Oliver Kamm

George Steiner was among the great thinkers of our time

Oliver Kamm reflects on the critic, essayist and polymath who died this week aged 90

February 05, 2020 15:57

George Steiner, the prolific literary critic who died this week aged 90, was universally described as a polymath. Yet Steiner himself made a characteristically acute observation about the term.

In his book The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan (2012), Steiner said of the French essayist Paul Valery: “He had no interest in the polymath, but rather in the unifier, the maker of unifying metaphor.”  

Steiner was similar. He was distinctive not only for knowledge in many fields but his ability to synthesise it anew.

Across linguistics, literature, history, philosophy and fiction, he was among the great thinkers of our time. There is so much to him that I can refer only to those of his works, and fleetingly, that I am especially engaged with, and above all to his reflections on the Jewish condition.  

Steiner was always aware of his lineage as a citizen of what he called "the singularly productive world of emancipated Central European Judaism”. He was a polyglot, and I first came across his work in his seminal book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975). In it, he confronts the multiplicity of languages, explained in the Bible by the Tower of Babel. Whereas it is a common belief that language developed for communication, Steiner argued that the thousands of existing natural languages testify rather to the instinct for concealment. A language is the preserve of those who understand it. It is a barrier rather than a conduit, and communication is always in some sense an act of translation. The original meaning is not directly observable.  

Steiner’s argument was constantly in the mind of one noted postwar translator of European literature, Anthea Bell, who was my mother.

Her life’s work was to provide a window into the mind of an author; yet she knew it was sometimes frosty and even opaque.

The ability of language to convey thoughts across societies, cultures and epochs is the most distinctive human faculty. But it is far from perfect.  

Steiner’s awareness of the limits of language was evident too in his reflections on Jewish suffering. In his book Language and Silence (1967), he suggested that the proper response to Nazi atrocities was not the power of language and literature but silence. There is truth in silence, whereas the words of the protagonist of Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristobal of AH (1981) are potent in the service of evil. This character is Hitler himself, discovered alive in South America and giving a justification for his actions.

The Holocaust was ever present in Steiner’s thought. He argued that it was not an aberrant episode in European history, specific to the economic and political ferment of the 1930s, but had historical continuity with western Christianity and its medieval pogroms.

He was dismayed at the emergence of an aggressively nationalistic Zionism. I hope his fears for Europe and Israel are wrong, but his cultural pessimism has much recent history to reinforce it. We will learn much from reading and heeding him.  

February 05, 2020 15:57

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