George Steiner, literary critic and polymath, has died aged 90. The problem Steiner he faced professionally in Britain and America, and particularly in English academia, was that his enormous breath of knowledge seemed somehow bogus. He achieved grudging recognition on the strength of his many books, but only held a fellowship, never a teaching post in Cambridge.
One way to understand Steiner is as a last remaining practitioner of the Frankfurt School. He shared an intellectual and cultural world with Adorno and Benjamin, with Habermas and with Thomas Mann, and like them he faced the problems which representatives of Kultur felt intensely in the German 1920s and 1930s: how could the gulf between the intellectual and the masses be bridged? How could apparently self-absorbed intellectuals absolve themselves when accused of neglecting social questions? How could they defend their canonical aesthetic standards from democratic attack?
Steiner sided with the high-minded. He declared himself to be a postman to the great writers and thinkers of the past. A century ago a German thinker of his persuasion would have used the word epigone. But it was not the shadow of great men but of Germany between the wars that lay over all he did. All his tortured literary and cultural appraisals somehow seem to reflect the crisis that industrialization, the technological transformation of daily life, and Germany’s awkward, violent transition to democracy bequeathed to a generation of intellectuals who then failed to deal with the upheaval adequately. It was a crisis in which, as the sociologist Max Weber saw it, capitalism reshaped the intellectual profession in Germany in a moment of moral shock. German learning had so long contented itself with creating a kind of secret Greekness at the heart of modern life. Weber’s famous 1917 lecture Wissenschaft als Beruf, familiarly known in English as ‘Learning as a Vocation’ but meaning something much more like ‘The Academic Profession’ pointed to the difficulty of choosing to be a university professor in an age, under capitalist pressure and emanating from the money-making model of American universities, of unavoidable specialization. This was the shock that American capitalism inflicted on Kultur at the turn of the twentieth century.
For as long as they were neo-Greeks, epigones indeed, but still in search of Truth, German Geisteswissenschaftler, men and a few women deeply versed in the humanities, didn’t think of themselves as isolated socially and politically. Truth was a common, albeit esoteric concern, which required them to be its priests. Yet specialization of a peculiar lofty and abstract kind – always the caricature thrown at German learning — became, in embryo already in Weber’s generation, the major reason why German academics were blamed en masse for their neglect of the German polis under the Nazis. To be looking elsewhere, to regard politics as a second-order domain, was the hubris of the German intellectual class into which Steiner was born.
The Frankfurt School’s Adorno and Horkheimer spent the rest of their careers in exile imagining what high-minded form critical protest could take, without entirely giving in to democractic mass culture. Steiner gave in to it not at all. If capitalism forced the serious German seeker after knowledge to accept the new limitations of his profession, if the Nazi catastrophe required him morally to attend to all that had made it possible, Steiner still had, almost as a secret, the Goethean range and depth of the education, the Bildung, that made an earlier era glorious. One correlative for that range he found in the very notion of ‘comparative literature,’ essentially based on Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur. In an article he published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1964, he explained that that vision in turn was a response to the breadth and vitality of the European Enlightenment. ‘It affirms that languages live in persistent interaction…that it is absurd to regard any single national [literary] tradition as isolated or superior.’
Let me deviate here just for a moment and catch my breath. I was thirteen when Steiner wrote in praise of comparative literature. Five years later I had chosen it as my undergraduate degree, even though such a course didn’t officially exist. (In fact Steiner noted only two universities in the whole of the UK offered such a course at the time.) Steiner praised Edwin and Willa Muir for translating Kafka amongst others into English. I do believe that it was returning to Edwin Muir’s autobiography (1954) around the age of 30 put me back on the literary track after a short deviation into journalism.
