An Evening With George Steiner (1929–2020)

George Steiner is a charming but monstrous narcissist, and the evening spent with him and the Poet at the Professor of Poetry’s house was amazing. Things got started when another Professor, the Poet, and an Artist (the Poet’s spouse), complained laughingly about the xerox machine in the University English Department.

A critic and his critics

Still from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

George Steiner is a charming but monstrous narcissist. In November 2001, I spent an amazing evening with him and the Celebrated Poet at the Professor of Poetry’s house. Things got started when another Professor, the Poet, and an Artist (the Poet’s spouse), complained laughingly about the xerox machine in the University English Department. This led to an interesting and moving story of Steiner’s about his Czech students copying out Middlemarch by hand since access to copying was extremely difficult in Prague: the Czech xerox machines were controlled by the state, lest any samizdat activities got going.

This prompted the Poet to sound a motif that would be repeated many times in the evening: the motif of the parallel difficult experience. The Poet takes her drafts to Kinko’s now, because the University machine is so flighty. But to her great consternation she found that Kinko’s scanned the pages they xeroxed for greater efficiency. They swore to her that the scans were erased at the end of every day, but she (quite reasonably) hated the idea that her drafts were potentially available in digitized form, and this led to a discussion of Attorney General Ashcroft’s proposals to eliminate civil liberties and the expectation of privacy that is an essential part of those liberties.

So far so good, but we were immediately launched on a series of complaints, by Steiner and the Poet, about American overreaction, which set the tone for the evening. We got to talking about September 11, particularly about the chilling effect it would have on our culture once Ashcroft could read everyone’s xeroxes, which led to Steiner’s lamenting the cancellation of Stockhausen’s performances in New York. The Poet hastened to agree with Steiner that this just showed what yahoos Americans were, because after all Stockhausen wasn’t approving of the bombings (when he said that the terrorists had produced a spectacular effect such as artists could only dream of), just reacting to them as spectacle (Stockhausen himself, I tried to put in, realized that what he’d said was excessive since he immediately tried to take back his remarks and asked the press not to report them—and for a prince of excess like Stockhausen to realize this means that they really must have been too much. I say I tried to put in, but the juggernaut just kept going). Steiner said that the reaction to Stockhausen was what had the Europeans and the Germans in particular bristling against the Americans.

“After all,” said Steiner, the Americans are so upset over the death of five thousand people [the number reported at the time], but the Germans in Hamburg want to know why 50,000 people killed in the fire-bombing of Hamburg don’t rate a mention or a regret. It was no wonder the Germans were disgusted with American self-pity. The problem was, he and the Poet agreed, that Americans thought of themselves as exempt from the human condition and the death of 5,000 people as a particular tragedy; but Europe had lived with terrorism for a long time, without much American sympathy. Terrorism was a police problem, not an occasion for war. Yes, said the Poet. It was going to be African Americans who paid for this in what was bound to be a new Vietnam-like quagmire. [The Poet was certainly right, as she often is, about the quagmire, and the price the innocent would pay for it.] They would be the soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan because they were the ones who had no options other than to enlist in the army. (She then shared with us some of her conversations with New York cab drivers who would just open up to her in relief and gratitude when they found that she had a reasonable view of the events—it was clear how important, how helpful, how supportive her views were to them: they too thought “Americans” were overreacting. Now as it happens I myself had a few conversations with cab drivers in New York, and they were distressed and appalled by the attacks on their city, to say nothing of the fact that their incomes were cut in two by the fact that there were so few fares down to Wall Street for a good long time to come.)

Steiner pursued the African American question: “What do the Black Muslims say about this?” Me: “Well Farrakhan has denounced the attacks, though he denies that the US has given sufficient proof that bin Laden was behind it.” Steiner: “So the black population doesn’t agree with the US government.” Me: “Well, no, most African Americans are not Muslims; I don’t know what the majority of Black Muslims think, but as I understand it, most African Americans are behind the US response right now.” “Oh.” He didn’t know that most African Americans identify themselves as belonging to some Christian denomination. But undaunted he wondered how influential Black Muslims would sway African American opinion: “What are Skip Gates and Cornel West saying about this?” The other Professor pointed out that they weren’t Muslim either (West is an ordained minister). Still, said the Celebrated Poet, there was clearly a class aspect to the terrible American overreaction: I grew up in Italy, she said, and (like the Germans) the Italians are disgusted by the American reaction too. We lived with the Red Brigade. They bombed the Bologna train station, where the clock is still stopped at the moment of the bombing. They killed dozens of others. They killed Moro. But Italy didn’t invade Germany, even though the Red Brigade consisted mainly of German adolescents sneaking across the border (I think she meant Baader-Meinhoff; the Red Brigade turned out to be supported by vicious elements of the Italian government, seeking the death of Moro and the anti-leftist reaction it would bring). Why should America go to war?

Steiner had an answer to this: “I think it is,” he said in that sweetly cultured European accent, “that Americans don’t want to die. It is a strange fact. Your modern American society is the first one in history whose members do not want to die. It shows how good life is here. But it is not good like that anywhere else.” Western Europe, asked the Artist? “Well, yes, to some extent in Western Europe as well,” Steiner conceded. “But it is interesting that Americans simply do not wish to die. And so they are shocked, in their innocence, by such events as the World Trade Center attacks.” Yes, the Poet agreed, Americans were silly and sentimental, and had no experience of the real world. (Although if she thought we were silly not to wish to die, some of her other, more conventionally anti-death statements seemed inconsistent with this position.) She loathed CNN. She and her spouse didn’t have a TV, but she read the closed-captions on her way across the fancy hotel lobby they would sometimes take a detour through (to the gym, I imagine, or perhaps to the spa for a massage and mud bath) and she saw the jingoistic way CNN was presenting the war. “And the New York Times is the worst. They publish all these obituaries every day of the rich people who died in the World Trade Center. They sentimentalize them because they belong to the same cohort. It’s disgusting. It’s only because some rich people died that we’re in this war.” There was no time to mention a) that most of the people who died were not rich but either service workers or recent college graduates, of all races, including a student of mine; and b) that the Times was the local New York newspaper. The attacks weren’t in LA. Again Steiner said that Americans were being narcissistic for caring so much about their own. The other Professor made an eloquent objection to this: that we were entitled to shock and grief even if things were worse elsewhere.

Well, they were, said Steiner: look at eastern Europe. He returned to the Czech students: he had never asked for his Stasi file (I think the East Germans must have been watching over Prague too; at least he said his students were allowed to travel with him through East Berlin, but then said goodbye to him at Checkpoint Charlie: he thought it absurd that he could cross but they couldn’t. But I’m a little hazy on the exact details of his story), but he knew he had one, because it went without saying that one of his students was an informant assigned to keep track of him. The Poet responded, sounding the motif of the evening, that she had gotten her FBI file, which was very thick, but of almost no interest because everything in it had been blacked out.

The Artist then told an interesting story about the secret police in South Africa and the informer among his friends who (they found) was betraying them and whose identity he never discovered (which troubled his views of all of them). Steiner gave some sage advice: “Don’t try to discover who it is. Even if you can, don’t.” He amplified the motif with a story about his own experience of betrayal: “Miss Tina Brown fired me as the senior critic of the New Yorker, after 22 years, in 45 seconds. She called me in and asked me if it was true that at a party in Cambridge [England] I had said, ‘She has vulgarized the magazine and played to contemporary fashions at the expense of things that matter.’ Yes, I said, it was true—and I was out. But I have resisted the urge to guess who at that party betrayed me to her: it poisons the mind.” Judging from the document you’re reading, I say with only the slightest sense of abashment, Steiner shouldn’t talk so much at parties. “I have never asked for my Stasi file. Don’t try to figure out who your informant was: it will only poison your life.” I couldn’t help recollecting one of Steiner’s most courageous lines as senior critic of the New Yorker: “There are moments when bad taste is the last refuge of common sense. Let me be in bad taste. Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives.” As a less than senior critic at the London Review of Books he had complained of Brian McGuinness’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was, Steiner judged, vastly overrated) that “One looks in vain for any mention of Fritz Mauthner.” To which I think it was Thomas Nagel who replied: “One looks in vain in the index of the book for any mention of Fritz Mauthner. The book has several pages on him though.”

On which note we went in to dinner, which the Professor of Poetry had been cooking the whole time we were talking. At dinner the Poet told a long story about the hunger for poetry that she saw in her vast audiences since the war started. She saw this hunger on the faces of the African Americans in her audiences, who were very noticeable—because they were so physically responsive to her poetry and to her comments about current events. Everywhere, they were testifying, raising their hands in gestures of passionate agreement. And even soldiers in the US Army were hungering for poetry. She’d been to West Point, where she met a major who taught English there. They all work very hard—do their assignments. Well he’d been in the [First] Gulf War, leading these young 18-year-olds into battle. “And,” he told her, “It was awful. No one knows. We lost 400,000 people in that war.” Even the Celebrated Poet was skeptical: “But I thought only 30 Americans were killed.” “I didn’t say 400,000 Americans,” he replied. His young men had engaged in wholesale slaughter at their commanders’ behests, and they couldn’t stand what they’d seen. They couldn’t sleep. They were too haunted. It was too awful. No one here knew. If only we did. But then the major read them poetry over the PA in the barracks, and the poetry calmed them down and brought them peace and then they could sleep. But they knew how horrible what we’d done was.

The Artist put in that maybe poetry wasn’t a good thing then, because it was reconciling them to a violence they were otherwise unable to stomach. No, said the Poet, somehow the poetry made them able to continue to think about the violence without getting numbed to it as they otherwise would have done. It made them able to sleep while sustaining their hatred for violence. The major was the same. And it showed them why they were fighting—to preserve the culture that produced this poetry. (So it was a good thing after all?) Anyhow, the major and his men had a week’s leave, and he insisted that it be extended to three weeks. He took them all to Florence, so they could see what they were defending. What was worth fighting and killing for in Western culture. As you’ll see, we would return to this claim later.

Yes, said Steiner, but there was nothing like battle. No human experience was as sublime as battle. Not sexual experience, nothing. “Simone Weil wrote the most idiotic thing ever written on the Iliad, in her essay on it as a poem of force. Homer utterly glorifies the joy of battle. [Hans] Jauss told me about his experiences in the Waffen SS. He and his 16-year-old recruits—they were recruiting 16-year-olds at the end of the war—were surrounded by Soviet troops. ‘Well,’ he said to his men, ‘we can surrender now, and they will castrate you but they will not kill you. Or you can follow me and I will get you out.’ So they followed him, and they broke out using flame-throwers. It was fantastic. Jauss told me that it was the most glorious experience of his life. He became an eminent literary theorist. But he said that all of his literary theory, all of it, was worth less than one hour of that battle. That was what life was all about. The glory of war.” If you lived, the Artist remarked, and even the Poet agreed.

Now of course we were into familiar Steinerian territory—Nazi Germany. He said his usual mildly mitigating thing about Hitler—that he (Steiner) had devoted his life to understanding the holocaust, but that we had to concede at least this to the disgusting and hideous revisionists (I think he meant Nolte and his ilk) that Hitler did after all learn his monstrous technique from Stalin: that Alfred Rosenberg and Goering both told Hitler what Stalin had done to the Kulaks, and that Hitler saw what could be done, and that after all Hitler was minor league compared to Stalin. To the Artist’s question whether the murder of the Kulaks was genocide as the killing of the Jews was, Steiner replied that of course it was: Stalin said, ‘you’re a Kulak and I kill you;’ Hitler said, ‘you’re a Jew and I kill you.’ Which may be true, but if genocide is a useful term then the distinction still matters. Steiner went on to convey his barbed admiration for Auerbach: Mimesis was indeed his only good book (the Poet knew all about it from Edward Said’s article on the intellectual and exile, but perhaps only from that article) because he wasn’t trapped in his own erudition and scholarship. He was suicidal, but Mrs. A. made him write instead. But it’s not true that he did it all by memory: he had Tauschnitz editions of the books he wrote about with him: Homer, Joyce, etc. (A propos of which, poor Mrs. Graves, writing a letter in her senility which the TLS must have published in order not to be mean to her in which she thinks Robert read Nietzsche’s French poems in the trenches, when Nietzsche wrote no French poems. I happened to read the letter later, and she’s just quoting verbatim from Goodbye to All That: in fact Graves had a French translation of Nietzsche with him.)

At any rate, when the Allies started advancing in 1944, and the exiles started leaving Istanbul, the Nazi professors asked the Turkish government to take them in. The Turks didn’t care what westerners they had, and a lot of the Nazi professors lived out their days comfortably in Istanbul. “Oh!” said the Poet. “Is that why Turkey is so secular and pro-Western in the current circumstances?” The Artist, her spouse, languidly unhappy: “Ataturk, dear, Ataturk.”

It was all worth it, though, at the end of the evening when the Professor of Poetry delivered a positively Shavian rebuke to Steiner and to the Celebrated Poet (whom she admires). The Poet had turned to Steiner to say, “That was such a good point you made in your last lecture [Steiner was appointed to give the tony lecture series at the University that year], that it is a very difficult question which we would prefer to see blown up, the World Trade Center or the Met.”

“Yes, it is a difficult question, but of course we have to prefer it that the Met should be saved.”

“Yes, of course.” Well. I was about to disagree, but didn’t have to.

The Professor of Poetry demurred and Steiner explained to her: “You are completely wrong: the art lasts for generations, and must be preserved” after which he told an anecdote about someone he knew whose son was in the Second World War fighting near Florence: Steiner reports that this don, when asked which would he prefer to see survive, his son or Florence, sighed sadly and said that it had to be Florence.

In reply the Professor of Poetry spoke for a good five minutes saying that you cannot place a work of art above a human life. If that were the choice you would make, you would be saying that you would sacrifice people to objects, and you cannot do that; you cannot sacrifice a life to an object. The Poet condescended to explain to her hostess (and to me since I put my $.02 in here) that we weren’t considering that these works would really be gone forever, that they weren’t like poems that could live in your memory, even if every copy was destroyed. (Me, conciliatingly: But they’re extremely well documented—it comes to the same thing. The Poet, helpfully: Oh, you can’t get any sense of what a work looks like from a catalogue, you know.) Steiner said, again, “These works of art will nourish generations and they are the work of real geniuses. You cannot place the lives of those idiots in the World Trade Center above them. They can disappear with no great harm done, but these works would disappear forever.” The Professor of Poetry then had another Shavian five minutes in which she said that works of art—of the greatest art, of the greatest poetry—“are disappearing forever all the time,” and that this was sad but inevitable, but that you simply could not prefer to take a good father away from a child or a spouse from a spouse. What counted was not intelligence but virtue, and even if someone was an idiot that meant nothing; what meant something was whether he was a good father. She was sublime.

Steiner, genially: “On that note . . .” And he got up to get his hat and coat, signaling the end of a remarkable dinner, not at all offended, so sure that he had won the argument that he didn’t have to reply to the Professor of Poetry.

We spent the whole next day marveling at our evening.

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