Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M., 2010
Door Elisa Tamaschke, PhD-student in Art History, Martin-Luther-Universität, Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
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Scholar, philosopher, critic and writer George Steiner is generally considered one of the last true polymaths of our times. Steiner was born in 1929 into a trilingual, upper middle class, free-thinking household in Paris and educated in the strict Lycée system. The Steiner family, Viennese by origin, left Paris in 1940 to escape National Socialism. After migrating to New York, Steiner attended the city’s Lycée Français and, already well-versed in philosophy, literature and languages, included mathematics and the natural sciences in his study programme at the University of Chicago. Steiner passed his ma at Harvard and concluded his education with a dissertation at Balliol College, Oxford. His further career as a lecturer and Professor of Comparative Literature (a field he pioneered) at Stanford, nyu, Princeton, Cambridge, Geneva and Oxford brought him renown, but is nonetheless insufficient to fully describe his brilliance and the breadth of his intellect.
Steiner’s critical essays on literature, published in The New Yorker for many decades, beginning in the 1960s, bring his extraordinary qualities into clear focus. Early in 2011, a collection of seventeen of these reviews was published by Suhrkamp under the title Im Raum der Stille: Lektüren (translated from English by Nicolaus Bornhorn). These essays consider topics that preoccupied Steiner in his career as a scholar, but also delve into questions that go far beyond the realm of traditional academics and mark Steiner as one of the most exceptional intellectuals of our time.
The reviews collected in this volume (first published 1967-1992), which deal with new publications or first translated works by Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Karl Kraus, Thomas Bernhard, Simone Weil and Albert Speer, are as timely now as they were when they first appeared. They are simply timeless in their literary style, their enthusiasm and in the perhaps insoluble moral questions they pose.
The essays are severely surprising to the reader, not only because of their content, but also because of the stylistic shocks that Steiner writes into the texts. He reports, for example, on the remarkable life of a cat named Bébert, who followed his master across borders and through chaos and deprivation in the midst of World War ii. Controversially, Steiner lets the reader know that Bébert would be a joy to write about, while writing about his master is not. It is only then that he reveals the true occasion of his text ‘Katzenmann. Über Louis-Ferdinand Céline’ (The title of the original English article of August 24, 1992 was the pointedly simple ‘Cat Man’): a review of a then recently appeared biography of Céline, a much revered author in France despite his fierce anti-Semitism. In this piece, Steiner wonders whether aesthetic creativity can ever justify the affirmative representation of cruelty and inhumanity. How is it possible for a person to be simultaneously evil and artistically brilliant? Steiner concludes with the admission that he has no answer to this question. His instinct tells him, however, that such books should rot on the shelves.
In the essay Der Kleriker des Verrats. Über Anthony Blunt (The Cleric of Treason, December 8, 1980), Steiner scrutinizes the British art historian Anthony Blunt and describes his contributions to the field. Blunt’s intellectual origins as one of the Cambridge ‘Apostles’, his belief in a scholarship which requires strict honesty and accuracy and his close and trusted relationship with the British royal family are celebrated by Steiner and then follows the thunderbolt: ‘I do not know just when Blunt was recruited into Soviet espionage.’ How wonderfully succinctly Steiner calls into question everything that he has just so vividly depicted! ‘Damn that man’, is Steiner’s final judgment on Blunt’s rank moral double standards.
George Steiner is a man full of wonder. Socratically, he raises questions and is unquenchably curious. He doesn’t pretend to know all the answers about the complexities of humankind, yet the level of his thought and discourse is so high that simply following his train of thought constitutes a broadening of the reader’s horizon.
Steiner seems exhilarated by his own enchantments and distastes and the resulting lightness of his writing makes him enjoyable to read. In the case of Paul Celan, Steiner’s enthusiasm knows no bounds (‘North of the Future’, August 28, 1989). He invites the reader to discover Celan’s poems for himself, to experience their life-changing quality firsthand. Steiner exhorts the reader, almost insists, in fact, to purchase the newly published English translation of Celan’s poems, or even steal it, if necessary.
Steiner always emphasizes the effort of the translator, and underlines the challenge of finding equivalents which must also be emotionally and sensually apt for words in another language. Language, translation, and multilingualism are central themes in Steiner’s oeuvre (see After Babel, Real Presences). They are also inextricable from his biography, as Steiner grew up in a household where English, French and German were spoken with equal frequency. Steiner’s private life and his human and intellectual experiences are often interwoven in his reviews. The experience of fleeing from the terror of National Socialism (this, as well as the Old Testament diaspora, is a frequent theme), likely left Steiner feeling alienated from his geographical roots. Physical roots were transformed by Steiner into intellectual ones, however. Despite, or perhaps indeed because of his American upbringing, Steiner’s thought in these seventeen reviews is continually directed towards European figures, both prominent ones and outsiders, and in particular towards those from Austria, France, and England the sites of his linguistic and familial origins.
George Steiner’s reviews are not pure criticism. They are stories, re-views, views which absorb entire panoramas as well as each blade of grass. They are panoramas of life, stories of failure and doubt, and of the other, happier facets of human life. In this way, Steiner is a teacher, not a theorist. He celebrates a subjectivity based on wonder and admiration and on the high intellectual standards to which he holds himself. His judgments are trustworthy for precisely these reasons.
The timelessness of these stories does not, however, mean that Steiner is not anchored in the contemporary world around him. He simply does not bow to the Zeitgeist. His ideas about learning and education, about the necessary confluence of heart and reason, have long been out of fashion. It is for that very reason that it is necessary, urgent even, to follow the thoughts of the teacher and master George Steiner into the Raum der Stille and to engage with the world of his intellect.
The book Im Raum der Stille was originally published as George Steiner at the New Yorker, New York, New Directions, 2009, translated into German by Nicolaus Bornhorn.