The writer and academic, who has died at the age of 90, brought European philosophy into an insular intellectual worldby David Herman / February 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
In his 1997 memoir, Errata, George Steiner describes calling on the Oxford don Humphry House shortly before his doctoral viva: “On his Victorian lectern lay the handsomely printed text of my Chancellor’s English Essay Prize. I waited, I ached for some allusion to it. It came when I was already at the door. ‘Ah yes, yes, your pamphlet. A touch dazzling, wouldn’t you say?’”
Two things are striking about this passage. First, the crushing put-down—“a touch dazzling.” This is how two generations of critics have attacked Steiner. Too clever by half. Almost 50 years later, James Wood, writing in Prospect, attacked Steiner’s “imprecisions,” his “vulgarity,” his “melodrama of transcendence.”
The door is also worth dwelling on. House spoke when Steiner was “already at the door.” On his way in or on his way out? Or neither? Perhaps just there, never quite welcome inside.
Steiner was always an outsider. His first attempt at an Oxford DPhil ended in controversial failure. Not English enough. Too European. Steiner was over 30 when he had his first academic position in Britain. He was made a fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge but never a professor except late in his career, in 1994-5, when he was the first Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative European Literature at Oxford.
An essayist and public intellectual, he was more at home in the books pages of the New Yorker and the Sunday Times than in the common room. Above all, he was an outsider because he was a Jew, a refugee and a European—indeed the last of the great Jewish European intellectuals.
His first book was Tolstoy or Dostoevsky; his second was The Death of Tragedy, which had almost a hundred references to Racine, more than 80 to Corneille, more than 50 to Goethe and to Schiller. (Born in Paris to Viennese Jewish parents, he was trilingual in German, English and French.)
His cosmopolitanism thrilled a generation of students in the 1960s and 1970s. This is why they packed the lecture halls of Cambridge to hear him speak. They loved his range of interests, the big issues he took on. Why do the humanities not civilise us? Do dictatorships produce more great art than democracies? Is tragedy dead?
Steiner opened up Britain’s closed literary world…