George Steiner died on Monday, February 3, 2020 at the age of 90.
In past years, he was recognized internationally as a leading critic of Western culture, who engaged in a continuous commentary on the nature and meaning of the humanities. Steiner’s fluency in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish, as well as Greek and Latin, combined with his voracious appetite for reading, allowed him the unique opportunity to master the literary, philosophic, and aesthetic canons of Western civilization. This deep level of polyglot learning was Steiner’s most obvious strength and one that set him apart from his readers and his contemporaries. As a comparatist of literature and culture he was thought to have few living rivals; his virtuosity as a teacher was well known. Steiner’s renowned pedagogical ability was displayed in hundreds of book review essays published over a span of forty years in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement(TLS), and The Guardian. Steiner’s reviews first introduced English-speaking readers in North America and Great Britain to the major works of prominent continental writers and thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, Marcel Proust, among many others.
Steiner saw himself not simply as a pedagogue but as a translator of texts and ideas, a messenger carrying knowledge across the tightly patrolled borders of language, nationality, and academic specialization. He published twenty-seven books, including a memoir, six essay collections, three collections of short fiction, two books of verse translation, a novel and a book of poetry, as well as several interviews, symposia, and book introductions. This great range in genre is matched only by the variety of subjects Steiner pursued over the years. He was perhaps best known publicly for his “Hitler novel,” The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H., but was recognized for his masterwork on the subject of translation, entitled After Babel, and for producing an excellent introduction to the work of Martin Heidegger. His work on tragedy, especially The Death of Tragedy, was required reading in many literature courses, and scholars of both literature and religion embraced the debate found in Real Presences, his discussion of post-Derridean hermeneutics.
Perhaps less noticed, but equally powerful, was Steiner’s writing on the nature and meaning of the Holocaust as a product of Western culture. Having escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child, Steiner vowed as a young intellectual to become a remembrancer. He argued relentlessly that we come after the Holocaust, and, as such, are morally obligated to work toward an understanding of this tragedy at the heart of Western culture. There can be no doubt that Steiner’s experience as a European Jew during the twentieth century determined his dominant intellectual concerns, particularly his interest in the effects of the Holocaust upon language and culture, the nature and meaning of the humanities, and the relations between Jews and non-Jews in Western culture.
George Steiner told us that intellectual passions are personal. Steiner’s powerful persona as a leading European intellectual rooted in the classical humanities was indelibly fused with his childhood experience of leaving France for New York in 1940―an experience that made him a “kind of survivor.” This was a man who as a Jew and a European felt as though he lived the two conflicting tendencies of Western culture: classical humanism and brutal inhumanity. Steiner acknowledged the burden this paradox placed on his life and work:
“The background to this question is, of course, that of my own life. Even before I began writing, let alone teaching or publishing, it seemed to me that the problem of the relations between culture and politics, between humane literacy and the politics of torture and mass-murder, was such as to put in question every aspect of the life of the mind. Educated in the classical framework of ‘the humanities’, feeling myself utterly drawn to the life of intellectual argument and the arts, of philosophy and poetics, I was confronted by an overwhelming, brutal paradox. The edifice of total warfare and of the death-camps, of totalitarian torture and ‘the big lie’, had its base, had its contemporary triumphs, in the heart-lands of western culture. The spheres of Auschwitz-Birkenau and of the Beethoven recital, of the torture-cellar and the great library, were contiguous in space and time. Men could come home from their day’s butchery and falsehood to weep over Rilke or play Schubert. The Jeffersonian, the Arnoldian promise that the spread of education, together with the cultivation of the arts and sciences, would humanize man, would bring with them a civilization of politics had proved illusory. How could this be?” (George Steiner, “Introduction,” in George Steiner: A Reader [New York: Oxford University Press, 1984], 7-22: 10-11.)
The relationship between humane literacy and political terror in Western culture haunted Steiner throughout his career and it became the underlying concern of his critical enterprise.
One image in particular, which reflected this collusion of humanism and barbarism, obsessed Steiner: the polished Nazi officer who operated a death camp during the day and in the evening read Rilke and listened to Beethoven. There is no question that this image of the cultured Nazi death camp commandant forced the allegedly opposed worlds of culture and barbarism together in a shockingly unexpected manner. Clearly the Holocaust violated cherished European assumptions about the humanistic nature of Western culture, the importance of “good breeding,” and the progressive and humanizing tendencies of education. But for European Jews like George Steiner the revelation of the Holocaust was a disorienting tragedy of immense proportions due to the enormous personal investment these people made in European culture. Uniquely perhaps, these “Jews beyond Judaism” (George Mosse) placed a deep faith not in the religion of their ancestors or in narrow nationalistic ideologies (Steiner was a vocal critic of nationalism, including Zionism) but in the universal humanism of European high culture.
For Steiner, the crisis precipitated by the Holocaust was both intellectual and existential. It did not, however, lead him to reject Western culture categorically, but instead precipitated a deep and abiding ambivalence toward it. Some observers recognized this personal dynamic in Steiner’s work, as one of Steiner’s former students recalled: “he belongs to that generation of Jewish immigrants who were raised in the Germanic system of values, and had to fight their way to thinking there were any values left, and to reinvesting in those that had let them down.” (Maya Jaggi, “George and his Dragons,” The Guardian, March 17, 2001, 6.) The historian Peter Gay, another European Jew who fled Hitler, acknowledged the role played by trauma in the intellectual preoccupations of scholars: “There are times of upheaval and calamities―the twentieth century was only too rich in them―when a historian cannot shake off early experiences; we have all met refugees from totalitarianism, at once horrified and fascinated by their travail, who have spent their career desperate to understand, to explain, perhaps compulsively to reenact, the traumas of their youth.” (Peter Gay, Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks [New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002], 156.)
George Steiner saw himself as a surviving son of the central European Jews who made vital contributions to modern European culture before being annihilated by Nazism. He was fortunate to have a prescient and well-connected father who could ask the French Prime Minister to allow his family to join him on business in New York City in January 1940. Steiner’s extended family, schoolmates, and friends were not so lucky. The Holocaust, a personal tragedy for the Steiner family, stood at the epicenter of Steiner’s analysis of Western culture and from there cast its shadow. There were many postwar cultural critics who had no interest in the Holocaust and who continued to celebrate Western culture without the distraction of Auschwitz. George Steiner spent his entire career railing against these critics:
“Those who found this question irrelevant to their spiritual and pedagogic pursuits, those who dissociated the practice and study of the humanities from the facts of the age, seemed to me profoundly irresponsible. . . . How can scholarship and criticism be divorced from the crisis of the humane without, by this very divorcement, being reduced to academic trivia? I cannot think of any serious work which I have done, as writer of fiction, as critic, as scholar and teacher, in which this has not been the cardinal issue.” (Steiner, “Introduction,” Reader, 11-12.)
At the heart of Steiner’s cultural criticism lies a paradox that defined his oeuvre. He was a cultural critic who firmly believed that European culture was morally and intellectually superior as Matthew Arnold’s embodiment of “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” (George Steiner, “Humane Literacy,” in Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998]: 3-11.) Yet, this same advanced culture, according to Steiner, was riddled with hatred for Jews and in the twentieth century actually attempted to annihilate them. This paradox, the nexus between barbarism and humanism in Western culture, was the pivot upon which Steiner’s thought turned.
George Steiner was not a literary critic in the traditional English sense of the term. Although characterized by some literary scholars as a “historical critic,” due to his “conviction that no literary work can be approached as though it were complete in itself . . . [but] must be studied with reference to its dossier, that is, the entire body of information pertinent to it.” (Sheldon Norman Grebstein, Perspectives in Contemporary Criticism: A Collection of Recent Essays by American, English, and European Literary Critics [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], 2.) Steiner’s criticism was not strictly literary or restricted to the study of literature in one language but was interested in culture and was comparative and historical by nature. John Carroll, one of Steiner’s former students, described Steiner as a Geisteswissenschaftler, who was “interested in taking literature as one particular manifestation of cultural expression, and extracting from it clues to the large historical movements of human values, repressions, ideals, and currents of feeling. . . . This [was] criticism in the urgent, immediate sense of exploring and evaluating the past in order to illustrate the present.” (John Carroll, “George Steiner and Cambridge English: A Dismal Case of Rancour,” Meanjin Quarterly (1973), 318-322: 319-320.) This style of criticism reflected the central European milieu with which Steiner identified as a European Jewish intellectual.
Steiner’s cultural criticism evolved within an important temporal context—in relationship to the aftermath of the Holocaust, an event that came to influence many historians and force some to re-conceptualize Western culture, especially the study of the twentieth century. Steiner’s work can be interpreted as a career-long response to the Holocaust by one of the most prominent postwar critics of Western culture, who engaged with the larger ongoing historical process of uncovering and integrating, that is, attempting to understand, the Holocaust. The trajectory of Steinerian criticism is also a trajectory of the development of Holocaust consciousness in postwar Western culture.
Steiner’s understanding of the Holocaust changed over time, in relation to larger cultural and intellectual developments in Western culture, and as part of his ongoing reflection on his personal experience of childhood exile and post-Holocaust survival. Between 1964 and 1969 there was a permanent shift in Steiner’s Holocaust thought. Instead of continuing to view the Nazi murder of European Jewry as another example of general human cruelty, he argued that the Holocaust must be seen in its own unique specificity if it is to be understood at all. This new focus on specificity led Steiner to begin an investigation into the phenomenon of antisemitism. According to Steiner, the tension and animosity created by what he termed The Blackmail of Transcendence—the imposition of Jewish ethics (via Moses, Jesus, and Marx) upon human beings who are unable to meet such severe standards of behavior—created instability deep inside Western culture. While this primary conflict plagued the Jewish-Gentile relationship throughout Western history, it was compounded by a second problem: the Christian obsession with the Jewish rejection and murder of Jesus. Steiner believed that these two dynamics—the Jewish invention and destruction of God—combined to create a perennial hatred of the Jewish people in Western culture. And it was this anti-Jewish hostility at the center of the Western religious imagination that eventually animated the Holocaust.
Why this occurred in the middle of the twentieth century was related to the secularization of Western culture, the “long summer of 1815-1915,” and the destruction unleashed by World War I. The one hundred years between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War was a period in which human hopes were embodied by the rational and progressive humanism of the Enlightenment, and bourgeois high culture hit its zenith of humane literacy. However, alongside these optimistic hopes for the European future, argued Steiner, there existed a frustrated feeling of stasis resulting from the failure of revolutionary change, and this reservoir of frustration eventually resulted in a unanimous thirst for war and destruction. Steiner believed that both world wars, and the barbarism of the Holocaust, created a general crisis of confidence in Western culture, which further eroded both ethics and aesthetics, and he believed had the potential to actually destroy the humanistic foundations of Western culture. These foundations rely on a future-oriented idealism, on the confident hope that things will improve for humanity. This core dynamic, which had until recently propelled Western culture, suffered a debilitating lethargy as a result of the failure of a variety of Western movements for human emancipation, and the barbarism unleashed by world war and genocide.
Steiner’s study of language, which he believed both conditioned and was conditioned by the surrounding culture and its history, became increasingly important to his study of this crisis in Western culture. Just as the future of Western humanistic culture was dependent upon the dynamics of optimism and idealism, these dynamics are themselves dependent upon human language. The future tense allows human beings to imagine and therefore create what is yet to be, and it is this uniquely human capability that allows for our idealism and optimism. As a whole, then, George Steiner’s work can be interpreted as an attempt to resist the destruction of humanistic culture by defending its philosophic, religious, linguistic, and aesthetic foundations, and to preserve an orientation toward a humanistic future.