Culture Wars: Living the examined life
George Steiner talked to Mark Ryan about the Jewish tradition of thinking and teaching, and the fall of the humanities since the Holocaust
George Steiner is one of the last living representatives of the Jewish intellectual tradition which flourished in Europe until the Holocaust. Thanks to his father's sense of foreboding in Hitler's rise to power, the Steiner family left Vienna. The rest of the extended family perished in the death camps.
Steiner embodies that small but important strand in intellectual Judaism which fled the bloody conflicts of Europe and settled in England rather than the USA. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Isaiah Berlin are perhaps the other best-known examples. All settled at Cambridge, though Steiner's position there as chair of comparative literature came relatively late in his career.
Steiner's interests are prodigious, reflecting the polymath European tradition from which he came, though he says 'he aches physically' at his ignorance before the advances taking place in mathematics and biogenetics. His place in the history of ideas is paradoxical: the richness of his insights has initiated whole schools of thought whose subsequent development have often narrowed the ground of rational inquiry. His early work on semantics and the dissociation of word from world was crucial in the development of deconstructionism and postmodernism, with which he feels little affinity. His work on hermeneutics has given rise to 'translation studies', a discipline which emphasises the immense barriers to translation. He introduced English readers to European Jewish thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch - thinkers whose works have been used, with varying degrees of justification, for the repudiation of reason in the humanities. The breadth of Steiner's thought can be gauged from the influence on him of two of the towering figures of European thought this century: the German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger and the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, whose accounts of man's alienation stand at polar opposites. Steiner's commitment to the life of the mind is absolute, while his belief in the power of reason is altogether more qualified.
Steiner exudes the sort of radiant joy in life which comes perhaps from having lived what he calls the examined life. As he acknowledges, he was fortunate in his teachers and with those he came in contact with, particularly from the central European Jewish tradition. In Georg Lukács, with whom he worked in Budapest in the late 1950s, he saw the living embodiment of intellectual integrity and strength of character.
He recalls a visit to Lukács when the latter was under house arrest following his involvement in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. 'I was leaving his famous apartment on the Danube which still had the bullet holes of the Russian destruction of the city. I was not very much more than a graduate student and an idiot. He notices that I am crying and he hisses at me: "Warum winseln Sie?!", which is very cruel German for "Why are you whining?". And I said, "forgive me Herr Professor (he was always very formal), but I have a silly passport here and an air ticket. I can go wherever I want in the world. I'll be in Paris tonight. And you...". The voice was like acid. He said, "I've wasted my time, you have understood nothing, nothing, nothing. In 20 minutes in the chair where you are sitting whining, Kadar will be. We're working through Hegel's Philosophy of Law together".
'Kadar of course had put him under house arrest. "You have understood nothing." Indeed I had understood in one sense nothing. Perhaps I still haven't. A moment like that demands a crystallisation of history. There was such enormous suffering and at the same time joy in the act of thought. That man thought full-time. I have met very few human beings who are able to do this. I admire them immensely. I imagine Wittgenstein was of that family - to think full-time, to put your whole life into it.
'The experiences under extreme pressure were so rich that they stay with you your whole life. At the worst time of the wartime purges, in 1944, Lukács and Becker and others of the old Comintern were in a hotel all together in Moscow expecting to be arrested. And each had a little bag with toilet paper and razor and the like, ready to be taken away. Only Dostoevsky could have invented it. And the knock came. He kissed his wife and said, "That's it, now please, mit wurde (with dignity). We knew it would come". And they take him in a limousine with the curtains drawn, and on an aeroplane with curtains drawn. And Lukács said, "I was a little perplexed, why are they taking me on an aeroplane? The usual transport to the Lubyanka was not like this". But they land. And he sees the watchtowers, barbed wire, searchlights. They thrust him in a hut - and 300 officers of the German high command leap up to attention, Marshal Von Paulus in the front row. They were the general staff who had surrendered at Stalingrad. And he was told, "you will now start their re-education". He said it was as near to fainting as he ever came. But he didn't. He said, "very well, I will begin with Heinrich Heine!". And he began his famous course on Heine. Now to live that, not to faint, and to know what to do at that moment. These human beings, by God they knew something about life which is worth knowing.'
The intellectual authority of the great Jewish humanists sprang from the sense of responsibility they had towards their own ideas and to teaching a younger generation. 'All these men were magnificent teachers. That's what the word rabbi means. My father held a teacher to be much greater than an artist. To teach was probably the vocation of vocations for him. And I've been profoundly, passionately happy doing it.'
