Profile: Too clever by half: George Steiner: Blake Morrison on the intellectual who made Oxford think again after 42 years

Blake Morrison
Saturday 15 October 1994 23:02

'BUT is he nice?' What Alan Bennett calls the great English question is one people always ask about George Steiner. His intellect terrifies. His everyday conversation is intimidatingly packed with the names of Teutonic philosophers, poets, novelists and historians - Hegel, Heidegger, Heine, Herder, Holderlin, Hofmannsthal - which most of us in England have (guiltily) failed to read. The great insight on which his work rests is one that no arts faculty in the world can afford to ignore, since it questions the very notion of the word 'humanities': the events of this century, Steiner argues, show that literature, and the study of literature, not only do not humanise but may even dehumanise the cry of Cordelia drowning out the cry in the street. But if you tell people you've met him, all they want to know is: is he nice?

He would think the question neatly sums up what's wrong with England and why he has had his difficulties with the country where he has lived for 40 years. Not that he isn't perfectly nice, after a fashion: he has a classic Jewish Mittel- European courtesy, formal but eager, correct but also sinuous and self-interested, high-minded but a bit ingratiating, and not averse to gossip. At 65, he has the manner of a man who wants to be thought of as sweetly successful, mellow not bitter. But, even when he is at his most charming, something about him gets people's goat.

Last Tuesday evening Steiner delivered his inaugural lecture as the newly created Lord Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature in Oxford to a hall so packed that television monitors had to be placed outside. It was, by all accounts, a typically exhilarating, phrase-making performance, full of glittering particulars and windy, unprovable generalities. For Steiner, here was a triumphant return to, even a revenge on, the university that had once rejected him, and decorum was at war with a wish to crow about it. For it was in the same building 42 years ago that the postgraduate thesis that was to become his book The Death of Tragedy was turned down. Not that it was a bad thesis, he was told by the great Donne and Eliot scholar Helen (later Dame Helen) Gardner, but its approach was one of 'comparative literature', and in Oxford comparative literature did not exist as a subject. One day, said Dame Helen, it might. And so, Steiner (self-vindication mixed with politesse) told his audience last week, Dame Helen, as usual, was right.

Oxford and England have changed since Dame Helen's day. There is now, in theory, a greater openness to Euro-intellectuals such as Steiner, Umberto Eco, Claudio Magris, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Timothy Garton Ash. At this year's Salzburg festival, Steiner delivered a typically high-octane lecture on myths of Europe, moving from his now famous theme that nothing in the accomplishments of Goethe or Schubert, Pushkin or Tolstoy prevented a single moment in the Nazi or Soviet camps, to a diagnosis of the world since 1989: 'Nostalgias for both a fascist and communist past sicken the enfeebled democracies in both East and West. The very word Maastricht has become an obscure mockery of the stately dream of communitas . . . A grey tiredness, a sense of too much history overshadows European affairs . . . The maiden in the founding myth wears a cruel mask of sorcery; the gentle bull has become a minotaur of blood.'

This is archetypal Steiner, high drama verging on hysteria, high culture mixed in with contemporary politics. It is a heady mix, and it provokes suspicion. To the English sceptic, Steiner's oracular gifts, his irresistibility in debate, his self-proclaimed charisma undermine his claim to be taken seriously as a scholar.

His breadth, too - he speaks four languages fluently, trained as a scientist and mathematician, is at home in the Classics - provokes cries of 'charlatan' and 'bullshitter'. Certainly, not all specialists have welcomed Steiner's ventures into their patch. The Oxford Classics scholar Jonathan Barnes, brother of the more famous Julian, wrote a ferocious review of Steiner's Antigones, a book about language and Greek myth, accusing it of errors of research, solecisms, overblown phrases and interpretations. (Steiner, forgiving of, perhaps even attracted to, those who criticise him, recently helped Barnes to a post at the University of Geneva.) There was also the occasion of Sartre's death, when Steiner sent an obituary to the Sunday Times resting on the premise that Baudelaire, a giant of the last century, and Sartre, a giant of this, were buried in the same cemetery; a sub-editor happened to know that they were not. Even the title of Steiner's novel The Portage to San Cristobal has been questioned: since it is set in Brazil, a Portuguese- rather than Spanish- speaking country, why San Cristobal, not Sao?

