“Whereas trees have roots,” George Steiner’s father used to tell him, “men have legs with which to they could leave and go elsewhere.” This dictum epitomizes the worldview of the prolific essayist, author and literary critic who died earlier this month, aged 90.
Francis George Steiner was born in Paris in April 1929 to a wealthy Jewish family that had migrated to France from Vienna a few years earlier. He absorbed a scholarly, multilingual atmosphere from his childhood. His father, the banker Dr. Frederick George Steiner, began teaching “The Iliad” to his son in the original Greek at age 6, while his mother, Else Franzos – whom he described as “Viennese to her fingertips” – devised for her son a curriculum in English, French and German.
“My radiant Mama would habitually begin a sentence in one tongue and end it in another,” Steiner recollected in “Errata: An Examined Life,” his literary autobiography.
When Nazi Germany invaded France, the Steiners fled from Paris to the United States, where he continued his studies in a prestigious bilingual Lycée Français high school in Manhattan. Steiner later argued that he was one of only two Jewish students from his school in Paris who had survived the Holocaust.
As far as his university education is concerned, however, Steiner was a quintessential product of the English-speaking academy of postwar years, trained at the University of Chicago and Harvard before moving to Britain, where he finished his doctorate at Oxford.
From that stage on, his career revolved around a continuous exchange between academic scholarship and the world of high-class journalism. During his early years in Britain, he served on the editorial staff of The Economist, while in the late 1950s, he was invited to become a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Subsequently, he became a founding fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, Steiner acquired a worldwide reputation thanks to a continuous stream of academic studies and pieces of literary criticism, many of which were published in The New Yorker, where he served as the chief literary critic for over three decades (1967-97). In parallel, he was appointed professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford, Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, and a member of the British Academy.
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Steiner’s undeniable trademarks included a fierce elegiac defense of literacy and the prominence of the humanities, an unapologetic and uncompromising elitism, praise of multilingualism, and an expansive, though undeniably romantic conception of the émigré intellectual, whom Steiner considered to be the single mind capable of transcending courageously beyond conventions and dismal reality.
Writing at an age when most intellectuals were attracted to the Cold War’s ideological battles, seeking to combat political and ideological conservatism or to assail the New Left and the students rebellion, Steiner held fast to a old-style conception of the Western canon, which he viewed as a temple to be worshipped, free of the pressures of history and of struggles for cultural hegemony or social inclusion and exclusion.
His view merged mitteleuropäische (Central European) upper-middle-class aesthetic tastes with the Literae Humaniores (“Reading Greats”) syllabi of England’s elite universities. The result was a profoundly fictitious image of the canon, viewed as an ostensibly uninterrupted chain of exemplary works running from ancient Athens to modern Prague, Paris, Berlin and London (with a minimal interchange with non-European cultures and complete disregard of societies that were not shaped by Christianity or Judaism).
Unlike Hannah Arendt, who reiterated Aristotle’s well-known statement that humans are social animals (zoon politikon), Steiner insisted that humans are first and foremost “language animals” (zoon phonanta) – creatures who communicate, interpret and translate, and for whom aesthetics are a way of life superior to politics. The nomad whom Steiner erected in his imagination was not a refugee with no home nor possessions, but a wandering minstrel who carried within him the best of Western literature. It was an intellectual who carried in his pack a library, whether a physical or a mental one. Mental, because Steiner was also a firm believer in the importance of memorizing great works.
To bolster this argument, Steiner referred to the story of Tatyana Gnedich, who translated Lord Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan” into Russian. Notably, Gnedich learned the poem’s thousands of lines of verse by heart. She prepared her translation while in solitary confinement, away from her books, where the Soviet authorities had placed her on a fabricated charge.
At the very same time, Steiner viewed the 20th century as constituting a violent collapse of the belief that the aesthetic education of man would translate into exalted ethical sensibility. How was it possible that a Nazi officer who tortured and murdered by day could sob sentimentally while playing a Schubert lied by night? “The black mystery of what happened in Europe is to me indivisible from my own identity,” he wrote in “A Kind of Survivor,” an essay he dedicated to Elie Wiesel. He defined his career as a cultural analyst as a “Jewish” calling, activated by Auschwitz’s crematoria, and as an attempt to resolve that black mystery. The Jew’s foreignness regarded by him as eternal and absolute.
‘Provocation is a vocation’
In his book “The Death of Tragedy” (1961), Steiner insisted that the Jewish way of thinking, based on rigid law and rationale, was sharply at odds with the poetic imagination that guided the authors of classical tragedies. From Shakespeare’s time, European literature reflected the diminution of the art of tragedy. Later, he developed a theory that the Holocaust was an impulsive rebellion by “polytheistic instincts” against the “noble tyranny” of Jewish monotheism. Jews, he professed, were condemned to play this alien role for eternity. They represented the perpetual aspiration for change and utopian redemption, which unavoidably caused those around them to lose sleep, but at the same time, served as positive stimuli. The hyper-rationality that modern European culture developed did not and could not solve the problem of anti-Semitism, he insisted, for it was a permanent state of persecution “beyond rational explanation.” The so-called Jewish condition became in his writing the stubborn symbol of contrarianism, irreducible, maddingly “[embodying] what modern physics calls a ‘singularity,’ a construct or happening outside the norms, extraterritorial to probability and the findings of common reason.”
