Home Page

carol gould

Join our email list for updates.




We hope that you'll feel our website is worthy enough to contribute a few pounds to the bandwidth bills.



The Remarkable George Steiner
Last uploaded : Tuesday 19th Feb 2008 at 13:23
Contributed by : Carol Gould


17 February 2008

I do not care how many eminent critics think him of late to be erratic, irrational and egocentric but for me it is still a rare privilege to hear George Steiner in the flesh.

Notwithstanding a recent flogging in certain corners of the world press since the release of his most recent book , ‘My Unwritten Books, ‘ his narrative, delivered to the Royal Society of Literature at Somerset House on Monday 11 February was a powerful one in the current maelstrom that is the British social discourse.

Steiner said the present state of affairs in Britain, characterised by vulgar headlines and loud conversations about money and religion, bears no resemblance to the world he entered when he first came to this country. He reminded a crowd that needed no reminding ( most of us were born before 1955) that in the Britain he first encountered in the 1950s it would have been unthinkable to discuss one’s wealth, possessions, money and religion in polite circles. He felt the present national obsession with celebrity and wealth had reached a ‘pitch of mad intensity’ that had put daily discourse into the realms of fiction -- that the whole discourse had become one ‘autonomous fictional character.’

Reminiscing about his young days at Princeton he recalled an encounter with the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose enormous shoulders and girth eclipsed everything around him. In the same milieu were Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Andre Weil, who achieved a PhD at seventeen. The youthful Steiner was awestruck. Bohr cut the ice by whipping out a collection of photographs of his twelve grandchildren and announcing ’I know all their names!’

As is so often his style, Steiner moved on to an entirely different topic: that of animals and man. He noted that Caligula adored his horse, Wagner loved his dog ( he had the animal buried alongside him) and that Hitler wept only once in his life -- when his Alsatian died. He hastened to add that these stories are ‘not proven’ but are compelling just the same.

When he attended night school at New York University, which he described as ‘the apex of my life’ Steiner noted the cornucopia of faces adorning Washington Square in Manhattan. He described this tableau as ‘ the many-coloured people’ within an ‘explosive atmosphere’ of learning and creativity. Here he met Martin Heidegger and a young Miss Rubinstein. When he asked her about her family she said, ‘My daddy plays the piano.’ The virtuoso’s daughter would later become a doctor and is, according to Steiner, still in successful practice.

As if a lightning bolt had struck the room, the philosopher suddenly turned to the subject of Zionism. ( One of the ‘taboos’ in his book is any form of discourse on religion. ) He asked the audience, ‘Why am I here tonight? Why am I not in Jerusalem?’ As if to tantalise the listeners he did not launch into a discussion of Israeli politics but said, ‘ It is the duty of the Diaspora to learn to be guests of each other. We are the guests of life, as Heidegger observed.’ He added, ‘There is no civilisation not worth learning.’

Steiner then abruptly turned to the Jewish State, or ‘the miracle that is Israel.’ Filled with passion and with a blush to his face he asserted that Israel has to be defended by men and armed to the teeth. Its destiny had been shaped ‘by wars, by strength.’ He noted that for two-thousand years Jews did not torture people but that now they have to torture; those who live there have every right to defend themselves in extremis.

He went on to observe that society has taken from the word ‘Xenos’ ( friend and stranger all at once) xenophobia and abandoned xenophilia. Tribal slaughter is sweeping the earth, and this is the manifestation of mankind having lost xenophilia but embraced xenophobia.

Steiner compared maths to music and said he felt music was ‘natural language’ and that music ‘cannot lie.’ Noting that 80% of American teenagers conduct relationships based on media formulae, he bemoaned the state of British fiction: ‘I cannot face another story of adultery in Hampshire!’ Going so far as to say British fiction is in trouble, he lauded the American genre.

Art and music are explosive now around the world, Steiner said, but nothing is as hopeful as ‘American English.’ He explained that it is a language of hope, which we no longer have in Britain and Europe. He named great American novelists and called them ‘overpowering, towering novelists that tower over ours in Europe.’ Bellow, Mailer, Roth, Heller and other great American writers excel because , Steiner said, they are not stuck in the shackles of class, as is British fiction. He said that as long as Britain is steeped in class division fiction will never progress.

In typically Steineresque style he ended the evening by saying ‘There are 1,600 empty churches in the UK. What is the intelligent answer to this?’

After his talk I told Steiner how much I had appreciated his words about Israel, the source of my own torment: one of the reasons so many of my Jewish friends are leaving Britain is the relentless daily verbal assault they receive -- as do my non-Jewish colleagues who support the Jewish state -- from every imaginable quarter and from people whose knowledge of Jewish and Israeli history is often next to nil but who are ‘informed’ by the obsessed Israel-basher Robert Fisk. Steiner reminded me that the ‘hideous, monstrous wall’ must come down, but that is another discussion….

His defence of Israel surprised me -- he has not been a rabid Zionist in recent years by any stretch of the imagination -- but I was also reminded of a remarkable encounter six years ago when the British Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks debated Steiner. It was Sacks who felt the United Kingdom was still a fine place for Jews, but the philosopher disagreed.

At the time the journalist and historian Melanie Phillips remarked in her 2 March 2002 column,

‘..According to George Steiner, wherever Jews live they remain vulnerable to a hatred that never dies. His advice to a Jewish audience last weekend was chilling: keep your bags packed and make sure your children learn foreign languages, to equip yourselves for permanent displacement.
‘..There was a time when such a remark would have been dismissed as ludicrous hysteria. It is a measure of the current mood that when Steiner delivered this speech to a packed hall — and despite a passionate counter-argument from Dr Sacks — he struck a chill in many hearts…’

Now, exactly six years later Rabbi Sacks has described Britain as being in a ‘tsunami of anti-Semitism’ and this week the Community Security Trust has reported unprecedented levels of attacks on Jews in Britain. Steiner in 2002 was prescient and his brilliance shone again on the special evening in February 2008 in Somerset House.
The Royal Society of Literature:

http://www.rslit.org/events.htm .

Quote from MelaniePhillips.com:

'A Jewish Sense of Foreboding' : -

http://www.melaniephillips.com/articles-new/?p=28 .


Read more Editorials    go >>



Web Design - Web Designers
© current viewpoint .com

All Rights reserved.
No copying of any text or images allowed in any form digitally or otherwise,
without the prior written consent of the copyright holders.