Few critics of his generation had as great an impact as George Steiner. During the forty years between the late 1950s and the end of the 1990s he opened up the insular world of British and American literary culture to European writers and thinkers, especially from central Europe.
“A door was flung open on what had been there all the time, at our backs, namely, our European heritage,” said John Banville in an interview in The Guardian Saturday Review in 1991. “He told us not to be cowed by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.” In his memoir, Errata, Steiner wrote, “A number of essays introduced to English-speaking readers the Frankfurt School, the writings of Walter Benjamin, of Ernst Bloch, of Adorno, which have, since, become a critical-academic industry.” “I have sought to press on my students and readers … that which is ‘other’, which puts in doubt the primacy of household gods.” The echo of TS Eliot’s After Strange Gods is not an accident.
There’s a fascinating story elsewhere in Errata when Steiner describes calling on the Oxford don Humphry House:
I am filled with the spirit of the export trade. I love to do business with the big importing houses of the world … and I know that when the day comes when we can better understand one another and realize that, after all, the race is one, with fundamental interests identical, we will usher in the millennium.
It’s an intriguing encounter. The image of the door is worth dwelling on. House’s crushing put-down comes when Steiner was “already at the door.” On his way in or on his way out? Or neither? Perhaps just there, never quite welcome inside. And what does that word “dazzling” mean? It’s an image of Steiner that clung to him throughout his career. A little too clever, not reliable when it comes to scholarly detail, but perhaps also a little foreign, maybe too Jewish.
Steiner dedicated his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), to House. The book is a kind of declaration. Two years later came The Death of Tragedy. Shakespeare and Byron, but also Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Ibsen, Hugo and Kleist. And all this time, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was writing the essays that were collected as Language and Silence (1967). It was his breakthrough book, full of references to Kafka and Thomas Mann, Broch, Wittgenstein and Brecht, Nietzsche, Rilke and Schoenberg, German-speaking, born around the turn of the twentieth century, a whole culture that had never crossed the White Cliffs of Dover. Perhaps Steiner’s greatest achievement was to introduce these figures to the British mainstream, a new cultural canon.
In an essay on Borges in The New Yorker, Steiner wrote of his “disdain of anchor.” Where was Steiner’s “anchor”? One answer comes in Real Presences: “In Kafka’s prose, in the poetry of Paul Celan or of Mandelstam, in the messianic linguistics of Benjamin and in the aesthetics and political sociology of Adorno…”
The brilliance of the intellectual and modernist avant-garde in central Europe between the 1880s and 1930s was one of his great subjects. Jewish, urban, from “the inner capitals of the 20th century,” the Budapest of Lukács, the Paris of Lévi-Strauss and Sartre, the Prague of Roman Jakobson and Kafka, the Berlin of Benjamin and Brecht, the Vienna of Freud, Kraus, Mahler and Wittgenstein. For Steiner, the flowering of European culture in the early 20th Century was coterminous with post-emancipation Jewish culture: Marxism, psychoanalysis, and much of modern physics and mathematics, philosophy, modernism and what he called “the language revolution.”
What is striking about these names is how many of them are Jewish. Look at the essays in Language and Silence: on Kafka, “Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron,” Claude Lévi-Strauss and Georg Lukács, Steiner himself, “A Kind of Survivor.”
In British post-war culture, George Steiner broke the silence about the Holocaust. He was the first major critic to do so, both in his fiction, first in Anno Domini in 1964 and later, famously, in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in his books and essays. Think of the Foreword to the 1969 Pelican Edition of Language and Silence. On the first page:
Underlying these essays is the belief that literary criticism, if it is to be of any genuine interest at all and other than glorified book-reviewing, … ought to accept as its essential provocation the fact – to me scandalous in the deepest sense – of the coexistence in one time and place of “high culture” and political bestiality.
Implicit in Language and Silence is the legacy, syllabus if you will, of that Central European humanism, c. 1860-1930, which Nazism and Stalinism all but obliterated. In so far as it looks back on a lost world, this book is unashamedly an act of remembrance, an effort, personal and limited, to keep certain names and habits of feeling alive.
