Interviews

George Steiner, The Art of Criticism No. 2

Interviewed by Ronald A. Sharp

This interview was conducted in the autumn of 1994, a few days before Steiner's induction as the first occupant of the Lord Weidenfeld Professorship of Comparative Literature at Oxford. Since this is the first chair in comparative literature at either Oxford or Cambridge, and since Steiner has always had a mixed — and often controversial — reception in England, his appointment was greeted with an explosion of interest from the British press, the main theme of which was the return of the prodigal.

Born in Paris to Viennese parents in 1929, Steiner came to the United States in 1940. He took his B.A. at the University of Chicago, his M.A. at Harvard, and his D. Phil. at Oxford, where, as he would wryly remind his audience at his inaugural address, the first version of his dissertation was rejected because it was too close to a field that Oxford did not teach in those days: comparative literature.

Steiner has taught at such American universities as Stanford, NYU and Princeton, but the main settings of his academic career have been England and Switzerland. At the University of Geneva he held the chair in comparative literature until his recent retirement. At Cambridge University he maintains his lifelong appointment as Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College. He now does brief teaching stints at various Italian universities and at Geneva.

The list of Steiner's books is characteristically long. It includes, among his literary, philosophical and cultural criticism, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1959), The Death of Tragedy (1961), Language and Silence (1967), Extraterritorial (1971), In Bluebeard's Castle (1971), Fields of Force: Fischer and Spassky in Reykjavik (1973), After Babel (1975; rev. ed. 1992), On Difficulty and Other Essays (1978), Martin Heidegger (1978), Antigones (1984), George Steiner: A Reader (1984), and Real Presences (1989). In addition, Steiner has published three volumes of fiction: Anno Domini: Three Stories (1964), the novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1981), and Proofs and Three Parables (1993). He has also edited (with Robert Fagles) Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962) and The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation (1966). This summer Faber & Faber will publish a collection of fiction, The Deeps of the Sea, and a collection of essays, No Passion Spent.

Precisely because his background is so various and the range of his interests so broad, Steiner has never fit neatly into any of the current literary, intellectual or cultural categories. Translation, which has occupied him throughout his career, provides the best metaphor for his work: translation in the sense of moving across boundaries and borders, of moving from one field to another.

What is so strikingly characteristic of both Steiner and his work is that the intelligence is always embedded in his staggering range of learning and in his magnificent narrative instinct. Rarely, even when he is at his most speculative or theoretical, can Steiner resist an illustrative anecdote, and the delight he takes in telling stories is virtually physical.

Though Steiner has an extraordinary generosity of spirit, the legendary feistiness remains. He can be fiercely polemical; he loves a good argument, particulary with a worthy opponent and when the intellectual stakes are high.

The conversations took place both in Steiner's spacious modern office at Churchill College and in the living room of his home in Cambridge. On the bookshelves stand dozens of chess sets, reflecting one of his deepest passions, along with first editions of Heidegger and Kant, Coleridge and Byron. Dressed comfortably in a sweater and slacks, Steiner fawns over his Old English Sheepdog, Jemi, feeding her chocolate biscuits after dinner. All day the phone rings with well-wishers on the occasion of his Oxford appointment, Steiner moving effortlessly from English to German to French to Italian. In a few days more than a thousand people will crowd into the Renaissance hall at Oxford where Steiner will deliver his inaugural.

 

INTERVIEWER

You once referred to the “patience of apprehension” and “open-endedness of asking” which fiction can enact, and yet you have described your fictions as “allegories of argument, stagings of ideas.” Do you still consider them to be “stagings of ideas”?

GEORGE STEINER

Very much so. My writing of fiction comes under a very general heading of those teachers, critics, scholars who like to try their own hand once or twice in their lives. My early stories represent already an attempt to think about my central question. I think The Portage of San Cristobel of AH is more than that. That book may have a certain life. Proofs is another parable, an intellectual parable; but the speeches in AH, the parts of the novel that have really perhaps moved people, are also essays. I know that. They are statements of doctrine, of belief, of conviction, of questioning. The mystery whereby a creative artist somehow—we don't have an answer—generates a voice, a three-dimensional, ten-dimensional character who takes on independent life, has very little to do with pure intelligence or systematic, analytic powers. There are immensely intelligent novelists, God knows, and maybe Proust's was the most powerful mind of the century in some ways, cerebrally; but many are not that way at all. They can give no account of the spontaneous coming together within themselves and language of that genesis of the living, of that thing which walks in front of you so you forget the name of the author. That is genius, that is creativity, and I certainly don't have it. Two pages of Chekhov create for you a whole world and you never forget the voices. There they are. That is something very different, I think, from what somebody like myself can do.

INTERVIEWER

Is the role of ideas in fiction subordinate then?

STEINER

What a very difficult question you ask. There are novels that one would call great but that will live because of their ideological, intellectual content. A lot of Thomas Mann might strike one that way. Musil's Man without Qualities is written about by as many philosophers as literary critics. But this is rare. Don't ask anything like that of the most extraordinary fictive shaper — don't laugh at me — in our time, who is Georges Simenon. I can take from my shelf ten or twelve Maigrets and it doesn't take five or ten pages, as in Balzac, or twenty, as in Dickens (who is really slow in getting going; so is Balzac): Simenon does it in two or three paragraphs. There's a Maigret novel which opens with a loud noise. At three in the morning in Pigalle, the old Paris red-light district, a nightclub owner is pulling down the metal shade, to close up. Out of that single noise, focused against the first milk cart, focused against the steps of those who go home to sleep at that time and those who start coming into Les Halles to get the food ready for the day, Simenon gives you not only the city, not only something about France which no historian can surpass, but the two or three people who will matter in the story are already before you. Simenon somehow notes that the steps of the man who pulls down the shade, as they go away from the nightclub, have a curious hesitant drag. And there you are, that's the first important clue in the story. Now that is the mysterium tremendum of the creation of the autonomous persona. But yes, there can be ideology. I had the privilege of acquaintance with Arthur Koestler, and what wouldn't one have given to have written Darkness at Noon, one of the supreme acts of ideas. That seems to me a border case. It will probably continue to be read not for Gletkin and Rubashov as fictive characters but because of the extraordinary argument on Stalinism, on Marxism, on torture and horror: what is the nature of an ideological commitment unto death? What is the nature of lying in order to defend a good cause? But it is such a rich book. Koestler introduces just enough density of life and of being so that it is not a script of ideology.

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to write more fiction?

STEINER

Yes, but I'm not up to the themes that move me most profoundly. I've been over and over tearing up the beginning of a story or a little novel on the following subject: we are either on a Greek island during the time of the colonels or in Turkey or South America: anywhere on earth, but in a police state. The man comes home to his wife and children, and this time as they go to bed, or at dinner, she smells the torturing on him (he's been torturing all afternoon). He never talks about it, there's never any open reference to what the job is, but the women know: they know they are sharing their beds with men who have done to the bodies of other men and women what these people do. The ultimate source is Aristophanes' Lysistrata, about women refusing to sleep with their men until they stop fighting. But here it isn't that they won't sleep with them but that a terrible sickness begins to invade the act of love itself, and finally they begin murdering their husbands. Then there are the children: how do the children live with this knowledge of what their father does?

But this should be done by a master, which I'm not. I've kept trying to get it going and it gets shrill, stiff, abstract. A master would know just what to say about the dinner, about some small noise in the bedroom, and he'd have it going. He'd get you.

The other story I've been struggling with is on a much gentler subject. I watch the present crisis in marriage, especially as we live longer now. I've made detailed notes for a story in which a marriage turns into a deep friendship, but of course desire is gone and in a sense love is gone too because friendship is not the same thing as love. This turns around a sentence in a letter of Rilke to the wife he left very early and never really saw again: “Remember that in a good marriage one becomes the loving guardian of the other's solitude.” What a fantastic sentence. I would love to develop that paradox: that the desire and vitality of marriage have a much better chance of surviving where there is deep hostility.

So these are the two subjects that I've been trotting and trotting around, but they need a real novelist, which I'm not.

INTERVIEWER

Now what about poetry? You used to write poetry.

STEINER

Yes, I published at Oxford, in Poetry during its great days, even in The Paris Review itself. My French lycée education, which in some respects still resembled that of the nineteenth century, involved the constant learning by heart, the constant grammatical construal of Latin, then of Greek. This was all based on the assumption that a literate man — perhaps I should add woman but that would be cant: it was essentially masculine — can write verse. We were asked to imitate a famous Latin passage, finding our own Latin; then French: variations on a known theme in literature. You were expected to write verse that followed the strong structural forms and rules: the sonnet, the ode, the heroic couplet. Nobody expected you to have any spontaneous genius, but a craft, a techne, the Greek word which gives us our “technology” and “technique.” It was an “accomplishment” — the word is nearly gone from our vocabulary now in this sense — like needlework or playing piano for young ladies, or like watercolors.

So I was trained that way and when I fully entered the English-language world I wrote poems, some of which were perhaps a tiny shade better than that. A few may have had a spark of private intensity and need, but on the whole they were verse, and the distance between verse and poetry is light-years. A first-rate poet ingests, internalizes all this knowledge, every bit of it, without even having to name it to himself. The relationship in a true poem between the set form and what we call the content is so organic that if you were to ask a real poet why the poem was an ode, why it was in free verse, why it was a dramatic monologue, he would say, “Don't be stupid. Read it! It cannot be otherwise.”

Yet one mustn't be too romantic about this. Ben Jonson writes prose summaries and then produces some of the most magical lyrics in any language. Dryden and Pope work from prose into verse: some of their best verse is a heightened kind of prose. But certainly since the Romantics this isn't how we conceive of the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in the Wordsworthian formula. The lycée education was the contrary: if you flowed over you wiped it up.

INTERVIEWER

What happened to the tradition of the man of letters, which you alluded to earlier?

STEINER

It is under deep suspicion. Let's do a little history. The man of letters represented a kind of consensus of taste and of interest in his society. People wanted to hear about literature, the arts, from a cultivated nonspecialist. Macaulay, Hazlitt—the ranking men of letters—almost made a book of a review; they were that long. There was time for that kind of publication. The man of letters might also write poetry and fiction, or biography, and in England the tradition has not died. We still have Michael Holroyd, my own student Richard Holmes who is now so acclaimed, we have Cyril Connolly, Pritchard, who is an exquisite short-story writer, a constant critic, a constant reviewer. And I'm not one who sneers about J.B. Priestley. The people who sneer about Priestley would give their eyeteeth to have had a jot of his talent. Critic, biographer, memorialist, in many ways Robert Graves, who was such a fine poet, was a supreme man of letters.

