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George and his dragons

Once spurned by the academic establishment, this controversial critic is dismissed by some as a pretentious namedropper. To others he is a polymath champion of European high culture. Maya Jaggi reports

Maya Jaggi
Guardian

Saturday March 17, 2001

When the Parisian-born George Steiner went to Chicago University after the second world war, he found himself sharing a room with an ex-paratrooper, who stared in disbelief at "a creature so obviously cosseted, sheltered, formally decked out, book-laden, as I was", Steiner recalled. It was as though a quaint figure from a rarefied age of central European humanism, now all but vanquished by Nazism and war, had come face to face with the ascendant era of transatlantic mass culture, embodied by the war veterans swelling American campuses under the GI bill.

Yet the budding critic, who was to become famous as an impassioned proselytiser for European "high" culture, was in awe of his room-mate. He compared the paratrooper's crouching leap on to a top bunk - a feat the diminutive "bookworm and privileged mandarin Jew" could never hope to match - to the transfixing grace of a Nureyev.

Steiner has remained a paradoxical and contentious figure. A polyglot and polymath, he is often credited with recasting the role of the critic by exploring art and thought unbounded by national frontiers or academic disciplines. Though he distrusts the "self-serving jargon" of critical theory, his books, beginning with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1958) and The Death of Tragedy (1960), have posed philosophical questions about the humanities and their relationship to 20th-century history, most centrally about language and its debasement in the post-Holocaust age.

He commends the "autism" of the scholar and claims to despise the mass media, yet has had a prominent voice in journalism, as a critic for the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and the Observer. While Steiner sits more easily in a French intellectual tradition (and was last month given the French order of arts and letters), he came to Britain in the early 1950s, where his questioning presaged new fields years before comparative literature, or studies of translation or the Holocaust were established.

The novelist AS Byatt admires Steiner as a "late, late, late Renaissance man... a European metaphysician with an instinct for the driving ideas of our time". Lisa Jardine, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary college, University of London, recalls "a rebel who made us aspire to being Europeans; he helped move British culture from utter provincialism to cosmopolitanism, and taught us to listen to language - how language carries the thread of morality and philosophy."

Steiner's new book, Grammars of Creation, based on his 1990 Gifford lectures, is out next week. With a characteristically broad sweep, it questions the nature of creativity in an age of atheism - a line of inquiry the author believes is "still almost a taboo".

It is also certain to find detractors. AC Grayling in the Literary Review dismisses the book as "pretentious intellectual bombast" written in a "writhingly Latinate" style. The familiar criticisms include: verbosity, stating the obvious, name-dropping, hyperbole, misquotation, obscurantism and a self-dramatising taste for the apocalyptic. Even friends acknowledge that Steiner's immense range comes at the price of inaccuracy.

While he admits making errors, critics accuse him of complacency. According to Jay Keyser, professor emeritus of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Steiner was told at a seminar in the 1970s that, while he had written at length on Dostoevsky's use of the definite article, there was no such thing in Russian. "It was as though a fly had landed on his shoulder," says Keyser. "A criticism that should have been devastating made no impact."

Unrepentant, Steiner continues to advocate generalisation over specialisation. His Bronowsky lecture in London earlier this month insisted that the notion of what it is to be literate must encompass knowledge of both arts and sciences, bridging CP Snow's "two cultures" divide. Its title, borrowed from Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream, was Master, Spread Yourself.

Steiner lives in Cambridge, where he has been extraordinary fellow at Churchill College since 1969. His wife, Zara, an authority on international relations, is a former vice-president of New Hall. Their son, David, and daughter, Deborah, are both academics in the US.

While he is known as deeply serious, he reveals a deadpan humour. Once asked if he had ever read anything frivolous as a child, he replied: "Moby Dick." He has said that the critic casts a eunuch's shadow: "Who would be a critic if he could be a writer?" Today, quoting Pushkin's "savagely arrogant but irrefutable statement that he writes the letters and we carry them", he calls himself a "mail man". But throughout his career, Steiner has delivered, with a sense of urgency, a message of his own, rooted in his view of the Holocaust (he prefers the term Shoah) as the defining catastrophe of our age.

