For Jews and Israelis, Prof. George Steiner is the antithesis of Zionism: a Jewish intellectual who on principle prefers to live not in Israel, and to top that, feels free to criticize Israel because of its politics. But for non-Jews and non-Israelis Steiner is first and foremost an authority on world literature and on culture with a capital "C."
Steiner was born in Paris in 1929, studied at the Sorbonne, emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1940, and for the last 50 years has been teaching literature at the best of universities on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. For 20 years he was, in fact, the department of comparative literature at the university in Geneva, where his seminars were attended by people from all over Europe. In 1961 he declared "The Death of Tragedy" (echoing Nietsche's "The Birth of Tragedy"). His "After Babel" (1975) is still a classic about translation for scholars and laymen alike. His autobiographical book "Errata" was published in Hebrew a few years ago.
Recently, Steiner visited Israel for the sixth time (the first time was 40 years ago, when he stayed with Prof. Gershom Shalom at 28 Abarbanel St. in Jerusalem), lecturing at the Spinoza Institute conference entitled "How Did Jews Survive Through History?" When I ask him to give me a short version of his answer to this question, he says: "The shortest answer is so that God could annoy the goyim. That may be in fact the true answer. I, in my paper, tried three definitions, two humorous and one very serious one. One of them is what Richard Crossman told me at a PEN [writers' organization] conference. He said: I know what a Jew is. Someone who reads a book with a pencil because he knows he can write a better one. The other one is that of Hitler's teacher Karl Lueger, `I decide who is a Jew,' which is also Sartre's definition and Spinoza's. To me the only transcendental definition is by Karl Barth, that Jews suffer from what translates roughly into Enlish as `godish malady' [Steiner uses the German term, an untranslatable one - a typical Steiner choice]. A case we did not study in this conference is how badly people want to be Jewish. I know two cases: Edmund Wilson could not stand not being Jewish. The other case is Robert Graves, the poet. So there is also that pathology. But in the morning when I get up, I say to myself how lucky am I to be Jewish."
Steiner now lives in Cambridge, England. "I live in a country where every November 5th, children go out in the streets and sing about killing Catholics. Imagine, if one such song would be sung about Jews, the whole country, the parliament, the police, the papers .... In Britain, a Jew is head of one of the parties, a Jew can be an editor of The Times, the BBC, in Oxford there are nine Jewish heads of houses, and only one Catholic, and he is a defrocked priest. That is why I try to have Britain as my headquarters. The great problem now is the relations between Israel and the Diaspora."
He does not think that the State of Israel will be very important in Jewish history. "I deeply believe that the human race will perish if we will not learn to be guests with each other. This is my life creed. I live by a saying from the Baal Shem Tov: The truth is always in exile. Theodor Adorno said `Home should not be a place where you feel at home.' I have students in five continents, Dr. Amindav Dykman of the Hebrew University is my most distinguished one. Please believe me - give me a pen and a piece of paper and I'm at home. Of course, that is not for everyone. But for me, I have never been in a country which was not interesting."
For Steiner, one of the most valued Jewish qualities is linguistic capacity. He does not speak Hebrew, but "I have taught in four languages, English, German, French, Italian. Jews were very good linguists, until they came to Israel. I repeat, it is not for everybody, but until we show other human beings the example of what it means to be guests of life, with each other .... There is a world full of hate out there, of nonnegotiable hatreds, tribal hate ..."
Why should the Jews of all nations set an example to others? "Because you have to start living as an example somewhere. Because I'm an arrogant racist. No, I mean it ... because the Israelis want to be like others; and I say nebich [a loser]. That is exactly what I will not accept. That we are like others. We are different, and I want us to show that we are a little more human. Is it better? We are different, and difference can have a positive meaning. In very old archaic Greek, zenos means stranger and friend. It is the same word. I would like to live like that."
Steiner's latest book, "Lessons of the Masters," is based on the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he delivered at Harvard University in 2001-2002. "When I got the letter I did not believe it. I'm not Stravinsky, I'm not Eliot, I'm not Calvino, I'm not Borges. This is the highest place to lecture that I've ever been. I can't really believe that I gave them. I hope this book gives a sense of teaching and my infinite privilege."
Is it not false modesty on his part to speak about those lectures as something he did not really deserve to deliver: "I did not have a good time in the academy. Why? Because in the first sentence of my first book about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, which is now still in print, 50 years later, I said that the difference between a little animal like me and the creators is as big as light years. They hate me for that. The greatest commentary is not necessary. Shakespeare does not need Mr. Steiner. Mr. Steiner needs Shakespeare every day. Every professor thinks he is on the same level as that of the text he teaches. I simply cannot accept that. If I could be a poet ... I have published poems.
"One day I woke up and I knew it was verse. Verse is the contrary of poetry. I stopped there and then. I published quite a bit of fiction, but it is a fiction of ideas, a fiction of argument. Not the mystery of creating a living person. My father was a great man. He taught me that a scholar is the highest thing to be, a teacher. I painted quite a lot as a young man, I wrote a lot of bad verse. He said it is all very nice, but be a scholar. Maybe this had an enormous paralyzing effect on me."
Teaching as art
So Steiner became an artist in the field of teaching. "I had four students who are much more powerful, more original, than me. In 52 years of teaching, that is a lot. And one of them, a girl, a daughter of a miner from Wales - after three years she got summa summa cum laude and walked in and said: `I want to tell you you are shit, and all you taught me is shit, I wanted to show you how easy it is, and now I leave for Szechuan, to became a doctor without shoes.' And I raised my hat to her. I hate parlor Zionists, I hate parlor communists, but when somebody lives his conviction, I raise my hat to her. It is a dangerous argument, because a Nazi ... sorry, I have more respect, in some complicated way for the horror and the power, than for a fellow traveler."
Had Steiner himself ever had the feeling of being a sort of a "fellow traveler"? "Very often. I had the privilege, in Cambridge, to be host to Arthur Koestler. And when the liquor was drunk in quantities, he said, `Do you know why your work is so mediocre?' I said: `I don't know, Arthur, but I'm sure you will tell me.' And he said: `You have never been in prison, you have never lived under a death sentence, and to have lived in the 20th century, like you have, is not to have lived at all. To answer with a bit of pilpul [literally, "spice"] would be to say `what do you make of Marcel Proust or Henry James?' But I know what Koestler meant in our times. For him it was not abstract knowledge. And he lived and wrote about it. I probably would not have been as strong. Very probably."
So, is he doomed to feeling mediocre? "It is very difficult. There are moments of great discouragement. But the beginning of all criticism is self-criticism. A session of self-criticism when you brush your teeth is a great help. And now, with the amount of vulgarity, despotism of what I call the fascism of happiness, which is Berlusconi's, I have still a lot to do in a very little time."
Steiner is not very optimistic about the future of culture: "We are entering a dark age. The skill of reading, round the table, a difficult text, will became more and more monastic. But children with a computer will solve mathematical theorems. Google is not an instrument, it is a metaphysic. To live like that is too late for me. It is my failure, my defeat, my luxury."