Every one of my opponents, every one of my critics will tell you that I am a generalist spread far too thin in an age when this is not done anymore, when responsible knowledge is specialized knowledge. A review appeared of the first edition of After Babel by a very distinguished linguist, an old man now, still alive, and someone I respect very much: the high priest of the mandarins. “After Babel is a very bad book,” it began, “but alas it is a classic.” So I wrote this professor and said no review has ever honored me more, particularly the alas, which was wrung from him. I can live with that. Then he wrote me something very interesting. He said we have reached a point where no man can cover the whole field of the linguistics and poetics of translation. This book, he said, should have been written under your guidance by six or seven specialists. So I wrote back, “No it should not. It would then be wasted, and end up gathering dust on the technical shelves.” I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that's worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona. We disagreed gently but deeply. He said no, that cannot be done. It could be done till the First World War, but from then on the self-splitting and fission of knowledge has become such, even in the humanities, that powerful minds spend a lifetime on getting their own specialty more or less right, let alone the landscape. So that's a very central disagreement. The man of letters — and what was George Orwell, if he was not a man of letters, what was Edmund Wilson, whom I succeeded on The New Yorker twenty-seven years ago? — the man of letters has become very suspect.

INTERVIEWER

Has the relationship, more generally, between literature and criticism altered?

STEINER

I think so. We could talk ten hours. I'm committed to the bitter passionate view that we live in a Byzantine period, an Alexandrian period, in which the commentator and the comment tower above the original. Saint-Beuve dies bitterly remarking, “No one will ever create a statue for a critic.” Oh God, how wrong he was. Today we're told there is critical theory, that criticism dominates—deconstruction, semiotics, post-structuralism, postmodernism. It is a very peculiar climate, summed up by that man of undoubted genius, Monsieur Derrida, when he says that every text is a “pretext.” This is one of the most formidably erroneous, destructive, brilliantly trivial wordplays ever launched. Meaning what? That whatever the stature of the poem, it waits for the deconstructive commentator; it is the mere occasion of the exercise. That is to me ridiculous beyond words. Walter Benjamin said a book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader happens to come along. Books are in no hurry. An act of creation is in no hurry; it reads us, it privileges us infinitely. The notion that it is the occasion for our cleverness fills me with baffled bitterness and anger. The notion that students today read second- and thirdhand criticism of criticism, and read less and less real literature, is absolutely the death of the normal naive and logical order of precedence.

INTERVIEWER

Have the humanities failed to humanize? Do you still believe that literary education may ironically foster political cruelty and barbarism?

STEINER

Nazism, communism, Stalinism have convinced me of this central paradox: bookishness — bookishness, that old English word, it's a good one — bookishness, highest literacy, every technique of cultural propaganda and training not only can accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it. We are trained our whole life long in abstraction, in the fictive, and we develop a certain power— allegedly a power—to identify with the fictive, to teach it, to deepen it (how many children has Lady Macbeth?). Then we go into the street and there's a scream and it has a strange unreality. The image I want to use is this: I've been to a very good movie early in the afternoon. It's a bright sunny day. When I walk out of the movie into the sunshine of the city afternoon, I have very often a feeling of nausea, of a disequilibrium which is nauseating. It takes seconds, minutes, sometimes longer for me to focus again on reality.

INTERVIEWER

Coming out of Plato's cave?

STEINER

But more forceful because of the funny way in which the impact of a movie should be an evening impact. Why is it that the daylight visit to a movie theater is peculiarly and deeply unsettling? Now I expand that experience into this: I spend my whole day with undergraduates in a room, around my seminar table in Geneva. We're trying to get somewhere with the problem of the extreme brevity of Cordelia's role in King Lear, which is less than ninety lines. Nobody believes this until you count them. Or the great silences in literature, characters who come on and say nothing — from Aeschylus to Dostoyevsky — or say only a few words. Or the idiot at the end of Boris Godunov: he sings two notes which go through the whole of the world in their despair and horror. And students have been responding, you've been responding, you know the stuff by heart, it fills you, and you leave, you walk down the street, and you see a headline: “A Million Dead in Rwanda.” It isn't only that you are numb to the constant horrors of our century, it's that they don't even enter your imagination.

For me the personal turning point was Pol Pot. Very few knew at the time about Auschwitz. Yes, there were bastards who knew, there were sons of bitches who knew and who didn't believe it, but they were a tiny number. Nazi secrecy on this was fantastically efficient. The killing fields were on radio and television while they were going on, and we were told that Pol Pot was burying alive one hundred thousand men, women and children. Now I cannot attach honest meaning to the phrase “to bury alive one man, woman or child.” One hundred thousand! I almost went out of my mind in those days with bitter impotence. I was obsessed with the hope that Russia and America would say, “We don't know what the rights and wrongs of this incredible geopolitical mess are but forty-five years after the Holocaust or after the gulag, we can't shave in the morning, we can't look at ourselves, knowing a hundred thousand people are being buried alive; the razor doesn't work on the skin. No woman can put on her makeup and think of herself as human. If you don't stop this, we'll come in.” I'd hoped Israel would make such a statement, for obvious reasons. Total silence, total silence about any intervention or interference. Pol Pot went on, he buried them alive, he killed a million and a half others, castrating people alive in the fields, and today we're selling arms to him.

Now, Cambodia was for me the turning point to a kind of absolute helplessness, of despair. Rwanda has come since and tomorrow, x, y or z. And this time we know. I do make the— and here I use an almost pompous word — ontological distinction, the quintessential distinction between a time when we didn't know and probably could have done nothing about it (whether or not we should have bombed the rail lines remains one of the bitterest Auschwitz arguments; we should have tried; okay) and this time, when we knew the adversary was a minnow, was nothing compared to the power of the rest of the world: Monsieur Pol Pot and his crazed Khmer Rouge. Nothing was done, and we are now rearming him.

INTERVIEWER

What are the implications, then, for your work as a teacher?

STEINER

I've been extremely troubled by this. The implications are that I keep trying to put this to those who learn to read with me. I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.

Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question.

INTERVIEWER

How then, fifty years later, do you assess Adorno's famous dictum, “No poetry after Auschwitz”?

STEINER

It seemed to me at the time an absolutely natural and crucial thing to say; and it hoped for disproof. That disproof came with Paul Celan's poetry, which refuted that statement — and Adorno knew it before he died. Let's take a few steps backward. The obscene question of counting dead heads doesn't arise, but I group the concentration camps, whether they be in Poland, in Germany or all over the damn place, together: the phenomenon of massive incarceration and elimination of millions of human beings from one end of the world to the other. One of the possible responses is to say our whole culture proved absolutely impotent and defenseless, in fact it adorned much of this stuff. Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich on the way to Dachau, just outside Munich. They could be heard all the way to the concert hall. That is on record. There's not the slightest witness that he didn't play magnificently or that his audience wasn't wholly responsive and profoundly moved.

So there was a nihilistic critique, which was Adorno's, or the formulation of Walter Benjamin: “at the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” You could take that line, as many in the Frankfurt school in a sense did, but take it a step further and say, “Let's shut up for a while.” I often had a dream of a moratorium on discussing these things at all — for ten years, fifteen, a hundred years — to try not to reduce them to articulate language, which in a curious way was to make them acceptable. That's what Adorno really meant: Careful! Even the greatest outcry if it is formalized, let's say, into verse or rhyme or stanzas, adds a mystery of acceptability to the phenomenon.

The second and most difficult step of all was saying, “No, in despite of all this, I can still convey, communicate something of the essential experience.” Out of the whole enormous range of Holocaust literature only three or four writers have pulled this off.

INTERVIEWER

Who are they?

STEINER

Celan above all. Without any doubt, Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer: supreme, supreme, supreme. There isn't a word out of place; it's a miracle. One or two far less known East Europeans, some wonderful Latvian short stories. Perhaps half a dozen texts where I would say it has justified this incredibly bold attempt. But at what cost? Celan commits suicide. Primo Levi commits suicide. Jean Améry commits suicide. Long after, as if having borne witness, there was no more meaning to their lives and to the language they were using. What horrifies me is any attempt to capitalize on this material by those who did not undergo it.

INTERVIEWER

Were you concerned with speaking about the Holocaust in this way, with speaking about the unspeakable, when you wrote The Portage?

STEINER

Yes, I certainly was. I wanted there to draw attention precisely to the terrible ambiguity in all language, in all speech acts. Physics says — and I don't understand what it means but it's lovely — that there is a universe of antimatter exactly mirroring ours and that when matter and antimatter collide they annihilate each other. I tried to show that in Hitler's language there was antimatter, anti-language, that which is transcendentally annihilating of truth and meaning. And that it had to clash with Judaism, which is a faith, a culture, a trust based perhaps excessively on the word, on the articulacy and possibility of meaning and on constant discourse even with God. That's really worth thinking about. Why should He speak? Judaism has always posited a very loquacious God.

So yes, I was profoundly worried about it, and I would certainly not dare to come back to it. After all, I've never been in the situation and maybe one shouldn't try. On the other hand, regarding the attacks on William Styron, I was entirely on the other side. Styron is a prodigious novelist, and he has every right to try to do a Nat Turner or a Sophie. No one has the right to say he was never a black slave or in Auschwitz. We can say, “You don't convince me.” We can say, “Sorry, it doesn't work.” But it is the absolute right of an artist, in my opinion, to try.

In centuries to come, it may be that a new Dostoyevsky or a new Faulkner will find ways of penetrating to the heart of this unspeakable, unthinkable, unbearable reality with insights. What a silly way to put it, but what would Shakespeare have said? I keep thinking that Shakespeare would have had a fifth groom or a seventh servant at the edge of some important scene, possibly of a comic scene, who would somehow have conveyed to us that he had been in a camp. Now you mustn't mock me, but no play in the world makes me sadder than Twelfth Night. I've got a real obsession, as with Così Fan Tutte: those things which seem outwardly joyous, like “the rain it raineth every day.” The songs of Feste, the clown, seem to me among the most magnificent tragic songs: “With hey, ho.” I keep imagining somewhere there would have been a servant in the house of the Duke or of Olivia or of Viola, and Shakespeare would in a few moments have made us understand what that servant had gone through. That's conceivable one day in the future. So it's the unknown. It's the great terra incognita of the imagination. The scene is there in everything I write, in all my teaching, in all my thinking, above all in my living in Europe.

INTERVIEWER

Clearly there's a deep connection between your understanding of the Holocaust and your theory of interpretation. Could you talk a bit about that?

STEINER

The key issue here is the sense of what cannot be analyzed or explained. A major act of interpretation gets nearer and nearer to the heart of the work, and it never comes too near. The exciting distance of a great interpretation is the failure, the distance, where it is helpless. But its helplessness is dynamic, is itself suggestive, eloquent and articulate. The best acts of reading are acts of incompletion, acts of fragmentary insight, of that which refuses paraphrase, metaphrase; which finally say, “The most interesting in all this I haven't been able to touch on.” But which makes that inability not a humiliating defeat or a piece of mysticism but a kind of joyous invitation to reread.

Now, I'm still staying in the aesthetic, but I'll come on to your question about the connection with the Holocaust, and I hope it will be clearer then. There was once a little boy, Paul Klee, and he used to be marched out of Bern, where he was brought up, on school picnics, the most boring of possible Swiss occasions. One day his class was brought in front of a Roman aqueduct, and the teacher was explaining how much water it carried, how it was built. Klee was eleven years old, and he always had his sketch pad with him. He sketched the aqueduct and put shoes on the pillars. All aqueducts have walked since that day; you can't see an aqueduct that isn't walking. Picasso is going down a street. He sees a child's tricycle. A billion people have seen children's tricycles on the streets. Picasso flips it with his hand, making the saddle the face of the bull and the handlebars the two horns. No one else had ever done that, and since then all tricycles charge at you with their horns. No one has ever explained this, nor has anyone explained what Lévi-Strauss calls the supreme mystery of all human knowledge: “the invention of melody.” This is one of the sentences most important to me. I delight in the sense of the inadequacy of one's passionate attempts to get nearer. This is the wonder of it. Mountaineers tell you of the postcoital sadness when they're at the top of a previously unclimbed peak, but we never get to the top of the ontology of the aesthetic or the question of the meaning of meaning or the question of the origin of language.

Ours is one of the blackest centuries in terms of death, in terms of torture, massacre. I read with genuine respect the economists who tell us that communism or fascism can be analyzed by a good theory of economics or industrialism; or the sociologists who speak of class conflicts, the sociological structure of the city at that time, and so on. The historians all have ideas too. Like all of us I try to keep up with the people who say, “I can explain it to you.” It doesn't work for me. There may be exciting partial insights, for example, in the notion that there are in the death camps aspects of a factory. Fine, that's a brilliant insight. I want to think about it. Maybe it's very illuminating. Or when I'm told that Nazism as distinct from Stalinism is based on lower-middle-class instabilities and resentments, I'm very interested. But these explanations, important as they may be, do not help me grapple with the facts.

The facts are that when Hitler's high command said to him, “Führer, we desperately need the trains for fuel, for armaments; just give us four weeks of not shipping people to the death camps,” he replied that far more important than winning the war was the destruction of all Jews. The notion that he is mad doesn't work for me at all. He was very unmad. Nor does it help me when I know that Stalin destroys a large part of his educated population systematically while planning the greatness of the Soviet Union.

So I work with explanations of a completely different kind. In the Enlightenment, in the early 1760s, Voltaire, after defending a number of people successfully, issues the statement, “One thing is certain: there will not be the use of torture again in civilized Europe.” A few years later, Thomas Jefferson, one of the shrewdest, toughest minds ever, says that he can promise — he actually uses the word promise — that there will never be any return to the burning of books. I have an anthology of statements like that. Not by naive fools, but by some of the toughest, most ironic minds. There is a Catholic proto-fascist thinker called de Maistre, who sits at the edge laughing his head off and writes a sheer masterpiece called The Evenings of St. Petersburg. He says that as it happens, the twentieth century will be drowned in blood in Europe; that there will be camps for the systematic slaughter of human beings. He works with a quite different theory, that of original sin.

de Maistre says, in effect, “Please explain to me the nature of history.” If we are rational Homo sapiens on the road upward, what are we doing to each other? Why are our wars getting more murderous? Why are famines getting bigger? If, on the other hand, there were some mode of an original dis-grace — very powerful word when you put in the hyphen; disgrace has become such a small word: dis-grace, fall from grace, interruption of some kind of relationship to God — then history is a punishment, and we have stumbled into history essentially to suffer and we will continue so till the end, until we either massacre ourselves with a thermonuclear bomb, or our cities implode, as they now may, or there is famine, or finally there is an AIDS which cannot be checked. The whole doctrine of original sin. How do you operate with such a doctrine? I don't know. I call it a working metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

Does it require belief in God?

STEINER

Yes, or — much more dangerous — in hell. Once, very movingly, Pope Pius XII received Paul Claudel to honor the eminent playwright and Catholic poet. “My son,” he said, “the trouble with you is you believe utterly in hell; I'm not so sure about heaven” — with a smile. This is a very peculiar form of heresy. It's a form of Manichaeanism. And I call myself a Manichaean, a rather baffled Manichaean. Yes, I'm a coward: I take refuge in life insurance of the highest solid kind, far beyond Lloyd's. Immanuel Kant — the sanest, quietest, most balanced mind — believed in incarnate evil, not just in Aristotle's “evil is the absence of good,” which gets you off every hook. Kant didn't mean somebody with horns and tail, but that evil is an incarnate force, a positive agent.

Only that way can I understand why our finest enterprises turn hellish. Think of the original documents of Zionism — and my father was in the early group with Herzl: it was a utopian dream, a dream of equality, of full racial understanding, of realizing Jeremiah and Isaiah (“weapons shall be turned into ploughshares”). Look at the suffering. Look at this armed state, which to survive has to be one of the most militaristic societies on earth. We go into Mogadishu to bring food, to help, and it ends in hell, where bodies are dragged through the streets.

What is it that justifies fully Shakespeare finding that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport”? Or his insight, “The worst is not / So long as we can say 'This is the worst'”? What has made it come true, over and over and over, that our good intentions, our compassions, our utopias turn infernal? That needs asking.

INTERVIEWER

Is nationalism a prime example for you?

STEINER

Yes. I'm much criticized for this. I detest, I abhor nationalism. I am at home wherever there is a typewriter. I regard flags, passports as dangerous trash. I believe that we are guests of life — there I'm very Heideggerian. We don't know why we're born, we didn't choose to be, we didn't choose to be born in a community, a time, a social class; we didn't choose to be born a deaf-mute among beggars or syphilitics or carrying an AIDS virus or being a millionaire or being incredibly gifted. First of all, we are guests of life and of this earth, which we are systematically pillaging, looting, destroying, polluting, as we know. I believe we must learn to be guests of each other to survive; that it is the peculiar, tragic, Jewish destiny to try to live this very difficult business of feeling at home anywhere. I have been at home in many, many lands.

INTERVIEWER

Yet for all of your travels, you've been very rooted here in Cambridge?

STEINER

Only part-time. Let's just go back a little. I was wonderfully lucky in my birth. My mother was from a Jewish, Viennese, multilingual bourgeois family. Her great uncle was a very well-known writer, who discovered the manuscript of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck in an apothecary shop. My father was from a village eight kilometers from Lidice, the northern Bohemian village where every human being was killed, massacred in revenge for the killing of the Gestapo head. My father comes as a child to Vienna, has a magnificent career in Austria, and decides, in 1924, over my mother's vociferous protest, to leave Vienna, which they loved, because he saw what was coming. He always used to say, “Hitler's Austrian; let's get that straight.” So they come to Paris, and I'm born in 1929 into a home filled with books and music and culture from top to bottom: the Jewish Central European tradition. My mama begins a sentence in one language and ends it in several others, almost unaware, so I was completely trilingual from birth. My father begins reading Homer with me before I went to school, begins teaching me the classics under the mounting and terrible shadow of Hitler.

In 1934 a big financial scandal rocks France in which Jews are involved, and anti-Semitic groups are marching near my school, which was very Jewish. So my nurse, my governess — we still had governesses in those days — comes running to take me home. At home Mama lowers the shades on the windows, looking out on the parades of people out there shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Papa comes home and says, “Up with those shades!” and takes me by the hand to look outside. I was fascinated, of course; any child would be. And he says, “You must never be frightened; what you're looking at is called history.” I think that sentence may have formed my whole life.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you?

STEINER

Five. It was a magnificent thing to say to a child. In that sense, I've never been frightened again. I've been very, very lucky and I've been terribly interested in history and in looking out the window and seeing what's going on, whatever it is.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a bit more then about your early years.

STEINER

Then the war comes and my father is asked by the French prime minister to go with a mission to negotiate with the Germans for the purchase of Grumman fighter planes. A totally amazing story happened. Everybody has forgotten that New York was a neutral city in 1940. It was full of Nazi purchasing missions, bank missions, engineers. My father was at lunch in honor of the Trade Purchasing Commission at the Wall Street Club. At his table were representatives of the American treasury, the banks and the French delegation. The waiter brings my father a folded sheet of paper saying that a gentleman at another table has asked that I bring this to you. My father whirls around and sees a Nazi purchasing mission, with the swastikas in their lapels. Perfectly legitimate: they too were buying equipment and arranging oil loans with the Chase Bank and many others. Father recognizes a man who had been one of his closest friends in business, and with whom he has had no contact whatever since 1933 when Hitler took over. So my father ostentatiously tears up the note, the piece of paper, and drops it on the floor. He goes to the john; the man is waiting there, grabs my father and says, “You better listen to me whether you like it or not. I can give you no details, I don't know any. We're coming into France very soon.” (This is in 1940.) “Get your family out at any price.”

Now, this was one of the heads of the most important electrical concerns in Europe, Siemens. The “final solution” meeting had not yet taken place. But in Poland the massacres were already on, and the heads of Siemens knew something. They didn't know the details, because you were shot immediately if you were on leave and talked about it; but it was filtering through the high command, through diplomats, and this man, thank God, believed it, and my father believed him.

My father got in touch with the prime minister and asked him if his family could join him for a while since the negotiations were going to be longer than he had thought. The prime minister said, “Yes, of course, let them join you.” That's what saved us. We came out with the last American boats.

This story will be of considerable interest to historians, because it means that early in 1940 — the Germans came through in May, whereas this was in January — an informed senior German knew something.

INTERVIEWER

Where did your family go then?

STEINER

To New York. My father decided that he should at least make a token gesture towards America and towards our tremendous good fortune. He sent me to the Horace Mann School, where I was an impossible, arrogant, incredibly overtrained, eleven-year-old French schoolboy with fluent English. After two years my father sent me off to the French lycée. One day we played Horace Mann in soccer and they came with all their fancy equipment and uniforms and we had nothing, and we smashed hell out of them. We cheated, we were incredibly rough, but we came home from Riverdale that day in triumph.

INTERVIEWER

I never knew you were a soccer player. How was the lycée otherwise?

STEINER

Of course I was a soccer player, I was French. The lycée was a seminal experience for me. Vichy was running it, and some teachers were refugees of genius, all trying to earn a bit of money before they got university posts in America. So I had encounters with the princes of European refugee culture, and that's where I discovered my vocation.

INTERVIEWER

Did you return to France after finishing school?

STEINER

We went back to see our house, to try to pick up the pieces, to see who was alive. Our library had been buried and saved. I had wanted to go on and become a French mandarin. I had no other conception of what life was about. But my papa was much wiser, and he literally hauled me back by the scruff of a furious neck, telling me that I was going to American universities because English was the language of the future. So I was packed off to something called “orientation week” at Yale.

INTERVIEWER

Did they give you a beanie?

STEINER

No, but a French lycée boy of previous years came to my room and told me about the Jewish situation at Yale — how tough it was, how excluded one was. Remember, this is 1948; it has nothing to do with now. So I arrive back at New York, under my own steam. Time magazine had a cover story about a man called Robert Maynard Hutchins, in which it said that you could take a B.A. at the University of Chicago at your own speed. I wrote him a “little-boy letter” and got a telegram telling me to come on out.

