Culture & ideas Ideas

Interview: George Steiner, a certain idea of knowledge

30 December 2011
Télérama Paris

George Steiner in 2006.

George Steiner in 2006.

Literature, philosophy, science: today, our tools for understanding the world are developing separately, regrets the renowned intellectual and humanist. However, culture remains a saving grace, particularly in Europe. Excerpts.

Nietzsche, Heraclitus and Dante are the heroes of his new book, The Poetry of Thought, but for the moment they can wait. George Steiner welcomes us into his house in Cambridge with a whimsical anecdote delivered over coffee and panettone: when the Eurostar was launched, he offered a shilling to the first child to see a fish in the Channel Tunnel.

“The parents were appalled,” remarks the professor of comparative literature. This mixture of facetiousness and erudition, intelligence and kindness is typical of George Steiner. Born in Paris in 1929 to a Viennese and Czech parents, who foresaw the horrors of Nazism, at an early age the future polymath and polyglot was encouraged to decipher Homer and Cicero by his father, a Jewish intellectual with a passion for art and music, who wanted to awaken his son’s interior professor (the strict meaning of the word “rabbi).

In 1940, the family sailed for New York on the last boat to leave Genoa. After studies in Chicago and later at Oxford, Steiner moved to London to join the editorial staff of The Economist. He once again traversed the Atlantic to interview the inventor of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, who urged him to come and work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

It was a “turning point” in his life. While publishing a succession of major books, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Langage and Silence, etc., which were often based on material from his lectures, he became a founding fellow Churchill College, Cambridge, and a literary critic for the New Yorker, before later accepting a post at the University of Geneva. He is renowned as a major European humanist whose thought has traveled the world.

Europe is in the throes of serious crisis. Do you think it could collapse?

Given its current state, it is possible. But we will get by one way or another. The irony is that Germany could once again become the dominant power. Let’s take a step back. Between August 1914 and May 1945, Europe, the area that extends from Madrid to Moscow, and from Copenhagen to Palermo, lost close to 80 million human beings to wars, deportations, concentration camps, famines, and bombardments. The fact that it continued to exist is a miracle. But its resurrection was only a partial one.

Today Europe is undergoing a dramatic crisis; it is in the process of sacrificing a generation, a generation of young people, who do not believe in the future. When I was young, people had all kinds of hopes: communism and how it was to be achieved. Fascism, which, let’s make no mistake, is also a hope. And for Jews there was also Zionism. There were so many hopes, and we no longer have any of them. And if in your youth you cannot be inspired by hopes, even illusory ones, then what is left? Nothing.

The messianic dream of socialism brought us the Gulag and François Hollande – I am referring to his name as a symbol, no personal criticism intended. Facism degenerated into horror. The survival of the state of Israel is imperative, but its nationalism is a tragedy that is profoundly opposed to the Jewish spirit, which is cosmopolitan. As for myself, I want to be a wanderer. My life has been inspired by the great 18th century rabbi, Baal Shem Tov who said: “Truth is always in exile.”

Has globalisation facilitated this wandering spirit?

We have never had so many geographical barriers. In the past when you left England, you could go to live in Australia, India or Canada, but today there are no more work permits. The planet is increasingly closed off. Every night, hundreds of people try to reach Europe from the Maghreb. The planet is moving, but where is it going? Think of the horrible fate of modern refugees. When I had the honour of making a speech to the German government, I finished up by saying: “Ladies and Gentlemen, all of the stars are now turning yellow.”

In spite of everything, do you still feel European?

Europe remains the locus of the massacre, of the incomprehensible, but also of cultures that I love. I owe everything to Europe, and I want to be there among my dead. I want to stay close to the Shoah, in a place where I can speak my four languages. They are my escape, my greatest joy and pleasure. I learned Italian, having already mastered English, French and German, the three languages of my childhood. My mother would begin a sentence in one language and without noticing finish it in another.

I had no mother tongue, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not uncommon. In Sweden, you have Finnish as well as Swedish; in Malaysia, people speak three languages. The idea of a ‘mother tongue’ is a highly romantic and nationalist one. My multilinguism enabled me to teach, and to write After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, and to feel at home everywhere. Every language is an open window on the world. This is in contrast to the grim attachment to roots advocated by someone like Maurice Barrès. Trees have roots; I have legs. And believe me, that is a huge advantage.

Does the complicity between literature and philosphy still pertain today?

In my view, both forms are under threat today. Literature has chosen the domain of small scale personal relationships, and no longer deals with great metaphysical themes. We no longer have writers like Balzac and Zola, geniuses of human comedy who could explore every domain. Proust also created an inexhaustible world, and Joyce’s Ulysses is still very close to Homer... Joyce is the bridge between the two great worlds of classicism and chaos. In the past, philosophy could also claim to be universal. The entire world was open to the thought of a philosopher like Spinoza. Today an immense part of the universe is closed to us.

Our world is shrinking. Science is becoming inaccessible to us. Who can understand the latest innovations in genetics, astrophysics and biology? Who can explain them to the profane? Knowledge no longer communicates; writers and philosophers in our day are incapable of enabling us to understand science. At the same time, the scope of imagination in science is dazzling. How can we claim to speak of human consciousness if we overlook what is most daring and imaginative? I am concerned by what it means to be literate today. Is it possible to be literate if you do not understand non-linear equations?

Culture is in danger of becoming provincial. Perhaps we need to rethink our entire conception of culture. I would like share with you an experience that I found infinitely moving: one evening, I was asked by one of my Cambridge colleagues with whom I was having dinner, a charming man who is also a Nobel prize laureate, for help in deciphering a text by Lacan, which he found baffling. I was very touched that a great scientist could be so modest when faced with the pride and haughtiness of a Byzantine master of obscurity...

You have argued that new technologies are a threat to the “silence” and “intimacy” necessary for an encounter with great works...

Yes, the quality of silence is organically linked to the quality of language. You and I are sitting here, in this house surrounded by a garden, where there is no other noise other than the sound of our conversation. Here I can work. Here I can dream and try to think. Silence has become a huge luxury. People are living in a constant din. There is no more night in cities. Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman? I find this very worrying.

New technologies have transformed the dialogue with books. They abridge them, simplify them, and connect them. Our minds have become “wired.” We do not read in the same way today. The phenomenon of Harry Potter stands out as an exception. All the world’s children, from Eskimos to Zulus, are reading and rereading this ultra-English saga, with its rich vocabulary and sophisticated syntax. It’s wonderful.

Books are great bulwark for private life. England is still very respectful of privacy, a quality that can have its absurd side: you can have neighbours that live next door to each other for fifty years without ever exchanging a single word. And the cult of private life has an immense political value, because it is also a capacity for resistance.

You do not consider yourself to be a creator?

No, there should not be confusion over these roles. Critics, commentators, and exegetes, even the most gifted ones, are still light years away from creators. We do not fully understand the intimate sources of creation. For example, imagine this scene which happened in Berne... A group of children are on a picnic outing with their schoolteacher, who sits them down in front of a viaduct, and watches while they attempt to draw it. Then she looks over the shoulder of one kid, and he has drawn boots on the pillars!

Ever since then, all world’s viaducts have been on the march. The name of the child was Paul Klee. Creation changes everything that it contemplates, with only a few lines creators show us everything that was already there. What is the mystery that triggers creation? I wrote  Grammars of Creation to understand it. But at the end of my life, I still don’t understand.

But would understanding mean that you miss out on the art?

In a sense, I am happy that I don’t understand. Imagine a world where neuro-chemistry could explain Mozart... It is conceivable, and I find it frightening. Machines are already interacting with our brains: computers and humankind are already working together. There may come a day when historians realise that the most important event in the 20th century was not the war or the financial crash, but the evening when Kasparov lost a game against a little metal box.

And take note: “The machine did not calculate, it thought.” When I saw that, I asked my Cambridge colleagues, who are science aficionados, what their opinion was. They told me they did not know if thought was not in fact calculation. It’s a scary answer! Will that little box compose music one day?

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern