Last Of The Great Elitists

A book of conversations with George Steiner, newly available in translation, is a good introduction to the great cultural critic's preoccupations

David Herman

Something catastrophic has happened to academic literary criticism in the last 30 years. Much of it has become inaccessible and riddled with jargon, reluctant to engage with large cultural and political questions. It has decisively moved away from the general reader.

George Steiner could hardly be more different. He has always been prepared to address big, often controversial questions and has unfailingly written for the general reader. He started out in the early 1950s, writing for the Economist. Later, he succeeded Edmund Wilson as the chief literary critic of the New Yorker and for many years reviewed for the Sunday Times. His best-known books were not academic monographs but were published in paperback by Penguin and Faber. He appeared regularly on television, debating Freud’s legacy with Bruno Bettelheim, the relationship between creativity and totalitarianism with Joseph Brodsky, and T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism with Christopher Ricks.

A Long Saturday
is a book of conversations with the French journalist and biographer, Laure Adler, first published in France in 2014. It now appears in translation and provides an excellent introduction to Steiner’s major preoccupations over 60 years.

The interview begins with Steiner’s background. Born in Paris in 1929, he escaped with his parents to New York in 1940. He studied at Chicago and Harvard before going to Oxford and then spent most of his academic career at Churchill College, Cambridge. A number of things emerge from these early years. Steiner grew up trilingual. His Viennese parents spoke German, he was educated in French and learned English in wartime America. His parents loom large over his account of his early years. “The decisive factor in my life was my mother’s genius,” he tells Adler. But it was his father who made him watch French crowds shouting “Kill the Jews!” as they marched through Paris. It was also his father who put Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu tantalisingly out of reach so that his precocious son would want to reach for the book and begin his lifelong affair with great literature. What emerges is a childhood soaked in high culture: classical concerts, his father’s library full of great literature, learning Latin and Greek (not Hebrew, a lifelong regret), and a secular, cultured Jewishness.

The rest of the book explores Steiner’s chief preoccupations. There are chapters on Judaism, language, the Bible and literature, and the great paradox of the humanities: “Is it possible . . . that the humanities can make us inhuman? That far from making us better (to put it naively), far from sharpening our moral sensibility, they dampen it?” This leads us to a question which has been at the heart of Steiner’s writing since Language and Silence, published 50 years ago. Steiner tells Adler:

. . . the death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilisations of Russia and Europe, from the very centre of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance.

It is easy to dismiss this as clichéd; easy but wrong. We forget how parochial and insular British literary culture was before the 1960s. Leavis, Empson and Eliot, our most famous critics, wrote about English literature from the Metaphysical poets and Milton to D.H. Lawrence and Dickens. Who wrote about German-speaking literary culture? Steiner tells Adler that he wrote “the first article written in English on Paul Celan”. In one paragraph in this new book he cites Celan, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In the following chapter he writes about Wagner, Gadamer and Husserl. He introduced countless English readers to the great figures and ideas of European modernism. And yet, and this is a fascinating paradox, he made his home in Britain, “the chosen land for me.”

Steiner’s other great legacy is that he helped break the silence in post-war English culture about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Through fiction (the stories in Anno Domini and The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.) and through criticism (Language and Silence and In Bluebeard’s Castle) Steiner urged us to reflect on the legacy of the Holocaust. These concerns weave through the conversations, leading to his controversial views on Israel. “I am fundamentally anti-Zionist,” he says. Judaism “is far greater than Israel”. It is a view that has lost him many friends.

Of course, there were other important émigré critics who came to Britain and America: Erich Heller, J.P. Stern and Gabriel Josipovici, Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man at Yale. Arguably they were better critics and scholars. As A Long Saturday makes clear, however, they were not as wide-ranging or as provocative in their concerns. Steiner has always been a great provocateur, a passionate polemicist.

This is what has made him such an outsider. “Why don’t many of my university colleagues like me very much?” he asks at one point. “Why have I been somewhat marginalised all of my life?” He says it is because he puts the great creators ahead of the critics and commentators. That’s not true. He has been marginalised because he asks difficult, even offensive questions. Why are women less creative than men? What explains the “mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence”? “Why are 70 per cent of all Nobel Prize winners in the sciences Jews? Why are 90 per cent of all chess masters Jews . . . ?” In a culture where people tread carefully about racial and sexual difference, Steiner is a bull in a china shop. There is another reason. In a culture increasingly obsessed with equality, Steiner is the last of the great elitists. He is unapologetic about this. He is fascinated by genius: chess players, mathematicians and classical composers, Nobel Prize winners and great writers.

Those familiar with Steiner’s work will find little here that is new or fresh. However, if you want a short, clear introduction to one of our most thought-provoking critics this is a welcome reminder of Steiner’s achievements. Towards the end, the mood darkens. He is approaching 90. It is hard to imagine we will ever see his like again.

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