He was born in 1929 in Paris, to Viennese parents who had left the "cradle of Nazism" five years before. He describes his father, a Bohemian "within reach of the ghetto" who became a senior lawyer in the Austrian Central Bank, as "formidable in his insight: he saved us from Hitler and was clear-sighted in a way that broke his heart". Though dismissed by more sanguine Viennese Jews as a "tedious Cassandra", Steiner's father "thought deeply about politics, and saw Nazism was an Austrian, not a German phenomenon - he could smell it in the air. He thought Jews were endangered guests wherever they went, and wanted to equip his children - my elder sister and myself - with languages to earn a living, the ability to pack a suitcase rather than a steamer trunk, and take joy in the adventure. If he transmitted one thing to me, it was how lucky I am to be under pressure."

Steiner's mother, who lamented the "irrational" move from Vienna, was also formidable. "I was severely handicapped," says Steiner, who was born with a withered right arm. "Due to Maman, I overcame it. She was a Viennese grande dame, radiant, multilingual, wonderfully ironic. For her, self-pity was nauseating." Becoming left-handed was not an option. "From her came the conviction that if it's difficult, it must be fun and worth doing. Today the rule of benevolent therapy is to buy shoes with zippers. I could have had them. It took 10 months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces. That no one can take from you. I profoundly distrust the pedagogy of ease."

Steiner's mother was apt to "begin a sentence in one language and end it in another", and he grew up with "three mother tongues" - French, German and English. He was reading Shakespeare in English and Homer in ancient Greek by the age of five. His father, who took him to museums every Saturday, taught him "worship of the classic".

"My father loved poetry and music. But deep in himself he thought teaching the finest thing a person could do," says Steiner. "I learned early on that 'rabbi' means teacher, not priest." His father was also, Steiner recalls, a man of stern principle, "whatever the price". Working in Paris for an American investment bank, he was summoned to base in 1937 but refused to take the only liner leaving Cherbourg because it was flying the German flag. It cost him his job. "History was always in attendance," Steiner wrote in Errata: An Examined Life (1997), his brief and curiously reticent memoir.

So, it seems, was luck. In 1940 the family went on a trip to New York, where Steiner's father insisted they remain. Within a month, the Nazis had occupied Paris. Of the many Jewish pupils in Steiner's lyc�e class in the affluent 16th arrondissement, he was one of only two who survived. He spent the war years at the French lyc�e in Manhattan, and became a US citizen in 1944.

As "a kind of survivor" - the title of a 1965 autobiographical essay - Steiner feels not the guilt of those who emerged from the camps, but bafflement. "Why me? Why did I deserve to get away?" Part of the legacy was a sense of obligation. "My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust," he says. "Namelessness was Hitler's taunt - 'Who remembers the Armenians?' I've had to be a 'remembrancer'."

He became a "grateful wanderer" ("Trees have roots and I have legs; I owe my life to that"). Following a spell at the Sorbonne after the war, he preferred Chicago University to Yale, where Jews were "consigned to a ghetto of pinched politeness". It was as an undergraduate in Chicago that he found his vocation, unlocking the mysteries of learning for GIs in exchange for instruction in more earthly pleasures. His paratrooper room-mate, Alfie, took him to to hear Dizzy Gillespie, taught him poker - which he later abandoned for chess - and procured a prostitute for him at 19. "He made my passage into adulthood caring, gentle and funny - free from neurosis," Steiner recalls.

After Harvard, Steiner went as a Rhodes scholar to Balliol College, Oxford. But when his DPhil thesis - a draft for The Death of Tragedy - was initially refused, he worked for the Economist as a leader writer from 1952-56. He met Zara Shakow, a New Yorker of Lithuanian descent, in London at the instigation of mutual friends, who laid bets on their getting married - which they did in 1955. After two years at Princeton, Steiner became a founding fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1961.

