It can happen, if rarely, that the day’s mail brings an unexpected bolt of pure joy. On May 30, 1973, my bolt was delivered. Written on the stationery of Churchill College, Cambridge, it read in full:
Simply a fan letter. The Dialectical Imagination is a superb work. Do not read anything silly into my remark when I say that it is quite stunning that one of your age and locale should have mastered this complex world of nuance and kept so fine a distance. There are some tiny errors (our mutual friend M.I. Finley is Prof. of Ancient History and not of Classics) and there are central aspects of the Kulturkritik in the end of the Negative Dialektik which you seem to me to slight. But these are cavils about a major book which leaves us all in its debt.1It was signed “Very sincerely, George Steiner.”
Almost half a century later, I still can feel the rush of excitement produced by this unanticipated gift. It was as if my citizen papers for the Republic of Letters had finally been approved, and I was being admitted to a company I had only gawked at from afar. I recall it now, despite the inevitable impression doing so will seem like self-congratulation, for three reasons. First, it provides evidence of the gratuitous generosity of George Steiner, who took the time to contact a young scholar out of the blue to praise his work. His enthusiasm was expressed publicly when he named The Dialectical Imagination his book of the year in the Sunday Times of London, but it was this private contact that had the most profound impact. By chance, I was scheduled to visit the UK that summer and he invited me for what turned out to be a memorable meeting in Cambridge in August, the first of many. When he offered to write recommendations on my behalf for fellowships, I consented with alacrity. What in a later letter he called his “perjurious encomia” did, in fact, their trick, and I am sure the Guggenheim that allowed me to spend the following year at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, was due in large measure to his endorsement.
The second reason I bring up his “fan letter” is to confess that one of its effects was the preemptive immunization it performed against my ever joining the vituperative chorus of critics who delighted in abusing him and his work. There can, in fact, be few figures who managed to generate as much splenetic derogation as Steiner did over his long years in the public eye. For a welter of reasons, some plausible and many not, he became an inviting target for both established mandarins and climbers on the way up, commentators from all ends of the political spectrum, and random critics offended by his provocative positions on Zionism, America and popular culture. Many of the most consequential voices of the time took the trouble to call him out, sometimes with dismissive concision—Isaiah Berlin’s oft-repeated jibe that he was a “genuine charlatan” being the most notorious example—and sometimes with exorbitant rhetorical flair—as in the case of James Wood’s “gleefully vicious” rant against Steiner’s Real Presences.2 Masters of invective like John Simon and Joseph Epstein reveled in the opportunity to hone their craft by pummeling his work and deflating his person. I was, however, never tempted to follow their example, for in addition to my general distaste for ad hominem polemics, it would have been churlish, to say the least, to turn around and bite a hand that had so amply fed me.
Moreover, and this is the third reason I mention the letter, it would also have been impossible to join the company of his detractors because of my genuine gratitude for the vital role George Steiner had played in my intellectual coming of age, and not mine alone. He was one of what I called “the two Georges,” who were the most exuberant transmitters of a vital tradition of thought that had been only a rumor in the Anglo-American academy. The first was George Lichtheim, the learned student of European politics and intellectual life, most notably the socialist tradition, who had made his mark outside the academy as a shrewd analyst of the intersection of politics and ideas. He too came from a continental European background, was a secular Jew, fluent in several languages, and lived with some discomfort in British exile. An anti-Communist socialist with a keen interest in the heterodox alternatives of what would come to be called Western Marxism, Lichtheim was one of the ideal readers for whom I intended The Dialectical Imagination, and I remember my selfish dismay when he committed suicide shortly before it appeared.3
The second George was Steiner, which made his generous letter even more meaningful. He was a less learned commentator on political history or acute an observer of current events than Lichtheim, and never evinced any sympathy for socialism as an actual political cause. But he too was able to convey with special vigor the importance of the still mostly dark continent of 20th-century European thought, especially its aesthetic and philosophical legacies. Steiner had already made a splash with two ambitious books of literary criticism, The Death of Tragedy and Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, the latter arousing in equal measure admiration and disdain for his audacity in writing about the giants of the Russian novel without being able to read their work in the original. It was, however, the essay collection called Language and Silence, published in 1967, that had been my eye-opener.
What immediately strikes the reader of the book—and still impresses more than fifty years later—is the astounding range of the topics and figures it covers. At a time when a veneer of erudition is only a click away from a Wikipedia page, it may be hard to appreciate the command Steiner showed not only of past literary figures like Homer, Shakespeare, Merimée and Kafka but also present ones like Mann, Durrell, Grass, Plath and Golding. Essays on the Bible and Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aron jostle for attention with those on contemporary literary and cultural critics like Leavis and McLuhan and anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss. The collection even includes a thundering denunciation of the deleterious effects of pornography on both language and the right to privacy in sexual matters.Of special importance for my own interests were the seven essays on “Marxism and Literature,” which demonstrated a familiarity with figures like Lukács, Bloch, Goldmann, Benjamin and Adorno unmatched by anyone writing in English at the time. The earliest, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” had been first published in Encounter in 1958. To say that it was ahead of the curve does scarce justice to its prescience. If you compare it, for example, with Raymond Williams’ influential Culture and Society, which appeared the same year, the contrast is striking. Williams has a brief discussion of Christopher Caudwell, who died in the Spanish Civil War after writing a few promising, if now mostly forgotten Marxist works, but shows no broader appreciation of anything on the other side of the English Channel. Two decades passed before he tried to make up for it in Marxism and Literature. In 1958, Fredric Jameson’s important Marxism and Form4 was more than a dozen years in the future and Terry Eagleton was still a teenager dreaming of escaping the small city of Salford in Lancashire. In 1958, it bears recalling, there were no major translations into English of the literary or cultural criticism of Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch and Lukács (the latter’s book on The Historical Novel was the first, appearing only in 1962).
Ironically, Steiner, who had proudly declared his allegiance to the “old criticism” as opposed to the “new” in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and was so quick to lament cultural decline, valued a body of thought that claimed to be the cutting edge of the future. From his description of what he meant by “old criticism,” the reason became clear. It is, he explained,
engendered by admiration. It sometimes steps back from the text to look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical and political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophical in range and temper….there are numerous examples of art which moves us to performance or conviction through its proposal of ideas. To these modes contemporary critics, with the exception of Marxists, have not always been attentive.5In the essays on “Marxism and Literature” in Language and Silence, three central arguments stand out. First, Steiner clearly registers the difference between the dogmatic reductionism of orthodox dialectical materialist criticism, with its preferences for uplifting socialist realism and Tendenzliteratur and hostility to modernist experimentation, and what Michel Crouzet had called “para-Marxism.” Proponents of the latter understand that literature has to be understood contextually and reject purist formal-ism, but also “approach a work of art with respect for its integrity and for the vital center of its being….para-Marxists practice the arts of criticism, not those of censorship.”6
Second, Steiner refuses to dismiss complicated figures, most notably Lukács, who at one time or another in their careers belonged to each camp. Although he acknowledges the costs of the Hungarian Communist’s “devil’s pact” with the Party and bemoans his tone-deafness to writers like Proust, Steiner concludes that “whether or not we share his beliefs, there can be no doubt that he has given to the minor Muse of criticism a notable dignity.”7 Having been bowled over by The Historical Novel when he was still a precocious undergraduate at the University of Chicago—he could still call it a “masterpiece” four decades later8—and bathing in the afterglow of a personal meeting with Lukács in Budapest in 1957, Steiner moves beyond a simplistic Cold War judgment.9 His verdict on Lukacs’ great nemesis Bertolt Brecht is similar: “without Marxism and an eccentric but steadfast adherence to Party ideology, the foremost dramatist of the age, Bertolt Brecht, might not have found his voice and style.”10
