Wed. Apr 1st, 2020

George Steiner: a teacher of comparative literature | Babelia


Before coming into contact with the great currents of twentieth-century literary criticism, George Steiner (1929-2020) had been raised and educated in media where he spoke and wrote in three languages: English, German and French. This foundational polyglotism in Steiner’s life was what later, in one of his most monographic and well-locked books, After babel, allowed him not only to practice a defense of language according to the tradition that starts from Wilhelm von Humboldt and the writers of the romantic period, but also to consider that there was no better definition of human culture, as harmonious diversity, than that which was generated from of the multiplication and dispersion of languages. The admiration for the myth of Babel, present in all his work, allowed Steiner to observe with suspicion all the discourses and cultures that could have been generated in one language. His idea was always that every work of art of language, as such, is incorporated into a legacy as old as the simultaneous birth of oral literatures, then written ones, as the universal foundation of “humanity.”

He was fully aware of being Jewish, of belonging to a religion of the Book and the Word

His academic experience in the United States allowed him to know the currents of Anglo-Saxon literary criticism, solidly linked to Protestant morals, for whose followers there is no better criticism than the one that distills the text itself after a simple attentive reading: the close reading. His years in Innsbruck put him in contact with German philology, according to which, as would also be seen in the lavish work of Walter Benjamin or Peter Szondi, there is no better criticism of a book than the one he achieves, in Hölderlin’s ancient words, Fix a text first and then interpret it leading to an unlimited conversation with all its determinations: biographical, social, historical, artistic, ideological or related to the weight of the literary tradition itself. Later, again in North America, thanks to the migration of French intellectuals linked to structuralist criticism, Steiner met in detail the postmodernist postulates of his Parisian representatives, for whom he never showed the slightest admiration. Jacques Derrida, for example, whom he respected but in whose method he never attended, was one of the visible heads of that nihilistic criticism, in which a man like him, full of hope, could not believe even if he proposed it or even if they dictated it University fashions

George Steiner: a teacher of comparative literature



He inherited important contributions from the philosophy of Heidegger, to whom he dedicated an equivocal book; accepted the postulates of new criticism to some extent, and he reluctantly read structuralists and postmodernists. But he did not accept any of these schools, which always moved around a single language and a single critical and philosophical tradition. His ambition was always very superior, no doubt thanks to his portentous knowledge: culminating the tradition of comparatism – today still scarce -, Steiner moved between multiple languages ​​and literary critic schools in search not of a method, but of a generous attitude, expectant before the richness of every book, curious and open to the reception of everything that supposed the enrichment of the writing. It was a mind that absorbed as much as it could, always away from prejudices.

This was a project that Steiner set up, since his first books, not only because of his condition as a perfect trilingual, but also because he had dealt, since his doctoral years, with the problems, examples and lessons raised by languages ​​and classical literature – I knew that today the classics are so classic Odyssey like Thomas Mann’s novels— and, beside him, the Old Testament as a miliar stone of his ideas about the Word and its powers. Whether or not he went to the liturgical offices of his origins, the fact is that George Steiner was always fully aware of being Jewish, that is, belonging to a religion of the Book and the Word, one that, more than the others, cannot understood or practiced outside the field of language and written tradition.

He attended every speech that was interested in the dignity of Homo sapiens as a talking being

If Benjamin was obstinate in submitting all text – also “history as text” – to a rigorous examination to reach the famous 49 senses of a biblical passage according to Talmudic tradition, Steiner came to postulate that literary criticism – often confused with criticism of everything that can be verbalized; music would be the big exception— it must be an endless journey around words, never subject to a final horizon, even less to a a priori: criticism would be an endless path, a hermeneutical procedure ad infinitum. This is the exegetical tradition of Judaism, which permeated each and every one of his books.

But there is something else. Steiner fled the Nazi threat with his parents and siblings, and lived in Paris, then in New York, the first years of an exile that forced him to consider himself, all his life, an “extraterritorial” being. In the same way that he did not succumb to any nationalism – less even to the one derived from the existence of the State of Israel -, he remained impervious to the dogmatic character of literary critic schools that possessed, directly or indirectly, a more or less visible impregnation of a national culture His own biography – much more complex than that of Goethe, who is considered a precursor to the topic of “universal literature” – pushed him to place himself in an international place, in a “Babelic” territory in which all had to be contemplated and admired. human productions aquilated in the heart of language, literature as the richest of them all. But he also attended the fruits of the history of philosophy, the sociology of his time, the evolution of pure and applied sciences and all discourse, scientific or not, that would have shown interest, however small, for that dignity. of the Homo sapiens sapiens derived from his condition of “being a speaker”: an undeserved dignity, as he himself considered towards the end of his life, because of the widespread amnesia in the educational world – something that caused him fear – because of the bureaucratic deviation of the universities around the world and, finally, because of the rise of new technologies, which he always observed with fear and distrust.

George Steiner: a teacher of comparative literature



The academic media ended up respecting him, but for many decades they considered his work too eclectic and pretentious, of excessively vast perspectives, lame in everything related to the institute of philology – something Steiner knew his daughter had overcome, with a solid philological background – and more typical of a amateur that of a specialist: there was the example of those great sages and very well-trained philologists, such as Erich Auerbach, Ernst Robert Curtius, Karl Vossler or Leo Spitzer, still very influential both in the German university field and in Anglo-Saxon. France could have followed that path, as evidenced by the work of comparatists and “universalists” as imposing as Sainte-Beuve, Paul Hazard or Fernand Baldensperger, but the spell of surrealism and the enormous mistake of nouveau romanwhich has liquidated in France not only the legacy of Proust, but also that of Céline-, phenomena of little impact on German and Anglo-American letters, prevented French criticism and literary theory from effectively embracing the cause of comparatism, something that Steiner perceived from the beginning of his career. (In Spain we had Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, author of the fabulous Universal Critical Theater in the 18th century, and Juan Andrés, author of an unusual Origin, progress and current status of all literature; but these pioneers continue to be extravagant).

Another virtue of Steiner added reasons to his discredit among the academic media until very late: his declared hostility to the parameters of the “politically correct”. For him, as was the case with his contemporaries Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom, there was no more literature than the one that could be placed at the same level as the great productions of the classics, from his beloved Iliad – which he read for the first time as a child – until the productions of the exemplary authors of the 20th century. That extreme adjoins the concept of “canon”, of which Steiner, like the aforementioned Bloom, was always a fervent defender. In the illustrated way, he imagined a humanity educated in the crucible of great literature, written in the language that was, or translated, while endowed with an aesthetic category and, taking another step – which is perhaps what most characterizes the set of his work—, provided with a clear and unbearable political-moral density.

He fled from the Nazis, which forced him to consider himself an extraterritorial being all his life

For this reason it is convenient to close this reflection on Steiner’s place in the panorama of literary criticism of the last 60 years, reminding the reader of something that we have only hinted so far: his passion –see, in this sense, his books Passion intact Y Real presences– and his enormous respect not only for the great achievements of the classical tradition and the canon of the West, but especially for the foundational books – Bible, in the Greek language – of his lineage. The reading of any of his works distils a pious atmosphere that always leads to a moral lesson, as usually corresponds to any theory with a religious base. There is no writing by Steiner in which the style of a rabbi —Word that is equivalent to “teacher” and “rabbi” – nothing of yours can be read without hearing the voice of an unusual critic who generated a work not only in the service of clarifying texts, but also, and perhaps mainly, written thinking about health –salus, salvation— of a humanity that Steiner supposed, with certain tristitia, no longer on the way to speech, but moving towards a silent desolation.

Jordi Llovet He is a retired Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Barcelona.

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