For Steiner, teaching has little to do with interactive encounters, or the type of student-centred learning now so common, all of which blurs the most important element - the imparting of knowledge and the ardour for thinking. 'What it takes is a table, a real maître and a few students around it. Once that's forgotten something very different is going on. A great university is where every student has come within physical distance of somebody possessed, crazy with thought, have seen what it is to give your life to an idea or a problem. Never forget that a human being who decides that eighth-century bronze chamberpots from northern China are going to be his life is a very happy person. Never negotiate your passions, never.
'Nietzsche says that more powerful than love and hatred is to be interested in something. When the great mathematician Mr Wilde came on the fermat theorem resolution here in Cambridge recently, there were thousands trying to get into a room where only three or four could have understood - at best. As was the crowd in Florence, thousands trying to see Cellini's 'Perseus' on the day he removed the veil. If a student can get a whiff of that, I think he's got something precious with him for life. If a student is early given a kind of marketable consumer mentality then that is a kind of damnation. And that is of course what's happening more and more.'
He says that he often begins his courses by telling his students, 'You know nothing. I know everything. I want to shift the balance in your favour'. He describes the relationship between teacher and pupil as an 'enacted allegory of disinterested love', but says that kind of relationship is almost unknown in Britain (and unlikely to revive, given current suspicions about relations between teachers and students). 'I've trained students who now have chairs all over the world. When I'm in France I'm called cher maître, nothing pompous, it's an almost technical way of perpetuating that sense. People like Levi Strauss or Paul Ricouer, these are les maîtres, and to be one of their students is the highest aspiration. I can tell their students, wherever I meet them, by things they've imitated. I saw it among physicists, mesmerised by the didactic powers of Oppenheimer'. Such reverence, says Steiner, is nothing to do with press agents or good publicity. It is a prestige earned from an absolute commitment to one's vocation.
The destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust is the darkness in Steiner's thought. It lies at the root of his cultural pessimism. 'They (the Jews) were the unbearable constant gadfly, the leaven. They have given America much of its fantastic dynamic leadership in the arts and sciences. From the emancipation of the ghettos by Napoleon, to the collapse, to the Holocaust, there was an almost miraculous period of creativity and argument. That world cannot be recaptured. The end was so utterly unspeakable. Also in Russia, the Stalinist murder of Judaism. That cannot be restored.
'That radical Jewish vision that the intellect is responsible to the politics of conviction, that Judaic sense of being a wanderer among men, of no frontiers, no single rooted tradition - I'm a tiny footnote to that. I know that so much of my own work is untimely, is an in memoriam. There are very few of us. There was a Judaism of ecstatic asceticism in those men. And of enormous courage. These people, like Gershom Scholem, they were among the toughest.'
One of the apparent paradoxes which has perplexed him all his life is the belief that the humanities do not humanise, that the Nazis, for example, could fill the gas chambers by day and listen to Beethoven by night. He concludes that either a large part of the human race is resistant to humanising, or, what amounts to the same thing, that the humanities are inadequate to the task. Steiner sees the Holocaust not as the catastrophic outcome of the battle between humanism and barbarism, but as an irretrievable failure on the part of man to become fully human.
At times it seems as if Steiner is turning the Holocaust into a new doctrine of original sin. If the covenant between God and man has been broken by rationalism, then the Holocaust is the crime from which there is no redemption; it is the original sin of our rationalised world. The threshold of barbarism which man crossed, according to Steiner, has left us permanently scarred and language irreparably debased. Every act of barbarism committed since 1945, from Cambodia to Kosovo, thus becomes a sort of re-enactment of the primordial Fall from The Word, just as in Christian theology every sin is made possible by the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The Fall from The Word has led Steiner to seek alternatives to the language which is now so corrupted. He sees the future of rational inquiry primarily in the sciences. 'Wherever mathematics is vital, [relativism] doesn't work', insists Steiner. 'Anybody can bluff on Keats or Shakespeare. Either you can solve a non-linear equation or you cannot, you can't bluff. That alone is a therapy of honesty which the arts do not have.' Yet the sciences are not immune to the irrationalism which has undermined so much of the humanities. Read Norman Levitt and Paul Gross' book Higher Superstition: the academic left and its quarrels with science, and be left in no doubt that the battle for the defence of reason is now moving into the sciences.
Steiner left me with Yeats' bleak vision of millennial man:
'The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.'
'Those are the great lines. We must know them by heart and fear them every day.' While Steiner still has the passion for thinking and teaching, a new and dynamic intellectual tradition could never be conjured out of such pessimism. As the tide of unreason turns to flood, such a tradition is sorely needed.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999