George Steiner has an overblown reputation. Is it because he writes overblown essays? He begins sharply, even brilliantly, and then a protuberance sets in like swollen glands. ""Significant ideas"" swamp him like the plague. He asks all the right, bright, provocative questions, and then rapes an entire library for the answers. One would hardly question so time-honored a procedure: if Steiner were not so humorlessly portentous about it. ""Does some great boredom and surfeit of abstraction grow Up inside literate civilization preparing it for the release of barbarism?"" Surely such an impressive theme has been resounding over more than one continent since Valery, at least. Steiner's variations on it in a hefty gathering of random pieces written during the late Fifties and the Sixties are formidable indeed. Veterans of the archetypal modern consciousness report for roll call, ribbons, and endless testimonials or emendations: Leavis, Mann, Lukacs, Levi-Strauss, Trotsky, McLuhan, even Schoenberg. Though it is never precisely clear how these fascinating people fit into Steiner's concern with ""post-linguistic"" patterns or the ""inhuman"" element of twentieth century culture, Steiner battles bravely with the varying winds of doctrine, and in his more speculative essays conducts immensely crudite orchestrations on aesthetic ""silence,"" social transfiguration, the melancholy triumph of ""fact,"" possible phenomenological disciplines, and other intimidatingly vague pursuits. He is a thesis-prone, classical humanist, more issue-raising publicist than critic. His book will undoubtedly be very well received.