George Steiner: Teaching in the age of mockery

George Steiner, prophet and polymath, has inspired students and readers for 50 years. He tells Boyd Tonkin why a 'fascism of vulgarity' threatens the future of learning
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As our interview ends, George Steiner moves to the bookshelves in his sunny Cambridge sitting-room and retrieves two simple, sacred objects - relics, almost. The first, a plain visiting card, carries a wedding greeting to Steiner's Viennese parents: it bears the names of "Frau und Dr Freud". The second, an elementary nursing manual in German, was owned by a young man in Prague with a professional interest in social-welfare issues. He inscribed the flyleaf in sloping capitals with a stray full stop after the signature: a one-in-a-million quirk, a psychologist told Steiner. This book belonged to "F.KAFKA.".

It now belongs to G. Steiner, thanks to an early landmark in this tirelessly eloquent humanist's 50-year career as a teacher, "one way or another". That anniversary prompted the reflections on the bonds between teachers and learners in Steiner's Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard last year, now published as Lessons of the Masters (Harvard University Press, £13.50). "Overwhelmed" by the honour, Steiner name-checks the modern masters who mounted the Norton podium before him: "I do not regard myself as of the world of Stravinsky, Eliot, Borges and Calvino: the all-time greats." He insists that "those of us who are not major creators - who are critics, editors, teachers, translators, commentators - have this fantastic privilege of carrying the mail. That's for me the central image: it comes from Pushkin." Long before his stint in the Harvard limelight, however, he had grasped that the mail-delivery of teaching might bring peril as well as privilege.

In the late 1950s, with the Czechs still gripped by the ice age of Stalinism, Steiner travelled to Prague to lecture, ostensibly on the safe topic of American Socialist Realist novels. No one, so it seemed, had turned up. The organiser made his apologies, and offered Steiner a drink; the inevitable minder from the secret police trudged off into the wintry night. Only then was Steiner taken down into a cellar bar, where a packed crowd awaited a lecture on the banned works of Kafka. A decade later, during Dubcek's doomed Prague Spring, the Czechs made of Kafka's handbook a present for their cloak-and-dagger master.

Disciples will know not to expect a cosy lesson when Steiner examines the subject of teaching. Over 40 years, in resonant and contentious works such as The Death of Tragedy, Language and Silence, After Babel and In Bluebeard's Castle, the critic, scholar and thinker ("theorist" is a term he reserves strictly for the hard sciences) has flown about the cultural world like a polymathic stormy petrel - a soaring, swooping bringer of bad news. Fuelled by the lost Jewish heritage of Central Europe that Freud and Kafka both enriched, this "child of the time of the Holocaust" has executed dazzling flights of prophecy and polemic. Steiner has explored the kinship of modern culture and modern barbarism; the exhaustion of the arts in a time of science triumphant; the West's loss of faith not just in divinity, but in humanity; and the debasement of language and learning in a consumer society. All those forces conspire, his lectures argue, to undermine not only traditional relations between teachers and students, but the idea of authority itself.

"It's not so much the age of gentility that's over," he says, always courteous, but always forceful, a public speaker even one-to-one: "It is, in my opinion, the age of respect, of deference. We are in a time when the notion of a certain kind of respect for a teacher, a master, is almost ridiculous."

In the place of learning, lucre rules: "There is now a fascism of vulgarity," thunders Steiner. "For shorthand, I call it Berlusconism." Bright graduates hanker to fill their boots, and not their minds: "There is a contempt for the life of the mind on the part of money. Money has an enormous voice. It has never spoken louder."

Great teachers, Lessons of the Masters suggests, will always upset the apple-carts of power. Masters conduct lightning; act as vectors of shock as much as stimulus. Steiner begins his journey with Socrates and Jesus, killed when their wisdom affronted convention: "Those two terrible deaths between them determine Western intellectual, moral and psychological history." In a characteristic white-knuckle ride of the intellect, the book then rattles through Dante and Augustine, Renaissance astronomers and versions of the Faust story, to Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heidegger, the mysticism of Zen and Hasidic masters, the follies of "political correctness" (a familiar Steiner bugbear) and even (a far from usual theme) the methods of the legendary American football coach, Knut Rockne.

Behind all Steiner's examples stand three types of the master-pupil relationship: rebellion or betrayal by the learner; destruction of the student by the teacher; and the reciprocal partnership, "erotic" in a spiritual sense, that seals true learning: "Woken, that exasperating child in the back row may write the lines, may conjecture the theorem that will busy centuries."