The essays of Language and Silence (1967) set out lifelong themes, which echo in his more recent collection, No Passion Spent (1996). As the author wrote, "They took their substance and much of their 'voice' from the legacy of Ernst Bloch, of [Theodor] Adorno, of Walter Benjamin and from the inheritance of Jewish poetic-philosophic investigations of the word. The mapping of my identity, the inward orientations, remain those circumscribed by Leningrad, Odessa, Prague and Vienna on the one side, and by Frankfurt, Milan and Paris on the other."

For the Irish novelist and critic John Banville, it was an electrifying moment: "A door was flung open on what had been there all the time, at our backs, namely, our European heritage. He told us not to be cowed by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border."

According to Bryan Cheyette, professor of 20th-century literature at Southampton university, Steiner was "the first telling those who would listen in Britain about Heidegger, Benjamin and Paul Celan - the great German philosophers and poets. Now work on those figures is an industry, but he was a lone voice in the 60s."

In Steiner's view, totalitarianism and the slaughters of 1914-45 had destroyed the assumption that literary culture is a custodian of humane values - self-evident to such figures as Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis. "Some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been trained to read Shakespeare and Goethe," he wrote, suggesting "the paradox that modern barbarism sprang in some intuitive, perhaps necessary way, from the very core and locale of humanistic civilisation".

Partly inspired by Orwell, Steiner's 1959 essay The Hollow Miracle saw the German language itself as complicit in Nazism. He warned that language has a "breaking point", lies and sadism settling "into the marrow". As Adorno had said, "No poetry after Auschwitz", Steiner asked if the only response was a retreat into silence. Yet he took heart in such writers as Paul Celan and G�nter Grass, assaulting postwar amnesia to confront the unspeakable, and so revealing the unexpected resilience of language.

Rather than despairing of the "high" culture he sees as having failed Europe, Steiner puts urgent faith in its transmission. As Jardine says: "He belongs to that generation of Jewish immigrants who were raised in the Germanic system of values, and had to fight their way to thinking there were any values left, and to reinvesting in those that had let them down."

The paradox remains as to why someone who doubts the capacity of the humanities to humanise has devoted half a century to their interpretation. "I do question their ability to make us more compassionate or more humane. Many of the achievements without which I would not have wanted to be alive were by men of inhuman cruelty and indifference," says Steiner.

He even suspects the humanities might have a dehumanising effect. "If I have spent the day teaching King Lear or Bach, or in front of Goya, I come home and it may be that the cry in the street is muffled; that it reaches me less directly than if my feelings and responses had not been trained to a deeply passionate involvement with fictions - in the widest sense.

"If this is so, we must find a way of sharing aesthetic, philosophical experience which makes us more responsive to human pain, and not less." The same qualities that made Steiner mesmerising to many Cambridge students drew the suspicion and disdain of fellow dons. Jardine first heard of French existentialism in one of Steiner's lectures. "People thought he was showing off," she says. "Oxbridge was ruthlessly parochial in the 60s. George was unbelievably charismatic at a time when Cambridge was an insular gentlemen's club; here was this firebrand with a foreign accent, of whom all our teachers disapproved."

Though Steiner was offered a professorial salary, he was never made a full university professor with the right to examine. Some members of the English faculty questioned the relevance to the discipline of the concentration camps he constantly evoked. In Cheyette's view, Steiner was working against the grain: "Britain, until recently, didn't think it had a relationship to the Holocaust; its mythology of the war was rooted in the Blitz, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain", whereas now the study of "Holocaust literature" is taken for granted. Steiner felt his rejection keenly, comparing his treatment to that of Leavis.

While Byatt notes a "combative prickliness" in his personality, Jardine says he "takes things intensely personally; he has a short fuse and can be irritable, but he's also warm, welcoming, expansive". Although he had the option of leaving for professorships in the US, Steiner's father objected that Hitler, who said no one bearing their name would be left in Europe, would then have won. "I'd do anything rather than face such contempt from my father," Steiner told his wife.

Yet Malcolm Bowie, professor of French literature at Oxford and a fellow of All Souls, notes an ambivalence on Steiner's part: "He wants to be in and he wants to be out. Being on the margins suits him; you can't be a prophetic voice in a comfortable, consensual position in the heartlands."

