George Steiner: The Gift of Memory

By Geoffrey Heptonstall, October 17, 2017

George Steiner

George Steiner

Has Truth a Future? George Steiner’s question may have sounded over-stated when it was first asked thirty years ago, but history has revealed the prescience of Dr Steiner’s urgent concern.

Truth is unarguably the essential quality of all civilized exchange in public or private life. If we lose the value of truth we surrender by default all the values which support the thin crust on which we tread precariously above the primeval swamp.

On the other hand, Steiner argues, the obsessive pursuit of absolute truth can become predatory. Obsession is visceral by its nature. It is not restrained by common sense pragmatism, whereas there are moral constraints on the pursuit of knowledge.  Facts may be neutral, but the context of a fact presents the need for judgement. If a fact is likely to disturb or embarrass should it be suppressed if it serves no other purpose? Is truth simply a question of evident fact? In deciding the nature of truth do we not take other considerations into account?

When indifferent to the social and moral consequences of enquiry science can produce a destructive knowledge. On the other hand, technology can liberate by enabling access to information. Or it can diminish our sense of truth by enslaving our minds to facts that float in a contextual void. Unimaginative truth is terribly raw, unmediated by the humanising process of intelligent sympathy.

Amid the babble of voices, each with its mountebank’s claim on our attention there are a few testimonies worth hearing. We may not agree with everything George Steiner is saying, but always we are in the presence of a learned wisdom against which we must measure our own responses. Titles like Language and Silence signal his concerns. Language may be put to ill-considered and illegitimate use. Silence can become a weapon as potent, and as menacing, as the articulated threat or lie. Tyranny makes play with euphemisms. Cowards watch in silence as the night train loaded with deadly weapons or wretched victims goes away to an unspecified somewhere out of sight.

Language for Steiner is both the supreme faculty of human intellect and sensibility. It is also its curse. Words are not plain and simple and obvious: they are peculiar to their context. What one person means by a word contrasts with what another person means by the same word. We think we are talking the same language, but language requires interpretation. Every encounter with words, Steiner says, is an act of translation. There is the constant threat of confusion as we seek to communicate with mutual incomprehension even as we suppose we understand.

The diversity of languages fascinates Steiner, with equal ability in English, French and German and fluency in Italian. Multilingual by upbringing, he has dwelt all his life in a conversation with the several cultural identities that are naturally his. That his great study of language should be called After Babel is so appropriate.

There is no book like it in its comprehensive history of translation. It is not so much a study of one subject as an encyclopaedic treasury of ideas and truths. Language encompasses so much of human life because we are language animals. Steiner in his languages knows that language defines the human person. In different languages we think differently. To learn another language is to learn another culture. One language and one culture cannot encompass everything. The monoglot is disadvantaged, knowing but one dimension, as if the world were indeed flat.

George Steiner is my neighbour, although we are barely acquainted. Only once did we have a real conversation. He is, of course, courteous and quite modest, as the eminent often are. At one time I saw him often with his Old English Sheepdogs walking to the distinctive red post box on the corner of a leafy suburb in Cambridge [the English one] where, as his biog. note unfailing said, he is an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College.

I thought to begin with that this was a post of distinction, only to learn it is a contemptuously lowly title begrudgingly given after a terrible row of the kind that besmirches academic life especially in the intense and competitive atmosphere of a university of world stature.  Conflict of this kind is inevitable, though that does not excuse its enduring toxicity. The rights of wrongs of such disputes are difficult to judge rationally when the roots are usually in the basic emotions of envy and fear. Taking sides requires an intimate knowledge of circumstances that are obscure to an onlooker. What can be said is it has been a winning act of defiance on Steiner’s part to cite this extraordinary fellowship. He rarely mentions the professorial chairs at Geneva and Oxford or their equivalent as principle reviewer at The New Yorker.

I am not an academic and so, despite long residence in Cambridge, my relations with the university have been tangential. I have felt truly unworthy, an impostor, when I think of learned minds like Dr Steiner’s. Learned, not merely enquiring. But perhaps the two are parts of the whole? Knowledge does not reach an end. There is always another question arising from whatever answer is given.

George Steiner asks many such questions, and has attempted answers on a breathtaking range of disciplines. There is Literature of course – and in several languages – but Linguistics also, as well as Philosophy, Aesthetics, Music, Fine Art, Politics, Moral and Social Thinking, and even Chess. He once planned a book on Joseph Needham, the great historian of Chinese civilization. It is one of My Unwritten Books, the collection of essays on matters that for various reasons never became full-length studies. He quarrelled with Needham. The book, for the Modern Masters series, was not written, leaving an unsatisfactory gap on the bookshelf. Significantly, no-one filled Steiner’s place.

Could there be anyone to fill his place? There are many people successfully pursuing a range of interests but the role of a public intellectual carries with it certain obligations. Above everything there is the role of being society’s conscience. In the world of tasks, in the incessant pressures of crowded lives there has to be someone who can step back and need not follow the conventional wisdom. There has to be someone who seeks a deeper truth behind the cut and thrust of debate and opinion. Such thinkers are always few in number. Those who can think usefully in many fields of enquiry are even fewer.

Opinion is not fact, nor is it unreasoned feeling. Opinion must be guided by a sense of integrity that a desire for the truth engenders. Integrity of intellect is a necessity in the thinking life of society. Thinking creatively requires an understanding of history not as objective fact but history as a moral quality. We do not live for this moment. It does not stretch into infinity. The words we utter have a past as well as a future. Our thoughts are part of a continuum of thinking.

It is well known that a liar needs a good memory. It is the case, however, that a lie commits an injustice to memory. Memory requires of us an honesty. Somewhere – I didn’t note it on paper – Steiner used the phrase ‘the gift of memory’. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the Muses. Without the ability to remember there is no creativity. Nothing is created sui generis. Or, as Lear says, ‘Nothing will come of nothing.’ According to Genesis, [and George Steiner would not sneer at the reference] we are created beings: we exist for a purpose. We spend our lives trying to recall what that purpose is and what it means to us. We need a guide in the dark wood, as surely as Dante needed Virgil.

Critics have a bad name. To the general public a critic pontificates without authority. That is not true, or not universally true, because the great critics often are great writers. The true critics reveal what otherwise might have gone unnoticed. The true critic does not legislate taste but develops common understanding. Those who speak with authority are those who understand what is worth understanding.

Authorship and authority are not closely related terms by accident. George Steiner is a creative writer of a high order.  His long career has been punctuated by works of fiction [after an initial venture into poetry]. His first full-length novel was a commercial as well as critical success. The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. touched a nerve in the way the essays in Language and Silence had touched the nerve of a more restricted, but quite wide, circle. The brighter stars of the campus had read him. The themes that deeply concern Steiner are imaginatively expressed for presentation to a general audience.

Always he returns to his favoured themes in fiction and essays.  The questions are re-phrased, the purposes are redefined and the arguments are developed. The reason for the Third Reich has been George Steiner’s great quest.  It is for him not a question of history but one of continuing relevance to the moral position of humanity in our civilization. An army may be defeated, but the challenge still stands.

Why do the evidently civilized and apparently sane willingly transform their tastes and values into clearly monstrous and knowingly self-destructive passions? If there is a credible, if chilling, answer it lies deeply within the unreasoning fears and loathings that may whisper in the ear when the muses are silenced and good sense is dormant. If one thing characterizes this madness it is the lack of self-respect. It begins with a careless and seemingly harmless gesture. It is certain to end in the fires of Hell. The Third Reich was indeed resistible only by those who sought to retain the integrity from which art and thought, as well as sympathy and imagination, spring.

Few can match George Steiner’s range of cultural interests. Few can match his knowledge and intellect. The dedication and energy to pursue these interests and abilities to such depth is rare even in the great academies. Where does he find the time? It seems that Steiner has learned time’s great secret: it is attuned to endless possibilities. With approval he quotes Thoreau’s great question: ‘Can a man kill time without doing injury to eternity?’ Hell is the infinity of the captive’s days in the dark cell. Steiner’s humanity returned always to the fact that as we enjoy life’s pleasures others languish in deprivation.

Some would say it is unwise to dwell too much on this. Inhumanity is not a condition singular to our age. Cruelty and injustice are bound to the human experience, like the rock of Sisyphus. What is unwise is to forget the redeeming qualities of love and the sublime art that adorns the walls even of tyrants. Great art is a memento mori. Tyrants die. Art and truth live.

If truth has a future it also must have a past. The moment the first human being left an enduring visual image on the walls of the cave the past had a future. And so did truth. Testimony to human experience requires moral integrity, incisive intellect and imaginative sympathy. If these qualities go, if they are subsumed in the miasma of random thoughts and meaningless images then there is no humanity worthy of the name. The fear that this is happening now is very real.

It is an undeniable present but it need not be present at all. We need not surrender to the inviting glance cast by a false promise. Resistance is possible. Resistance as an act of radical imagination, reasoned and principled, is possible. It is from reading and considering George Steiner especially that I have learned to think like this, and to write like this.


Geoffrey Heptonstall writes regularly for The London Magazine mainly on poetry and Open Democracy primarily on social questions. He is a playwright, poet and essayist.

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