting in the steady bullying of its references." - Sven Birkerts, The Washington Post

  • "Jenseits der Philologie wird der begnadete Leser Steiner recht unpräzis. Sein humanistischer Soupçon wider jede naturwissenschaftliche Kultur geht so weit, dass er das wichtigste moderne Dokument einer poetisch kohärenten Grammatik der Schöpfung nicht einmal zur Kenntnis nimmt: Edgar Allen Poes "Prosagedicht" Heureka (1848)." - Otto Kallscheuer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       "We have no more beginnings", George Steiner begins his book. It is an observation and a lament, and it is the focus of Grammars of Creation. Steiner looks to beginnings and he reflects on how and why we have lost them in this age where "the reflexes, the turns of perception, are those of afternoon, of twilight". So should readers expect yet another outpouring of millennial Angst or the ravings of man who perhaps is beginning to face his own mortality ? Not quite -- it is George Steiner, after all. Grammars of Creation is a broad examination of beginnings and ends, of past and possible future, and especially of art, the consummate human achievement.
       Steiner acknowledges that "there have been previous senses of ending and fascination with sundown in Western culture", but he believes we have reached a much more far-reaching one now: "a core-tiredness." He sees a fundamental, pervasive shift, comparing it to previous states (when there were still beginnings) and considering some of the manifestations and possible consequences.
       The almost unthinkable horrors of the 20th century leave a terrible legacy. Steiner suggests that:

The twentieth century has put in doubt the theological, the philosophical, and the political-material insurance for hope. It queries the rationale and credibility of future tenses.
       God may, indeed, finally be dead: Steiner suggests that there has been an "eclipse of the messianic" in Western religious systems, taking certain approaches to the future with it. God as originator, begetter, creator is significant in his account, the focus of beginnings and creation stories. The god-story has now faded in significance and influence, especially in light of science, but science does not offer the same satisfactory beginnings. God may be superseded, but a void remains. It is a concern to Steiner, and he returns to it in the last pages of Grammars of Creation, where he tentatively address what the potential of a truly godless art might be, where "authentic atheism" replaces the "aspirin-agnosticism (...) now awash in our post-modernity".
       History and politics can't be avoided, and pervasive religion figures all about, but Steiner familiarly focusses mainly on art and science. He traces creation stories, and their ends. He suggests that Dante's work, for example, "can be experienced as an unbroken meditation on creation", while later literature has turned elsewhere.
       Language and literature particularly fascinate Steiner, and language is of special significance in considering beginnings. Steiner still finds novelty, of sorts, in music and painting and the like: colours and sounds have certain associations, but these "remain of great generality." Not so language: "Language is its own past." Indeed:
Language is immeasurably saturated. Words, grammatical forms, phrases, rhetorical conventions are saturated, nearly to the level of the phoneme, by usage, by precedent, by cultural-social connotation.
       It is one of the remarkable, inescapable aspects of literature, that it is bound by its own language. Steiner looks to experiments in the complete abstract -- automatic writing, Dada -- but sees only their inevitable failure. The greatness and uniqueness of literature is in its being bound so closely to language (and, necessarily, usage), and that it comes with all the baggage the language has. Paul Celan is an example he returns to repeatedly, writing not only poetry after Auschwitz, but poetry in German.
       Great art is also lasting. There is some change in how it is perceived and received, but "the Homeric epic, the Platonic dialogue, the Vermeer townscape, the Mozart sonata do not age and grow obsolescent". This stands in marked contrast to science, where supersession is the rule, obsolescence almost guaranteed. In this day and age, especially, technological advances follow at a remarkable rate. Little seems lasting. And the beauty that may have been found in a particular scientific theory or machine hardly outlasts its usefulness: once disproved or bettered it is only its inferiority and inadequacy that stand out.
       It's a different world we now live in, Steiner finds. Even the status of death, Steiner believes, "is undergoing fundamental transitions", changing the very notions of creation and invention. He draws few absolute conclusions, but does present a useful overview of what he sees as the differences and consequences now that we seem to have lost our capability of (traditional) beginnings. There is some sense of hope and potential in Steiner's writing -- even in this age that undermines the very possibility of these.
       Steiner describes, analyzes, considers. He draws on a wealth of examples, reaching across mathematics, literature, history for explanations and illustrations. He pleads ignorance on occasion (only warily touching upon Islam, for example), and acknowledges a very classically Western orientation throughout. He quotes widely and generally well, and most of the book is quite clear. Occasionally he slips into some befuddling obscurantism (our favourite such moment is when he inexplicably borrows "from Slavonic reflections on the phenomenon of inspiration"), but generally the book is quite straightforward.
       Steiner studiously avoids Spenglerian doom-and-gloom comparisons (his argument is quite a different one). The 20th century was a failed one, and the consequences of it have been devastating, but Steiner has not given up on the future. Western civilization has changed, and generally not for the best, but Steiner is curious about the future and holds out some hope for different, possibly promising approaches to come. Perhaps even new beginnings -- but different ones than those we are familiar with.
       An interesting study, neatly and eloquently presented. Certainly worthwhile.

       Note: The American (Yale University Press) edition is a very attractive one, with the first page of each section cleverly on the left (rather than right) side. Note, however, that the index is somewhat disappointing. It's not terrible, but there are a number of names that appear in the text that are not listed in the index.

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Links:

Grammars of Creation: Reviews: George Steiner: Other books by George Steiner under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       George Steiner, born in 1929, is one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. A professor at Cambridge and Geneva, he is the author of numerous books.

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© 2001-2008 the complete review

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