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Swimming against the current

Today Arendt is only read by academic cultists – Steiner by the public

George Steiner, who died on Monday aged ninety, was our last link with Stefan Zweig’s ‘world of yesterday’, the world of European high culture and polysemic scholarship that the Germans destroyed after 1933. Steiner more than anyone else invented the academic disciplines now called Comparative Literature and ‘translation studies’. He achieved this not just against the flow of a history whose undertow nearly took him down as a child, but also against the fashions of an academy which did its best to ignore him even after he had forced it to acknowledge him.

Steiner was the American critic that Harold Bloom claimed to be but wasn’t. Bloom exemplified the thud and blunder of the patriotic self-publicist; the Max Bialystok of letters, he was as American as Whitman or a Broadway musical. Steiner became an American by the skin of his teeth, his family having escaped to New York City shortly before the the German invasion of France. He lived for most of his life in Cambridge, but above all he lived, wrote and died as a European Jew – no mean feat for someone born in Paris in 1929. Cosmopolitan, erudite and serious, he defied the modern tendency to monoglot nationalism and its intellectual sibling, mental provincialism.

‘A Jew is like a swimmer with a short arm,’ Mahler said. ‘He has to swim twice as hard to reach the shore.’ Steiner was born with a withered right arm. His Viennese mother refused to let him use his left hand. From this, he recalled, he learnt the challenge and pleasures of difficulty. Steiner’s fate, at least while the academic competition had a hand in it, was to be rejected for challenging them with difficulty when he wasn’t being rejected as insufficiently serious for skittering pleasurably across the surface of literature and philosophy, catching flattering reflections as he went.

Though he swam against the current of his times, it was rarely a fair competition. Steiner was raised trilingually in French, German and English. His father, a ‘sceptical ironist’ who worked as a lawyer for Austria’s national bank before presciently moving his family out of Vienna, started him on Greek at five, with Latin from a ‘refugee scholar’ who ‘exhaled an odour of reduced soap and sorrow’. From the French Lycée in Manhattan, Steiner went to the University of Chicago and Harvard, then came to Britain as a Rhodes Scholar. His first draft of his doctoral thesis was rejected by Helen Gardner, the scholar of Donne and Eliot, because comparative literature did not then exist at Oxford. He reworked a chapter of it to satisfy the degree requirements, left the academy to spend several years at The Economist, returned to it to lecture at Princeton, and then, in 1961, published his original thesis as The Death of Tragedy.

The Death of Tragedy introduced the Steiner themes of language and its ethical defeat by modern history, and by the Shoah in particular. It is deeper in historical range and bolder in philosophical analysis than Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), a superiority which Steiner had already demonstrated by trampling on Berlin’s turf in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959). Yet the cycle of academic attraction and rejection repeated itself. Steiner accepted an invitation to direct the study of English at a new Cambridge venture, Churchill College, but was then turned down when he applied for a job on the English faculty. A founding fellow of Churchill College, he resigned in 1969 but retained a connection as an extraordinary fellow and an extraordinarily popular lecturer. Only in 1974 did he secure a professorship at Geneva in English and Comparative Literature.

One of the many damning statistics is that the typical literature student takes longer to complete a doctoral degree than the typical science student

Steiner was a connoisseur of what he called odium academicum, the professorial heir to the medieval churchman’s odium theologicum. Isaiah Berlin’s alleged quip that Steiner was ‘that very rare thing, a completely genuine charlatan’, falls into that category. Steiner seems to have given out as much of a stink as he received. The subtitle of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was An Essay in the Old Criticism, as though hedgehog-and-fox routines were old hat. He denounced the new vogue for specialization too:

‘Specialization has reached moronic vehemence. Learned lives are expended on reiterative minutiae. Academic rewards go to the narrow scholiast, to the blinkered. Men and women in the learned professions proclaim themselves to be experts on one author, in one brief historical period, in one aesthetic medium. They look with contempt (and dank worry) on the generalist.’

One of the many damning statistics from the modern American university is that the typical literature student takes longer to complete a doctoral degree than the typical science student. The reason is that the literature students struggle to attain even reading-level comprehension of a second language. Hence the ‘dank worry’ that Steiner detected among the specialists, and hence further reasons for Steiner’s kulturpessimismus. He was a stylist, not in the almost conversational manner of the better English critics, but in French elaboration and German seriousness: long and impenitently multilingual sentences reach for the heights of French style and the depths of German philosophy, with the occasional refined epigram thrown in the face of the scholiasts for good measure.

A further problem was timing. Grounded in the expansive and cosmopolitan humanism of pre-1914 Europe, Steiner was behind the times in a period when historians aspired to be social scientist and professors of literature mistook their subject for a form of revolutionary activism, but ahead of the times in seeing the limits of social science and the unavoidable truth that the interweavings of literature, whether synchronic or diachronic, are always comparative. Four decades passed between Helen Gardner’s rejection of his thesis and his installation in 1994 as Oxford’s first George Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature.

Steiner was also precocious in understanding that the Shoah was the crucial aspect in the historical eclipse of Europe’s twentieth century. Postwar America generated another Jewish immigrant, Saul Bellow, to describe the knock-on effects of Europe’s civilizational crack-up. Postwar Europe, which had produced writers capable of amplifying and expounding every previous shift in its modern history, failed to produce a single new novelist willing or able to look Europe in the eye. The Germans, usually so voluble, produced only the slippery evasions of Gunther Grass. The French agreed not to talk about it all in public, though in 1955 Alain Resnais managed in Night and Fog to present on screen what was not to be written about on paper. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate did not appear in the West until 1980. It fell to Evelyn Waugh, of all people, to describe the Second World War as a civilizational disaster, and the murder of Europe’s Jews as its central motif, in the Sword of Honour trilogy.

The failure of language and especially the arts, as bearers of ethical values was Steiner’s great subject

Admittedly, it must be hard to write a novel about Nazism, but if the author of Language and Silence could pull it off at the first attempt with The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981), then difficulty was not the reason for the silence of so many European languages in the forms of fiction. Testimony, meanwhile, was entirely possible, including testimony of high literary quality: Primo Levi, for example. Steiner’s criticism should be read as context for the testimonies, both as speculations about the sources of destruction (especially In Bluebeard’s Castle and the idea that the Shoah was Europe’s revenge for the burden of conscience) and commentary upon their implications (the breakdown of morality and language in After Babel and Grammars of Creation).

The failure of language and especially the arts, as bearers of ethical values was Steiner’s great subject, the breach of continuity with the elevated ideals of Greek thought and Hebrew morals his tragedy and, he explained, ours. A tragic ironist, Steiner recognized that a Europe which had attempted to replace religion with art had, it seemed, made its traditional faith in either religion or art impossible. In a further irony, Steiner, moving between epochs and languages with uncompromising grace, did more than anyone to establish artistic proofs not just of the historical dialectic of Jerusalem and Athens, but also of the ‘prodigal mosaic’ of a single European inheritance.

In Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), Adorno pronounced that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Already disproven the previous year by Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’, one of the 20th century’s essential poems, Adorno’s statement now seems to belong to that rarified and shameful class of post-1945 writing, the German Jewish apologia for Germany; a class so rarified, in fact, that its only other notable member is Hannah Arendt. Adorno’s argument was that to perpetuate European culture was to perpetuate its barbarism; better, then, to choose silence. Arendt, meanwhile, blamed the victims. The notorious passages in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) effectively tell the survivors to keep silent because the victims, she claims, were silently complicit with Nazism.

Steiner, however, was voluble about the failure and potential of language. Arendt and Adorno attributed Nazism and the Shoah to the barbarous abstractions of capitalism and imperialism. They also agreed that capitalism made real culture impossible, though in Negative Dialectics (1966), Adorno admitted that his ‘poetry and barbarism’ line ‘may have been wrong”, if only because ‘suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream’. Steiner blamed the reality that a people and its language can be both cultured and barbarous. The ‘classical and Judaic ideal of man as “language animal”, as uniquely defined by the dignity of speech – itself a facsimile of the original and begetting mystery of creation – came to an end in the anti-language of the death camps’, he wrote in Grammars of Creation (2001). If language was generative or mimetic of the generative process, and the barbarism of language shapes mimetic violence, then the German language itself could be arraigned as a kind of war criminal.

Steiner admired Gershom Scholem’s mystical reverence for language and his punctilious interest in heresy; he called his father’s reading list a ‘secular Talmud’. He accepted the Jewish state as a historical necessity, but was more likely to object to its contraction of linguistic horizons and its expansion of geographical horizons than to praise it for bringing a people back from the dead or revitalizing the language of revelation. Despite his insistence on pushing Athens and Jerusalem into contact and conflict on the page, and despite his preference for ‘Shoah’ (destruction) over the pagan associations of ‘Holocaust’ (burnt offering), he never studied Hebrew. He recognized and regretted this oddity.

Adorno and Arendt are read today only by academic cultists, frequently in the departments of literature which shunned Steiner as he put out an extraordinary sequence of books, and invariably under the duress of the academic reading list. Steiner, however, was read and still is read voluntarily by adults. That, for what it is worth, is how I came across him: not as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford, but by reading the Sunday papers, browsing in non-academic bookshops and stumbling over the astonishing essays in No Passion Spent (1996). That, I think, is how readers will continue to discover him, continue to understand the scale of our modern loss and, in understanding, continue to learn the ‘grammars of creation’.

‘I am,’ he wrote in his intricate biography Errata (1997), ‘unable, even at the worst hours, to abdicate from the belief that the two validating wonders of mortal existence are love and the invention of the future tense. Their conjunction, if it will ever come to pass, is the Messianic.’


Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA. Daniel Johnson, who knew Steiner, is writing a fuller appreciation for the March issue of The Critic.

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