University hails the prodigal it turned away 42 years ago

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The Independent Online
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)