Issue 137, Winter 1995
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.
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”?
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.
Is the role of ideas in fiction subordinate then?
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.
Would you like to write more fiction?
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.
Now what about poetry? You used to write poetry.
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.
What happened to the tradition of the man of letters, which you alluded to earlier?
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.
Has the relationship, more generally, between literature and criticism altered?
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.
Have the humanities failed to humanize? Do you still believe that literary education may ironically foster political cruelty and barbarism?
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.