INTERVIEWER

So you went to Chicago?

STEINER

Yes. There were fourteen subjects that constituted the normal B.A., and you could take the final exam in any of them upon arrival. If you passed with an A you didn't need to take the course. I took all the exams: passed ten and had four E minuses — which is below failing — in physics, chemistry, mathematics and something called (I had never even heard the word before) “social studies.” So I had to take those courses, and I had a fantastic time. It was totally new to me. A world opened.

INTERVIEWER

How long were you an undergraduate there?

STEINER

I got my B.A. in one year and then went to see somebody called the “graduate advisor,” a position unknown in Europe, about going on in science. This man was a superb mathematician named Kaplansky. After a careful look at my exam papers he said, “You are technically an idiot; you haven't understood anything. Your superb European training means you learned everything by heart, but there isn't a spark of the kind of understanding of mathematical processes that would make it worthwhile letting you into the sciences.” I never forgave him, and years later I managed to get a little paper on the history of a mathematical problem into Nature, the supreme scientific journal, and sent it to Kaplansky, who was then retired.

INTERVIEWER

Did you get a response?

STEINER

By return of mail. “Thank you for your very interesting paper. I have no regrets for contributing to the history of literature.” I loved that answer.

INTERVIEWER

Was it then that you switched to literature?

STEINER

I studied literature with Allen Tate and philosophy with Richard McKeon. I couldn't decide between them; I loved them both. But then Harvard contacted me about a graduate place, and I committed the snobbish error of saying, “Oh, Harvard!” — fool that I was.

INTERVIEWER

Harvard contacted you? They already knew about you?

STEINER

Someone there told them that I was a student worth having for comparative literature. And my little, snobbish, stupid soul rose to the bait. I was happy in Chicago, passionately involved. I reached Harvard and knew within weeks what a mistake I'd made: the icy academic atmosphere; the fact that if you were not a Harvard undergraduate you barely existed. That was one of the darkest periods of my life. But I had the chutzpah to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship from Illinois, from Chicago. I wrote to Hutchins — this is chutzpah squared, exponential — saying he hadn't had a Rhodes for a long time and that I thought I could win this for him. He was so amused that he gave me one of the two nominations.

INTERVIEWER

How did you win it?

STEINER

In a very strange and haunting way about which I'm still a little embarrassed. They interviewed you until deep into the night at a country club. It was like the foreign service. They called me in, with the other finalist, who had the gold star on his West Point collar and was a double-varsity man, and they said it's going to be “one of you two. You have ten minutes to prepare a brief statement to this committee about your views on the Hiss case.” (This was December 1950, between the first trial and the second.) That lovely gentleman went in and more or less came to attention and said, “Excuse me, I'd rather not answer this question as a future commissioned officer since it's still under legal review.” They called me in, and without any such scruple I developed my long answer: I was passionately convinced that she was the guilty party and that he was exercising his paradoxical right of perjury to shield her. I developed this far beyond any knowledge, but they were absolutely intrigued.

Then they said to me, “Now we want to give it to you, but because of your physical handicap, there are no sports. Does any sport interest you?” “Apart from chess,” I said, “American football fascinates me.” They gave me a piece of chalk — this is all true — and asked if I could show them the difference between a split-T, a T, and a single-wing formation. I said, “That's too easy,” and I immediately began, and they said, “All right, you've got the Rhodes.” That's a totally true story.

INTERVIEWER

Are you still a fan of professional football?

STEINER

Yes, and college also. I used to go to the Notre Dame games and the Michigan State games out of Chicago. I miss that very much, but I do watch it on TV. I'm fascinated by football's cerebral intricacy and its strange, complex social makeup. In any case, that's how I came back to England.

INTERVIEWER

After studying at Oxford, you worked for The Economist. What exactly did you do there?

STEINER

Wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I had four wonderful years there. I wrote first about NATO and Western Europe and then about America. For one story I was sent over to cover the Atomic Energy Commission, which included interviewing Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He began by saying he refused to believe that his secretary had made an appointment; then he said we had three minutes, that he had better things to do than to see journalists of no interest; then came a blast about journalism, to which I counterblasted: “Perhaps if you were a little more humane about it, we'd get the story right.” And he laughed.

So I went to lunch with George Kennan and Erwin Panofsky and the great Plato scholar Harold Cherniss. Afterwards Cherniss invited me to his beautiful office and, as we started chatting, Oppenheimer came into the room and sat on the table behind us. This is one of the most cruel, brilliant tricks: it makes you master of the situation, and the people who can't see you as you speak to them are completely helpless. Oppenheimer's mastery of these histrionic moves was incredible. Cherniss was showing me how he was editing a passage of Plato with a lacuna, and trying to fill it. When Oppenheimer asked me what I would do with such a passage, I began stumbling, and he said, “Well that's very stupid. A great text should have blanks.” There I happily lost my temper: “Of all the pompous clichés,” I said. “First of all, that's a quote from Mallarmé, as you, sir, must know. Secondly, it's the kind of paradox you could play with till the cows come home. But when you're asked to do an edition of a Plato text for us ordinary human beings, I am most grateful if the blanks are filled.” Oppenheimer fought back superbly. He said, “No, precisely in philosophy you should know more than in poetry. It is the implicit missing that stimulates the argument.”

At this point his secretary comes in to say that my taxi is waiting. Oppenheimer walks next to me with that famous walk and asks me if I'm married. I reply, still in a towering state, “Very recently.” “Children?” he snaps. “Well no, not yet, we've just got married.” “Oh,” he says, “quite right; that will make housing easier.” That is how I was invited to the Institute for Advanced Study. I was the first very young person in the humanities.

INTERVIEWER

So you left The Economist and returned to America?

STEINER

My editor in London begged me not to leave, pointing out that they were giving me time to write around the corner at the London Library, that the Economist job was essentially only three and a half days a week, and that one could work on the side. It was an English man-of-letters tradition. But Oppenheimer told me one can't do good books part-time, which cut through me like a knife. Is it true? I don't know to this day. But his words cut through me at that time: the authority of that man, the charisma, the apodictic contempt in that statement. So I accepted.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you later decide to return to Europe?

STEINER

That's really a central question about everything I am and all my work. Let me first make something clear, which is very often misunderstood or talked about in a silly way. My debt to the United States is enormous. It not only saved our lives in 1940, but it also gave me its education, its American citizenship and the Rhodes Scholarship. My wife is a native New Yorker; my children are all young academics in the United States. For twenty-seven years I've been a critic on The New Yorker. I come several times a year to the States to lecture, to teach, to be with family and friends.

Nevertheless, it is entirely true that I want to live and work in Europe. My work turns around a multilingual condition. What interests me most, perhaps, is the question of our relationship to our language, our inward relationship to the languages we speak, and the condition of the polyglot, which— contrary to a lot of silly talk — is not so rare. In Sweden and Finland a large part of the population grows up totally bilingual. In a valley in the north of Italy they speak Italian, German and a local dialect. There are many parts of the world where people are natively multilingual. To me it's central. French, German, English and then Italian, which was later added — I live these languages, I write in them, I dream in them. Europe gives me the simple possibility of a multilingual situation. In Geneva particularly, in my life in France, which is a constant part of my existence, I'm in touch with the various levels of myself as I could not be in a monoglot United States.

Second, I am absolutely fascinated by history, by the ancientness of European cities and landscapes. I have never been able, never been intelligent enough, to respond to the vast spaces of the American situation. Put me down anywhere in Europe, and I can tell you within a few kilometers where I am by odor, accent, names, the light on the trees, on the walls of the houses. This magnificent and tragic density of being, this pressure of felt being, is simply an instinct for me; one doesn't reason on it. It seems to be absolutely integral to the way I am.

But these are really reasons of the surface. There is a central and unalterable reason. It's an anecdote; I can't help it. Heidegger said savagely that an anecdote is the enemy of reason. Well it is in a way, but I plead guilty. I am a storyteller, and I love stories. At this time I had two young children and no obvious prospects and had begun very solitary work on After Babel. Two American universities were so generous as to offer me their chairs in comparative literature. So I flew over to see my father, who was already quite ill, in New York. We were at the one place that he loved there, the Oak Room of the Plaza: a very old-fashioned, wonderfully European place where he had the same table since 1924 when he made his first visit to America. I asked him what he thought. I listed university A's advantages and university B's; he listened very courteously — he was an austere, difficult man — and he said that only I could decide, of course; then, after a long silence, he said, “How sad that Hitler has won.” What he meant by that was that Hitler had sworn Europe would be Judenrein, that there'd be no Steiners there. I phoned my wife that night to say I would rather become a schoolteacher, factory worker, anything in Europe than ever again experience the contempt of my father's remark. That I couldn't bear. Nothing was strong enough in me to bear the immense world of sad disdain in that remark. I knew he was right. He had given his life to saving us, to trying to save others, and his son was not going to be driven out by any circumstance.

I am a remembrancer. At the center of my work is an attempt to come after the Shoah, culturally, philosophically, in a literary sense: to be somewhere around with all the shadows and the ghosts and the ash, which are so enormous here. That is in part irrational; the great chroniclers — Raul Hilberg, Elie Wiesel — have chosen to do this from an American base. I've gone back very often to the actual places. I've gone back often to my father's village in Czechoslovakia. I've seen the camps. I keep going back, almost by instinct, to my school in Paris. Only one other Jewish child survived from my class, also by chance, by pure chance. Europe seems to me the place where I should be to do my work, my teaching and my thinking.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever considered living in Israel?

STEINER

There are mornings when I ask myself in Jerusalem, “Why aren't you here?” That is to me a much more disturbing and urgent question. I've polemicized against Zionism my whole life because I detest nationalism, because I have a kind of racial snobbery. I'm a racist to the tip of my fingers in an ethical sense. That is to say, for me the fact that a Jew has to torture another human being, as they have in the Israeli secret police in order to survive, is something I can't live with rationally. It seems to me such an enormity. If I'm asked why it is worse than for any other human being, I say that to me it is infinitely worse. We were the people who because of our helplessness, because we were hunted, had the fantastic privilege and aristocracy of not torturing anybody else, of not making others homeless.

Years ago, I slipped into the back of a lecture by Edward Said at Columbia. We know each other only by sight, but he had spotted me and without even giving a sign that he had recognized me, he brought up Martin Buber's distinguished book, I and Thou, and he said, “George Steiner may be interested to know that that book was written in the house from which my parents and I were driven for our lives on a certain night in (I think it was) 1948.” And I knew he had won in a terrible way, in an almost transcendental way, the privilege of that mock, of that taunt. We Jews have never been the subject of that taunt because of our impotence in a paradoxical sense. But to me trees have roots, and humans have legs, which is an immense advance. We are each other's guests as we move across the earth. This vision of Judaism runs roughly from Jeremiah to Trotsky, another one of the greatest figures of Jewish internationalism — Trotsky, the prophet, Trotsky the man who believed all frontiers would be abolished, who dies on an ice pick in Mexico after being hunted across twenty countries. There should be a few absurdly impractical Jews left in the great shadow world of Europe who at least remember what the civilization here was. In that sense I simply do not have the privilege, or the ability, or the talent to contribute to American life as I feel I can to that in Europe.

INTERVIEWER

But surely there's something about the character of American intellectual and literary life that deters you.

STEINER

Yes. I wrote an essay much reproduced and hated — among all my writings, perhaps the most hated one — called “The Archives of Eden,” in which I stretch my neck out to say that American museums, archives, libraries, research institutes, universities will be the center of the cultural world, living off the art, the philosophy, the metaphysics of Europe. That is to say that the Wittgensteins, the Heideggers, the Sartres of this earth would continue to come from a suicidal, eviscerated, smashed-up Europe; that the secondary work is what fills American culture to a large extent and not the primary; that de Tocqueville was right when he spoke of a deep inherent egalitarianism in the hopes of the American mind; and that that kind of social justice and egalitarianism and decency— underline that with eight red pencils! — is oddly inimical to certain qualities of absolutely first-rate philosophic and perhaps artistic creation.

To this, Americans will say, rightly, that they're leading the world in ballet — I'm not a judge but I fully defer to that judgment — or that there are now some very good composers: not a Schoenberg, not a Bartók, not a Stravinsky, but somebody as important as Elliot Carter or Aaron Copland. Of course making lists is utterly stupid and gets us nowhere. This is a question of a hunch, of an instinct. Probably I am mistaken, but I'm still not convinced. The European press still will have on the front page coverage of a philosophic event or debate or the death of an eminent thinker. There is a density to the atmosphere, a vibrato of ideas.

Let me put it another way. From western Portugal to St. Petersburg, you have cafés, places where you can come in the morning, order a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, spend the day reading the world's newspapers, playing chess and writing. The bibliography of magnificent books written in cafés is enormous. There are people who have always worked that way and preferred to. You don't have them in Moscow, which is an Asian frontier city. The line can be sharply drawn: Odessa is about the limit of the café. I'm a café creature, not a pub creature. The English pub is a very different animal, and the American bar is a profoundly different animal again. I'm at home everywhere in Europe because I go to a café the moment I arrive, either have a chess game, challenge somebody, or have them bring the papers for me on those wooden sticks, the old-fashioned ones where you roll them up, and it's the most egalitarian society in the world because the price of one cup of coffee or glass of wine buys you the day at the table, and you can write, you can do anything. After my lectures in Geneva, my students always knew at which café I would have my second coffee of the morning, or a glass of white wine, and they could come and chat. That's where the intellectual life really blazes.

These are very difficult issues; there's no use negotiating one's passions or negotiating with one's major errors. My children would say that America is the future and perhaps already the present. They've chosen, and I'm proud of them and delighted to visit them often. But the memories are too powerful, the French schooling was too strong. Why am I not going to heaven? Certainly for very good moral reasons, but for much more practical reasons too: I've already been there. What is heaven? It is the Galleria in Milan. I'm sitting with a real cappuccino, in front of me is La Stampa, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Le Monde and the Times. I've got a ticket to La Scala in my pocket, and coming at me are the ten or twelve complex smells in that Galleria — of the chocolate, the bakery, the twenty bookstores (which are among the world's best bookstores); the sound of the steps of people moving towards the opera or the theaters that night; the way Milan vibrates around you. I've been to heaven, so I'm not getting a second one.

Lincoln Center is nothing like this to me. I love and admire the Met but that isn't the point. We are complicated animals and my inner territory, the territoriality of my whole being, is European, and perhaps, perhaps — I know this — that of a lost Europe.

INTERVIEWER

Where is the best writing in the world being done now?

STEINER

Eastern Europe and Latin America, I think, almost without doubt. Great writing, great thinking, flourishes under pressure. Thinking is a lonely, cancerous, autistic, mad business: to be able to concentrate deeply, innerly. Very few people know how to think; real focused thinking is about the most difficult thing there is, and it profits enormously from pressure. Asked about Catholic censorship, Joyce said, “Thank God for it. I'm an olive; squeeze me.” Asked why he didn't leave the dangerous Buenos Aires at the time of the Peronistas to take up a position at Harvard, the smiling, blind Borges said, “Censorship is the mother of metaphor.” It isn't I who say these things, though I've been much attacked for them; it's the lions, it's the people who know about thinking and first-class writing.

For a while still, probably, we're going to get tremendous stuff coming out of recently freed nations. But it's fading very rapidly. Jackie Collins is filling the windows which Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol once filled. The young say, “Cut the crap.” They want the latest videocassette. “Your high culture was horrible,” they say; “it was rammed down our throats. Nobody asked us whether we liked Goethe; we loathed him.” I know that. I'm not totally stupid. In which case I will soon find myself belonging to a kind of mastodon, a partial mandarin survivor of elitist high culture. I know that.

But where is my real difference with most of my American professional colleagues? I can respect and get along with almost anyone who lives his beliefs. That's a very dangerous thing. I recently published in France a book of dialogues on Abraham and Antigone with one of the last great survivors of French fascism, a very eminent figure, Pierre Boutang, a philosopher of the extreme right. We differ on everything except mutual respect and the ability to debate our differences, because he has put his life on the line, and I've tried to live my convictions totally. What I cannot bear is democratic populism being voiced, touted and proclaimed by those who owe everything to high culture themselves, who lead sheltered and privileged lives within the groves of academia, and are trying to have it both ways.

In the famous troubles of 1968 and 1969, I was in some of the roughest spots — Harvard, Frankfurt — but the students absolutely respected an unreconstructed Platonist like myself. I had no trouble. They detested, they disagreed, but they knew that I felt passionately. They came to feel only contempt for those who wanted to howl with the wolves. Students can see through hypocrisy as through a glass not darkly. They know who is merely trying to please and flatter them. You cannot have it both ways. A person for whom Plato and Bach and Shakespeare and Wittgenstein are the stuff of his dreams, of his love, of his exasperations, of his daily life, of his communication, cannot pretend that he is a populist creature. It is that which nauseates me. If I come up against someone like Camille Paglia, who said Jimi Hendrix is more important than Sophocles, or if I meet someone who is really living that style of life, with all its dangers, then hats off. I may disagree with them. I happen to believe, for instance, that heavy metal and rock are the deconstruction of all human silence and of all hopes for human quietness and inwardness. But if somebody tells me that they're the voice of the future, and they are living that, and not pretending to do it from a white clapboard house with a large lawn and tenure, then there's absolute mutual respect, no difficulty. It's the cant of our profession, the cant, the bloody hypocrisy which gets me: wanting to have it both ways, running with the PC wolves in order to be loved.

INTERVIEWER

Let's agree, then, that there are masterpieces. Let's agree that we can talk intelligently about who the greatest writers are. Who are the best writers alive today?

STEINER

One often gets it wrong in one's own period. Edmund Wilson got it almost right when he espoused Proust and Faulkner, Yeats and Joyce. He had magnificent antennae. I believe that if I'm a footnote to a footnote to a footnote it will be for having fought very early for a writer like Paul Celan. And René Char, whom I believe is a poet who will tower over French poetry as the century ends. This is a very difficult question. One reads ten pages of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and one has the impression of a Faulkner come again. I try to reread them: impossible. You begin to gag on the formulaic mechanics of the magnificent gift. It is an unbelievable gift. There are pages of prose in his work that may be at the moment the most electric, the most violent, the most inventive prose being written. I think the jury is out. I would like to try again to reread McCarthy.

I would rather not do Harold Bloomian lists. I hate that exercise. What frightens me are very specific points. In English bookstores the remaindering period for first novels is seventeen days. Now what difficult, original book has a chance? Are books of a more difficult kind going to survive this supermarket of cultural values with its short shelf space, its hype, its slick marketing techniques? Are they going to survive the transformation of the disk, of the CD-rom, of the new world of actual access to texts? I can imagine that self-help texts, books about sports or current events will survive abundantly. Guides to museums will do better than ever. I'm not sure that a Proust, a Musil, a Broch, a Faulkner has even the ghost of a chance. This worries me. The abolition of the necessary time! Why the hell is it that you and I and everybody else have no more time for anything, despite all the phones and faxes and E-mails? We are short of actual time but more importantly of the inner spaces of the undisturbed which people had before us.

INTERVIEWER

You mention the fax, the telephone, the computer. Let's talk about the implements of writing and the way in which technology does or doesn't factor into your own work.

STEINER

Yes, I'm fascinated by the actual material techne of writing. I'm a morning creature. All my best work tends to be done in the morning, especially the early morning, when somehow my mind and sensibility operate much more efficiently. I read and take notes in the afternoon, then sketch the writing I want to do the next morning. The afternoon is the time for charging the battery. I write on very old-fashioned typewriters. The Paris Review has the largest collection of insight into this of any publication. It's utterly irrational, but I love foolscap; in America it's called “legal” size. It used to be available in any stationery shop, but you now have to order it in advance. I tend to type single-space on those huge sheets, badly typed without any attention, often even to paragraphing. This is the first naively typed, brute output. The second one will be double-spaced, and begin to be on normal-size typing paper, but still with a lot of hand insertions and corrections. So in a funny way, my rough draft is a single-spaced, typed scribble on foolscap. I don't know when it began, but I've been doing this for many, many years and I walk up and down the room like a deprived mother hen when I do not have that odd size of paper which somehow corresponds to the way I see a problem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you revise?

STEINER

On the back of the draft, or in the margin. Then the next, still very rough, draft is double-spaced, so that there I revise between the spaces.

INTERVIEWER

Where are you when you write?

STEINER

It can be anywhere. I've done it in hotel rooms if I have a typewriter along. I have too many offices now: a lovely one in Geneva, this house you're sitting in, my room in Churchill College, Cambridge, and now I'll be taking a typewriter to St. Ann's College, Oxford. I'm very lucky that way: the surrounding doesn't bother me. I also have a huge correspondence. And there I still handwrite a lot. On an average day, I get ten to twelve letters.

INTERVIEWER

How many do you write in a typical day?

STEINER

Four or five, and then many times just a brief apology for not responding. I will not do the Edmund Wilson printed card saying, “I'm sorry I can't answer.” Because I write about too many things, because I mention too many other books and writers, I get endless mail asking me where to find something or what else to read by a particular writer. Those I always answer. This, I think, is for me a kind of moral law.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any particular rituals when you begin to write?

STEINER

Oh indeed I do. That's a very good question; you've made me realize it now. Before I start a new book or a long essay, I will take a page of top prose in the relevant language and read it quietly before I start to write. But it will have nothing to do with the subject.

INTERVIEWER

You read it aloud?

STEINER

Yes, and almost learn it by heart, which — I'm very lucky in this way — I can do very rapidly, even with prose.

INTERVIEWER

Your memory is virtually photographic?

