A very English intellectual

For all his European frame of reference George Steiner stayed in Cambridge for a very good reason

No sooner had the news broken of George Steiner’s death than Matthew d’Ancona was enlisting the most celebrated literary critic of his generation in the anti-Brexit resistance. Was this fair? Steiner had died last month, “full of years”, as the Bible has it, but it is hard to imagine such a pugnacious soul resting in peace.

The angry young man of the 1950s was still an angry old man six decades later. No doubt Brexit was indeed one of the occasions of his anger. After the 2016 referendum, Steiner issued one of his characteristic interdicts: “I’ll tell you what is going on here. England is tired of history and wants to stay out of it. It prefers to be a smaller nation.”

Steiner might have been disappointed by Brexit, by the decision to opt out of what he liked to call “the idea of Europe” by the country where, for all his colossal condescension towards its “small, provincial culture”, he chose to live for most of his 90 years. But his reaction to Brexit is no key to understanding who Steiner really was. D’Ancona misses the point about Steiner with his conscription of “the great magus of European culture” into an army of guerrilla gurus to carry on the battle of ideas against British exceptionalism. For George Steiner was, for all his European and transatlantic frame of reference, first and foremost a very English intellectual.

After a peripatetic youth that took him from Europe to America and back again, Steiner settled in Cambridge. It remained his primary base even after he took up a chair in Geneva. His wife Zara, a distinguished diplomatic historian, was American and both his children, David and Deborah, pursued academic careers there. (Zara Steiner died ten days after George Steiner) But George, in obedience to a paternal injunction, never abandoned his cultural roots in Europe. The gravitational pull of Cambridge, England, was always stronger than that of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I no longer recall whether he offered me a glass of sherry when I visited him in his rooms at Churchill College in 1979, but I remember vividly that he seemed no less entirely at home, in his element, than other academics more Anglocentric in their habits and habitus. From the pipe and tweed jacket to the mannered eccentricity and clipped speech, Steiner was an Oxbridge don of his era — the very model of a modern major generalist.

But surely Steiner was the odd man out in Cambridge — an alien in every sense? Wasn’t he given the title “Extraordinary Fellow” by Churchill and denied the chair that should have been his, merely because his interests were too wide and too foreign? What anyone under 60 might struggle to grasp is that postwar Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention other British academic institutions, were full of émigré European intellectuals. Even by the late 1970s, when I arrived at Oxford — and, most irregularly, migrated from one ancient university to the other — my mentors included several of them.

But of course Oxbridge had always welcomed polymathic and polygenetic scholars. Steiner was one of the most prominent, but by no means the most polyglot. He may have begun each day by translating a passage into three or four languages, but the late Norman Stone (to give just one example) could have done so in twice as many. This is not to belittle Steiner, who was outstanding in his intellectual versatility and virtuosity, but to question the presumption (which he did nothing to discourage) that he was some kind of cerebral Crusoe marooned in a sea of provincialism.

Steiner knew a great deal about many things, Leavis cared about just one big thing

What caused the friction with Cambridge was not the range of Steiner’s intellectual ambition but his choice of “the higher criticism” as his métier. He had learned more from F.R. Leavis, the high priest of postwar Cambridge Eng Lit, than from any of the continental critics and thinkers he loved to invoke. “Close reading” was his mantra, just as it had been that of the Leavisites. But his admiration for Leavis was not reciprocated.

Steiner’s focus on comparative literature was of no interest to the older man. It was the hedgehog and the fox: even at that early stage, Steiner knew a great deal about many things, Leavis cared about just one big thing — establishing a method for the study of what he took to be the canon of English literature. Though always an outsider in Oxbridge, let alone London, society, the nonconformist Frank Leavis and his Jewish wife Queenie attracted disciples and succeeded in creating a school.

George Steiner never did either. His methods, as he frankly admitted, were intrinsically inimitable. Steiner’s splendid isolation was part of the price he paid for the privilege of a life spent doing what he liked best: reading and writing.