The third, and perhaps most provocative conclusion, was his claim that the refusal of Communism to countenance literary or other intellectual insubordination paid perverse tribute to the power of the word, which was absent in the more permissive West, where what Herbert Marcuse was infamously to call “repressive tolerance” prevailed. “Writers were persecuted and killed precisely because literature was recognized as an important and potentially dangerous force. This is a crucial point. Literature was being honored, in however cruel or perverted way, by the very fact of Stalin’s distrust.”11
Steiner’s appreciation for the para-Marxist legacy was perhaps nowhere as apparent as in his early enthusiasm for Walter Benjamin, whose Marxism he characterized as “private and oblique.”12 In a letter he sent shortly after our first meeting, he allowed that his ambitious work on translation, After Babel, was inspired by Benjamin’s essay on “The Task of the Translator”: “My book goes to OUP this week; it is the book Benjamin did not live to write—though no parity of stature is intended! But it may be the last ‘Frankfurt’ book.”13 Two years later he reported on his disagreement with Gershom Scholem over Benjamin’s legacy:
Scholem has written to me at length concurring with my hunch that the Benjamin [Scholem’s Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft] is his saddest book, but, characteristically charging me with finding in it the ‘wrong sadness.’ HIS sadness bears on Benjamin’s failure to find a coherent Jewishness and escape to Israel; MINE bears on the misère of that great life (the suicide attempts etc) and on the somewhat acid elegy over the death of European high culture which the book so clearly voices.14
By the time he wrote the introduction to the first English translation of Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1977, his sympathy for the Marxist moment in Benjamin’s work, or at least for those who were intent on drawing on it for current purposes, had waned. He made a point of endorsing Scholem’s judgment that the book was still free of the idiosyncratic Marxism that Benjamin was soon to adopt, and added gratuitously: “Walter Benjamin would doubtless have been skeptical of any ‘New Left’. Like every man committed to abstruse thought and scholarship, he knew that not only the humanities, but humane and critical intelligence itself, resides in the always-threatened keeping of the very few.”15 Although his enthusiasm for Benjamin remained intact—I can recall his palpable excitement when he showed me after a dinner at his house a recently acquired first edition of one of Benjamin’s books (was it Einbahnstrasse?)—his openness to the promise of para-Marxism in the early essays included in Language and Silence had clearly declined. His growing attraction to Heidegger, who is conspicuous by his absence in that book, may have been one of the reasons.16
It was around this time, it seems in retrospect, that Steiner, who had begun his career by challenging many conventional pieties, was beginning to feel out-flanked by a younger generation more radical in political and theoretical terms. In 1978, I found myself at a dinner with him and the venerable Yale comparativist, René Wellek, during a conference on Giambattista Vico in Venice. It was an occasion that vividly brought to life his reading of Scholem’s Benjamin book as an “acid elegy over the death of European high culture.” Appropriately, our restaurant overlooked the Grand Canal, and Steiner was able to point out Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, the palazzo across the water where Richard Wagner had died in 1883. When we walked back to our hotel, I remember his explaining the melancholic bitterness radiating from Wellek as a result of his having been unceremoniously tossed aside by his younger colleagues at Yale, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey Hartman, who were besotted with the post-structuralist theories they were importing from France. I also recall thinking there was a certain measure of projection in this explanation, as Steiner himself must have felt increasingly embattled by new trends that challenged his self-understanding as a rebel against conventional wisdom.
And yet, despite his shifting placement in the dynamic force field of cultural politics, Steiner resisted turning into a curmudgeonly apologist for a world on the wane or allowing his Kulturpessimismus to sanction a resentful withdrawal from the public arena. In fact, one of the hallmarks of his career was a willingness to remain suspended within paradoxes, never forcing a simple choice between unpalatable options. This attitude was already evident in Language and Silence, which both celebrates humanistic high culture and acknowledges that the Holocaust has disabused us of the naïve illusion that it humanizes those who uphold it. Or as he put it in what is perhaps his most frequently cited sentences: “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach or Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”17 And yet, Steiner somehow never really faltered in his faith that great art remains the last refuge of meaningfulness in a world from which religious faith has fled.