In particular, his writing is haunted by the relationship between civilisation and barbarism in 20th century Europe. In his book on Heidegger he writes, “I have sought to formulate certain questions about the interactions between, the interpretations of, artistic, philosophic, and scientific achievements on the one hand, and the totalitarian barbarisms of the twentieth century on the other. To ask such questions is to revert, obsessively perhaps, to the relations between German culture and Nazism…”
In a book of interviews, A Long Saturday, published late in his career, he tells the interviewer,
the death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilizations of Russia and Europe, from the very center of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance.
A new European canon, the role of Jews in modern culture, the relationship between modern barbarism, the Holocaust and Stalinism, and modern culture: all of this was Steiner’s legacy and he made these ideas matter to Anglo-American readers.
But why was Steiner able to reach such a large audience? Let’s go back to Language and Silence. First published by Faber and Faber in England, then in paperback by Pelican. Most of his influential books were published by Penguin, Faber and Weidenfeld and Nicolson. After Babel(1975), his seventh book, was his first to be published by a university press. He was part of that generation of British intellectuals, along with EJ Hobsbawm and AJP Taylor, who reached a huge audience through paperbacks.
Many of the essays in Language and Silence were originally published in “general interest” magazines: Commentary, Encounter, The Listener, The New York Times Book Review and The TLS. His writing was accessible. Old-fashioned, no jargon or Theory. He wrote what some called the higher journalism. It is worth remembering that Steiner began as a journalist, writing for The Economist for “four magnificent years” in the early 1950s. The Economist sent him to Princeton to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. Their meeting led to an invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the beginning of his academic career. But the years on a magazine staff were always an important source.
Later, in the 1960s, Steiner became the leading book reviewer for The New Yorker. 134 articles over more than thirty years, most of them reviews or review-essays. The range was typical: Webern and Vienna, Borges and Beckett, Karl Kraus and Céline. His third main journalistic home was the London Sunday Times, where the range was comparably broad.
Part of Steiner’s impact, then, came from the fact that his major books were published in widely circulated and widely read paperbacks and the audience he reached through newspapers and magazines was, for decades, stirred by his learning and his provocative forays into unfamiliar territory. But there was also one other media home for Steiner, television and radio, especially in Britain. He appeared on the best-known British radio programmes: Start the Week, Private Passions and Desert Island Discs. In 1986 he published a short story about Desert Island Discs in Granta, a clever spoof on one of Britain’s most popular radio programmes.
But it was through television that Steiner reached his largest audience. His first major programmes were The Tongues of Men (1977), a BBC TV series based on his book, After Babel (1975), and then in 1978, Has Truth a Future?, the first annual Bronowski Memorial Lecture for the BBC. These programmes introduced two of Steiner’s great themes: language and science, but, perhaps more important, they also introduced his very distinctive style: provocative, erudite, wide-ranging. His Bronowski lecture was peppered with references to Thales, Archimedes and Plato, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, Clausius and Kelvin. There was that ever so slightly foreign accent, the owlish spectacles, the passionate delivery.
Again, the context was important. Steiner was one of a number of Jewish émigré intellectuals who regularly appeared on television and radio after the war, among them Steiner, Isaiah Berlin, Jacob Bronowski and Hans Keller. There was a notable shift in post-war culture from very English dons like Humphrey House and FR Leavis to these new outsiders speaking about all these foreign thinkers and challenging ideas.
There was something else about these two early programmes. Both featured Steiner on his own: presenting a two-part documentary and a lecture delivered to camera. But I first heard the authentic Steiner voice in a TV discussion in the early 1980s. Steiner was discussing Art, Repression and Freedom on a Channel 4 programme called Voices with Al Alvarez, Joseph Brodsky and Mary McCarthy. John Naughton, the TV critic for The Observer, later wrote,
One evening, I watched, mesmerised, as George fluently extemporised for ten whole minutes – without notes, hesitation or much repetition – on the question of whether an authoritarian political system can produce more artistic creativity than the “free” west.