When Leavis retired in 1962, Steiner paid a slightly backhanded tribute. In an essay later included in Language and Silence, his breakthrough book, Steiner compared the influence of Leavis with that of Wittgenstein — a flattering comparison, with hindsight unduly so. He placed the author of The Great Tradition in the company of Johnson, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, of T.S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson — a kind of great tradition of literary criticism.

But he then cast doubt on whether this ultimate accolade was merited, given Leavis’s lack of magnanimity: “Much in the late Leavis exhibits a quality of inhuman unreality (the Richmond Lecture being merely a flagrant instance). The depth of insight is increasingly marred by waspish contempt.” Twisting the knife, Steiner turned the dogma of the departing sage against him: “If some doubt persists, it is simply because criticism must be, by Leavis’s own definition, both central and humane. In his achievement the centrality is manifest; the humanity has often been tragically absent.”

What had happened? The young Steiner, whose early masterpieces The Death of Tragedy and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky had announced the arrival of a new comet in the Cambridge firmament, had committed lèse-majesté. In the Two Cultures debate, Steiner had aligned himself with C.P. Snow against Leavis. Snow’s double life as both scientific mandarin and novelist made him the embodiment of the cultural synthesis he advocated in his 1959 Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures”.

But his critique of the wilful ignorance of the British establishment had aroused the ire of Leavis, who saw himself as a lone voice crying in a wilderness of philistinism. In his Richmond Lecture, Leavis poured scorn on Snow’s stature as a novelist — which was not only “waspish”, but irrelevant too.

Snow had merely suggested that elite schools in Britain gave almost exclusive recognition to the humanities, in contrast to the American and German educational systems which gave equal weight to the natural sciences. Steiner was sharp enough to see that Leavis was out of step with the Zeitgeist — Harold Wilson would soon herald the “white heat of technology” — and he sided with Snow.

The antiquarian bookseller Peter Harrington recently advertised a first edition of The Death of Tragedy, inscribed by Steiner to Snow and his wife “in gratitude and admiration”. The book appeared in 1961, soon after the controversy with Leavis. (By far the best account of the dispute is by Lionel Trilling, already then the leading American critic, but curiously ignored by Steiner. Trilling has long since eclipsed Edmund Wilson, whom Steiner overrated because he succeeded Wilson as chief book reviewer for the New Yorker.)

Steiner saw himself as a Leavis with languages, a Wilson with academic rigour. The cosmopolitan pyrotechnics were indeed dazzling; the scholarship indubitably broad, if not invariably deep. He made it his business to get to know as many as possible of the European intelligentsia who had survived Hitler and Stalin; those who had not, such as Walter Benjamin, he introduced to an often sceptical English-speaking public.

For a generation coming of age in the shadow of war and Holocaust, Steiner became the archetypal archeologist of the buried treasures that testified to an all-too-recently lost civilisation. Countless middle-aged men and women, now nostalgic for their callow youth, are grateful to this day for their initiation into the sacred mysteries of European culture.

One undergraduate during the late 1960s recalls Steiner giving a series of lectures on tragedy for which there was standing room only. The rest of the English faculty, by contrast, could barely fill the front row. For such eager young apprentices, Steiner was a sorcerer whose magic never failed — however much he was ostracised. They have this diminutive, bespectacled cicerone to thank for opening their eyes to the murderous magnificence of their own heritage.

Yet something happened to Steiner in the first flush of fame. He gradually adopted a new style, as idiosyncratic as it was unidiomatic and as highfalutin as it was highbrow. Instead of the clear, precise prose of his early books, Steiner now wrote in a stilted, clotted, incantatory manner that sometimes seemed scarcely English, and which constantly teetered on the edge of self-parody. In his determination to avoid the quotidian at all costs, Steiner occasionally verged on the vatic — or even the vapid.

Consider the following, often-quoted passage from Language and Silence (1967): “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work in Auschwitz in the morning.” This is quintessential Steiner, but it is writing of Orwellian force and Anglo-Saxon simplicity. This is the Steiner who was indeed heir to Coleridge, minus the poetry, to be sure, but a master of critical prose, possessed of a fine ear as an interpreter of Continental thought.