Steiner worries that those transforming moments of communion may vanish for good in an "age of irreverence". "Something perhaps irreplaceable is being destroyed," he laments. For example, he frets that "the fear of blackmail" haunts university corridors where male teachers feel obliged to keep doors open with women students. Of course, he registers that in the past "the blackmail went the other way", as the taught had silently to endure the teacher's abusive power. Now, he believes that the "tidal wave of gifted young women" flowing into higher education has shifted the balance of trust, and of risk. "Philip Roth calls them the Furies, the Maenads, the Bacchic women who come asking for vengeance for what they feel has been a long period of exploitation and patronising. And hatred springs of being patronised, quite legitimately."

He adds that "there may be a deeper crisis at work". These days, "the humanities are under extreme pressure of doubt". The transmitter of high culture will look like a mere pedant (if not a paedophile): "The mockery, the metaphysics of 'Come off it!', have placed those who teach in the humanities utterly on the defensive. Perhaps deservedly so." After all, "There was a treason of the clerics. That's what my books are about. There was a failure of the humanities to stem barbarism in our time. There's not very much we can be proud of. Given that defensiveness, and given the acid edge of the young - their very fine nose for all that is spurious and hypocritical - it has become a very difficult relationship."

Steiner's first teacher was his father. Born in Paris in 1929, he grew up at home in French, German and English, learning Greek at six to find out what happened in Homer's Iliad. He spent his childhood in France rather than Vienna because his father - a banker by necessity, a voracious scholar by choice - felt a cold wind blowing from the future for the Jews of Austria. On a trip to New York, he decided to stay. According his lovely mosiac of a memoir, Errata, Steiner himself first felt the divine spark of instruction when he lit up Joyce's "The Dead" for former-GI fellow-students at the University of Chicago: "I knew now that I could invite others into meaning."

Since those Chicago days, Steiner the inspirational master has drunk, if not the cup of hemlock offered Socrates, then at least the bitter brew of intellectual isolation. His doctoral thesis at Oxford was, at first, rebuffed, and he (happily) wrote leaders for The Economist. A good journalist's flair for the snappy epigram survives as his prose scythes through the toughest thickets of metaphysical speculation. Although Steiner became a founding fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge (and has never left), this facility did him little good in academic politics. With an exotic range of interests that mocked disciplinary divides, he struck many as a peacock in a chicken coop. As his global renown as a supreme diagnostician of modern culture grew, so he came to look beleaguered in Cambridge itself.

"The charismatic teacher is a discomfort to his colleagues," Steiner says, speaking in the abstract: "He is not a good team player." He hit his own summit as a teacher amid not fens, but peaks. In Geneva, he taught an invigorating seminar for 25 years: "Those Thursday mornings were as near as an ordinary, secular spirit can come to Pentecost." In 1994, he returned to Oxford as professor of comparative literature.

After all Steiner's wanderings, one Old English loyalty does remain: not the dons, but the sheepdogs. Ben shaggily greets visitors to the Steiners' home. A canine predecessor, along with his master, adorns the cover of a new Festschift from Gallimard in Paris. One memorable passage in Errata explains how wanton cruelty to children and animals paradoxically brings Steiner the reluctant agnostic closer to belief. How? The shaming rage and desolation ("a hot blackness") stirred by the beaten child, the tortured animal, seem to arrive from elsewhere, inklings of a "broken contract".

In contrast to the bully's or the tyrant's breach of faith, honourable teaching trusts the pupil to outgrow the master. "There comes a moment when the disciple bids you farewell," he says; when a teacher intuits: "This young man or woman is abler than I am, will go beyond me... Please believe me, that is the supreme reward in the teaching relationship." Steiner's own disciples (as Errata reveals) have sometimes forsaken him. Institutions, and a wider culture of cool postmodernism, have often kept his passionate advocacy and admonition at arm's length. In person, as in print, he can sound at once impossibly proud and touchingly humble.

Both pride and humility arise from a conviction of the majesty, even mystery, of great art and ideas. After half a century, the mail-carrier wears his uniform with pride, dismissing the postmodernist's arrogance in front of the mystery of creation. "I know this has made my position a marginal, and certainly disliked, one. But if Nietzsche - Nietzsche - can speak of Tristan and Isolde as the real mysterium tremendum, then little Mr Steiner need have no illusions."

Biography

George Steiner was born to Viennese parents in Paris in 1929. The family moved to New York in 1940, where he attended the French Lycée, and then studied at Chicago, Harvard and Oxford universities. He worked for The Economist in London and, after a period as a fellow at Princeton, became a founding fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1961. He later became professor of comparative literature at Geneva, and then Oxford. His books include The Death of Tragedy, Language and Silence, After Babel, Extraterritorial, In Bluebeard's Castle, Antigones, Real Presences and Grammars of Creation. He has also written fiction, The Portage to San Cristobal of AH and The Deeps of the Sea, and a memoir, Errata. This week, Harvard publishes his Charles Eliot Norton lectures as Lessons of the Masters. George Steiner is a commander of the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres. Married to the historian Zara Steiner (they have two children), he lives in Cambridge.

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