Frontlines

George Steiner thinks!

November 20 1978
Frontlines

George Steiner thinks!

November 20 1978

George Steiner thinks!

Dressed in funereal black, at first glance George Steiner looks as if he might have spent the last 25 years in the cloistered bank vaults of Geneva. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Paris-born critic and English professor is a truly international figure, as at home in Chicago where he studied as he is in Cambridge or Geneva where he now divides his teaching year. His books (including Language and Silence, The Death of Tragedy, In Bluebird's Castle, After Babel), and his book reviews for The New Yorker (he succeeded Edmund Wilson as principal critic 12 years ago), have propelled Steiner into an elite circle of celebrated modern thinkers. Fluent in four languages, a prodigious reader, and now co-editor with Saul Bellow of a revived Kenyon Peview, Steiner was interviewed for Maclean’s recently by senior writer Michael Posner and Professor Arthur Lesley of the University of

Toronto’s Near Eastern department.

Maclean’s: You have talked about the “terrifying possibility” that even the best educated among us will end up as specialists in their own small provinces of the world. Do you see your work as an attempt to provide some link between these outposts of modern thought? Steiner: I would like to be a mail carrier, yes. There is a wonderful remark by the poet Pushkin who says, “Please, never despise the translator. He’s the mailman of human civilization.” I think of myself at best as a translator, not just between different languages but between different disciplines and interests.

Maclean’s: Are there limits now to what language can do to overcome the crisis of isolationism you describe?

Steiner: As I get older, and when one is travelling and alone in hotel rooms, one gets very old very fast. I catch myself saying, “What do I ache for most at this moment?” And it is often now a piece of music. A few years ago, I would have said, of course, a book or text. In the apartments of young people, where there would have been book shelves, there is the record shelf and record player. Now, all around us, there are great domains of reality that are saying we are not bookish, we are not primarily linguistic, we are something else. We are the body in motion. We are mathematics in motion. We are music. If I were to switch on the latest hits, they would be heard in London and from a transistor in Vladivostok and I would bet my bottom dollar they will be heard in Peking before very much longer. All over this world people are coming together to make and listen to and move to music together.

Maclean’s: You see this as a positive sign.

Steiner: Oh, tremendous, tremendous... no code has an exclusive right over human perception. I have a daughter who has just begun at Harvard, and the last sight I had of her was in a large mixed group jogging down towards the Charles River. There are so many of them that the traffic has to stop. A curious, very powerful symbol. The car suddenly is impotent and looks very silly. It may be that we are coming back to Greek ideals of physical excellence being indispensable to human totality.

But there is a danger in the new equilibrium. We are seeing young people who say the creation will be in my home or with a small group of friends. With a chosen group, I will do my thing. Once you say that, you have closed the door on politics, and as a teacher, what has shocked and worried me is this turn away from public life. When I came to Cambridge some 20 years ago, the best were hoping to go into politics; that’s why they were there. Now there is a premature, cynical tristesse where even the ablest students say it will make no difference. Nobody, however energetic, seems to be able to make a dent in the inhuman bureaucracies and corruptions of our politics, so they think what’s the use. I will pitch my energy inward, into

an intimiste situation. The film they go to see over and over again in Cambridge is Jules et Jim, which seems to incarnate for them the ideal of what I call intimisme or pastoral domesticity. That’s the only awkward way I can put it. And the contempt for public life, causes, and politics is exceedingly dangerous because into the vacuum the thugs and the second-rate are moving very, very fast. Is there a Western politician now for whom any one of us in this room would care to get up if he entered, as a gesture of respect? Precious few.

There is this terrific feeling that what matters is at home. When I first came to Cambridge, if somebody was late with his essay, he’d say, “I apologize, I’ve been to London,” either to attend a debate or to do something ambitious in public life. If I ask him now, why are you late, the student will usually say because my close friend is in trouble or is having nervous stress and we’ve sat up all night to help him. And, by God, I admire that too. It would be the rudest impertinence not to, but it worries the hell out of me.

Maclean’s: Do you feel that rather than adventures in thought and reason, perhaps there are new social forms that one should be participating in?

Steiner: The problem seems to be that almost for the first time, there is no safety valve of a new utopia. Throughout history, one after another—in Russia at the turn of the century, in the dream of a Spanish republic, in the spring of ’68 in Prague—there seemed to be actual places for hope, where hope had come to power. Now the wisest of my students, or the saddest, know that even Allende’s Chile carried the seeds of violence right within itself. I don’t know one young man who is off hitchhiking to Cuba in order to feel his oats of tomorrow. I am very frightened. If there is no point on the horizon to which the human animal is looking, and saying “that’s where it works ’’—what happens? I have the feeling that many young people today are prematurely realistic. We seem to be in a straightjacket of realism. And that’s a dangerous condition.

Maclean’s: Where will the next sphere of intellectual influence develop?

Steiner: I would say the two great literatures are coming from Russia and Latin America. There are now 10, believe me, new Solzhenitsyns; you will know them the next year and the year after. The suggestion here, and it’s a most unpleasant one, seems to be that misery helps. The suggestion is that we don’t do

terribly well on happiness; that the contribution of the New World may have been to let people, for the first time in history, lead decent, happy, humane lives. This is what God may have wanted for man, but it seems to be very bad for literature, for philosophy, great music, and art. It’s a haunting possibility, isn’t it, that human thought is a kind of cancer of the mind—that really first-class thought may be an excrescence—a devouring passion. The world

of Galileo and Michelangelo, after all, had in it a tyranny and violence of censorship that we love to forget when we go through our museums. We don’t smell the dark of it. Could it be that the reason Europe continues to produce formidably, and it does, is attached to the tragedy of its history? I’m asking questions here; the interview would be very unfair if it turned these into answers. Answers, we don’t have. I’m just asking.^