Open any of Steiner’s later writings, however, and you will find yourself mired in metaphor, adrift amid abstractions, tangled in thickets of tropes and nettled by neologisms. It is as though, having “lived trilingually”, he had created a hermetic language all his own. In his late memoir Errata: An examined life, he gives a clue as to how this transformation came about. There he evokes his feeling of outrage at the notion that, as a “double, triple or even quadruple agent across frontiers of identity … a final complicity in the basic structures and ‘quiddity’ of the language will elude him”.

He made it his business to get to know as many as possible of the European intelligentsia who had survived Hitler and Stalin

Steiner bristles as he recalls how “this belief was murmured to me with unctuous venom by elements in the English Faculty of Cambridge University during the 1960s.” Was it an upsurge of indignation at this real or imagined cold shoulder, allied with a concomitant suspicion by the specialist of the polymath, that prompted Steiner to evolve his own inimitable “Steinerese”? He does not say, because for all his sensitivity to language, he could never have acknowledged any such difficulty — that his own writing might actually have become quite difficult to read.

Instead, he gloried in his “crowded solitude”, conceding that “absence of any school or movement originating in my work, and that the sum of its imperfections are, in considerable measure, of my own doing.” Then the bitterness gets the better of him: “The appropriation, the blatant non-acknowledgement by those who have found its public visibility and variousness offensive may, by ironic paradox, be its true reward.” He doesn’t sound as though he means it.

My father, the historian and journalist Paul Johnson, experienced the wrath of Steiner at full throttle. They were contemporaries and ought to have been allies. But my father could not abide academic jargon or pretentiousness. One day he must have singled out a sentence by Steiner for satire in the Sunday Times. Steiner did not take criticism well. The following letter, typed on now yellowing, ultra-thin paper, is vintage Steiner.

May 2, 1977

Dear Mr. Johnson,

My attention has been drawn to your attack in the ST of yesterday.

It is risibly easy to take a sentence out of an explicitly technical context, in what is quite openly an academic-philosophic book, and charge it with obscurantism. I do not expect that you would have either the knowledge or honesty to see that each of the technical terms in that sentence has an exact meaning which only lengthy paraphrase could render.

More repellent is the fact that so much of your essay exactly echoes my own stuff on language and civilisation as set out in Language and Silence, Extraterritorial etc. Your borrowings are nearly verbatim, and I expect that this is why my name and work were in your mind. The issue here is a larger one than ad hominem silliness and I may take it up publicly.


George Steiner

I don’t know whether my father ever replied to this extraordinary letter. He had it framed and hung above his desk, perhaps as a documentary proof that there are idiots savants who think ideas matter more than people. He later skewered them in his book Intellectuals. As an example of Steinerian invective, however, this letter is hard to beat.

One hopes that Faber will publish an edition of his correspondence, which would not only provide a valuable source for sociologists of ideas and literary biographers, but raw material for future connoisseurs of diatribe.

Steiner was undoubtedly guilty of overreaction, but not of visiting the sins of the father upon the son. When I first met Steiner in 1978, he could not have been kinder or more encouraging. He even presented me with a copy of his novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. It would later become his only popular work of fiction, adapted for the stage and republished as the centrepiece of The Deeps of the Sea and other fiction (1996). He was inordinately proud of it — so much so that in Errata he claims that “such was the response . . . that I could have made of the novel or novella my foremost business”.

Yet of all Steiner’s writings, this Hitlerian revenge fantasy is the only one I find unreadable. It is not rebarbative in form, but in content. The Führer is found alive in Latin America and delivers a defiant monologue to his captor. One flaw is that Steiner’s Hitler sounds much more like Steiner than Hitler.

Much more scandalous, though, is the message that Steiner puts into the mouth of his satanic creation. It is a rationalisation of antisemitism that is indistinguishable from a justification. His speech is a tissue of antisemitic canards. The Jews, he claims, invented the idea of a master race. The Jews invented the idea of a final solution. “I took my doctrines from you.”