More than merely locating unresolved paradoxes, Steiner per-formatively embodied them. Lamenting what he called “the retreat from the word,” the crisis of language that engendered silence on the part of many who registered its exhaustion, at the same time he was never him-self at a loss for words to comment on everything under the sun. More a loquacious Aron than a stuttering Moses, Steiner was, in fact, besotted with language, devoting what many consider his most consequential book to the mysteries of translation and often writing on questions of style. In Language and Silence, he makes clear his own allegiances. Praising the baroque prose of Lawrence Durrell, he writes
His style beats against the present wind. Anyone trained on Hemingway will sicken and cloy at it. But perhaps it is we who are at fault, having been long kept on thin gruel. Durrell’s masters are Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, De Quincy, Conrad. He stands in the old tradition of the fullness of prose. He is attempting to make language once again commensurate with the manifold truths of the experienced world. His attempt has entailed excesses; Durrell is often precious, and his vision of conduct is more flimsy and shallow than are the technical resources at his command. But what he is doing is of importance; it is no less than an effort to keep literature literate.18Far closer to Durrell than Hemingway in his own writing, Steiner also knew its costs. In 1975, I sent him a draft of a piece I was doing on the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible for his comments. After sending me several helpful substantive suggestions and stressing Gershom Scholem’s detestation of Buber, he made a request regarding my characterization of the final paragraph of After Babel:
May I ask for a small change. Please eliminate the word “elegant” in regard to your closing quote. That paragraph tries to compact some five years of work and thought. In order to discredit my books and ideas, the establishment always hurls at them the charge of elegance or ornate writing. No one, ranging from Chomsky to the Cambridge English Faculty, will forgive the fact that my stuff is actually written, that it represents a care for the wealth and power of English which they are not able to manifest. No epithet please.19The charges, of course, never stopped, and virtually every attack on Steiner reveled in condemning his “gaseous,” “bellowing,” “bombastic,” “pretentious,” “pompous,” “overwrought,” “latinate,” “phrase-making,” “name-dropping” prose. Such put-downs were invariably tied to complaints against his mandarin elitism, which were given credence by his unyielding disdain for mass culture and the pervasive mediocrity he located in America. And then added to the mix was the accusation of self-contradiction or even hypocrisy solicited by his wholehearted embrace of middle-brow popularization, manifest in his frequent media appearances and innumerable contributions to general interest magazines like The New Yorker.20
Truth be told, the combination of Steiner’s polymathic erudition and avowed elitism with his reveling in the role of public intellectual does at first glance seem jarring. Unlike, say, the German philosopher and intellectual historian Hans Blumenberg, one of few in his generation who could rival his learning, range, and high seriousness but remained cloistered away from the public sphere, he was dedicated to reaching as large an audience as possible. Steiner, it should be remembered, spent several years as a journalist for The Economist before returning to the academy, and had learned to aim for a wide audience. If at times, this led him to rehearse his major themes in ways that could seem self-parodic or reminiscent of a politician’s oft-repeated stump speech, his dedication to spreading the word, as he understood it, never flagged. More often than not, this meant writing in what historians of rhetoric call the “grand or lofty” Ciceronian style, striving for an ornate elegance—however much he may have detested the epithet—that had been driven from popular usage with the triumph in the 19th century, at least in America, of the “plain style” of “democratic eloquence,”21 a style that self-consciously returned to the Anglo-Saxon roots of the language and abjured—oops, forswore—its Latinate overlay.
What should, however, be understood is that this was more a mode of speech than of writing, one that, to cite the historian Kenneth Cmiel, “impresses with sound. It delights in the play of words; it hopes to carry an audience with its power. Cicero said its end was to ‘bend’ the audience to the speaker.”22 Steiner could, in fact, be a spell-binding lecturer, whose ability to attract hordes of students may well have contributed to the resentment from other dons that stalled his early career at Cambridge. His television appearances, both in the UK and on the continent, were often electrifying. The dialogues he had with the Catholic conservative Pierre Boutang on the French show Océaniques in 1987, which dealt with “the myth of Antigone” and “Abraham’s sacrifice,” provided a riveting spectacle of passionate intellectual adversaries embodying what one observer called “intelligence in vivo .”23
Significantly, the grand style was not only at odds with the un-adorned, plain alternative that came into fashion in the 19th century, but also with the often neologistic jargon of technocrats and the abstruse, gnomic style of many avant-garde critics. Reluctant to develop a distinct method of literary interpretation rather than relying on his own sensibility meant that he left behind no school of thought to carry on his critical project. Although there were moments when Steiner seemed bent on dazzling his readers with his virtuosity, he was for the most part determined to communicate with them, using the sensuous resources of language, in particular its affinity to music, to make a connection. “To the writer who feels that the condition of language is in question,” he wrote in Language and Silence, “that the word may be losing something of its humane genius, two essential courses are available: he may seek to render his own idiom representative of the general crisis, to convey through it the precariousness and vulnerability of the communicative act; or he may choose the suicidal rhetoric of silence.”24
Not only did Steiner reject silence and refuse to retreat from the public realm, not only did he push back against the prosaic linguistic conventions of his day and reject the jargon of specialists, but he was also never shy about presenting his own life story in memoirs and interviews, often through the mass media.25 Having made abundantly clear his disdain for any boundary between art and life, he intertwined his judgments about the former with confessions about the latter. The main lineaments of his personal story became well-known: a cosmopolitan, tri-lingual upbringing in an upper middle-class, assimilated Jewish household on the move, determination to overcome the disability of a withered arm, precocious academic success culminating in a Rhodes Scholarship, guilt over surviving the Holocaust, resistance from the British academic establishment, and what one skeptical commentator called “his own exemplary status as Last Avatar of European High Culture.”26
In presenting his life story, Steiner spun out competing narratives of privilege and marginality, acclaim and disdain, ambition realized and ambition denied. The last of these tensions was apparent,inter alia, in his confession in one of the earliest essays in Language and Silence: “When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow. Who would be a critic, if he could be a writer?”27 Steiner wrote those words in 1963, shortly before he published a collection of his short stories called Anno Dominiand almost two decades before the appearance of his controversial novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. Unlike many other critical eunuchs, he couldn’t resist the temptation to try creation.
