Some individuals are born with excellence; others achieve excellence in their life. George Steiner belonged to the second group. For him, to excel was to live as a critic and to live critically was to strive for excellence. As a noble spirit, but also an original thinker, George Steiner was most probably the last encyclopaedic mind of the 21st century. He was a provocative literary critic and a prodigious reader of the classics. Whether discussing Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Paul Celan, or Martin Heidegger, George Steiner came out as an original thinker and an astute mind, constantly and critically observing our civilisation. As a post-Holocaust Jewish thinker, he was obsessed by the meaning of culture after the absolute failure of culture. As a result, the issue of how to represent the Holocaust became for Steiner the essential question in contemporary culture. Steiner’s reflections are not to be seen merely as operating on an abstract level of theoretical thought; rather his writings can be seen as concrete reflections on the possibilities and limitations of post-Holocaust culture. The recognition of Adorno’s impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz was constantly tied in Steiner’s work to an acute awareness of the aporetic complexity which Auschwitz had placed on the idea of culture. According to Steiner, “We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” In other words, for Steiner, Auschwitz was not an accident, but “a suicidal impulse in Western civilisation.”
Steiner came to the conclusion that the Holocaust was the result of something much deeper than merely the social and political circumstances of Europe in the 1930s. He saw it as the result of a desire for subconscious retribution against the impossible ideals imposed upon Western culture by the monotheism of the Hebraic tradition, the moral rectitude of Christianity, and the messianic socialism of Marxism. It is interesting how Steiner looked backed at his own Jewishness as an endless exile, rather than a commitment to the faith of the Patriarchs. Indeed, Steiner’s cosmopolitan view of Jewishness found its expression in the work of the “text”. The book, in his view, was the true homeland of the homeless Jew. “When the text is the homeland,” argues Steiner, “even when it is rooted only in the exact remembrance and seeking a handful of wanderers, nomads of the word, it cannot be distinguished.” This commitment to a textual “homeland” was considered by Steiner as a critical moral perspective that rejected all ethnic and nationalist utopias. As such, Steiner perceived a contradiction between the life of the spirit and political life. For him, this was most clearly evident in the figure of a Jew as a reader of human civilisation. Steiner, therefore, defined a Jew as “one who always has a pencil or pen in hand when he reads, of one who will in the death camps correct a printing error, emend a doubtful text, on his way to extinction.” Steiner saw this special Jewish intimacy with texts in general as being inherent not only in the commitment to Jerusalem but also to Athens. “‘The idea of Europe’,” he underlined, “is indeed a ‘tale of two cities’. It is ‘the heritage of Athens to Jerusalem, which is that we have a book, we have several books.’”
Steiner explained the decline of European culture by the loss of a public capable of full readings of great texts. He observed, “The major part of Western literature, which has been for 2,000 years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to, previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach.” It is in this spirit that the critical standpoint of George Steiner finds all its pertinence and relevance. The task that he set for himself as a philosopher of culture was to address the problem of a crisis of the European mind in particular, and of Western civilisation in general. Once again, we are reminded by Steiner that we live in a “current ‘crisis of sense’ and a current equation of text and pre-text…” As Steiner puts it, “the revolution… brought on by computers, by planetary electronic exchanges, by ‘cyber-space’ and ‘virtual reality’” has brought this sense of presence into extinction. However, as readers of Steiner, we need to understand that his intense dialogue with the great artistic and philosophical sources of Western civilisation may only be appreciated in the mirror of his questionings on different modes of threat to though and creation in today’s world. Interestingly, while describing the death and decomposition of Western culture, George Steiner brings all his many talents and sympathies to understanding those refined figures of the European culture who tried another way of experiencing and living with culture.
Undoubtedly, Steiner’s commitment to reading and understanding the canonical texts of human civilisation made his literary and philosophical effort a suitable context for critical thinking in our age of mediocrity. By living and thinking against the current, George Steiner presented himself as an unsettling thinker. But as an unsettling thinker, he left many marks on the intellectual scene of our time, and will influence future generations.
The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines