The thinking man’s anti-Zionist

For George Steiner a Jew is “someone who, when reading a book, pencil in hand, is convinced he will write a better one”. Gerald Jacobs enjoys a book which captures Steiner's compelling conversations.


Of all the lectures I attended as an English literature student, undoubtedly the most inspiring were those given by the dazzling polymath George Steiner. The content was always stimulating and the delivery dramatic, qualities still evident almost half-a-century later in A Long Saturday, a new and compelling collection of conversations between Professor Steiner and French journalist Laure Adler.

Not that those qualities are always beneficial; the stimulation can sometimes shade into provocation and the sense of drama lead to indiscriminate, sweeping statements. Nevertheless, the overall effect of Adler’s questioning is to show how the academic phenomenon that is George Steiner stands out among contemporary European intelligentsia.

Opening up to his interlocutor on a characteristically broad range of concerns, he reveals that, stung by his father’s gloomy prediction that La Langue Française — the language of the land where he was born (in 1929) — was about to be steamrollered by “Anglo-American”, Steiner has been motivated throughout his life to prevent such an outcome, not only on behalf of French language and literature but also in the wider cause of multilingual enrichment.

But probably the most central of Steiner’s interests is education. Among his various roles — critic, writer, philosopher — that of teacher is, for him, the most important. It is, he says, “why God put me in the world” (even though he doesn’t actually believe in God). Reflecting on this, he rather intriguingly confides that, “in 52 years, I’ve had four students who were much more talented than I, stronger, much more intelligent, and they are my best reward” — a rather endearing admission from a man often labelled egocentric, though he doesn’t name any of these prodigies.

In noting the trajectory of Steiner’s own exceptional career, as traced through his conversations with Adler, it was a revelation to me that the “absurdly young” George began his professional life as a journalist on the Economist writing editorials on relations between Europe and America. The Economist then sent him to Princeton to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb”, and, after some cerebral sparring with the great man, Steiner was promptly invited to join Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

In the years since then, George Steiner has himself become a dauntingly intellectual presence, bringing to his teaching and writing, about literature well beyond the English brand that I studied, a depth of scholarship and breadth of reference to which few could aspire. Based for many years now in Cambridge, he has authored a great number of highly influential books, among them The Death of Tragedy, Language and Silence — and a study of Martin Heidegger, in which Steiner argues that Heidegger’s refusal after the war to disavow his pro-Nazi writings is more mysterious than contemptible.

Over the course of Laure Adler’s “long Saturday” (in fact extended over several weeks), Steiner comments eloquently on what he sees as a falling short, a kind of inadequacy within his own field, the humanities, in comparison with the satisfying precision of the mathematicians he found himself surrounded by during his days in Princeton.

He offers a colourful example of this frustrating disparity by citing Tolstoy’s description of King Lear as “an overblown melodrama by someone who doesn’t understand tragedy at all” — about which the humanities scholar Steiner observes: “you can say, ‘Mr Tolstoy, I regret to inform you that you are laughably wrong’ but you can’t prove him wrong.”

Adler draws out her interviewee on his love of music, chess (“the language of those who are otherwise mute”), his beloved dog — and his disdain for Freud. She asks how he copes with having a deformed arm, and about death — he is “100 per cent in favour” of euthanasia. She also elicits a variety of entertaining anecdotes about an impressive variety of cultural figures.

But the subject that is probed more than any other is Jewishness. It is here that Steiner most starkly shows both his unfortunate propensity for making sweeping claims and for being provocative. The former gives rise to such statements of unworldly idealism as: “I don’t think there has ever been a Jewish teacher — or rabbi — who has touched a child sexually.” And he contrasts this sadly inaccurate claim with another, asserting that, “in Ireland… there isn’t one school that has escaped [child abuse].”

As for provocation, he bases his “fundamental” anti-Zionism on his belief that the Jew belongs to no country, his task is “to be a guest” ready to “pack our bags and leave again”. By setting up the state of Israel and “becoming a people like others,” Steiner believes “the Israelis have forfeited that nobility I had attributed to them.” Which is an interesting counterpoint to the Israeli writer A B Yehoshua’s view that Israel has regrettably failed to normalise.

Elsewhere, Steiner’s definition of a Jew — “someone who, when reading a book, pencil in hand, is convinced he will write a better one” — sounds jokey. But, to me, it sums up George Steiner the Jew. It is a clarion call to follow the best kind of Jewish life — that of the mind, which, Steiner tells Laure Adler and the rest of us, is “the glory of humanity.”

‘A Long Saturday: Conversations’, George Steiner with Laure Adler, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, is published by Chicago University Press at £14.99. Gerald Jacobs is the JC’s literary editor

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