“He has learned speech and windy thought and the political temperament.”
Among literary intellectuals, George Steiner holds a place of unmistakable influence. His essays on philosophy and literature can be found in the New York Review of Books, London Times Literary Supplement, and in other publications associated with making it in the world of letters. Since the 1950’s he has published nearly a dozen books, most of which interpret Continental European thought for the benefit of Anglo- American readers. Some of Steiner’s books, most notably his discussion of Martin Heidegger, combine insight with considerable learning. His book on Heidegger not only uncovers the brilliant ideas behind the horrors of Heideggerian syntax, but also takes seriously the antimodernist aspects of Heidegger’s social criticism, Steiner neither denies nor exaggerates Heidegger’s short-term fascination with the Nazi movement. He sets it into perspective by showing that it was Heidegger’s old-fashioned communitarian ideals that allowed him to sympathize with at least some early National Socialist programs. Steiner notes how quickly Heidegger changed his mind about Nazism once Hitler had come to power.
Despite his talent as a literary analyst, Steiner does have tics which, I believe, are damaging to his scholarship. I stress the qualifier “I believe,” since what irritates me most about his writing may also explain his popularity among proper highbrows. Steiner writes like a perpetual émigré, in convoluted prose that often seems deliberately murky. His essays include “The Distribution of Discourse,” “Future Literacies,” and “Privacies of Speech.” Though Steiner warns repeatedly against the dangers of social-cultural conformity, he himself conjures with the appropriate academic shibboleths. He is overly fond of “deconstruction” and “angst” and feels obliged to dwell on Marxist interpretations of literary texts, however little they may contribute to our understanding of a work. His recent study of thinkers who have interpreted Sophocles’ Antigone gives far too much attention to Marx on Greek tragedy. Marx may have influenced the practice of social revolution, but beyond noting his almost willful misreading of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (which owed more to Shelley’s poetry than Asechylus’ play), it is hard to justify any space being given to Marx as an interpreter of Greek tragedy.
Steiner professes concern about trendy issues (e.g., the need for nuclear disarmament) or about issues that used to be trendy (e.g., anti-Semitism). He advertises what some readers may find endearing quirks. He has stated during interviews that because he and his family were Jewish refugees from Nazism, he now feels compelled to carry multiple passports. Only in this way can he protect himself against the possible eruption of Nazi-type violence in the country where he presently resides, which happens to be England. Although my own family suffered a similar fate, I have never understood Steiner’s bizarre behavior. Does he believe that pieces of paper will save him if the Western world suddenly (and improbably) turns Nazi? It is as if he has begun to believe the predictions published in at least some of the publications that celebrate George Steiner but condemn “fascist America.”
I make these observations as a qualified admirer of Steiner’s work. Indeed I continue to marvel at his erudition
and productivity. Almost 20 years ago, as a graduate student at Yale, I heard him give a lecture which has now become a special subtheme of Antigones, Holderlin’s creative adaptation of Sophocles’ play. Steiner lectured with few notes and quoted his sources in the original languages. Curiously, my Marxist classmates who had gone to hear the lecture were as satisfied with Steiner as I was. They noted that he had filled his comments on literature with generous references to Marx and to Marxist intellectuals. Such a tendency, I have since learned, is characteristic of Steiner’s commentaries. Though there is nothing intrinsically Marxist or Freudian about his interpretations of literature and though there are few writers today who are more sensitive than he to religious values and the strengths of the Western religious heritage, he pays lavish tribute to Marx, Freud, and Trotsky. All of them are seen as idealistic cosmopolites (Steiner refers to Trotsky as a “Luftmensch like myself”) who tried to universalize the practice of justice.
Steiner is certainly not a consistent leftist: the essay “A Kind of Survivor,” in which he predicates his Jewish faith upon the teachings of Marx and Freud, also warns American Jews (as early-as 1965) that “among urban Negroes anti-Semitism is often open and raw.” Steiner’s affinity for Jewish “radical humanism” is related to a corresponding revulsion for the “poison” of Jewish nationalism. He views the Jewish concept of being a chosen people as a prime source of modern, particularly anti-Semitic, nationalist hysteria. His controversial novel, The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H., which depicts the capture and, finally, self-defense of an aged but highly articulate Hitler, has the central figure scolding his captors as hypocrites. Why should Jews, who exterminated other tribes in taking possession of their land and who proclaim themselves God’s chosen nation, object to Germans for imitating their example? Though much of the rhetoric that Steiner puts into Hitler’s mouth is quintessentially Nietzschean but incongruous for a philosophically naive rabble-rouser like Hitler, there is no doubt that anti-Semites have been impressed by the intensity of Jewish ethnic cohesion. Edward Drumont, Alfred Rosenberg, and Karl Marx (as well as Hitler) commented on Jewish ethnocentricity with a mixture of admiration and loathing. Moreover, Hitler, as Steiner correctly suggests, attempted to mold the ethos of his purified Aryan race by reproducing the sense of nationhood that he found present among the Jewish “antirace.”
Actually, Steiner exaggerates the uniqueness of Jewish ethnic claims. (Are the Armenians, Parsees, or Chinese any less ethnocentric than Jews?) He overreacts to the aggressive behavior of the ancient Hebrew tribes who displaced the Canaanites, Jebusites, and Amorites. The ancient Jews were no more brutal as conquerors than were other ancient Near Eastern peoples. Unlike their neighbors, however, once they had settled their land, they instituted humane treatment for slaves and foreigners, impartial justice for rich and poor alike, marital fidelity for both sexes, and an end to the practice of human sacrifice.
Steiner’s distaste for modern nationalism is understandable. Unlike patriots and regionalists, nationalists are often frenzied Utopians, who seek not to preserve but to exploit resentment for revolutionary ends. The opposite of nationalism is not internationalism but, as John Lukacs reminds us, patriotism rooted in the sense of a living past. Unfortunately, Steiner’s critical remarks about nationalism and its current alternatives are not well considered. Although he rails against ancient Hebraic nationalism, he supports modern Jewish nationalism as a counterweight to the anti-Semitism that he claims to see everywhere. But his indulgence of Jewish nationalists is an isolated case. For example, he complains about the American people, whose “standardized moralistic nationalism,” we learn, may soon endanger its Jewish minority. It is unclear what Steiner is here criticizing about the American character. If he is attacking (as he seems to be) traditional Middle-American moral concerns, it is hard to see how these amount to nationalism, as Steiner uses the term. Americans have traditionally insisted on diligence, punctuality, and personal hygiene, while remaining, on the whole, ethnic and religious pluralists. Steiner empties the concept nationalism of all specificity by making it apply to anything that rubs him the wrong way—bourgeois morality, for example.
He finally attributes Soviet atrocities to residual Russian nationalism in order to absolve Marxism, or Communism, of all responsibility for Soviet crimes. He denounces Stalinism, which he equates with Russian nationalism, whenever he describes Communist reality. He extols Marx and Trotsky whenever he presents the “radical humanist”—i.e., elevated Jewish—ideal from which the Soviets have allegedly fallen. Never does it dawn on Steiner that Marx, who called for class war and raged against Jewish greed, may bear some responsibility for the nightmare which his worshipers have created. Or, that one of Steiner’s other idols, Trotsky, helped set up Soviet concentration camps and called for the physical destruction of non- Communist political groups in Russia, even after Stalin had chased him into exile.
In the end, Steiner’s mystique of the left cannot stand up to critical reason. Although a patient reader of texts, he has allowed quirks to distort his understanding of the world. Steiner may have profited professionally from his quirks, but they are tragic flaws in someone of his intellectual stature.
[Antigones, by George Steiner; Oxford University Press; New York; $29.95]
[A Reader, by George Steiner, Oxford University Press; New York; $25.00]