STEINER

It's highly trained. We started as five and six year-olds in the French lycée with ten lines a week of a La Fontaine fable, and we ended with up to one hundred fifty a week when I was seventeen — without difficulty. I still know much of my Racine by heart. So yes, there is a ritual. Of late, for instance, when I was writing Real Presences I used to start myself by taking a page of Coleridge. It worked beautifully for me. I have an impression of a music of thought so much beyond my own grasp. In German it may often be a poem, in Italian there are very few days that I don't read some Dante. He accompanies me constantly, constantly.

INTERVIEWER

As you talk about this ritual you have such sweetness and delight in your eyes. Is the actual act of writing really entirely pleasurable for you?

STEINER

No, no, but I'm lucky. The act of writing usually fills me with joy. There are times when I feel the fright of deadlines, but very rarely. One of the privileges of twenty-seven years on The New Yorker has been the range I've been invited to write about.

INTERVIEWER

Do you seek advice from anybody when you're in the middle of a writing project?

STEINER

Never. That's a mistake. The Everyman's Library is for the first time issuing an Old Testament, and I've been asked to do the long preface. It took all summer. Now I'm not a Hebraist or a biblical scholar; the sensible thing would be now to send out ten copies to specialists and ask them what errors I have committed. Maybe this time I am going to do that, but I've never done it before — at my cost. This goes very much against the present collaborative trend. I think a page that sings, that lives in us, is a wildly autistic act; it's mad to do it at all. It's mad to think you might have something new to say, for God's sake, about the Old Testament. How many books are there on it already? Hundreds of thousands? I can't even guess: libraries full. So how can you be so crazy? How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel? I've never quite understood. Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumor of the soul. It is not a collective act, as it can be in the sciences.

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that The Portage “wrote you,” as though you were a secretary taking dictation. Have you ever had that experience before or since?

STEINER

I've had it on certain pages. The section of After Babel on lies as the great creative moment and on the idea that the 20,000 languages are an adaptive way of surviving the monotony of life, each language giving you a different vision of the world — those five or six pages which nobody else had said, and with which nobody agrees. The end of Antigones also wrote itself. But the only complete book may be The Portage.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the Everyman Old Testament. Could you tell us something about your other current projects?

STEINER

Yes, I've just completed — what a joy — a book called Homer in English, from Caxton to Walcott, four hundred and fifty years of selections from translations of Homer, adaptations, imitations, satires, parodies, pastiches. It is a history of the English language and of sensibility from the early Middle Ages to Christopher Logue's recently published version of books three and four, to Derek Walcott's Caribbean version, to Scottish versions, Irish versions, Welsh and American. It's the most translated text in any language, much more than scripture. There has not been a year since the turn of the seventeenth century without somebody publishing an Iliad, an Odyssey, a Homeric hymn, or extracts. Since 1945 we have fourteen complete Iliads and Odysseys out of America and England, and the new Robert Fagles is currently underway as we speak.

INTERVIEWER

Are you writing anything else now?

STEINER

The main project, the one that has me sitting up with the sweat running down, is the Gifford Lectures. I was profoundly moved, surprised and honored to be asked to give this senior set of lectures in philosophy in the western world. Suddenly to think that, idiotically, I would be on a list with Henri Bergson and William James and Bertrand Russell and all the most important modern philosophers! There is an understanding that I will write and publish these lectures, which I gave in 1990. So that is the big job ahead. It's a huge task.

INTERVIEWER

These lectures concern, among other things, the nature of the transcendent?

STEINER

Yes, they are called “Grammars of Creation,” and they deal with the following question: why, in the English language and all other European languages, can you use the sentence, “God created the universe,” and not the sentence “God invented the universe”? This is a study of the difference between the two words, between creation and invention. Philosophically, literature, however far I can urge the argument, is leading me to the center of very difficult questions.

INTERVIEWER

This is a continuation in some ways of Real Presences?

STEINER

Yes, but in a very different way. Those who accuse me of scattering flatter me. My own vision is one of almost a single point. I was a very young man when I published Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, in which I claim over and over that what distinguishes these two writers from a Flaubert or a Balzac, what makes them similar to Melville, is the theological dimension, the question of the existence of God. The book spells out what Real Presences spells out thirty-five years later. I am convinced that there are certain dimensions in literature, the arts, music, but also philosophy, which cannot be attained if the question of the existence or nonexistence of God is ruled to be nonsense.

The consequent atheist is a very rare being, and inspires me with awe and respect of the deepest kind. Ninety-eight percent of us live in a middle wash of approximate inherited superstitions, imaginings, fears and hopes, where if the phone rings at night, and we hear our child has been in a traffic accident, we start screaming for God in one way or another. It's a humiliating condition. The real atheist and the true deep believer — a man for whom there is an order in the universe, for whom even the death of his child, unbearable as it is, makes sense in a certain dimension — those are the proud few. We spoke of my deepening conviction that there is absolute evil. I wish I could be as convinced about absolute good.

But I feel certain that we will no longer in the West be able to produce certain orders of literature and art and music and thought if the consensus of the culture is what logical positivism and linguistic philosophy in Oxbridge would say: that a sentence containing the word God is necessarily a nonsense sentence. If that view prevails, I think very small beer will follow.

INTERVIEWER

How is this related to the huge break in western consciousness that you see occurring in the last decade of the nineteenth century?

STEINER

That's where it starts. Mallarmé and Rimbaud prepare for Derrida, Lacan and Foucault by saying that there is no subject, that there is no “I,” that a word is the absence of that to which it refers (the wonderful Mallarmé line: “the word rose is the absence of any flower”). We are confronted here with the full consequences of another saying of a logical positivist: that the word lion does not defecate or have four legs.

INTERVIEWER

In Real Presences you use a good deal of Catholic theology. How do you, as a Jew, explain this?

STEINER

Christianity, differently from Judaism, has an aesthetic, has long concerned itself with the place of the arts both in life and in man's relation to transcendent emotions. Judaism does not. Like Islam, Judaism is profoundly iconoclastic and Judaism nobly and immensely seeks not to have images of any kind. Christianity, which in my opinion is a form of polytheism because of its trinitarian beliefs — a very high and noble polytheism, but not monotheism — is charged with an awareness of the symbolic, the allegoric and the imaginary. I don't think one can write or think very long about the role of transcendent motifs, subjects, symbols in art, literature, music without confronting a great body of Christian thought from St. Augustine and St. Thomas to the present.

INTERVIEWER

Love is also an important Christian theological concept. In the Penguin edition of your selected works you claim, “The root of all my subsequent work and teaching was the early conviction that serious literary and philosophic criticism comes from a debt of love.” Could you please explain that?

STEINER

With pleasure. I have suffered my whole life from the awareness of living in the age not, as often said, of anxiety, but of scorn, of envy and of jealousy. I have published over a hundred and fifty pieces in The New Yorker and, let's say, over two hundred and fifty in places like the Times Literary Supplement. In thirty-five years I think there have been four or five really negative reviews, if that. I have turned down many books which I didn't want to review because they're so lousy. I have tried to praise, I have tried to delight, I have tried to say to people, “Read this book.”

I'm totally out of sync with the British note of tight-lipped delight in dismissal, in condescension, in carping, and with the general invidia (the great Latin moral-theological term) of modernity. We are in the culture of envy. When I have students who are much abler than I, who are quicker, deeper, more creative — and I've had perhaps four or five, some of whom are very prominent now in America — it is an utter privilege for me. That's when it all makes sense, that's when I know I've been of use.

What is our function, people like you and I? We are the pilot fish, those strange, tiny creatures, which go in front of the real thing, the great shark or the great whale, warning, saying to people, “It's coming.” When I was in Africa, in a game reserve, we actually saw the beautiful little yellow birds that sit on the rhinoceros and chirp like mad to alert everyone that a rhino is coming. Now a good teacher, a good critic says, “This is the real thing. Here's why. Please read it, read it, come on and buy it. Go and get it.”

I shall never forget my joy one day while teaching at Cambridge. A student was late for a tutorial, so I had a few minutes, and in the mail was a vast packet, a manuscript. The New Yorker usage is that I don't read manuscripts or endorse them in order to preserve full liberty as a reviewer, and I deeply respect that. So I was trying to get this huge package into the wastebasket and it wouldn't fit: the cardboard was too damn big. I read the first sentence of this manuscript and, Good God, I thought, something tremendous has landed on my desk. I phoned Mr. Shawn to ask whether I could review it, and he was very amused and he said that it would probably be a year and a half, two years before the book would be out but that yes, he would reserve it for me: Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

INTERVIEWER

Had it been accepted by a publisher at that point?

STEINER

I'm not sure. But I wrote the author and said, “You know, this is it.” I did not tell him but I told my wife and wrote in my notes that I was afraid there would never be another book from this man worth reading. That was totally clear to me, which is a terrible thing, and I'm right, very sadly. But what I'm trying to emphasize here is my joy at being the chirp bird on the rhinoceros.

So I have been so lucky in being able quite often to say, “My God, this is wonderful.” I'm still fighting. I believe England has had only one major novelist after Hardy: John Cowper Powys. Only a handful of people agree with me; I may be getting this completely wrong. I was able to get some of it into paperback, there is a following, but so far there's been no breakthrough. I believe Glastonbury Romance, Porius and Wolf Solent are the big ones. I write about him, I lecture, I tell people to go out and try it. So far, very few respond, and many have honestly tried and say I'm totally wrong, that he's unreadable. Fine. I would rather make those mistakes than keep my passions quiet.

Another case for which I've never been forgiven is Lawrence Durrell. Now let's be careful. Durrell is now mocked everywhere. I still believe that the first three volumes of the Alexandria Quartet are like nothing else. I admit the fourth one goes to a shambles, which is tragic, and that there is endless stuff after that. That doesn't matter. Suppose I was wrong, suppose I am wrong: hurrah! What interests me are errors of passion, errors which you stick your neck out on. Oh God, the attempt to be right! The attempt of our academic contemporaries to play it safe! For forty years I have been asking my students whose works they collect, which living writers they love so much that they want even their weaker books. If they don't collect any writer, I know they will not get anywhere in my trade, in my craft. Luckily, for Simenon I have Gide and everybody else on my side, so there's no courage in my saying he may be the most important of modern authors. But if somebody says Zane Grey is it, and lives that passion, and collects and studies, then I say, “Hurrah!” That is a soul that is safe for salvation. But the person who asks who the winners are, who the stock-market winners are, where they should invest: no, no, no! So yes, love is capital for me. It's been a bitter time, one of the bitterest times of cultural envy, and there have been very big men responsible for it. Every time Leavis opened his mouth, it was to say there were five classics, that the rest was damnable and vulgar and mustn't be read and wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. There have been hate critics in our time. There have been very powerful and influential teachers of hatred. These I have nothing in common with.

INTERVIEWER

In Real Presences you refer to the transactions between the artist and the audience on the model of hospitality. The reader, you say, provides a welcome, the listener takes the melody into his or her inner house of being.