Steiner, of course, was not the first critic to succumb to that temptation nor the last—one of his main detractors, James Wood, in fact, also writes novels—but it is clear that his claim on our attention is not as a creative writer. His attempt to elude the eunuch’s shadow, however mixed the results, reveals traits that motivated much of Steiner’s oeuvre: his impatience for disinterested, neutral, “castrated” observation and urge to enter into the affective cultural experience he was describing. Terry Eagleton once referred to him as an “intellectual hedonist,” while Wood, with less sympathy, spoke of his “air of excited gravity” through which he sought to “synchronize his beating heart with the reader’s.”28 There is, it seems to me, ample evidence that Steiner’s passionate aesthetic enthusiasms were indeed heartfelt. In fact, at times, this meant a willingness to risk inhabiting dubious or even dangerous cultural or political positions in order to understand their sinister allure from within, a risk that Benjamin also took in incorporating insights from right-wing theorists like Ludwig Klages and Carl Schmitt. Watch on You Tube the five-minute video of Steiner analyzing with insight—and undisguised admiration–the seductive appeal of Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and you will immediately see why Wood could note with alarm that “Steiner seems strangely drawn to the inhumane.”29
This willingness to enter enemy territory was perhaps most explicit in the notorious monologue Steiner puts in Hitler’s mouth at the end of The Portage, which has been read as “the author’s ventriloquated, at times projective, middle-voiced rendering”30 of the monster’s self-justifying interiority. It was also apparent in his sympathetic rendering of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, whose power he sought to shield from its complicity with the philosopher’s endorsement of political evil. Or to put it in Heidegger’s own terms, he took pains to isolate the philosopher’s sublime “thought” from his scurrilous “worldview.” Arguing that Heidegger’s only intolerable sin was the silence into which he fell after 1945, Steiner claimed he was “unable to locate anti-Jewish sentiments or utterances in the works of Heidegger, even in those of a public and political nature—a fact, which from the outset isolates him from the mainstream of Nazism.”31
In the wake of the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which were not available when Steiner composed his apologia, it is clear that he misjudged Heidegger’s unrepentant sympathy for the vile ideology he had publicly promoted during his notorious tenure as rector of Freiburg University in 1934. Here Steiner was close to Hannah Arendt and other defenders of Heidegger who tried to limit the damage. Subsequent disclosures have not been kind to their efforts. But what has to be acknowledged, at least in his case, was that Steiner would have refused to grant such knowledge veto power over the attempt to reach an empathetic understanding of the ways in which a Riefenstahl or a Heidegger—or for that matter, even a Hitler—had exercised their magic. That is, Steiner’s distressing realization that listening to Bach or Schubert didn’t prevent a man from firing up the ovens at a death camp could be dialectically reversed: something in the dangerous appeal of the darkest impulses in Western civilization was also manifest in the most elevated exemplars of high culture. The human and the inhuman were not simple opposites, but dialectically intertwined, or, to turn Benjamin’s famous saying around, “there is no document of barbarism that is not at the same time a document of civilization.”
Steiner’s risky venturing into enemy territory also raises an-other issue, which has haunted his career from the start: his complicated and controversial attitude towards his own Jewish identity, the role of the Jews in Western culture and the causes of anti-Semitism. Although Steiner was among the first to insist on putting the Holocaust in the center of cultural discussions, against the studied indifference of many of his British colleagues, he also echoed the Freud of Moses and Monotheism in speculating that the Jewish invention of monotheism and moral absolutism had something to do with their enduring unpopularity.32 A great deal of heat has already been generated in response to his provocations, with a number of critics predictably denouncing his “Jewish self-hatred” and “identification with the aggressor.” This is not the place to rehearse all of the arguments about the interventions he made over many years or render a judgment about their validity.33 Instead, let me return to Language and Silence and the formative impact it had on my own consideration of these issues.
To simplify the fundamental alternatives faced by someone of Steiner’s generation and experience, there were four competing ways of being Jewish. First, he could have embraced Judaism as a religious way of life and found meaning in observing its practices and embracing its beliefs. Second, he could have cast his lot with Zionism, whether understood as a realization of messianic hopes or a safe haven for persecuted Jews, and perhaps even moved, as did Scholem, to Palestine/ Israel. His third option was to play down any residual Jewish identity, and follow the well-trodden path towards assimilation, even in the wake of the Nazi exposure of its feeble protection for those who pursued it. A fourth choice was to identify proudly and defiantly with the diasporic Jew, more often secular than not, who turned his exile into a virtue and refused the consolations of religion, nationalism or the suturing of divided identities.
Let’s take them in turn. Steiner often voiced his belief that theological issues were still alive in a world that mourned the waning of religious faith. He insisted, for example, that Heidegger’s Sein was a surrogate for God, and added that “such ‘post-theologies’ constitute the most active elements in Modern Western thinking.”34 Likewise, he argued that “there is scarcely a node, or constellation of argument and terminology in Benjamin that is not akin to, or derived from, the theological.”35 Whether his own frequent evocation of the secularized survival of theological motifs was insightful or merely a form of religious fellow-travelling—a claim that fueled Wood’s indignation at his imprecise, metaphoric treatment of the Christian doctrine of “real presence”—Steiner was never tempted to adopt the orthopraxis that a serious commitment to Judaism as a lived religion demands. We were once together at a small family seder at the Cambridge home of the eminent historian of the First World War Jay Winter, and although I can recall Steiner’s moving reading of Haggadah passages, there was no indication that they had a deeper personal meeting.
Nor was Steiner driven by the hope that next year we would all literally be in Jerusalem. However much he may have esteemed Scholem, he did not bend when the latter denounced his refusal to affirm the Jewish entry “inside of history.”36 Unlike many on the left, his hostility to Zionism was not motivated by any strong identification with the plight of its Palestinian victims, but rather for its effects on the Jews. Already in 1965 in the essay “A Kind of Survivor,” Steiner could write “the State of Israel is, in one sense, a sad miracle. Herzl’s Zionist program bore the obvious marks of the rising nationalism of the late nineteenth century. Sprung of inhumanity and the imminence of massacre, Israel has had to make itself a closed fist… though the survival of the Jewish people may depend on it, the nation-state bristling with arms is a bitter relic, an absurdity in the century of crowded men. And it is alien to some of the most radical, most humane elements in the Jewish spirit.”37 Written before the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands after the Six Day War, whose consequences need not be belabored, these remarks retain, alas, much of their pungency today.
If Zionism was not an option for Steiner, even less attractive was the lure of assimilation. Although some writers of his generation bristled at their designation as “Jewish authors”—think, for example, of the young Saul Bellow—in favor of a more universal identity, Steiner never sought to escape his connection with the Jewish people, which was powerfully reinforced by his guilty status as a “kind of survivor” of the recent attempt to terminate their very existence. In part, this reflected his inability to shed the constant fear that something might happen again to revive that threat. But in part it also was a product of the feeling of proud solidarity Steiner felt with a certain version of being Jewish, which he identified with the European diasporic experience.
