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)

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment