Tuesday, 16 November 2021

No 123 - Seriousness: George Steiner, literary giant


I thought, for once,
I had a chance to air a tribute to a great writer before his demise – but, as usual, I dithered, and lately discovered to my great sadness that George Steiner had died last year, aged 90.

 You’re unlikely to have encountered Steiner unless you’re pickled in literary criticism – and possibly not even then, since the academic establishment has had a habit of marginalising him at crucial times. This despite him fielding hundreds of reviews and public lectures, publishing some 40 books (only a handful of which I’ve read myself), and eventually holding some exceedingly prestigious posts at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Geneva.

 During my undergrad years, my beloved mentor Don Maclennan introduced me to Steiner’s 1975 magnum opus, After Babel. This is a daunting tome which, ostensibly about the problem of translation from one language to another, turns out to be so much more: an extended meditation on the phenomenon of language, on interpretation, on the slippery relationship between objects and the words that describe them, in the end on the nature of consciousness itself. I was instantly entranced by the opening pages, in which Steiner unpacks a longish passage from Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama, Cymbeline. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the play: it was the way Steiner showed how every word and sentence structure fizzes with its specific energy, history, and concatenations of meaning. He goes on to do the same with an extract from Jane Austen, revealing how her vocabulary and syntax was so specific to her eighteenth-century milieu, class and education that it is fundamentally impossible now to recreate in our own minds the fullness of her meanings. It is – to use one of his favourite words – incommensurable, never completely translatable, always slipping away into mystery – the mysteriousness of poetic creation itself. No neurological brain-scans can perceive how this facility operates.

 I was also blown away by Steiner’s own language-use: thick, metaphorical, laden with literary reference, slick. Every sentence was, is, a cultural education. If he name-dropped as densely as an encyclopaedia, it seemed to me not so much pretentious as authoritative. If he could bring into intimate proximity Homer, Goethe and Walter Benjamin, somehow you knew that he had actually read all three, in their original languages, thoroughly and with a penetrating understanding. Above all, he instantly convinced me of his seriousness. Unlike many popular polemicists, he was never playing intellectual games, but took the task of accurate, knowledgeable, and honest literary appreciation and cultural interpretation as vital to our very humanity. Even as a young and (he admits this) insufferably arrogant whippersnapper, he was openly intolerant of academic pomp and pretence. There would never be any hesitation in panning anyone’s sacred cows, so it’s little wonder that he was sometimes regarded warily. In our Honours course on Literary Theory, I remember professor Nic Visser sneering at Steiner as somehow behind the theoretical curve, but admitting a certain genius: “God, to be able to write like that!” But then Nic favoured Marxism, which Steiner dismisses as largely dangerous nonsense. I must have, in some half-baked instinctual way, agreed with Steiner: I ploughed through Nic’s photocopied reams of Marxist literary criticism, from Engels through Christopher Caudwell to Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, but – like cosmic rays passing invisibly through my body without disturbing a single cell – not an iota of it stuck. But Steiner: now here was someone whose eloquence and depth spoke to my very core.

 A certain dismissiveness persists. He is in various commentaries characterised as “literary critic”, which is right, but also absurdly narrow. There are few who could range as he did from linguistics to neurology (he nearly became a scientist), from writing on foreign affairs for the Economist to a book on Heidegger. He did, in retrospect, accuse himself of dabbling too widely, making certain over-hasty judgements, but – compared to a compulsive dilettante like me – even his dabbling has enormous and provocative weight. He knew enough to locate yawning gaps in scholarship and understanding, being fond of saying “we know nothing about” X or Y, concerning not the usual scholarly trivia, but the profoundest existential questions. (I took as epigraph to my novella The Flight of the Bat such a sentence from After Babel: “We have no history of the future tense.”)

 He is also routinely characterised as “French-American”, which doesn’t begin to describe this Euro-polyglot. True, he was born in Paris (just two weeks after my mother in April 1929): his Viennese-Jewish parents saw Nazism coming a long way off and got the hell out. And true, having moved again, he became an American citizen in 1944, and was later educated at Chicago (loved it) and Harvard (awful; they mutually vowed never to have anything to do with each other, though they still granted him a chair some forty years later). But he moved back to the UK and Switzerland, closer to his European roots; if he didn’t stay there, his beloved father said, Hitler would have won. Thus, “French” was only one touchstone in a man who also spoke English and German from childhood, and who became more than conversant with half a dozen further languages, from the Russian of Dostoyevsky to the Italian of Dante. The cultural richness he can thus draw on is fantastic. He deplores the snobbish monolingualism of so many Anglo-American academics, and of the extinction of so many of the world’s minor (but no less wonderful) languages by the global dominance of American English. The mythic splintering of the world’s languages “after Babel” he regards as engendering a manifold, irreplacable richness, even as it creates insuperable problems of cross-cultural understanding. It is among his abiding questions: How did that even happen? What is this universal “languaging” facility in humans that has spawned such cultural magnificence in literature, art (and above all for him) music? And how is it that such beauty can coexist with such cruelty and hate? As an inadvertent escapee of the Holocaust (he prefers Shoah), he repeatedly asks how an Auschwitz commandant could return home after a mass gassing of Jews and weep at a Schubert sonata.

 Perhaps the unflinching, even embarrassing acuity of such questions is what turns some away. The Wikipedia entry on his “Views”, for example, is exceedingly brief and feeble: fully a third is given over pruriently to a four-line quotation from his memoir, Errata (1997), about how he lost his virginity to a gentle prostitute (while ignoring pretty much all of the major ideas, including his lengthy condemnation elsewhere of pornography).

