Geroge Steiner’s Grammars of Creation, drawn from his 1990 Gifford Lectures begins on a sombre note. Beginning with a summary of the loss of life during the last century Steiner argues that at the end of the twentieth century there is a spirit of "core-tiredness," an exhaustion that permeates Western culture. The source of this exhaustion is the tension embodied in the truth that whilst the twentieth century was a period of colossal industrialization and advances across multiple fields it was also, in Steiner’s words, "a time out of hell." A century of bloodshed, famine and slaughter with a death toll of around 70 million has left the West deeply traumatized. On top of this, the twentieth century saw for the first time in the Holocaust the "singularity" of a whole "category of human persons, down to infancy, were proclaimed guilty of being. Their crime was existence, the mere claim to life." From here, with a more developed understanding of our "darkened condition" Steiner moves on to consider what is an act of creation, whether innovation is possible at all or whether all we really do is discover what is pre-existing rather than ever really inventing anything new. Coupled with this is the urgent question of how we might resist the "Grammars of nihilism" that Steiner sees as rapidly encroaching onto the remains of Western liberal humanism. In essence, Steiner’s concern here is the question of "what gives life to life," and as his argument unfolds Steiner claims that it is art, alongside theology and philosophy that answers this question best.
Key to enjoying Steiner’s work is an appreciation of his tone – as one of the last great polymaths his work ranges incredibly widely, covering almost every aspect of the Western literary canon. His range of references can be dizzying as Steiner comes across as an author who has read and engaged with everything. With such a wide range of reference points and interests Steiner is sometimes imprecise and for a reader less fluent in the Western canon than he his constant reference to other thinkers makes his argument a little hard to follow. However, the book is an invigorating and at time exhilarating exploration of the human spirit and the drive to creativity. Steiner concludes with a typically eloquent, almost liturgical, exploration of the sheer endlessness of beginnings. We have long been, Steiner claims, "guests of creation and we owe to our hosts the courtesy of questioning." As a contribution to this questioning, Steiner’s book is an invaluable, audacious contribution.