STEINER

That's exactly what we've been talking about: cortesia, tact of heart, a welcome. So many examples immediately swarm to mind of people who show off with negativity and who are totally sterile themselves. A great critic is a disappointed writer. A great critic knows that he is a eunuch's shadow compared to the creator. Do you think one would write books on Dostoyevsky if one could write a page of The Possessed? Now that's where I have tweaked the nose of too many of my contemporaries in the universities, and that they don't forgive me.

INTERVIEWER

Music seems to play an increasingly important part in both your life and your work. Why?

STEINER

The first answer comes from insights into aging, which say that music becomes more and more important for those who have spent a life in language: that gradually one reads less and listens more. Though I just learned this recently, apparently it is a known psychological phenomenon. If this really is true, if it's not a myth — psychology and psychologists are full of myths — I can only echo it fervently.

But there's much more involved in my attraction to music. If you crowd me up against a wall, if you kick me hard enough, I can just barely imagine how some of the major poets work. I know I couldn't write a single line like that, but at least I can imagine that a person like myself might. It's no use when I come to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, above all Schubert, who is for me at the center with all the major works of his last year. I don't get it, okay? I do not get it. Lévi-Strauss says that the invention of melody is “the supreme mystery,” but it's not just melody I don't get. I don't get Bach being able to do the forty-eight preludes out of a four-note motif. I don't know how a Wagner holds in himself the arching construct from the opening chord of the Ring to the last. Or a Beethoven quartet.

So first of all I find myself in front of a terra incognita from the point of view of creative process. Secondly, I don't know what music does to me. I know it does everything to me. In my books I've often spoken of the opening of Edith Piaf's “Non, je ne regrette rien.” I go cold, I go hot, I'd vote for Monsieur Le Pen, I'd join the Foreign Legion. All sorts of magnificently irrational things follow on those opening bars for me. We know what music does to temperament. Plato suspected it of being too dangerously powerful. We know its uses in medicine, in therapy. What does music do inside us? What is it that responds?

Thirdly, I am always accused — rightly, rightly — of being utterly out of cultural touch, some say out of a prehistory. But I have always, with joy and I hope genuine understanding, kept up with the most difficult modern music. There are composers living right now — Nono, Berio, Ligeti, Kurtág, Elliot Carter, Brian Ferneyhough, Zimmerman — whom I'll go listen to whenever there is new work, and thrill to. Contemporary music is tremendous for me. I have no difficulty with it. But I do have difficulty with rock. Not jazz: jazz seems so close to classical music. I was at the University of Chicago in the years when Dizzy Gillespie was beginning at the Beehive and when Charlie Parker was becoming a legend. So I had a good start. But I think rock is on the other side of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

And what's that?

STEINER

It is meant to deafen; it is totally sadistic; it is meant to humiliate. I associate it with the end of our sense of the harmony of life. If statistics are right, in the year 2100 there will be more people alive on the planet than the totality of the dead up to that point, than the estimate of all those who have died since Neanderthal. That's an awesome statistic if it's right. Death is closely related to what I call real music: a certain sense of the end of time and of personal life. Rock is something quite different. Maybe it is the music of the infinity of the living young. They certainly seem to feel that. It connects with drugs, with ecstasy, but above all with the hatred of silence; whereas in the best classical music and in jazz, silence plays a very major role.

So music seems to me the most exciting unknown central human activity. There have been half a dozen people who have had anything to say about the meaning of music: St. Augustine, Boethius, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Adorno. It's so difficult. The next Copernicus may have something to tell us about what music does inside us and how it is created. Above all, music illustrates for me that order of meaning that you can't translate, can't paraphrase, can't put in any other terms, and yet which is intensely meaningful. If I am doing any thinking, as I am in the new Gifford Lectures, about the meaning of meaning, music is that which says to me, “Think harder.”

INTERVIEWER

If your fundamental model of meaning is translation, is music that which cannot be translated?

STEINER

Yes, nor paraphrased nor metaphrased. What is meaning? Why do we know that music means? What do we mean by its meaning?

INTERVIEWER

And the answer has some connection with the transcendent?

STEINER

For me. I am so certain that the area of what we do not know is infinitely greater than that of what we do know, that our little landscape is so small compared to the sum of being. When somebody asks how one can have an intense meaning which one doesn't understand, music is the one place to turn for an answer. That's why I always use a very important Schumann anecdote, which is central to my teaching. He had played a very difficult étude and one of his students asked if he could explain it. “Yes,” said Schumann, and he played it again. That to me is central and that's why I learn so much by heart and go over the same text over and over with my students: play it again. Music is my validation, my tuning fork for my whole feeling of the mysterium tremendum in the arts.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever played music?

STEINER

No. Middle-fi, low-fi, and high-fi, as Bob Hope said. A good answer.

INTERVIEWER

Let me turn to a different question altogether. Who were your most important teachers?

STEINER

I'm glad to answer that. Some were schoolteachers. When I was in French kindergarten we wore blue smocks and held our lunch baskets and stood at attention when the teacher came in. So the teacher comes in — I know his name to this day — looks at these five and six year olds, and says, “Gentlemen, it's you or I.” I knew then what the whole theory of teaching is about: “It's you or I.” Whenever I hear about these teaching colleges in America, I laugh sardonically because the art of teaching is simply to know what that sentence means.

Now unquestionably at Chicago I came across beings who lived thought. Richard McKeon was one of them. I did not understand a lot of what the scientists were telling me but I knew — something very hard to express — a carnal joy in what they were doing, in the unfolding tomorrows of their discipline. Allen Tate was a great, reserved, difficult teacher whose ironies left one helpless and yet eager to come back for more.

Then I met a number of men not in formal teaching but as teachers for my life. The most privileged relations I had were with Gershom Scholem. I spent time with him in Switzerland.

INTERVIEWER

When was this?

STEINER

1972 to 1976. There I knew the rarest of combinations: minute textual, philological scholarship, based on the idea that God is in the details — which I admire helplessly, not being able to do it well myself — with the huge scope. I am surrounded by these rancorous dwarfs who think that to be a specialist is in itself the way to God. The devil it is! What was said by Housman? “True scholarship is much rarer than poetic genius.” Scholem made me understand what that sentence means. The dwarfs that surround us do bad scholarship on smaller and smaller problems, which has nothing to do with the virtues of specialization.

Then there was Jacob Bronowski, whom I met with only a few times, but each meeting was a major event. His love of romantic poetry, his radical politics, his science, his theory of culture: he was the kind of man for whom the “two cultures” argument did not have any meaning. He was creative in both. Then, unknown to the American public, a man who died recently, professor of philosophic theology here, is a Scottish man named Donald McKinnon, whom I revere. McKinnon was a magnificent Aristotelian and Kantian scholar, who lived the daily newspaper down to its last line. I'll tell you about him, and why I believe this is how you should teach.

He found a small item in Le Monde; he checked it to be true, and it was. The French paratroop commander in Algeria, a General Massu, had himself stripped and tied up and his genitalia wired and had three hours of full torture by his own men. When this was over he said, “Complaints by victims were exaggerated,” that it was intensely unpleasant but bearable. Donald McKinnon read this news item and came in gowned, as one was in those days, into his packed lecture hall to teach his course on Kant and ethics. He told his students that in view of this news item he could not go on teaching Kant and ethics, that they were going to spend the next lectures examining the implications of absolute evil in this news story, in a man like that. He developed it to every reach of theology and philosophy, saying just what this story meant in terms of morality. This was his way. He and I got to know each other intimately. I was honored by being asked recently to give the address in Cambridge for his memorial.

But I've had other masters. Mr. Whittaker, of the original New Yorker, whose nickname was Mr. Frimbo, was my editor for the first twenty years there. Mr. Whittaker regarded an imprecision, of syntax or punctuation, as being dirty in an almost moral sense. If a sentence wasn't absolutely precise, if it waffled, if you put a colon where there should have been a semicolon, you were doing dirt: on your reader, on the language and ultimately on yourself. This could lead to transatlantic calls which you simply wouldn't believe. He would say, “Mr. Steiner” — always Mr., of course — “I think what you really meant was . . .” And you'd say, “Well that's what it says,” and he'd say, “No, no, not quite. Will you listen to it again?” And he'd read it again, and gradually you would realize that he was right, that it wasn't exactly what it said. Now that kind of love for the resources of the English language, for the inexhaustible nuance of English punctuation, is extraordinary. Mr. Whittaker was a superb teacher, and so was Mr. Shawn, whose care over detail became a legend in his lifetime. Those were true teachers to work with in harness.

Yes, I've been lucky. Let me paraphrase one of the many Hasidic parables and say that I hope I would have the courage and energy to go a long way barefoot to a man or woman who could teach me something. I'm endlessly grateful.

INTERVIEWER

Whom do you consider the strongest influences on your work, on your vision, on your writing?

STEINER

The Frankfurt school. Walter Benjamin would have written the really great After Babel if he had been alive. I'm haunted by the knowledge that this book should have been his, and how much better it would have been. Then there is Adorno, whose seventeen volumes of writing on music will survive long after the critical theory of the Frankfurt school disappears; Ernst Bloch, the messianic Marxist utopian; Lukács, the senior Marxist literary critic. The central-European Jewish tradition — messianic, polyglot, with Goethe and Pushkin and Shakespeare and music at the center — has been an enormous influence on me: Jewish survivors, Jewish involved people, Jewish makers of great historical mistakes, Jewish Marxists, Jewish messianics, Jewish prophets, Jews who lived their century.

Nothing is sillier, dryer, more emasculated, more castrated than current American academic writing on the Frankfurt school by people who have never heard a mob in a street, who have never smelled a prison, who have never known what a concentration camp is, who don't know one single thing about the fact that these men lived their abstractions in bone and blood and gut and tripe, that they lived their century as our slick mandarins don't. These American discussions about the nuances of meaning in the sociology of the middle Adorno are hair-raising. They would have filled Adorno with sarcasm and wonder and a sense of defeat.

To be in Lukács's room was to be in a storm center of our century. He was under house arrest when I was with him in Budapest. I was very young and unbelievably sentimental, and when I had to leave I had tears in my eyes: he was under house arrest and I was going back to the safety and comfort of Princeton or whatever. I must have made some remark, and the contempt in his face was overwhelming. He said, “You've understood nothing of everything we've talked about. In that chair, twenty minutes from now, will be Kadar,” the dictator who had put him under house arrest. “He's my student. We're working through Hegel's Phenomenology sentence by sentence. You don't understand.” And indeed I didn't, I hadn't understood. That story alone reeducated me about the bizarre byzantine world of Marxist intellectuality and cruelty and seriousness in which all this stuff operated.

R.P. Blackmur was another major influence: his essay-writing style, his obliqueness, his ear, his formidable sense for the way ideas get themselves into what he called “executive form,” into performative motion; his Dante essay, his Henry Adams, his James. Then there's somebody whom nobody reads in America. Oh, they read their Derrida, their Foucault, and they're flat on their stomachs in adoration, and I ask them if they have read Kenneth Burke and they say, “Who?” Burke was a considerable influence on me: A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives, the study of Logos in Milton and religious writing. Do you know that I can't get a reprint edition of his work on the rhetoric of Hitler's early speeches? It was Burke who did the first analysis, asking what this linguistic construct was, what this man was. There's a tremendous Burke essay, almost unobtainable, on the violence and fascism of language in Coriolanus in which he is already working out deconstruction and semiotics and postmodernism. And too late people helped me to C.S. Peirce, whom I regard as the greatest American philosopher. He opens up the whole of modern language, philosophy, semiotics, semantics.

I.A. Richards was also very important for me. But as a book, Empson's Structure of Complex Words, for which I would give you the whole of Derrida, with all due respect, is probably one of the supreme acts of reading, of close reading. His internalization of almost the whole history of English poetry and of the Oxford English Dictionary, of the life of a word, is monumental. So I suppose my influences have been a very varied group. But sorry, I add on all the time. My discovery of Heidegger, for example, came for me fairly late, when I was beginning to work on Antigones, which is only twenty years ago, and since then he has never left me. I would like, before I shut up completely, to get nearer the question of why Plato, Heidegger, Sartre flirted so profoundly with the inhuman. I have hunches on that. But they are very provisional.

INTERVIEWER

Abstract thought is somehow attracted, perhaps perversely, to the mob in the street?

STEINER

Only to say that there is in the absolutely pure intellectual living at that height of abstraction a hunger for action, for getting out there into the muck. It is possibly subconscious but almost desperate. A.J. Ayer claimed that he was only happy watching football; for Wittgenstein it was westerns: every time an afternoon was open, he was off to see still another western or another detective movie. Just to rest, I think, just to take a break. And taking a break can become nazism; or in Sartre's case all the Stalinist lies; in Plato it was the tyrant Dionysus whose prime minister he hoped to be three times over. It's an expensive way of taking a breather, but I think maybe they have to.

INTERVIEWER

Aside from the material that you quote in The Death of Tragedy you have not published any translations of your own, which seems a bit surprising for somebody who knows so many languages and who has been so deeply interested in the meaning of translation. Is there any sense in which you're translating every time you write English?

STEINER

You're right: I do leave the actual translating to others. And yes: there is a sense in which I translate myself into English. I do continually translate myself inwardly. I've used the word magma, volcanic mixture, to describe this phenomenon: the far back down there, the root polyglot. Very often as I search for the right word in one language, those of the other languages interpose as being more exact, or being more of what I would really like to say if I could. Many who have objected have felt in my English prose a certain resonance that is not native, that is not instinctive. That's quite correct. French and German are in me continually and I will now be teaching for the first time in Italian, with joy, con amore. I often know that the first filaments before the lamp lights, when the heat pours in, are multilingual, are a mixture, and that the English sentence is a compromise with a richer intentionality which is multilingual.

Roughly since the 1890s we've been getting major polyglot literature. I consider Oscar Wilde, who wrote Salome in French, one of the most indicative figures in all modern literature. The Irish extraterritoriality to English is crucial. We do not know in what language or languages or magma Beckett composed. He would never discuss the matter. Borges is a polyglot. He says over and over that he is closer to English than to Spanish. Above all there is Nabokov: French, Russian, English and American English, which is different again. The novels of the English English, like The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Invitation to a Beheading, are very different from, say, Lolita. So he switches four times, if not more. The greatest single book in English poetry, many people say, is the 1667 Milton, which includes Hebrew, Greek, Italian, Latin and English.

We forget. The monoglot condition is a Romantic obsession. Herder and Hamann believed that you are rooted in the blood and bone of one language. This is both true and not true. Judaism never was, because if it went beyond Hebrew, it was leaving its native home and it became the great wanderer across languages. But these are issues for the real masters. For the little people like me being polyglot is a limitation of sorts. It's quite clear that there are degrees of somnambular at-homeness (the fashionable word in Cambridge now is inwardness) which I will never attain. On the other hand, to me being polyglot is a boundless wealth; it's the open window through which I look on so many landscapes. It's for outsiders to judge whether it has damaged or enhanced my work. Now, I'm a member of the German Academy of Literature, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in England, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; I open the Salzburg festival, in German of course, and my audience regards me as native to them. Around my seminar table at the University of Geneva for twenty years, there were often fifteen or twenty languages spoken as a matter of course, because of all the Slavonic and Middle Eastern presences among my students. I gave the address on October twenty-first last year for the two hundredth anniversary of the École Normale in Paris, and it would not occur to them that I'm not French. They think I'm merely doing this odd detour in the barbaric Anglo-Saxon lands like a missionary and then I'll come home to Paris. I'll be privileged to teach this year in Italian in Sienna.

I owe everything to the good luck of this very complex condition. Contrary to Reader's Digest psychologists and sociologists, who would have us believe that to bring up children in several languages initiates schizophrenia, I happen to know in blood and bone that this is an absolute lie, that in fact it initiates a tremendous wealth of human experience — and possibly survival when you've got to run. So those who are making America more and more monoglot will pay a very high price. I know Anglo-American covers the globe, that it has become a kind of Esperanto. But that may not be an eternal condition; that can fade again. And what about provinciality of the soul? What a wonder of different life it is to change languages, to know that in England bread is bread, that for black Americans it means wealth, and that for French pain means bread, pain is something you lack and you make revolutions for. Or to know that there can be no translation, perhaps thank God, of the German Heimat, no translation on Earth; and that men died for Heimat, whatever that means. Or to know that every sexual encounter in a different language is a different eros, that there is a Don Juanism of language possibly far wilder and more exciting than the Don Juanism merely of the flesh.

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to say any more about the relationship between eros and language?

STEINER

Yes, we're learning more and more. In the parasympathetic nervous system, which is where the unconscious and the conscious mix, stomach pains start being conscious, ulcers are possibly treatable by meditation and self-hypnosis. It's beginning to look as if this may be that crucial area where what we call “thought” and what we call “body” mesh. Sexuality seems to be on that osmotic fault line: erections, orgasms are part conscious, part unconscious, immensely subject to verbal stimulation in most human beings. Each language draws taboo lines in quite different places. Things which in one language are the bedroom's final wild privilege are in another language almost public, and vice versa. The pacing of the words one uses is completely different in different languages. Even breath control is different in different languages, and it's very important in sexual intercourse and in foreplay. This is an absolutely unexplored field, and if we learn more about it we will learn a great deal about the interaction of the biosomatic: bio and soma, semantics and the somatic, the semiotic and the seed, the way they interact. Gay and lesbian speech, for example, must impinge profoundly on the nature of the sexual act. We have everything to learn. The next Copernicus will be the man who will say, “Drop the five-thousand-year-old body-mind vocabulary, that primitive dualism.” I am absolutely certain the next Einstein will be the man who rethinks for us what is now an archaic and quite useless vocabulary.

INTERVIEWER

What about the dualism of men's writing as opposed to women's writing?

STEINER

In the best women writers it isn't on. Anonymously you can't tell the “femininity” of a page in George Eliot, in George Sand; possibly flickering at the edge of the Brontës; certainly not in Jane Austen, who was just better than any other man writing. Not different, but better: more precise, incisive, humorous, witty, ironic, condensed. Today it's different. Today this has become a cause, a vengeance, a hope which is highly conscious. I'm sure there are important differences. This is extremely unfortunate, because there is only good writing and there is only bad writing.

INTERVIEWER

This is a particularly important moment for you as you assume the Weidenfeld Chair. Is there particular significance in the fact that this is the first chair at Oxford in comparative literature?

STEINER

Very much so. Oxford has not wanted to create European studies, feeling quite justifiably that much of what is called interdisciplinary is not respectable, that an enormous amount of hot air has been emitted by such programs in intercultural this and intercultural that. But they were very conscious that they couldn't go on as before, especially in light of the identity crisis of England in regard to both the continent and itself. Is England European or is it not? The Channel Tunnel is symbolically one of the most difficult moments for the average Englishman to countenance. So Oxford decided to set up a chair in intellectual history in honor of Isaiah Berlin and this chair in European comparative literature, which I'm told was set up in the hope that I would come to start it.

The history of comparative literature is a tragic history of Jewish refugees. Its origins are in the Dreyfus Affair, which is not often realized. I'll be talking about this in my inaugural lecture, in which I'll also argue that comparative literature is not so much a discipline as a way of feeling, since everyone compares when they read. So this is for Oxford quite a moment, though not a comfortable moment in every respect. English is the world language. English people feel that English literature is the richest of all, needing very little from outside. If you have Shakespeare, they feel, do you need much else? If you have Newton and Shakespeare, Parliament and English law, which has covered the globe, what are all these other things? My task is not easy and it will need perhaps those diplomatic skills which have not been my strong point. That's why I look forward to it so much.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your works, if you had to predict right now, do you think will endure?

STEINER

The realistic answer is none, but of course one isn't honest when one says that. Nobody should try to make their own balance sheet. In Bluebeard's Castle, where I set out the paradoxes of barbarism and culture, and a number of the essays in Language and Silence seem to have had a very large impact. My main act of scholarship and doctrine is After Babel and to my joy it's now reappearing revised, updated and expanded. The Death of Tragedy is used all the time, it's widely quoted and seems to have had quite a run. I have been lucky. Out of fifteen books, eleven are in print, which is almost unheard of today, and most are in paperback. You were directly associated with the publication in a single complete issue of The Kenyon Review of The Portage. If the two long monologues — that of Lieber, the Jewish man who is hunting for Hitler, and that of Hitler himself — were to disappear altogether, I would be very sad. I think they say certain things that I've not said elsewhere and in a way that is not said elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

Aside from reading and writing and music, what are your other passions?

STEINER

I read and read and read. Yes, I am a book creature, but I do have a number of other passions. I am perhaps the worst chess player possible but a passionate one, and I wrote a book about the Spassky-Fischer match. I follow chess very closely, play whenever I can and collect chess sets. I am now in a state of depression about the computer that beat the world champion, that beat Kasparov. I've replayed that game four times and there was no mistake on Kasparov's part. It's a deep and beautiful game and that unspeakable machine saw deeper than the most powerful mind. All joking aside, that one I would have liked not to live to see.

I'm also wild about mountains, hence my joy living for twenty years in Switzerland and my keeping a base there now: to walk among the hills, just to walk, to look. Another difference perhaps from the democratic instincts of the United States is that I'm not a marine creature, a lover of the democracy of beaches. Mountains are harsh selectors. The higher you pant your way, the fewer you will meet. Solitude is, surely, the test. Is one worth living with (oneself)? In a way I am unable to formulate, even the final depths of love, of intercourse, find one alone. As will death. Consumer societies and egalitarian utopias have tried to efface this fact. To me, it has always seemed obvious. Death will, I sense, be interesting. It is not, I suspect, an interest to be shared.