Good news! Readers who missed The Paris Review’s special humor issue this past fall (reviewed here last month by Mark Steyn) now have another chance to savor the wit of this venerable quarterly. There are some who believe that the most poignant moment in the PR’s humor issue came with the question mark affixed to its subtitle: “Whither Mirth?” Wither, indeed. But in case anyone should go away thinking that The Paris Review lacks a sense of humor, the editors cleverly saved their funniest piece for the current, Winter 1995, issue. We refer to the long interview with the polymathic, transcontinental George Steiner, author of (among many other books) After Babel, one work of literary criticism whose contents really do live up to its title.
The spur for this interview was Mr. Steiner’s appointment as the first Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford—a position, Mr. Steiner reveals, “which I’m told was set up in the hope that I would come to start it.” Naturally. And it must be said that the interviewer, Ronald A. Sharp, is the perfect straight man for the task of interviewing George Steiner.
INTERVIEWER: Your memory is virtually photographic?
STEINER: It’s highly trained. We started as five and six year-olds in the French lycée . . . I still know much of my Racine by heart. . . . I have an impression of a music of thought so much beyond my own grasp. In German … a poem, in Italian . . . Dante. He accompanies me constantly, constantly.
That second “constantly” is masterly. After Mr. Steiner explains that he scooped up his B.A. at the University of Chicago in a single year, he lets drop that, while he was struggling to decide between doing graduate work with Allen Tate in literature or with Richard McKeon in philosophy—both giants in their disciplines—“Harvard contacted me about a graduate place.” Quick as a lap dog, Mr. Sharp pipes up: “Harvard contacted you? They already knew about you?” Mais oui! “Someone,” Steiner replies with practiced self-deprecation, “told them I was a student worth having.”
The quintessential Steiner touch, however, is still to come: for not only did Harvard contact him—“someone” having disclosed what a prize he was—but no sooner had he gone to Harvard than he realized he had made a terrible mistake: “the icy academic atmosphere” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was not for him at all. Fortunately, he had the “chutzpah” to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. And although his rival was a double-varsity West Point man with a gold star on his collar—well, George pulled off the Rhodes by wowing the interviewers with his “long answer” (who could doubt it?) about his views on the Hiss case: “I was passionately convinced that she was the guilty party and that he was exercising his paradoxical right of perjury to shield her.” A consummate Steinerism, that: not just a “right of perjury,” which is simple nonsense, but a paradoxical right of perjury, whereby we are translated from the merely nonsensical to that viscous, Steinerite realm wherein opposites not only meet but fall in love.
George Steiner has always had an uncanny ability to combine arrogance with false humility, and he really outdoes himself in this interview. Asked about the poetry he used to write, Mr. Steiner explains:
My French lycée education, which in some respects still resembled that of the nineteenth century, involved the constant learning by heart, the constant grammatical construal of Latin, then of Greek. This was all based on the assumption that a literate man—perhaps I should add woman but that would be cant: it was essentially masculine—can write verse. We were asked to imitate a famous Latin passage, finding our own Latin; then French… . Nobody expected you to have any spontaneous genius, but a craft, a techne, the Greek word which gives us our “technology” and “technique” [thanks for that, George] …
So I was trained in that way and when I fully entered the English-language world I wrote poems, some of which were perhaps a tiny shade better than that. A few may have had a spark of private intensity and need, but on the whole they were verse, and the distance between verse and poetry is light years.
Only “verse,” you see; but in the next paragraph he informs us that “Dryden and Pope work from prose into verse: some of their best verse is a heightened kind of prose.” The insinuation, so lightly introduced, is that Dryden and Pope—just like George Steiner!—managed only “verse.”
No doubt about it: connoisseurs of the Steineresque will find some vintage gems in this interview. Non sequiturs dressed up as deep proverbs? Plenty: “But to me trees have roots, and humans have legs, which is an immense advance.” Twisted similes? You bet: “Students can see through hypocrisy as through a glass not darkly.” And, of course, he alternately mentions Nazism and torture or God and transcendence every few pages to demonstrate that his social conscience is almost as active as his over-developed spiritual consciousness. Not that Mr. Steiner is your ordinary wimpish egghead, for it transpires, too, that he was an avid and accomplished soccer player as a youth.
INTERVIEWER: I never knew you were a soccer player …
STEINER: Of course I was a soccer player, I was French. The lycée was a seminal experience for me. Vichy was running it, and some teachers were refugees of genius… . So I had encounters with the princes of European refugee culture, and that’s where I discovered my vocation.
Clearly, the lycée has a lot to answer for. But who is not grateful for the phrase “refugees of genius”?
Yes, we must be grateful for George Steiner. He is a Mr. Casaubon for our time. Like George Eliot’s repellent character in Middlemarch, he is a walking admonition about the liabilities of a certain kind of smarmy pedantry. Although he does a remarkable impersonation of a serious intellectual, he is nonetheless a compendium of false notes and pretentious affectations. In this sense he functions as a kind of salutary warning, more or less like a fog horn. What makes him damaging as well as irritating is the way in which he can make even the most important ideas and authors seem somehow moist and tawdry. It takes a lot to put one off, say, Shakespeare, but for George Steiner it is the work of a moment. After he gets through with a writer or an idea, one wants to open the windows so that things can dry out. And unlike Mr. Casaubon, who never published anything, Mr. Steiner is depressingly prolific. So it is that we caught our breath when he spoke in this interview of his “dream” of a moratorium on discussing his favored topics—can there be poetry after Auschwitz? etc.—for “ten years, fifteen, a hundred years.” Could it be? Alas, no, it was only a dream. George Steiner will drizzle on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 7, on page 1
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