He could, quietly, by such means as Weltliteratur, and the deep interest he showed in translation, in After Babel (1975), sustain a little enchantment in a world from which the gods, or the one God, depending on whether you were Greek or Judaeo- Christian, had flown. That the gods had flown I was in no doubt as a doctoral student fifty years ago, thanks to Weber and the next German generation, and to Steiner himself. I wrote to him about the deus absconditus and the poetry of Paul Celan, that impossible answer in poetry to the German twentieth-century hubris. The answer was abrupt and not kind. People said Steiner was not an easy man. His relative lack of recognition encouraged his sense of superiority and the need to show it. Still I admired him so for dwelling on that question central to the metaphysics of morals, so very late, in our shared early 1970s. And for the rest of my writing life I’ve shared his frustration with a certain English narrowness and lack of interest in learning foreign languages. ‘What we need in England today is more openness, less of that grey climate of withdrawal, that retrenchment of feeling and imagination for which we have become internationally notorious.’ From the 1964 article again. Was he protecting himself from acusations of showing off his different skills, and breath, his Kultur, by writing ‘we’ here? Surely. He can’t have felt solidarity.
In Errata An Examined Life (1997) Steiner, born in 1929, suggested that he had continued all his life to wrestle with the German academic quietism that manifested itself in the crucial inter-war years. It seems to me he worried he would have behaved similarly, had Hitler happened in his own time, which is extraordinary.
I’ve been looking, for the sake of my own sustained interest in Kultur, most recently in depth on the intellectual life of those years. I too, sharing with Steiner my deepest interests, have to wrestle with the tenability of Thomas Mann’s famous pronouncement in favour of the good Germany that went astray.
Let me quote chapter and verse from Errata (the title itself perhaps an echo of Mann’s reluctance to give up the old Kultur:
On p118 he offers the following self-analysis in Max Weber’s shadow; ‘ These truths and arguments are irrefutable. They breathe the air of democracy. They are, at the same time, impertinent… to my credo and the options it imposes. Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Pure thought…the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit…but cancers are non-negotiable…I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologise for the social cost of…grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals…[but] it happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza…) are the excuse for life.’ Even that ‘blinding’ strikes me as a distant echo of the fate of the self-immolating intellectual of the German 1930s in Canetti’s novel Die Blendung (‘Auto-da-fe’ in English.) Moreover somewhere in this moment of self-definition Steiner seems to become his own fictional character, to be elaborated upon in an unwritten novel in the Canettian vein. And so the concatinations, which are also tradition in a tortured, oblique form, go on.
Errata p156 finds Steiner ‘educated in a hypertrophied reverence for the classics…so characteristic of emancipated central european Judaism…It took too long…before I realised that the interactions between high and popular culture…had largely replaced the monumental pantheon.’ Exactly. It was German-Jewish intellectuals who upheld, and were most hurt, by the Kultur which Hitler in Germany and capitalism the world over together destroyed. One of the good things they were able to achieve, in exile was to re-found Weltliteratur in the form of Comparative Literature. ‘Those who gave comparative studies their direction in the United States were men of a multilingual background who found refugre and acceptance in that open-hearted country.’ (TLS, March 12, 1964) Again the comparison was to the detriment of post-war England, on its long slide into insularity, populism and mediocrity, however much a handful of writers, critics, translators and publishers tried to slow the pace.
Steiner’s varied career pursued many of the problems that worried German philosophy in the year of his birth. He followed the question of interpersonal understanding from its unsatisfatory treatment in Kant and the neo-Kantians into its restatement in terms of language by Wittgenstein. Thrown into an Anglo-American commercialized version of the intellectual life, as Weber’s whole generation was, Steiner tried to assimilate its ways and tastes, while finding the style of the culture intensely alien. He was bound to become caught up in the inadequacies of translation. He was himself a token of that good German culture that Mann and Adorno and Horkheimer strugged to hold on to, or express in another form.
Steiner squirmed to find his probings of Celan and Canetti surrounded by advertisements for mackintoshes and soup when he wrote for The New Yorker. Not so much that he was precious but that so much more was at stake, namely ‘the certitude that in the face of a Homer, of a Goethe, of a Beethoven or a Rembrandt, the second-rate is precisely that…’ According to Errata p.157 it was also what his father believed, in tandem with ‘scepticism in regard to direct political action.’
Now this is what in his autobiography Steiner wanted to tell us, though it caused him agony to admit and risked only adding to the unpopularity of his high-mindedness and his foreignness. One can’t help being second, third, tenth-rate, but one can struggle against it. If there are generations out there who have never registered high culture’s early twentieth century objection to democracy’s downsides, and the commodification of everything, then this would now be a reason for reading Steiner, for he is a unique demonstration, within his own agonizings, of what has gone lost.