Turning the insult of “rootless cosmopolitan” into a virtue, celebrating the burdensome role of “wandering Jew,” valuing restless “homelessness” over stable settlement, Steiner continued a minority tradition in Jewish history that stressed the benefits of enduring marginalization over its costs. Heinrich Heine had seen the Torah as the “portable homeland” of the Jews, and the great German neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen identified exile with a heightened moral sensibility that could transcend the narrow parochialism of dominant, homogeneous cultures.38 There was a link, he argued, between the suffering of the Jewish people and their messianic mission, which was short-circuited by the Zionist aspiration to become a nation like all others. Better, in other words, to be a pariah than a parvenu, to borrow the dichotomy Hannah Arendt made famous. Ironically, Steiner’s affinity for “otherness” before it became a buzzword anticipated the similar intuition inspiring the post-structuralism he later scorned (and which ignored or dismissed him). His claim that the only “home” of the Jews was the book, not the soil, also resonated with Derrida’s oft-cited claim that there is nothing outside of the text. So too did his celebration of cultural hybridity, which has also earned him the honor of inheriting the mantle of Moritz Goldman, the author of the controversial 1912 essay “The German-Jewish Parnassus.”39
Such an exaltation of the eternally marginal Jew, to be sure, can have its dangers. Romanticizing the unchosen condition of displacement and homelessness, after all, loses much of its allure when it is taken literally rather than metaphorically. Nor is it the case that its effects are always to produce geniuses, as it may just as easily spawn scoundrels.40 But when I first came upon Steiner’s argument in 1968 in Language and Silence , it powerfully resonated with the understanding of the Frankfurt School I was beginning to formulate in my dissertation. It was clear to me that despite their reluctance to grant any importance to their predominantly Jewish origins, understandable in the light of the characteristic anti-Semitic charge that it explained everything, the experiences they had as Jews played a meaningful role in the development of Critical Theory.41 Steiner’s positive depiction of the virtues of exile and displacement, his argument for the heightened sensibility and empathy for the disempowered produced by marginalization, provided a key to make sense of what their Jewish backgrounds might mean.
Not only did their Jewish identities, however attenuated, preclude their ever being fully at home in the hegemonic culture of Europe, but they also experienced two additional exiles when they were forced to leave Germany and grew increasingly alienated from all organized Marxist movements. It would be an exaggeration to say that they found their true “home” in the book or the word, as did Steiner for the Jews in general, because their Marxist sympathies meant they yearned for a fundamental change in social relations. But they did distrust hasty attempts to instrumentalize their theory into a recipe for immediate practical activity in the world and valued art as a placeholder for a utopian future that, against all odds, might still come. While never entirely abandoning their hope that someday their Flaschenpost—the messages in the bottles they metaphorically threw into the sea—would be found and help inspire radical change, they themselves were content with being permanent exiles.
Or so it seemed to me when writing my dissertation under the indirect influence of Language and Silence. The short appreciation of Adorno I contributed to Midstream after his sudden death in 1969 was, in fact, called “The Permanent Exile of Theodor W. Adorno.”42 But when I sought to turn the dissertation into a book and floated the possible title “Permanent Exiles” to the surviving members of the School, I soon learned that not everyone shared this perspective. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere, both Max Horkheimer and Felix Weil protested against that choice of titles, which they felt inappropriately emphasized the lingering outsider status of the Institute after its return to Germany.43 I had a viable alternative, derived from a phrase I had unconsciously absorbed from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, so was willing to heed their advice. But in a later volume of essays on the intellectual migration from Germany to America, which included several on the Frankfurt School, I found an opportunity to recycle it and register the appreciation of diasporic marginalization I had absorbed from Language and Silence.44 One of those essays, it might also be noted, was called “The Extraterritorial Life of Siegfried Kracauer,” which echoed not only Kracauer’s frequent use of the term, but also the volume Steiner published in 1971 called Extraterritorial.45
In retrospect, it seems likely that the enthusiasm Steiner generously expressed for The Dialectical Imagination was inspired in part by his recognizing some of his own arguments in my take on the Frankfurt School. Ultimately, I was able to make a small repayment by bringing him together with the last surviving member of the School, Leo Lowenthal, for a meal at my house in the late 1970’s, when he spent a semester at Stanford. Fittingly, our paths crossed in person for the final time at an international conference on Benjamin in Amsterdam in 1997, where he delivered a characteristically impassioned keynote address. In it, Steiner repeated in slightly altered form what he had written to me when his book on translation was in press in 1973: “I’m arrogant enough to hope that After Babel is a tiny footnote to Benjamin’s essay.”46
Steiner’s unflagging admiration for Benjamin, who perhaps em-bodied as no one else his ideal of European Jewish cosmopolitan genius against the backdrop of civilizational catastrophe, leads me to wonder in conclusion what insight into his legacy might follow from measuring him against the models of Jewish intellectual types I posited in a recent essay comparing Benjamin with Isaiah Berlin.47 The most suggestive in capturing the difference between them had been introduced by Susan Sontag in her 1963 essay on Albert Camus: “Great writers are either husbands or lovers. Some writers supply the solid virtues of a husband: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the gifts of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than moral goodness. Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover—moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality—they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling.” Camus, she argued was “the ideal husband of modern literature,” whereas Sartre was the quintessential “lover.”
