University hails the prodigal it turned away 42 years ago

AT SIX O'CLOCK yesterday evening, a slight but perceptible tremor ran through the world of academia. Oxford University forgave.

Such events do not happen lightly or speedily. This act of reconciliation took 42 years. It was in 1952 that a 22-year-old philosopher and Rhodes Scholar, George Steiner, was told that the subject of his dissertation did not officially exist.

He delivered the most effective rejoinder. He hotfooted it to Cambridge where for years he has gloried in the title of Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College. But yesterday, at the age of 65, he was welcomed back to Oxford, and in the imposing university examination halls he gave the inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature.

He began: 'What a very corny novella life is. It was in this building that my DPhil was turned down.' Then he proceeded on an hour's survey of literary history and links between literature and art; a lyrical delivery, with every sentence rich in imagery.

The atmosphere was that curiously powerful mixture of intellectual and emotional energy that a charismatic lecturer can radiate, spiced with the anticipation of an audience of more than 1,000 undergraduates and invited guests.

And when Steiner sat down to the sort of rousing applause that normally greets a stage performer, dons, students and friends including Lord Weidenfeld and Lord and Lady Menuhin murmured ahout a 'homecoming', a 'prodigal son' and a 'rare excitement'.

Which on the face of it was all rather odd, for this was the culmination of a dispute that can have touched very few lives directly and attracted little attention from academics, let alone the wider public.

The story is this: in 1952 Steiner, a Rhodes scholar from Chicago and Harvard and a believer then as now in European- wide study, submitted a doctoral dissertation on comparative European literature. The late Dame Helen Gardner, the doyenne of Oxford's literary establishment, told him the subject did not exist at the university. 'One day it may well arrive here,' she said, 'but right now it is not in the rubric.'

Steiner left for Cambridge and Geneva and has maintained an Olympian reputation as a philosopher, literary theorist and critic. Tensions between him and the academic establishment have continued and he remains outspoken against egalitarianism in culture, seeing, for example, rock music as 'a seismic break in the history of consciousness, a triumph of death'. He once said: 'I've no right to say to anyone you should read Aeschylus and not Joan Collins, no right whatever. And yet I do. No right but a despotic, unarguable, Neronian conviction.'

His new chair has been donated by Lord Weidenfeld, and Steiner will be based at St Anne's College, whose principal, Ruth Deech, is another champion.

She said after last night's lecture: 'This has generated an excitement I've not noticed previously. There's a sense of coming home. He hasn't changed positions, but the intellectual world has moved closer to him.'

Professor Steiner, feted at Oxford at last, left the podium to go to a reception and dinner. 'It is all a great delight to me,' he said. 'I don't resent what happened to me when I was at Oxford. And I should think if Helen Gardner is up there watching, she's probably smiling.'

An art of understanding, page 18

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable