George Steiner died early last week (February 3rd). He was 90. Many tributes have been written, old interviews have been replayed*, a so-called ‘posthumous interview’** has been published. Several of the tributes include a sting-in-the-tale comment, as if the author can’t help himself (all the articles I’ve read so far have been written by men) about how Steiner inspired controversy with his strongly-held views about the primacy of the primary text, the shortcomings (parasitism) of the critic, diminished standards in the contemporary academy, to name just three. What others call elitism, was Steiner’s life of the mind. George Steiner was a fearless intellectual, he was not going to write to please an audience. (Again and again I am struck by how elitism in an intellectual is condemned, yet lauded in an athlete.)
While I mourn Steiner’s passing, far more intense is my gratitude that he existed at all. Through many decades, Steiner generously opened his mind to readers, sharing his extraordinary erudition in books that can be read over and over again. On hearing of his death, I immediately started rereading one of my favourites, Real Presences. There are notes from past readings, and I am adding different notes now, Steiner always gives me more.
Soon after Real Presenceswas published in 1989, I attended a lecture given by George Steiner. In my memory, it was held at a lecture theatre at the Tate (the old one at Millbank – Tate Modern didn’t exist). It seems an odd place for a Steiner lecture, and I wonder now if I’ve made it up. But I see the lecture theatre – it held about 200 people – the seating rising in long rows, and I am sitting about halfway up and a little to the right. I feel as if I’m there alone, listening to Steiner alone, but my copy of Real Presencesis a signed gift from my dear London-based friend, Frances, so I expect she was there, together with J, who first introduced me to Steiner several years earlier. But I don’t sense their presence. Steiner is standing at a lectern. I assume he has notes, but he doesn’t consult them. He talks without pause for an hour, and I am held, held utterly, in that lovely distinctive lilt, the creative language, the lush eloquence, the astonishing ideas.
In lectures, in interviews, and in his books, Steiner commands my entire attention. He makes me think, he introduces me to writers I’ve not read (Alberto Manguel, very much alive and as productive as ever does the same). I don’t always agree with Steiner, but I am always nourished. And invigorated.
A couple of years ago (August 2017) I wrote about Steiner in a piece posted here called ‘Pardoning your Heroes’. I reprint it here in acknowledgement of the great debt I owe him.
* This is a wonderful interview from 1994 with Elaine Wachtel of CBC’s Writers and Company, replayed following Steiner’s death. Go to the Writers and Company website, it is the program of 9/2/20.
PARDONING YOUR HEROES (originally posted August 2017)
In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.
I am reading A Long Saturday(University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silenceas a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler, this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could be so consistently rewarding.
I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturdaywarrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.
It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.
He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’
Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough notto meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.
When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’
Yes, I expect this isthe voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.
All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.
Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.
Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.
This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.
We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they dogive us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether youare enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.
One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauungclouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?
The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacyof reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spentor Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear hisvoice in the process of mydeciphering his meaning.
People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes tocreativeloves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.
As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steinerhas inspired. This is what heroes do.