Cheyette contrasts Steiner with Isaiah Berlin, "who was prepared to acculturate and become a member of the British establishment, and was rewarded. Steiner has always refused to play that game".

Some see Steiner's polemical style as honed in response to what Jardine calls the "suffocating English provincialism" of the 1960s and 70s. Christopher Bigsby, professor of American studies at the University of East Anglia, who chairs the British Council's Cambridge seminar at which Steiner speaks annually, says he neither condescends nor panders to his audience, but "surfs the wave of anger" that greets his provocations. Harriet Harvey-Wood, former literature director of the British Council, sees Steiner as a "magnificent lecturer - prophetic and doom-laden" who would "turn up with half a page of scribbled notes, and never refer to them. His voice shifted register the moment he began, and he always left blood on the carpet."

She recalls him telling a roomful of African and Asian academics that the third world could not afford the luxury of universities. "He can be outrageous, off the cuff, bigoted," says Jardine. "He doesn't police himself in the way modern intellectuals have been taught to do."

In 1974 Steiner became professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, where he remained, though in transit, for 20 years. "I loved Geneva passionately," he says. "I was teaching in four languages." He had lived by Goethe's dictum that "no monoglot truly knows his own language", and in After Babel (1975) affirmed the multiplicity of human tongues as a blessing rather than a curse.

"Every language is a world," he said, lamenting the engulfing of tongues by Anglo-American. "Without translation we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence." For Peter Bush, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, After Babel was a pioneering work which "revealed all communication as a form of translation, and how central translation is to relations between cultures". Its importance endures, he believes, not least given that "the insularity and monolingualism of British academic life outside language departments is still startling".

In Steiner's inaugural lecture as visiting professor of European comparative literature at Oxford in 1994, he saw the English Channel as widening. "I live and work on both sides of the channel; Paris is a constant home," he says. "When I first came, I believed Britain would want to go into Europe and multilingualism would come. I was wrong; my father was a better prognosticator than me. The continent now deeply distrusts this country; it knows Anglo-American power is most important to it."

Jardine notes Steiner's "passionate conviction that if you pay close attention to language, it can reveal to you the fundamental truths of civilisation. It's an old-fashioned philosophy but it contains its own kind of spirituality. It's very handy for atheists; a system of beliefs grounded in secular texts."

Steiner published his first fiction, Anno Domini, in 1964. The collected fiction of The Deeps of the Sea (1996) is a 400-page volume, with a cast of outcasts and exiles. Best known, and most controversial, is The Portage to San Cristobal of AH (1981), a dialectical staging of a confrontation between Hitler, as a fugitive in the Amazon, and Nazi hunters, praised as a "masterpiece" by AS Byatt. The novella explored ideas on the deep roots of European anti-semitism from his critical work In Bluebeard's Castle (1971). Nazism, he suggested, was Europe's revenge on the Jews for inventing conscience.

The novella was attacked for giving Hitler the last word. But Bowie sees Steiner's "power of identification with compromised figures - Hitler, Heidegger, Ezra Pound" as an unusual gift. Cheyette views Steiner's fiction as an exploratory space where he can think against himself, and contrasts its humility and openness with his "increasingly closed and orthodox" critical work. Central to it, Cheyette believes, is the survivor's "terrible, masochistic envy about not being there - having missed the rendezvous with hell".

According to Cheyette, Steiner has held up the diaspora as an ideal: "He's always had a non-Zionist view of Jewish history. He refuses to buy into Jewish nationalism, and believes Jewish creativity is essentially a diasporic condition." Steiner says: "I've tried at personal and professional cost to warn against nationalism in Israel and the treatment of Palestinians; to say that because of what we are, there are things we can't do. The extremists spit in your face; others say, 'Shut up in your beautiful house in Cambridge.' "

He adds:"I can deal with any human being who has a centre, a bottom line. My dead centre is the conviction that no cause on this planet can justify torture. It is only very recently that Israel's supreme court has banned all torture - at least formally. That which to most of my fellow Jews is unimaginable - giving up Israel - is not to me, if the price is torture."

Steiner is often attacked as an elitist ("To be part of an elite means loving passionately and not negotiating your passions. If that's elitism, I plead guilty"). He believes "very few human beings can understand a proposition of Kant or Spinoza, or a fugue by Bach - or care to", and notes with resignation that "the planetary language is football". Warning of the erosion of language and literacy by mass communication and mass consumption, he questions whether there is something anti-democratic about great art: "The great traditional 'high' cultures have disturbingly flourished under despotic and oligarchic sytems. Whether a truly populist, egalitarian society takes to the achievements of 'high' culture is an open question. But it would be idiotic to be like King Canute. The reality today is mass marketing, mass consumption, mass media. To lament that is an arrogant impudence."

Yet in Errata, Steiner aches with a sense of "doors unopened" - to Russian, Hebrew or Islam - and truths grasped too late in life, such as the self- ironising, fragmentary, ephemeral modes of modernity. "I wasn't in on the adventure of the truly modern," he reflects. "In [classical] music I'm avant-garde, I collect hundreds of records. But with jazz, my ear stopped with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, which I love. I'm no good at urinated beds in the Tate gallery, or sperm on the wall. I didn't understand that today Shakespeare would be writing transcendental screenplays. It's a big failure; I missed something."

Yet he remains trenchantly sceptical: "Why do even great films lose their greatness? Casablanca and Les Enfants du Paradis are dead after you've seen them five or 10 times. Until we have an answer to that, the jury's out." For Jardine, Steiner is "the master of high culture; never mind that he's not master of Ally McBeal. Those of us who have an investment in popular culture wouldn't have got there without him."

But he has other blind spots. Although familiar with Derek Walcott's poetry - no doubt for its Homeric echoes - he assumes, rather than argues for, the supremacy of the western canon. As he wrote in Errata: "Why should there not be a Caribbean Proust, a Beethoven out of Africa? But do we honestly believe in this advent?"

While some applaud what they see as Steiner's drive to widen English horizons, for others his European perspective has its own limits. "It's a deeply tragic vision that touches on the dark side of the European enlightenment, and sees anti-semitism arising from within the very greatness he's celebrating," says Stuart Hall, emeritus professor of the Open University and a founder of cultural studies.

"But you have to have assumed that European high culture was the culmination of humanity to have been so profoundly shocked, even destroyed, by that darkness; because if you took a sighting of Europe from outside, the story would be one of expansion and colonisation over centuries. You don't see that if you dwell within the limits of Greek poetry and Renaissance art."

Now 71 and retired, Steiner will be Norton visiting professor at Harvard in the next academic year, and notes with satisfaction that his picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and that he has three honorary fellowships from Oxford and Cambridge. "It could have come earlier - when I wasn't senile and losing my hearing - and the commuting life put a strain on my wife. But I've been so lucky."

Yet he still says of Britain: "I'll never be accepted here completely. The things I talk about are not the things Britain thinks are important - though they're the daily substance of my conversations from Lisbon to St Petersburg."

But he finds consolation in the "vocation" of the guest: "It's one of the obligations I feel towards Judaism; to show that being a guest and not rooted can be difficult, but we're all guests of life.

It's wonderful to be a guest and leave the place you found better than when you found it."

• Grammars of Creation is published by Faber (�16.99). Books, page 9.

Life at a glance: Frances George Steiner

Born: April 23 1929, Paris, France

Education: Paris lycée[first e acute]; French lycée, New York; University of Chicago (BA); Harvard (MA); Balliol College, Oxford (D Phil)

Married: 1955 Zara Shakow (son, David; daughter, Deborah)

Career: 1952-56 staff writer, the Economist; 1961 founding fellow, 1969- extraordinary fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge; 1974-94 professor of English and comparative literature; 1994- emeritus professor, University of Geneva; 1994-95 Weidenfeld professor of European comparative literature and fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

Some books: Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, 1958; The Death of Tragedy, 1960; Language and Silence, 1967; In Bluebeard's Castle,1971; After Babel, 1975; George Steiner: A Reader, 1984; Real Presences, 1989; Errata, 1997; Grammars of Creation, 2001.

     

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