In his 2017 book of conversations with journalist Laure Adler, he returned to the subject, declaring: “[W]hen Hitler declared in his Table Talks (Tischgespräche) that ‘the Jew invented conscience,’ he was right. Absolutely. It was actually a profound statement from that evil man. When Solzhenitsyn, whom I consider a great man, though detestable, says that ‘the virus of communism, of Bolshevism, is totally Jewish and has infected the holy Virgin of Kazan and Russian theocracy,’ he happens to be quite correct from a historical perspective. We can be proud of this, or we can deplore it. But anti-Semitism is a kind of human cry, ‘Leave me alone!’ It’s a cry against the moral pestering Judaism represents. And I don’t think it can be eliminated.”
His criticism of Zionism was developed against this backdrop. In his essay “Our Homeland, the Text” (1985), Steiner argued that exilic Judaism understood that any material home is bound to destroyed sooner or later, and that books provided the only homes Jews could or should have. “Heine’s phrase is exactly right: das aufgeschriebene Vaterland. The ‘land of his fathers,’ the patrimoine, is the script. In its doomed immanence, in its attempt to immobilize the text is a substantive, architectural space, the Davidic and Solomonic Temple may have been an erratum, a misreading of the transcendent mobility of the text.”
Equally harsh criticism lay at the heart of his novella “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.” (1979), in which he speculated about what might have happened if Mossad agents had managed to capture Adolf Hitler (Steiner imagined the elderly mass murderer hiding somewhere in the Amazon jungle). The novella ended with Hitler delivering a sweeping defense speech, in which he presented himself to his Israeli captors as a modern-day Shabbetai Zvi, a messiah who prepared the ground for the establishment of their nation-state and helped the Zionists to free themselves of moral inhibitions, thereby making the War of Independence possible. “The Holocaust was the necessary mystery before Israel could come into its strength,” Steiner’s Hitler declared. “The Reich begat Israel.”
This provocative stance made Steiner the enfant terrible in the eyes of many. Not coincidentally, many of his critics were Jews of Eastern European descent. Steiner is a “very able, kaleidoscopically erudite man, but his desire to put all his goods – and more than all his goods – in the shop window ruins his most interesting thoughts,” argued Isaiah Berlin, who summed him up as a “charlatan manqué.” Irving Howe equally scorned Steiner’s artificial virtuosity and “tone of high-church gravity.” Howe concluded a critical review of one of his books by inviting his readers to check the definition of the phrase “hakn a tshaynik” in the Yiddish dictionary (literally “to knock the teakettle,” this is a derogatory idiom describing someone who babbles loudly, insistently but with no sense).
This acidic quip notwithstanding, Howe discerned correctly that Steiner’s acquaintance of Judaism came secondhand, acquired mainly through reading the works of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. The fact that he could not read Hebrew did not prevent him from asserting authoritatively that this language “constitutes the axis and vital fabric of Judaism across millennia,” just as his paeans of praise for multilingualism and his warning that English must not be allowed to become the new universal Esperanto did not stop him from producing most of his writings in that language.
Late in life, Steiner stated that “Israel is producing novels and verse of the first rank,” and that “Israeli novelists and poets are the contemporaries of, the transformative heirs to the Psalmist and the Prophets.” Yet, he was unable to mention even a single modern Hebrew writer by name (not to mention, of course, any author of Yiddish and Ladino).
Unsurprisingly, his ideas enjoyed a mixed reception in Israel. When Am Oved Press published Yossi Millo’s translation of Steiner’s memoir (2001), Assaf Sagiv was triggered to write an extended, admonitory essay for Azure – a neoconservativbe magazine that Sagiv then edited, published by the Shalem Center in Jerusalem – concerning Steiner’s “Jewish Problem.” Thereafter, the editors of the Hebrew literary journal Ot, published by Tel Aviv University, translated “Our Homeland, the Text,” serving as a post-Zionist manifesto.
Steiner, so it seems, savored the uproar he had caused. Provocation is a vocation, he argued, not failing to point out the etymological connection between these two words. He was gratified by the public image he groomed as minister of European culture and brimmed with delight when describing how he rubbed shoulders with Nobel Prize laureates and the intellectual aristocracy of his age. Like Addison DeWitt, the venomous theater critic whom Joseph Mankiewicz placed at the center of his comedy “All About Eve,” Steiner certainly had the privilege of breathing stardust. Yet unlike his cinematic doppelgänger, Steiner’s writings were devoid of any sign of wit or self-deprecating humor.
Instead, he left behind him an oeuvre bristling with pathos, demonstrative contempt for the benighted masses and a rather ahistorical, mythic view of the West’s literary canon.
There was also some resemblance between him and his German-speaking counterpart of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the doyen of German literary critics since the 1960s, who also believed that books are a “portable homeland.” But unlike his German colleague, who was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust thanks to an ill-educated but kindhearted Polish farmer, Steiner never experienced the horrors of the war in person, nor did he suffer a cultural and social alienation of the type Jews had experienced in postwar Germany. Instead, he led a life of plenty and enjoyed the warm embrace of the Anglo-American establishment.
He left behind an enthralling skein of disentangled internal contradictions. He was a Renaissance thinker and multilingual cosmopolitan, yet in practice, a transatlantic intellectual writing in English. He was a fierce and prominent critic of Jewish nationalism, who nevertheless developed an essentialist, chauvinist conception of Jewish identity and the immortality of anti-Semitism. He was a passionate defender of Western culture, who gained recognition at a time when post-Holocaust Europe was seeking to accept the others it had rejected before, but also someone who remained unreservedly blind to the issues of exclusion from and inclusion in the canon, which he viewed as a collection of timeless truths. Ultimately, he was the last Viennese Jew – a man who asked the right questions, even if he did not know how to answer them.
Arie M. Dubnov is an associate professor of history at the George Washington University, where he serves as the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies.