Updated: Jul 21, 2022
George Steiner, the literary critic, Wynton Marsalis, the celebrated trumpeter, and Doug Gilmour, the Hall-of-Fame hockey player, walk into a bar.
The bartender looks up, takes stock of the situation, and asks,
“What’s this? Some kind of joke?”
It is almost certain that Steiner, Marsalis, and Gilmour had even heard of each other, let alone gone out for a drink together. But there they were, piled on my nighttable over this past week’s vacation.
Or, at least, their books were.
Strangely, they each offer a similar life lesson.
Steiner, who passed away at 90 this past February, was an eminent intellectual. Originally from Austria of Jewish parents who fled the Nazis to France and then to the United States, he was educated at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford.
Fluent in several European languages, he held teaching positions at Cambridge and Geneva while lecturing around the world and writing reviews for The New Yorker. I’ve read more than half-a-dozen of his books and found each one immensely stimulating—from his reflections on creativity and communication in No Passion Spent (1996) to his startling articulation of Adolf Hitler’s point of view in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (1981).
In late-in-life conversations with journalist Laure Adler (A Long Saturday, 2017), he reflects on his career as one who had to overcome significant challenges along the way.
Cursed with a withered right arm, his parents compelled him to learn to write with it, not just to switch to left-handedness. He struggled with a daunting new context as a highschooler in New York City whose previous homes had been in Vienna and Paris and whose previous languages had been German and French.
The record shows, however, that Steiner succeeded—as universities from Bologna to Glasgow awarded him honorary doctorates to complement his numerous decorations from British, American, and French institutions. He made the most of what he was given.
Wynton Marsalis is the distinguished director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York City. He is the only musician to win a Grammy Award in jazz and classical music during the same year, and did it twice in a row. He is also the first jazz musician to receive a Pulitzer Prize—for his composition Blood in the Fields.
Marsalis comes from a jazz family: father Ellis was a successful performer and instructor, brother Branford used to lead The Tonight Show band, and his two other brothers perform as well. But, as Marsalis recounts in Moving to Higher Ground (2008), he was raised in poor and violent neighbourhoods from which young men often went to prisons or graveyards.
He is careful not to claim any false “street cred,” knowing that others have suffered far more (notably his idol, Louis Armstrong). But his dazzling success has come from doing his best with what he had—and his book keeps repeating that theme.
Jazz performance itself, he avers, is all about offering your distinctive voice to the world. Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, to cite two jazz greats, had very limited technical skills. But they focused on what they could do well—“nobody has everything”—and worked hard with both integrity and conviction to bring their particular gifts of music to a welcoming public.
Doug Gilmour has been retired from the NHL now for almost twenty years. But for the previous twenty, he was a force in that league as both a consistent scorer and a shut-down defender. Gilmour won a Stanley Cup, was named twice to the All-Star team, was a finalist for the MVP award (in the era of Gretzky and Lemieux), and received the Frank Selke trophy for best defensive forward.
Not bad for a little guy from Kingston, Ontario. Gilmour was undersized his whole career and passed over consistently by scouts who thought he simply wasn’t big enough to play at the next level. No matter how many scoring records he set along the way—and he set more than a few—Gilmour had to prove himself again and again, not least after being drafted only 134th by his first team in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues.
Prove himself he did, however. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011 and his number 93 was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. He is still in the top 20 career point-getters in the NHL.
A Christian reading these books wonders about the absence of God. Marsalis is familiar enough with churchgoing to refer to it from time to time. His faith, however, is in jazz. “Jazz can change your life,” his book’s subtitle declares, as the moral qualities it demands and the opportunities for cooperation and art it offers promise to enoble any willing soul.
Tellingly, perhaps, the history of jazz Marsalis offers conspicuously privileges the blues to the complete exclusion of gospel music. Many aficionadoes, however, would see jazz as combining the two genres: “both Saturday night and Sunday morning,” as the adage puts it.
Steiner is haunted by God. One of his best-known works, Real Presences (1989), is a book-long reflection on whether literature can have any significant, lasting meaning without reference to God. A self-declared “Voltairean,” Steiner nonetheless refers constantly to God, as do contemporary Jewish thinkers as various as Elie Wiesel and Woody Allen—the latter of whom once defined an atheist as “someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God…and is angry with God for not existing.”
Steiner seemed so close to the Kingdom. He read aright the intimations of transcendence in our great literature, and he adored the Bible supremely as the central text of western civilization,“inexhaustible” (his term) in both its art and its wisdom. Yet while he saw the pattern, he somehow seemed not to have met the Person.
Gilmour, by stark contrast, seems the epitome of the happy pagan. In his memoir, Killer (2017), Gilmour is almost a stereotypical Canadian hockey guy.
Dad and older brother were local hockey heroes. Mom and the sisters faithfully came to his games. Off-seasons were spent at the cottage drinking and fishing and playing practical jokes. Two marriages come and go, but Gilmour has some fine kids to show for them. And now he has a career in public relations and operations for his beloved Maple Leafs. That’s the gospel according to Don Cherry—Gilmour’s lifelong supporter.
The epigraph for Gilmour’s book—a book disappointingly devoid of insight: into hockey (not a clue about what made Gilmour so effective on both defense and offense, and with so many different teams and coaches), into self-management (except rueful references to bad investments), or into life itself—is this: “A person shows what he is by what he does with what he has.”
The quotation appears on page one and is attributed to “Anonymous.” It is the only literary reference in the entire volume. Gilmour remembers coming across the quotation as a teenager in a book owned by a roommate.
“He was a goalie named Brian Adams. He was a Christian guy and I remember picking up one of the books he had in his room. It was full of quotes. I remember flipping through it, and one stuck with me” (26).
A person shows what he is by what he does with what he has. That is the message that all three geniuses, wildly different as they are, offered me this summer. It is a good message, an inspiring message, especially coming from the likes of George Steiner, Wynton Marsalis, and Doug Gilmour.
Steiner sighs, “Those who create don’t know how or why. What triggers great creation? I couldn’t say.”
But some of us, without the glory of genius but with the gift of revelation—we can.