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Interviews

An Interview with George Steiner by Bernard O'Donoghue

George Steiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, and Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. His acclaimed recent book, Antigones (Oxford 1984), shows the same concern with linguistic and cultural continuity as his earlier works.


Throughout your writings, each of your major books has picked up from the point where the previous one ended. This seems a suitable time to take stock of your work, since you have two books coming out soon. Could you say something about those?

Antigones (which is to be published very shortly by Oxford U.P.) links up with After Babel in which I tried to study the active metamorphoses of language across languages. In this book I take a single great motif in western literature and thought, the meeting of Antigone and Creon in Sophocles' drama 2400 years ago, and try to study some of its metamorphic, transformative lives: not only in literature, but also in philosophy, political theory and legal thought. Underlying the whole book is the beginning of a theoretical attempt to answer the question why a handful of Greek myths should continue to dominate the imaginings of the west. Why should they be the shorthand of our identity and references? Buried in that question is my hunch that this will not be the case with Shakespeare. Four hundred years after Shakespeare (who is in many ways as anonymous to us as Sophocles: perhaps, curiously, more so), we have countless acting versions, films and operas of Hamlet or Othello; but we have nothing like the role in every literature, in every political and philosophical field of Oedipus, Antigone, Prometheus, Narcissus, Electra, Agamemnon. And an attempt to explain that might be the subject of the next book.

In Antigones you say that Greek is archetypal, not only in myth, but also in grammar, and you make a link between the two.

I try to propose a new theory that when you and I use the first person singular we are already in the world of the Narcissus myth, with the enormous problem of who is you, who is I, and what is identity. When we use the future tenses (that mysterious capacity I tried to talk about in After Babel of talking about events the morning after our death) we are right in the Prometheus myth, with Prometheus's famous promise that beyond man's individual death there would be the survival of the species and its thought, which Zeus had not wanted. When we are speaking in that most enigmatic grammatical figure, about something which might have been but isn't, what we call counterfactuals, we are talking in terms of the myth of Helen, for example, whose shadow was in Troy; the real Helen was in Egypt, they tell us, for ten years. In other words, I think that when Shelley says we are all Greeks, one way of understanding that is the idea that to speak grammatically is still to be in the context of Greek myth.

Why are you concerned with the Antigone story in particular?

Well, how is it that 2400 years after the premiere of a play by Sophocles it is still so current? It is now on in London, for example. Each year since it has been known that I was working on the Antigone project, some ten new versions have been sent to me, many of them underground: Samizdat, from Turkey, from South Africa, from Poland. Why is it that when people think of resistance against tyranny, or when on the other hand they think of powerful defences of the establishment of the state, it is Antigone and Creon who will become the masks of their own inwardness? Athol Fugard's play, The Island, is an Antigone-Creon set on Robens's Island in South Africa, which can almost stand with Sophocles in its intense visionary genius.

Greek myth is transmitted, not only through narrative, but also through language. I suppose the most basic single idea throughout all your writings is translation, in various senses?

I believe that the way you and I are speaking now involves a very complicated set of acts of translation: between our generations, between our cultures (which are not the same), between the way you and I speak to ourselves inwardly. For translation in the sense of the meaning of meaning, the making of sense, the Greeks are uniquely important. What you and I are doing this morning: to be in a university, an academy; to be talking together about ideas and books; to be hoping to publish a dialogue: this is set for us by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, by the founders of the academy in Athens. The format of our lives in an intelligentsia is theirs, and it has not altered fundamentally since. Quite astonishing in our daily lives is our consciousness of what it is we are doing. This is Greek.

Can we turn to your gloomy remarks, throughout your writings, about the decline of the logos? You have used more than once the phrase "In a Post-Culture". Is the logos still waning, do you think?

We cannot have a culture such as we have conceived of it (and may I please underline that? There may be very different conceptions of culture we could talk about: aleatory, collective, mass-ecstatic) without a very high degree of inherited literacy and tradition. That which is our culture, for better or worse (maybe for worse; there is not much to be proud of in our twentieth century), takes for granted reference and allusion. From Caxton to Lowell and Berryman and Geoffrey Hill you are expected to recognise much of the history of previous literature and philosophy in the poem you are reading. It assumes that an elite of readers is being addressed whose power over the culture is recognised - perhaps with great resentment - to be exemplary, to be canonical, to be Arnold's tuning-forks of taste and perception, to be Leavis's Great Tradition. What is happening now is that, with the slow collapse of religious, transcendent values, the questioning is no longer in our terms. It is not that people are saying, as Tolstoy and Kierkegaard and sometimes Wittgenstein do, "we've got to bring ethics into great art. We've got to see what's gone wrong with our politics"; they are saying "we don't want to read any more". They are saying the book itself is a dead thing, a museum-piece.

Do you see anything cultural replacing this logocentrism?

Nothing is harder to measure than the curve of available intelligence in a society at any given moment. But all the evidence points to its being in the Sciences. If there is a creative intelligence today of the first order, it is no longer mainly in the Humanities. The Sciences are drawing probably the finest, most inventive minds - the most energetic and concentrated powers among us. For them tomorrow is more interesting than today. That is not just a slogan; schoolchildren can now do things that Newton and Einstein couldn't. You and I get up in the morning and look to the past.

Which of your concerns will the Penguin Steiner Reader highlight?

It is a selection from roughly a quarter-century of work. It may have come too early in my life; Penguin very generously thought that the moment for a balance-sheet had come. I hope it is an interim balance-sheet as I have tried to show in an autobiographical and self-critical preface. It falls into a number of main areas. Central is language and politics: my studies of language and the inhuman in Stalinism and Nazism, but also in our kitsch culture. Second, problems of translation. Third, the question of what is the act of reading (much more important for me than criticism), and what is its place in culture and in inner psychic life.

There are also things from an early period when my work, so far as England was concerned, came too soon: the first essays on Levi-Strauss published in this country; on Benjamin, Adorno and the Frankfurt School. I came too early and was punished for that. An establishment punishes very harshly those who disturb it too early. Things which, when I first talked about them, were thought to be esoteric, eccentric, continental contrivances, are now everyday grounds of reference. When I came here from the United States, I gambled on Britain moving into the European world. It hasn't, and my own having to go abroad to work and teach is a trivial, tiny symptom of a much larger phenomenon. The Channel has grown much wider in my lifetime.

You obviously have an appreciative readership in England though. I wonder if you still take as pessimistic a view of English literary criticism and literary history as you do in the Preface to Extraterritorial? Reading what you say about Derrida in Antigones, I wondered if you thought that Deconstruction had helped?

First of all, it is marvellous that people are now, without doubt, reading more uneasily, more 'intelligently'. The day is coming, I believe, when it will be recognised even if this country that the two great readers in our time were Benjamin and Heidegger. At the same time there is a certain sadness in seeing England now engaging in debates which Paris considered thirty years ago, and Yale, Johns Hopkins and Chicago fifteen years ago; the sense of déjà-vu is strong! But of course England has never been secondary in the Sciences, that is the fascinating point. It continues to be in the forefront in Molecular Biology and Astrophysics. Here we are in a university which from Roger Bacon to Newton to Darwin to Francis Crick has never been anything but a world-leader in the poetics of science and the Exact Sciences. So this kind of philistine provincialism and rancorous parochialism has limited Humanistic in particular.

What do you think causes this bias in the English tradition?

You know the little English phrase "Come off it" (untranslatable into American English, incidentally). "Come off it" would stop Beethoven and Michelangelo dead in their tracks, as they set out on their grand projects for the Ninth Symphony or the Sistine Chapel. The central metaphysics of "Come off it" have become deeply engrained in English culture. The beauty of it is the ironic modesties, the scepticism, the tolerance, the tightness. But it cuts off intellectual adventure. Could I put it in a very simplifying picture? In Geneva I have students who have Gramsci's prison-letters in their left pocket, and students who have Bonhoeffer's prison-letters in their right pocket. My best students have both; if my seminars work, the students will know that the two books are coming towards each other: a great Marxist Messianic text and Bonhoeffer. The view that the life of an individual and of a society should be seen in terms of transcendent ideologies cannot be stopped by saying "Come off it". Now I know the dangers: a Bonhoeffer and a Gramsci live in terror. But there are in British those who cannot give their lives to a vision because of embarrassment. In this country to be embarrassed is worse than to be hanged or throttled. But nearly every great passion, idea or act of creation is at some level embarrassing to those who dare it or are overwhelmed by it.

The predecessors one is most reminded of reading your books are the writers of the European Stylistic tradition: Spitzer, Curtius, Auerbach ...

And most of all Walter Benjamin, for a single influence on me. And Adorno, Bloch: the great, doomed Jewish Messianic movement.

And Marxist movement?

Also Messianic: larger than Marxist which is part of the Messianic movement. In a modest way, what I would like above all to be (borrowing the phrase from Pushkin) is a good mailman. I would like to know which letters matters and see them delivered to the right mailboxes. If my work is of some value, it is to bring the mail from those who are great creators and thinkers to those who are bombarded with trivia from Thursday to Monday: the millions of words of reviewing in this country's weeklies and Sundays. We are drowning in kitsch stimuli, in approximate events and non-events with a very powerful impact. I'd like to be able to say "these letters need express delivery" for those who matter.

You say more than once that great art only emerges from politically powerful societies. Might the price paid for it not be too great?

You are asking the key question. Is a Tolstoy or a Dostoievsky work Czarism? Is a Solzhenitsyn or a Mandelstam worth Stalinism? Do we want Louis Quatorze to have a Racine, or Medicean Florence to provide its art? I don't think we can ask the question. You and I are the privileged parasites of that which happened in those societies. What do we read today? Literature from the great writers of Russia and South America; or Nadime Gordimer from South Africa, one of the very finest writers. Out of the great centres of terror and political censorship the voices that matter most speak to us.

Tom Paulin's version of Antigone, The Riot Act, will have its first performance in Derry in September. I wondered, perhaps in a parochially Irish way, what you thought about the proliferation of Irish poets in the 1970's?

It is a direct demonstration of my pessimistic view about terror and having something to say; about censorship. Borges says "Censorship is the mother of metaphor". Ireland, in its own way, has double pressures, political and religious - as well as its past. Now what poem would matter in England? None, precisely because none would be prohibited. The poet is not seen as another state.

So what poems do matter in this country?

I have a strong interest at the moment in Geoffrey Hill, James Fenton and Tony Harrison. Someone I rate very highly, not yet fully recognised, is Rodney Pybus whom I read with great excitement in Stand and Poetry Nation. But think of how Fenton continually bears on Germany, South-East Asia and Russia; think how Geoffrey Hill is now coming fully into the tradition of Peguy, into the world of French conservative ideology. And to me the Homer translations of Christopher Logue are among the major linguistic and imaginative acts. If only he did the whole of the Iliad, we might have something which would get the language in this land going again. Harrison is so gifted; I only hope he doesn't stay in America. You remember how Gunn felt he couldn't come back; Burgess said some years ago that every time he visits here a sense of grey chokingness comes upon him. No, there are definite signs in poetry in particular; there is a great deal of distinguished translation, if you just think of recent productions of the Oresteia, of Calderon, of Seneca. There are great energies attempting to break out of Little England. But it's going to be a struggle.