“The secret of a good old age is nothing more than an honest pact with loneliness”; I couldn’t help thinking about this wonderful reflection of Gabriel García Márquez when I heard about the disappearance of George steiner. He died on Monday at 2:00 pm, due to complications from an acute fever, at his home on Barrow Road in Cambridge. The last time we spoke was last Saturday, by phone, and he confided to me, in a very hoarse voice: “I can no longer bear the tiredness of weakness and disease.”
Thus, Steiner, one of the most acute and important literary critics of the twentieth century, lived the last years of his life away from the focus of attention, the media, congresses and conferences, any public event. I have had the privilege of being with him also in this last phase of voluntary isolation.
After more than twenty years of meetings in Paris, Italy and other European cities, the monthly calls and the annual visit to Cambridge had become a ritual. But at the last appointment, set for June 14, 2018, no other happened: the day before George canceled it because he was not well and did not want to be tired and discouraged. It was in one of these meetings (on January 21, 2014, exactly six years ago), when it occurred to Steiner to grant me a posthumous interview: to gather some of his reflections and not publish them until the day after his disappearance. A discreet way to break the silence and say goodbye to your friends, your students, your numerous readers.
He returned to this text last year, modifying some words here and there and asking me to rewrite some sentences. Who knows how many unknown aspects of his life and his thinking will come to light in 2050, when you can study the hundreds of “autobiographical letters” now sealed in the archives of the Cambridge Churchill College.
Now that he is gone – his son David told me the news – in addition to the deep pain at the loss of a dear friend and a true teacher, not even four months after the disappearance of Harold bloom, I notice more clearly the consequences of that forced silence and the insurmountable void that it leaves between the defenders of the classics and literature. I think of his books, his encyclopedic knowledge encouraged by a surprising curiosity. And I think, above all, in his passion for teaching, in his ability to share the love for literature and knowledge with students and the public.
George not only stood out in the written word. He was also a great speaker: his elegant eloquence was able to inflame students and colleagues.
Question: What is the most important secret you want to reveal in this posthumous interview?
Answer: I can say that for 36 years I have addressed an interlocutor (her name must remain secret) hundreds of letters that represent my “diary”, in which I have told the most representative part of my life and the events that have marked my everyday life In this correspondence I have talked about the meetings I have had, the trips, the books that I have read and written, the conferences and also normal and current episodes. It is a “shared diary” with my recipient, in which it is possible to find even my most intimate feelings and my aesthetic and political reflections. It will be kept in Cambridge, in an archive of Churchill College, along with other letters and documents that bear witness to the stages of a life that may be too long. These daily letters, in particular, will be sealed and can only be consulted after 2050, that is, after the death of my wife and (maybe) my children. In short, they will be made public only when many of the people close to me are gone. Will someone read them after so long? I do not know. But I couldn’t do it any other way …
Q: Why a posthumous interview?
A: I was always fascinated by the idea. Something that will be made public precisely when I can no longer read it in the newspapers. A message for those who stay and a way to say goodbye by letting my last words be heard. An occasion to reflect and take stock. I have reached an age when every day more or less normal should be considered an added value, a gift that gives you life.
In this phase memories of the past become the only true inner future. It is a trip back based on the memory that allows us to feed some hopes. We do not have the exact words to define the memory that tomorrow contains. I find myself in a moment of my life in which the past, the places that I have frequented, the friendships that I have had, the impossibility of seeing the people that I have loved and still love and even the relationship with you, constitute the horizon of my future more than the real future can be.
Q: Do you reproach something in particular?
A: Sure. More than one thing. I wrote a small book, Misprint, in which I speak about the mistakes I have made I have not been able to capture some essential phenomena of modernity. My classical education, my temperament and my academic career did not allow me to fully understand the importance of certain great modern movements. I did not understand, for example, that cinema, as a new form of expression, could reveal creative talents and new visions better than other older forms, such as literature or theater. I have not understood the movement against reason, the great irrationalism of deconstruction and, in some aspects, of post-structuralism. I should have realized that the feminist movement, which I supported in Cambridge with great conviction in recognizing the importance of the role of women, would later assume, in the struggle to occupy a dominant place in our culture, an extraordinary political and human function.