My review included a riff on a literary phenomenon – the Steiner sentence – a formidable expressive work that came, perfectly formed, with an ancillary apparatus of footnotes, subordinate clauses and scholarly asides…
Naughton was right. Steiner’s delivery was fascinating. But what was really exciting was the nature of the debate. Steiner’s thesis was typically provocative. He expressed it in a later article in The New Statesman: “Serious literature, music and thought have the exasperating habit of being productive under tyranny. ‘Censorship is the mother of metaphor,’ said Borges. … Freedom and licence can bestow insignificance (what poem could have shaken the White House as Mandelstam’s epigram shook Stalin?).”Of course in Brodsky he had met his match. Brodsky was passionately opposed to Steiner’s argument. His response was short and devastating: “Yes, but liberty is the greatest masterpiece.” It was all about the contrast in styles, Steiner moving from name to name, anecdote to anecdote, constantly weaving, on the move. Brodsky the greater artist, was rock-solid, his argument grounded in his own experience of Soviet Communism and exile. Both men were at their peak.
The Brodsky programme was broadcast in 1983. This was the beginning of a decade and a half when Steiner regularly appeared on late-night television talk programmes. He was enormously popular, his words debated, sometimes resisted, never ignored. British television, radio and newspapers were going through a revolution. They were becoming more relevant, more interested in new European cultural thinking. There was a new audience more receptive to Steiner’s ideas.
It wasn’t just the ideas, though. George Steiner brought an incomparable sense of drama to these discussions, a sense of encounter. I first met him over lunch in 1987 at The Three Horseshoes pub in Madingley near Cambridge. We were there to prepare a television discussion about Freud’s legacy I was producing. This time, Steiner would debate with Bruno Bettelheim. Steiner leaned forward over lunch and in hushed, reverent tones he told me that this pub was where IA Richards had supervised William Empson. These tutorials led to Empson’s masterpiece, Seven Types of Ambiguity.
What Steiner called “classics of encounter” is one of his great recurring images. The phrase comes from Errata, where he describes RP Blackmur’s “meditations on Henry James” as “classics of encounter.” Repeatedly, he cites Osip Mandelstam’s readings of Dante, Karl Barth glossing Romans, Celan’s meeting with Heidegger. He writes of “the hotel Zum Storchen where Nelly Sachs met with Paul Celan, occasioning, in the shared after-death of the Holocaust, one of the indispensable poems in the German language.” Always for George the thrill of encounters. “Hannah Arendt sought out the disgraced Heidegger [Heidegger, again] after the war.” Brod’s friendship with Kafka began with just such an encounter in 1903. Scholem and Benjamin first met in 1915. Benjamin was twenty-three and Scholem was seventeen. In his essay on Scholem, Steiner writes, “What kept the dialogue going through thick and thin, what gives it enduring stature, were the successive discussions of Kafka.”
And, of course, there are Steiner’s own encounters. For example, with Gershom Scholem. “We met in Berne at the very café-table which he had frequented with Walter Benjamin.” In Scholem’s study in Zurich, “dark with late afternoon,” “he showed me a photocopy of a tract, newly unearthed in Salonika, proving, as he had boldly conjectured, that a lineage of Sabbatarian heresy had survived covertly almost into modern times.” It is this that makes his memoir Errata and his book, Lessons of the Masters, so fascinating. Both bring this sense of an encounter, between teacher and pupil, sometimes poisonous with envy or race-hatred, to life.
All these encounters took place between 1903, when Kafka met Brod, and 1967, when Celan went to Todtnauberg to see Heidegger. When Steiner wrote of coming after, he meant coming after these encounters. For him, what followed was decline.
In the 1987 programme Steiner and Bruno Bettelheim were to debate Freud’s legacy. The presenter was Michael Ignatieff, and the for-mat was similar in style to Steiner’s debate with Brodsky. Again, Steiner was constantly on the move, erudite, superficially polite and deferential, but in no doubt that he was the cleverer of the two men. Bettelheim, like Brodsky, was still, impassive, full of an inner certainty, based, again like Brodsky, on experience.
Steiner conceded that there was something of value in Freud’s legacy. “The influence is enormous, all-pervasive.” But the reservations are profound. Did Freud over-sexualise the unconscious. “Oh, fantastically. Fantastically.” “How much more do we know about sibling rivalry than was known to the authors of the Old Testament and of Esau and Jacob? How much more do we know about children and parents than was known to Shakespeare when he wrote King Lear?” Through the discussion, Steiner argued that in many ways the whole Western tradition of self-reflection has been curiously diminished by the Freudian contribution, whereas Bettelheim argued that this is the tradition Freud left immeasurably enriched. Steiner drew on literature and cultural reference, Bettelheim on clinical experience.
Later that summer, we met again. This time we were to discuss a programme about the Holocaust. I was producing a ninety-minute TV discussion to accompany the first British broadcast of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Again, the presenter was Michael Ignatieff and the guests were Lanzmann, Steiner, the Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, the British writer Frederic Raphael and the Polish historian, Maciej Jachimczyk.
The programme began with a lengthy interview with Lanzmann about the film. The subsequent discussion was intense and passionate. There were several reasons. First, the studio air conditioning wasn’t working. It was a very hot September afternoon and tempers rose with the heat in the studio. Secondly, Lanzmann was convinced that Steiner had not seen the film so that there was a current of hostility between the two men throughout. Lanzmann had told me the night before that if he discovered that Steiner had not seen his film, he would walk out. But it was Steiner who erupted during the discussion, provoked by Lanzmann’s criticisms of the Poles during the Holocaust:
I find this almost unbearable as a discussion. Forgive me. Almost unbearable… I was from Paris. It was our concierge, who informed the Gestapo first who the Jews were and how to get them. To say that Treblinka could have been only in Poland, God perhaps can say.
Jewishness and the Holocaust have always been at the heart of Steiner’s work. For Steiner, the Holocaust is the unspoken secret chamber in European culture, the moment “when European history stood at midnight.” But he was never very interested in film. Susan Sontag had been due to take part in this discussion but had to drop out at short notice. She would have been entirely at home talking about Shoah as cinema. She would have compared Lanzmann as a filmmaker with Syberberg, Ophuls or perhaps even Leni Riefenstahl. But this Steiner was not disposed to do.
A year later, in 1988, we met when Steiner appeared on a BBC programme, The Late Show with Clive James, to discuss why so many leading writers and thinkers embraced inhuman ideas. Other participants included the critic, Christopher Ricks, and Sartre’s French biographer, Annie Cohen-Solal. The subject is another of the big questions that runs through Steiner’s work. As he wrote about Céline soon after, “Does aesthetic creativity, even of the first order, ever justify the favorable presentation of, let alone, systematic incitement to, inhumanity? Can there be literature worth publication, study, critical esteem which suggests racism, which makes attractive or urges the sexual use of children?”
The same problem recurs in George’s work on Heidegger, where he considers “the central paradox of the co-existence in Heidegger of a philosopher of towering stature and of an active partisan in barbarism.” In his essay, Heidegger : In 1991, he listed other examples:
Voltaire’s Jew-hatred was rabid. The racism of Frege was of the blackest hue. Sartre not only sought to evade or find apologia for the world of the Gulag; he deliberately falsified what he knew of the insensate savagery of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China.
Steiner returned to a few of these figures again and again. Heidegger, of course. “[I]t is Heidegger’s silence post-1945 rather than the opaque and pathetic rhetoric of 1933-34 which challenges our understanding.” “But the thinker of Being found nothing to say of the Holocaust and the death-camps.”
Eliot’s antisemitism, the subject of his exchange with Ricks, led to a fierce exchange with the poet and critic, Craig Raine, in The London Review of Books in June and July 1989. It is worth quoting Steiner’s response to Raine at some length:
Notes Towards a Definition of Culture continues to strike me as an often frigid, innerly confused text. To approach the theme of any such redefinition within the immediate wake of the Holocaust without addressing that event, without seeking to elucidate its possible roots within European civilisation and Christendom, without examining the very notion of culture in the light (in the absolute dark) of the new barbarism, remains either frivolous or worse. For Eliot to do so when his earlier sympathies with certain aspects of European reactionary sensibility were fully known, and, by 1948, deeply embarrassing, remains a challenging, saddening puzzle. The footnote in the original version which I referred to only makes matters much uglier. … But the issue is not, of course, the footnote or Craig Raine’s little games with it. It is the central silence in Eliot on culture, on European civility, on the future of poetry and thought, in respect of the Auschwitz world. That silence utterly perplexes me and the comparison with Heidegger’s – another man of eminent genius but of the most conservative and ‘masked’ political tenor – is perfectly admissible…
Eliot’s distaste for Jews and Judaism is undisguised in his poetry and in such seminal statements as the 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (not reissued, of course). Eliot’s covering of his tracks when anti-semitism had, via the Holocaust, become inhumanly debasing does invite the adjective ‘feline’ (he was, after all, a virtuoso in regard to cats). For Eliot, the Jew remained an anarchic, opaquely troubling agent of incoherence in what should be the Europe of Virgil, of Dante and of the great Anglo-Catholic poets and thinkers. I have stated time and again that such a view is perfectly legitimate and in need of serious debate. The notorious passages in Eliot’s poetry, the silence in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the truly dismaying attempts by Eliot to suppress his After Strange Gods and to tinker with the footnote which I cited to Professor Ricks, are no contribution to any such discussion.
The dynamic was familiar. Steiner was never interested in the presenters, though Al Alvarez, Michael Ignatieff and Clive James were all interesting figures in their own right. It was always clear that his main opponent was the best-known figure on the panel: Brodsky, Bettelheim, Ricks.
There was something feline about Steiner’s style: outwardly polite, even respectful, but under the surface he was competitive, out to win. This is what gave these debates their electric charge. He began the discussion by pointing out that because Ricks had just flown in from Boston, he might not have had time to read a devastating review of his new book on TS Eliot.
Steiner could be a kind and generous man. But he had a dark side. Malice was his prize-winning essay at Oxford in 1952. One of his best essays, Invidia, is on literary envy. The essay was published in My Unwritten Books, in this case unwritten because “it came too near the bone.” “Twice,” he writes, “I have heard the phone-call from Stockholm ring in the office next door.” The office next door, like the doorway in House’s rooms, is a telling image.
Earlier this year there was an exchange of letters in The TLS about Steiner. Why was he never made a professor at Cambridge? Why did he remain a lifelong outsider in British academic culture, from that early encounter with House to his retirement? He was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Geneva for twenty years, awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, invited to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard, though Cambridge never gave him a chair. Was it because of antisemitism? Was he just too Jewish? For others, the issue was simple. Steiner was too difficult, too “unclubbable.” The exchanges with Brodsky, Bettelheim, Lanzmann and Ricks gave a flavour of this. Brilliant and eloquent, but too provocative, too quick to give and take offence.
Our next television programmes together were both in 1992 for the BBC’s nightly arts and ideas programme, The Late Show (not to be confused with The Late Show with Clive James). The first was a discussion on the end of Communism, with Jacques Rupnik and Jacques Attali, broadcast on 13 April 1992. It was part of a group of programmes I produced with Michael Ignatieff on the end of Communism, following the fall of the Soviet regime. Others included interviews with Czeslaw Milosz and Isaiah Berlin.
This was just the sort of big history Steiner relished. Before we filmed the first programme, he and I met for lunch in Cambridge. The Maastricht Treaty was in the news. “Maastricht,” he said, “where D’Artagnan died.” For Steiner history was always about big dramatic moments. 1789, Dreyfus, the Fall of France, the Fall of the Wall. Moments of great historical crisis.
He had just published Proofs and Three Parables, a slim book of short stories. First published in Granta in 1991, Proofs is the story of an old Communist proof reader. In a way, it is a companion piece to B.B., his essay on Brecht in The New Yorker on 10 September 1990. Both are responses to the end of Communism in Europe. Steiner’s response was typically provocative. It is curiously elegiac, a lament for what was best and most civilised about the Communist dream.
His essay on Brecht begins with “The tumultuous throng,” pouring through the Berlin Wall. It “emptied the supermarkets and the video shops. Within hours there was neither fast food nor deodorants left. West Berlin emporiums were stripped of their ample supplies of soft- and sometimes hard-core porno video cassettes. T-shirts and jeans, a currency across the Wall in the days of the two Germanys, flew off the shelves.”
In the next paragraph, Steiner goes on to acknowledge,
The gains have been tremendous. Regimes of hideous stupidity, of corrupt despotism, of inefficiency beyond credence have been broken. Slowly, human beings east of Berlin and the Oder-Neisse are regaining their self-respect, their liberty of motion, their sense of a possible future. More slowly, but tangibly nonetheless, the hidden dimensions of the iceberg of past massacres, lies, sadistic charades are surfacing… Not since 1789 has Europe felt so alive, so inebriate with possibility. … The ancient bells of Prague and Krakówcan be heard across sombre but living ground.
Then another twist,
But there are losses. Marxism … felt committed to certain archaic, paternalistic ideals of high literacy, of literary-academic culture. Classic theatre and music, the publication of the classics flourished. … [M]uch of what is shoddiest in modernity in the media, in down-market entertainment was kept (partly) at bay… In the supermarket, Goethe is a lossmaker.
Proofs uses almost identical language:
Shots of teenagers from the east tumbling into West Berlin supermarkets, rocking in wonder before the shelves, emptying them in a sleep-walker’s sweep. Bright-tinted toothpaste, lacquer for toenails, soft toilet-paper in the hues of the rainbow, deodorants, tights finely meshed and stippled, jeans bleached or mended. … One of the lads mouthed his message straight into the bobbing mike: ‘Horror-films, man. Porno.’
The story also twists and turns. This movement in Steiner’s essay on Brecht and soon after in Proofs, reflects a larger tension about Communism in his writing. On the one hand, he consistently coupled Soviet terror with Nazism when he wrote about mid-20th century barbarism. He admiringly referred to Akhmatova, Pasternak, and a later generation of dissident writers, especially Solzhenitsyn. Few post-war literary critics wrote as often about Soviet barbarism.
On the other hand, Steiner often juxtaposed western, especially American, trash culture –fast food, porn, deodorants – with a sentimental nostalgia for Soviet high culture. Proofs ends with the old Communist rejoining the Party, “coming home.”
This raises the question of Steiner’s ambivalence not just about Communism, but about television. On the one hand, few literary critics embraced the medium as he did. He never turned down an invitation to appear. He was a superb broadcaster, at home in the TV studio. Fluent and erudite. The ideas poured out. On the other hand, he had contempt for trash culture. Whenever he wrote about television, he wrote about trash culture, “down-market entertainment,” “porn,” never about the programmes he made, his discussions with intellectuals like Ernest Gellner, Bettelheim and Brodsky, interviews he gave about Kafka and modernism.
In these programmes we made together during the 1980s and 1990s, Steiner talked about subjects that mattered to him: Freud and fin de siècle Vienna, the Holocaust, great writers who embraced evil and the end of Communism. By then, British television had caught up with him. A new culture had opened up on both sides of the Atlantic, less insular, more at home with European ideas. Steiner was still an outsider in the Cambridge English department but he was at home in the books pages of The New Yorker and The Sunday Times and the television and radio studios of the BBC. When the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was announced, BBC 2 interviewed Steiner live; when the Berlin Wall came down Granta, Faber and Faber and The Late Show wanted his views. And he delivered, accessibly—and, again, provocatively.
George Steiner played a huge part in changing post-war culture: in the breaking of the silence about the Holocaust; in the opening up of Anglophone culture to the culture and ideas of central European human-ism; and in facing up to the impact of barbarism in modern Europe on our culture. Steiner didn’t change between that encounter with House in 1952 and these programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. It was British culture that changed. It became receptive to his ideas. During these twenty years between his first TV programmes in the late 1970s and the late 1990s, he coincided with a particular moment in British culture. It embraced Steiner and a whole generation of critics and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, John Berger and Edward W. Said, Isaiah Berlin and EJ Hobsbawm.
George Steiner, sadly, has died. That larger cultural moment has passed also. At least in Britain. We will never again see a ninety-minute TV discussion about a film like Shoah or debates between figures like Steiner, Brodsky and Ernest Gellner.
When I heard that Steiner was desperately ill, I wrote to him. He replied straightaway: “Thank you for the beautiful letter. It means much to me. So many good memories. Too ill to write more.”