Where might George Steiner be placed along this metaphoric spectrum, where Berlin was a typical “husband” and Benjamin a quint-essential “lover”? Insofar as an answer depends not only on the writer’s work but on his life—or at least what has become part of the public re-cord—Steiner would seem closer to intellectual “husband.” His marriage to Zara Steiner, herself an acclaimed European diplomatic historian, lasted sixty-five years until their deaths only ten days apart in February, 2020. They successfully raised two children, David and Deborah, who became distinguished academics in their own right, the former currently the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, the latter the chair of the Classics Department at Columbia. From my own interactions with the Steiners over the years, I can affirm the observation recently made by one of her former students: “she provided this prickly and mischievous man with the ideal marital and domestic base from which to conduct his sorties into the enemy camps and she softened the impact of his conversational sallies on others.”48 And she did so without apparent resentment. For while Steiner could occasionally indulge in misogynist sentiments of the “why have there been no great women in (fill in the blank)?” variety, he clearly made room in his domestic life for a spouse whose own career could flourish. So unlike Benjamin, whose multiple romantic adventures often began with passion but ended badly, Steiner provided no literal evidence of a lover’s “moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality.”
Likewise, while never being as fully accepted into the Establishment as Isaiah Berlin, Steiner also carved out a prominent place in the world of mainstream cultural institutions, both academic and popular, and reveled in the many awards and distinctions he earned over the years. Although not in much danger of becoming “Sir George,” he and Berlin, despite their personal animosity, were clearly mandarins who had amassed enormous cultural capital. In 1994, to take one example, the enfant terrible who had failed to land a professorship in Cambridge and was compelled to settle for a chair in Geneva, was honored as Oxford’s first George Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature. The qualities, moreover, that Sontag attributed to the intellectual “husband”– reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency—were ones Steiner by and large exhibited. And for all his sensitivity to aesthetic form, he broadcast the moral earnestness that is so often exuded by models of connubial fidelity, literal or metaphorical.
And yet, in important ways, Steiner’s appeal, at least as it exerted itself on me during my apprentice years, was more that of an intellectual “lover.” Unlike Berlin, who recoiled from what he called “the terrible twisted Mitteleuropa in which nothing is straight, simple, truthful, all human relations and all political attitudes are twisted into ghastly shapes by these awful casualties who, because they are crippled, recognize nothing pure and firm in the world,”49 Steiner defiantly embraced his crippled status—both literal and metaphorical—and refused to run from impurity and instability. Both in life and work, he willingly dwelt in the risky limbo of unresolved paradox. The cultural mandarin who sought to mentor the masses, the unrepentant elitist who appreciated the virtues of para-Marxist critique, the unapologetic Jew who defied the conventional norms of his community, the Kulturpessimist whose default mood was affirmative celebration—Steiner could be forgiven many of his flaws “in return,” as Sontag put it, “for excitement, an infusion of intense feeling.”
Perhaps nowhere in his oeuvre did the temperature rise higher than in his incessant belaboring of the troubling question he first posed in Language and Silence: “what are the links, as yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy and the temptations of the inhuman?”50 You can still hear him rehearsing the issue in a talk he gave in 2013 on You Tube called “The Humanities Don’t Humanize.”51 His inability to move beyond this particular obsession was, however, more than just a personal quirk. In a slightly different idiom, it echoed the disturbing contention of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment that civilization and barbarism were inextricably intertwined and “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”52 The ironic poignancy of Steiner’s love affair with high culture was a result of his acute sensitivity to its dark side, indeed his candid acknowledgment of its attraction. As he put it in the preface to Language and Silence, “my own consciousness is possessed by the eruption of barbarism in modern Europe.”53 Being so possessed, he understood from within that humanist high culture not only failed as a prophylactic against that eruption, but may well be complicit with it. For all his extraordinary learning and analytic acumen, Steiner never found a way to transcend what, to repurpose the famous phrase of Georg Simmel, was “the tragedy of culture.”54 As a dramatic genre, tragedy may have died in the Godless modern age, as Steiner had argued in his first major work, but in the larger cultural sense, it haunted his extraordinary career until the end.