THE STORIES are legion of how this great savant may not be so wise after all, but some reveal only a dismal little-Englander's desire to catch out the swanky foreigner, and even Steiner's most hostile critics think him a necessary, provoking force in our culture. Formidable in debate, he knows how to fight his corner. He makes little effort to conceal how unimpressed he is with contemporary English fiction. And though so far overlooked as a potential Reith lecturer, despite regular nominations, he has long had his title for the series ready: The Tiredness of England.

He was born into a bookish, affluent, trilingual family. His mother came from 'a highly cultured Viennese background'. His father, an international banker and lawyer, knew Freud and was a close friend of the historian Lewis Namier, who later in effect became George's godfather. In 1924 Steiner Senior saw already how the wind was blowing for the Jews of Central Europe, and moved from Vienna to Paris, where George was born five years later. In 1940 Paris ceased to be a haven and the Steiners moved to the US. At the Lycee in New York, young George mingled with some of Europe's most illustrious exiles. The Holocaust cast its shadow, though. All his Czech relations went to the gas chambers, and of his classmates at his Paris school only one other boy survived. 'One of the things my father taught me was: always have your bags packed.'

After a BA from Chicago and an MA from Harvard, he came as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, worked for four years at the Economist, (where he acquired journalistic skills that have come in handy since), then moved to Cambridge, to be a founding fellow of Churchill College. The scientific, philosophical and metaphysical climate of Cambridge should have suited his temperament, but there too he encountered trouble. When Graham Hough, a senior member of the English faculty, came to a lecture to assess Steiner's credentials to be made a university lecturer, and heard him quoting Adorno's 'No poetry after Auschwitz', he ostentatiously walked out: he had spent his war on the Siam death railway, he told colleagues, unlike this pampered young man. The lectureship was not given.

The rejection put Steiner in good company: the same thing had happened to Leavis, who stayed on at Cambridge while nursing a bitter wound and sense of martyrdom. But Steiner wasn't having that: 'I'm a Hegelian,' he says, 'taught to think and feel against myself. And for heaven sakes, there are jobs elsewhere. Think of Auerbach writing his great book Mimesis as a hunted refugee in a hotel room. I can't understand this English obsession. If they put you out in the rain, find a different umbrella.'

His umbrella was the University of Geneva, which offered him a post that he kept until retirement last March. Shelter of an even more lavish kind came from the New Yorker, which appointed him to succeed Edmund Wilson as chief book critic. He has never been poor.

That his tribulations in England over the years might have anything to do with anti-Semitism is 'the one thing I will not accept. Yes, I have felt an objection to what are sometimes called my 'Continental' ways. Perhaps in this country, battered as it is, someone like myself is an uncomfortable presence. English departments were among the last to admit Jewish professors, and there was a don here who used to preach how I couldn't have the 'inward' sense of 'loam and soil'. But I have met anti-Semitism in other countries. I know what it's like. This was more complex.'

Nowadays when he confronts his great theme - the burden of the writer 'coming after' and having to speak of the unspeakable - he refers invariably not to the 6 million Jewish dead in the Third Reich but the 70 million dead this century, in different conflicts worldwide. 'Very few people knew about Auschwitz. But we had the killing fields of Pol Pot on the box. That was the turning point for me. Since then I've been very pessimistic.' During the Vietnam war, he was as fashionable a guru as Marshall McLuhan or R D Laing. His great book from that time, Language and Silence, still makes compelling reading.

His family home has long been, and will remain, in Cambridge - shared with his wife Zara (a historian), two children, and a sheepdog. His hobbies include music, mountain-walking and chess, about which he has written: 'The poets lie about orgasm. It is a small, chancy business, its particularities immediately effaced even from the most roseate memories, compared to the crescendo of triumph in chess, to the tide of light and release that races over mind and knotted body as the opponent's king, inert in the fatal web one has spun, falls on the board.'

There is a frenzied, almost religious quality to Steiner's recent writing: his last critical book, Real Presences, called for a new 'courtesy' in our dealings with art, a respect for transcendence. His mood now is one of a man who has come through, slipping off the old loads and burdens. But he isn't quite nice yet, and it would be a pity if he ever was.

(Photograph omitted)

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