The Nazis did not invent the camps. They merely imitated the Bolsheviks. Stalin killed far more people. And, above all, the Holocaust was the necessary condition for Zionism to create a Jewish state. “The Reich begat Israel.” Steiner’s Hitler presents himself as the Messiah and takes credit not only for Israel’s creation but for its victories over the Arabs.

By the time Steiner wrote this novella, the equation of Zionists and Nazis had already become a cliché of antisemitic discourse — on the right, in the Islamic world, and perhaps especially on the left. When Ken Livingstone spouted his nonsense about Hitler and Zionism, he was echoing generations of leftist conspiracy theorists. But Steiner must take his share of responsibility for the growing ubiquity of these poisonous vapourings and their influence on the young.

it was he who put Hitler on the London stage — in Alec McCowan’s “overwhelming interpretation”, as he boasted — and he who decided that simply blaming the Germans for the Holocaust was far too simple. No, the ultimate cause was the Jewish invention of monotheism, morality and conscience. The rest of humanity has periodically turned on the Jews ever since.

This rationale for antisemitism amounts to an exculpation of Hitler. While exaggerating its prevalence, he minimises the uniqueness of the Shoah. It is a Hegelian night in which all cows are black. And, as Irving Howe crushingly put it in a review of In Bluebeard’s Castle, “Mr Steiner, though notably distraught over the fate of the Jews in general, pays very little attention to Jews in particular.”

At times, Steiner seemed to embrace the notion that (as T.W. Adorno had put it years before his career began) there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Western civilisation had perished irrevocably in the gas ovens. And yet poetry continued to be written. As for Jewish survival: the fact of Israel, and indeed of the diaspora, was undeniable.

at times, he was uncertain that Jewish identity should survive: “There is a sane argument for effacement into assimilation and normalcy. If some repetition of or analogy to the Shoah is conceivable in the future, ought a Jew to bring children into this world?” He answered his own question with a gnomic: “Nevertheless.” Jewish survival surely merits more than such a cryptic half-affirmation.

Behind his back, many of his academic competitors called him a charlatan. Some may have been motivated by envy, others by an antisemitism of which the individual may not be aware. The case against Steiner is still strong. Nevertheless. His contributions to criticism, hermeneutics and adult entertainment are legion. Among the uses of literacy — to borrow the title of Richard Hoggart’s book — Steiner discovered at least one hitherto unremarked fact: close reading, immersion in a text, requires silence.

The finely observed essay that opens his last major collection, No Passion Spent, takes its cue from Chardin’s Le Philosophe Lisant. Steiner weaves a web of speculations around this portrait of a fellow artist (“the philosopher”) reading, the most plausible of which is that he is reading silently — unlike his medieval or ancient predecessors. For Steiner, silence is always as significant as speech. In his view, the decline of literacy and the scarcity of silence were connected. He may well have been right.

Now that Steiner’s always insistent, often discordant, but sometimes eloquent voice has itself fallen silent, it is perhaps possible to see what was really going on with this. Leavis knew precisely what he was about: “the common pursuit of true judgment”, a phrase he took from T.S. Eliot’s The Function of Criticism. Steiner preferred to engage in the uncommon pursuit, among English dons at least, of the mysteries of German Geistesgeschichte and the mirages of French postmodernism.

He was dazzled by the Frankfurt School and what he dubbed “Suhrkamp culture”, after the publisher who had given the German public back what the Nazis had suppressed. He was abreast of the best in the West, but also paid attention to writing in the East, during and after the Cold War. Few others could make sense of what he called Heidegger’s “neologistic, expressionistic, often incantatory and hypnotic discourse”. The trouble was that this description also applied to some of Steiner’s own prose.

George Steiner may indeed have been a magus, but he was also a martinet. Much of his work is vitiated by the very failing he identified in Leavis: “a tragic absence of humanity”. He is an extreme example of the impotence of omniscience.

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