Q: On a personal level, what mistakes have you made?
A: Essentially, I should have had the courage to prove myself in the “creative” literature. As a young man I wrote stories, and also verses. But I did not want to assume the transcendent risk of experiencing something new in this area, which I am passionate about. Critic, reader, scholar, teacher, are professions that I love deeply and that it is worth exercising well. But it is completely different from the great adventure of “creation”, of poetry, of producing new forms. And, probably, it is better to fail in the attempt to create than to have some success in the role of “parasite”, as I like to define the critic who lives with his back to literature. Of course, critics (I have stressed it several times) also have an important function; I have tried to launch, sometimes successfully, some works and I have defended the authors that I thought deserved my support. But it’s not the same. The distance between those who create literature and those who comment on it is enormous; an ontological distance (by using a pompous word), a distance from being. My university colleagues never forgave me to support these theses; many barons and some strictly academic criticism did not accept that I made fun of their presumption of being, sometimes, more important than the authors they were talking about …
Q: Who do you want to send a message to?
A: I think of some students, brighter than me, who are completing important work; Your success is a great reward for me. I think with deep gratitude in some of my colleagues who have accompanied me on the academic path. And I think, above all, of more intimate people, like you, who have understood what I have tried to do and thanks to those who have been able to live an intense intellectual and emotional adventure. But, at this moment, first of all, I try to understand why the distance that separates me from modern irrationalism and, I dare to say, of the increasing barbarism of the media, of the dominant vulgarity, is increasing. I think we are going through an increasingly difficult period …
Q: What has made you suffer the most?
A: It made me suffer to be aware of having published essays that I would have liked to write better. Of course, there are pages of my work that I have defended and defended with conviction, and also with bitterness. But I know that was probably not what I would have liked to write. And I often think of the injustice of great talent: nobody understands how these supreme gifts arise and how they are distributed. I think of a five and a half year old boy who draws a Roman aqueduct near Bern and then, suddenly, represents a pillar with shoes; since then, thanks to Paul Klee, who is called that, aqueducts walk all over the world. No one can explain the neurological synapses that can trigger in a child this “crush” of metamorphosis, this brilliant intuition that changes reality. I thought it was an injustice that we could try, try again, try again, just to be able to stay in the wake of adults, but without reaching them, because they are different from us.
Q: And what made you happier?
A: The happiness of having taught and lived in many languages. The happiness that I have tried to cultivate every day, until the end, taking out of my library a poem to translate it into my four languages (French, English, German and Italian). And although I have not translated it well, I have the impression that I have let in a ray of sunshine in my daily life.
Q: What wishes could you not fulfill?
A: Many: trips that I have not dared to make, books that I wanted to write and that I have not written, especially crucial meetings that I avoided due to lack of value or availability or energy. I could have met, for example, Martin Heidegger, but I didn’t dare. And I think he was right. I have always respected a principle: there is no need to bother adults, they have other things to do. And besides, I have never endured those who consider themselves important because they collect quotes with big names. Excellent people have the right to choose with whom they want to “waste” their time. Then it happens that one day, when opening memory books, phrases such as: “I was disturbed by Mr. X, who insisted on meeting me, but had nothing interesting to say.” I have always been afraid of falling into gross error. I think of Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, specialist in revealing circumstances linked to famous “heavy”. And I had a hard time giving up, in recent times, the company of a dog. After Muz’s death I realized that, at my age, it was very risky to have another. I adore these animals, but on the threshold of 90 years it seems terrible to offer a house to leave alone.
Q: What is the most beautiful victory?
A: Insist on the idea that Europe remains a very important need, and that, despite the threats and walls that are being built, we must not abandon the European dream. I am anti-Zionist (a position that cost me a lot, to the point of not being able to imagine the possibility of living in Israel) and I detest militant nationalism. But now that my life is coming to an end, there are times when I think: maybe I was wrong? Wouldn’t it have been better to fight against chauvinism and militarism living in Jerusalem? Did I have the right to criticize, comfortably sitting on the couch in my beautiful Cambridge house? Was I arrogant when, from abroad, I tried to explain to people in danger of death how they should have behaved?