 I delayed writing this piece partly because I wanted to read Errata first; the rest of the work said remarkably little about him. Like some other readers, I was a little disappointed that Errata remained thin on the personal. It is mostly about the ideas that have coursed through his work, so there are compact discussions on translation, on his secular version of Jewishness, on language and music, and a characteristic whinge about the state of the academy, its “professionalisation” of mediocrity, the commercialised, shallow over-production of tens of thousands of unreadable theses. He is particularly scathing about the current predominance of “theory”, much of which he condemns as unreadable, even “mendacious”  posturing by “the circus folk of deconstructionism” which adds nothing to the appreciation of creative works themselves. Being rubbish at wielding theory myself, I’m inclined to concur. One reviewer sniffed that you would do better going to the other books to get these ideas’ full treatment, but Errata might equally serve as an introduction to them. (The other good way in would be Penguin’s A George Steiner Reader. Among its various extracts from the big works, is one from his only novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., which imagines Adolf Hitler re-discovered alive and well in the Amazon. Steiner seems to fancy he could/should have written more fiction – he did publish three volumes of short stories, which I haven’t read –  but I find Portage close to impenetrable.)

 In tiny snatches the life is revealed. An unspecified “car mishap” when driving with his wife Zara occurs, but only because Steiner wonders if his instinctive shout reveals a “first language”. (Inconclusive.) Something about old age provokes a numbing description: “a malodorous waste, an incontinence of mind and body made raw by the remembrance of the unfulfilled.” Ouch. He mentions his son and daughter just once each. Only in the closing chapters, when he pays tribute to various of his life’s teachers, do we get piercing and fond portraits of others, something verging on the anecdotal. (He can be quite anecdotal, slyly humorous, in his interviews on YouTube.)  Otherwise, he remains focused on the serious business, especially of teaching: “The signal reward for a teacher is to engage students whom he discovers to be abler than himself.” One of his mentors, R P Blackmur, he said, “let down by his poetry, burnished his prose to a pitch of obtrusive brilliance, of ornamentation so visible, so ‘palpably designed’ (Keats’ admonition) as to interpose itself between insight and object.” Some might say the same of Steiner’s own prose. It’s sometimes a relief to catch him writing a simple sentence.

 The concentration on education – his life-work, even more than criticism, which was being “a happy parasite” really – you might follow up in his book Lessons of the Masters (2003). Ranging across pedagogical encounters from Socrates to Schopenhauer, he drops lapidary thoughts to keep one thinking forever: “The pulse of teaching is persuasion ... and, optimally, collaborative dissent.” “Argument should end in poetry.” He worries that the age-old organic relationship between Teacher and Disciple is eroding in our age of internet and mass literacy; for all its power, it depersonalises: “Human fidelity, ... love and betrayal, are foreign to the electronic.” Perhaps. Personally, wedded to the face-to-face nature of ‘real’ teaching, I am so grateful to be spared having to teach via Zoom.

 Or one might pick up on his ubiquitous references to the great philosophers and read The Poetry of Thought (2011), in which he shows how thinkers, from Hellenism to the present, have used poetics to convey philosophic concepts. Plato formed fictional dialogues to pursue arguments; Nietzsche used the character of Zarathustra; Marx engaged constantly with literature; Merleau-Ponty wrote almost pure poetry. (I simplify horribly.) Again and again he returns to the primacy of the linguistic in forging human self-awareness, even though “The inherited fixities of vocabulary and syntax can never altogether bridge the gap between articulation and the flow and eddies of consciousness.” Because of that, Steiner believes, we in effect act constantly in what amounts to a state of religious faith, a belief, forever deferred, that we can articulate the world, that we can reach out to “real presences”, not just phantasms of our imaginations. Don Maclennan gave me his copy of Real Presences (1989), scored over with his wavering pencil lines and left-handed marginal ticks. Among the points he marked as worth attention: “I would define literature (art, music) as the maximalisation of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression”. Chew on that for a bit!

 So much more might be said of this “Platonic anarchist”, as he thought of himself. Much is arguable, but it would be facile to dismiss him as an outdated elitist. Steiner pursued excellence in all things, and so disdained those modes of political correctness which substitute easy slogans and a culture of complaint for the hard graft of creative reading and interpretation. Like the great literature he makes his stamping ground, he is worth going back to again and again. He has certain limits. He is European to the core: Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes scarcely register. Well, he has enough to work with. He does show signs of attending to more global, less literary concerns. He saw towards the end of his life some redeeming hope for humans in their increasing concern for animals and the natural environment. And Errata includes this passage, as good a summary of our planetary plight as any:

 All of us are guests of life. No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of its “thrownness” into the mystery of existence. Why is there not nothing? Why am I? We are guests of this small planet, of an infinitely complex, perhaps chancy weave of evolutionary processes and mutations which, at innumerable points, might have gone otherwise or witnessed our execution. As it has turned out, we are vandal-guests, laying waste, exploiting and destroying other species and resources. We are rapidly turning to poisonous garbage this uncannily beautiful, intricately adjusted environment, and even outer space. There are trash-bins on the moon. Inspired as it is, the ecological movement which, together with a nascent perception of the rights of children and of animals, is among the few lit chapters in our century, may have come too late.




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