Q: Do you remember crying in your life?
A: Of course. In recent times I often find myself remembering particular circumstances. I think, for example, of great human experiences that concluded without my anticipating the end. The sudden disappearance of some people you will never see again. Or places that you have not visited and that you can no longer visit. And I also think of more things, simple, perhaps banal: fish and food that you can no longer try. And sometimes, finding in the corner of a street or in a garden the shadow of a person that you love and that you need immensely, but that you know that you can never reach.
Q: How important has friendship been in your life?
A: An enormous importance. No one knows better than you. I would have lived very badly my last decades without you and without two or three other friends with whom I have exchanged an abundant correspondence, distinguished interlocutors with whom I have shared a deep emotional intimacy. Perhaps friendship is more valuable than love. I hold this thesis because friendship has nothing of the selfishness of carnal desire. Friendship, true friendship, is based on a principle that Montaigne, in an attempt to explain his relationship with Etienne de la Boétie, condensed into a beautiful phrase: “Because it was him; because it was me.”
Q: And the love?
A: Love has been very important, maybe too much. First of all, the happiness that my marriage has given me and that I cannot explain in words, rationally. And then one or two meetings that have been decisive in my life. I think that, potentially, women have a higher sensitivity than men. I have had the enormous privilege of having romantic relationships in different languages (I have written a lot on this subject). Polyglot donjuanism has been a huge reward for me, an opportunity to live multiple lives. And it is curious that neither psychology nor linguistics have ever dealt with this exciting phenomenon. Therefore, in After babel I coined an original definition of simultaneous translation as a good orgasm. I have always considered the phenomenon of words and silences in relation to eroticism a capital issue.
Q: Do you ever think about death?
A: Continuously. But not only now; also when I was young. I grew up in the shadow of the Hitler threat, and I remember perfectly well that the only survivors of my high school class were a partner and me. My father and life prepared me to face the loss and danger of death. Now I think that the encounter with death may be interesting; It may be revealed as a way to better understand many things.
Q: Do you think there is something after death?
A: No. I am convinced that there will be nothing. But the moment of passage can be very interesting. I find children the reaction of those who, having always thought of nothingness, in the final phase of their life change and imagine an ultraterrestrial “world”. I think not being afraid is a matter of dignity; Do not lose respect for reason, you have to call things clearly by name. It is true that you can change your mind. I have been fortunate to always live in contact with great scientists, and I know that new things are learned every day and others are corrected. In science, this is normal. Now, believing in a life beyond is something very different.
Q: In this posthumous interview, would you like to apologize to someone with whom you have fought?
A: Yes, I would like to apologize to a person whose name I cannot say. I think he would also prefer to remain anonymous. This is an eminent man, for a long time intimate friend, with whom I argued over a stupid affair. A misspelled phrase in a letter blew our relationship of years through the air. I learned a lot from that experience; how sometimes an insignificant moment can become a decisive fact in life. It is a risk that we run often. An unimportant gesture, a simple word, in a single second, can cause real tragedies. And now, after so many years, I would like to tell my friend, “Come, let’s eat together and laugh at what happened.” But, with great pain, I realize that there is no time. It’s too late.
Q: However, it is famous for its irascibility. Has it always been a weak point of your character?
A: Yes, it is true, but not only in adulthood. I remember that when I was a child I was disturbed by small things, sometimes without a real reason. This way of behaving has created me many enmities. Then, over the years, I had to learn to moderate myself. But I have also paid a price for my irony, often very scathing and not always well received. And maybe sadness, the result of my mediocrity awareness, has uncomfortably bothered my interlocutors. Unfortunately, over so many years I have collected many hostilities and broken many friendships. It is sad to admit, but it is.
Q: Have you been given any advice that has changed your life?
A: Of course. Especially those that my mother gave me with all her love. I owe her to encourage me to live fruitfully with my disability. When I was a child, to make me react in moments of despair, he told me that “difficulty” was a divine “gift.” In addition to getting rid of military service, my defect gave me the opportunity to learn to improve, to try to understand that without effort you get nothing in life. I have remembered it in different circumstances. One of the most beautiful achievements of my existence was when I managed to tie my shoes for the first time with my hand.
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