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Curious George

The psuedoprofundity of George Steiner

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Lessons of the Masters


by George Steiner


Harvard University Press, 185 pp., $19.95

IN THE WORLD of intellectual journalism, George Steiner has always been a figure of controversy. No one who reads him seems to be neutral about him, with opinion divided between those who think his range of learning and power of dramatizing ideas astonishingly brilliant, and those who think him a fake of astounding portentousness and pomposity. Judgments about him are made even more complicated by the fact that he has been the victim of English academic anti-Semitism, colder and more disdainful than which civilized Jew-hating does not get.

Steiner is a writer who has always come on high, toweringly high. His first book, "Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky" (1959), set the tone for his unremitting highbrowism. For many years he moved the heavy mental lumber for the New Yorker, reviewing works on Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and Paul Célan, bringing his taste for the abyss to that otherwise lighthearted journal. "Men in Dark Times," the title of a collection of Hannah Arendt essays, is a phrase that provides a rubric for Steiner's own intellectual proclivities. If one is looking for a fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, Steiner is your man. I once, in print, referred to Harold Bloom as George Steiner without the sense of humor, which was, as Senator Claghorn used to say, "A joke, I say, that's a joke, son," because more humorless than Steiner human beings do not come.

I find myself unable to resist reading George Steiner, these days more often than not in the London Times Literary Supplement, where he is still doing his men-in-dark-times number. His is one of the tightest acts of our day. My friend Edward Shils once gave me a most useful clue to the best way to read Steiner. He claimed that many years ago he read a splendid parody of Steiner's of the way a Soviet apparatchik thought. Steiner, he felt, was a marvelous mimic. And so, I have come to see, he is. What George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world's most learned man.

The performance is near flawless. If you don't take him too seriously, it's great fun to watch his by-now patented moves, feints, operatic touches. Rounding off paragraphs in "Lessons of the Masters," his recently published Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on the relation between teachers and students, Steiner writes, "Here, too, the finale of the 'Tractatus' is pertinent," or "Are there in this model ironized versions of Orphic or Pythagorean doctrines?" or, after a reference to Plotinus, "The phenomenon will recur in Wittgenstein's coven." Adumbrations like that one does not run into every day.

Steiner's pretensions are to polymathy. He claims just about all knowledge as his province. His reading is three stages beyond omnivorous--although he might admit, on the rare occasion, to a bad conscience over not reading an eight-volume history of the French Revolution (by Georges Sorel) that you had not hitherto known existed. He is multi-, he sometimes suggests omni-, lingual. He'll talk Boolean Algebra with you, fourth-level composers, and, in this book, even Knute Rockne, the great Notre Dame football coach, a high proportion of whose players, he informs readers of "Lessons of the Masters," went on to become major coaches at Notre Dame and elsewhere. Whether he knows all he claims to know in any genuine depth, or is instead a high-level kibitzer, is difficult to say.

THAT STEINER is not a more powerful or highly valued critic has to do with his want of originality. He generally deals with material at the second or third hand, writing most frequently about what this writer said about that writer. He enjoys tracing literary and philosophical influences--always a dubious enterprise--making connections across centuries, sometimes millennia. "Is it likely that," Steiner writes, in a sentence only he could have cobbled together, "Henry Adams was unacquainted with Julius Langbehn's immensely influential identification of artistic eminence and national destiny in 'Rembrandt als Erzieher' ('Rembrandt as Educator'), a tract which focuses also on the 'teutonic, titanic' role of Beethoven?"

At one point in his text Steiner refers to "mandarin ostentation" and at another he remarks upon using an "orotund flourish" deliberately. But without mandarin ostentation and orotund flourishes, Steiner's prose would not exist and he himself would be out of business. Nearly every sentence he indites contains the title of a book, the name of the author, an -ism, or an
-ology, foreign phrases, and plenty of quotation marks to go round. "Relations with Taoism and Confucianism will be those of rivalry and reciprocal insemination," is a fairly standard Steinerian sentence. Dramatic, slightly surprising juxtapositions are another specialty at Chez Steiner, so that we get "penetrative tenderness," "ironized topography," "incandescent intellectuality," and more, lots more. Things that are not iconic tend to canonic, and a vast number of things are "seminal." Steiner, one begins to feel after reading him for many years, greatly underrates the power of semen.

The "Lessons of the Masters" is a book about the teaching transaction, the dissemination (there's that damn fluid again) of knowledge as it is passed from generation to generation through teacher to student. Why do some teachers so captivate their students that what they convey leaves a lifelong impression? The standard explanations hold that the great teachers know their subject, have boundless passion for learning, widen and deepen consciousness, provide in their persons a model of how a great-souled person ought to live. This only leaves out the key element of magic--which is to say, the unexplainable reason for why some teachers can radically change lives.

Over the course of 185 dense pages George Steiner does not really explain the magic in teaching. Instead he provides partial portraits of some famously great teachers--Socrates (of course), Jesus, the Hasidic masters, Heidegger, Alain, Nadia Boulanger, and others--and takes up a number of issues, questions, and problems surrounding teaching. Among these are the responsibility of teachers for disciples, the tensions (erotic, rivalrous, etc.) between teacher and student, the differing nature of humanistic and scientific teaching, the blights of sexual harassment and political corrections on contemporary teaching, and the increasingly large role of masterly female teachers.

Steiner, who reports that he has former students on five continents, claims to have loved teaching, and now feels himself orphaned and bereft in retirement from the classroom. He is said to have been a mesmerizing lecturer. My guess is that his revved up language comes across better orally than on the cold page, where it may be scrutinized more carefully for emptiness and laughs. Of the experience of teaching a doctoral seminar in Geneva for twenty-five years, Steiner, with characteristic overstatement, remarks that this was "as near as an ordinary, secular spirit can come to Pentecost." He then pulls out one of the two great clichés used by teachers to describe their experience: "By what oversight or vulgarization should I have been paid to become what I am? When, and I have felt this with sharpening malaise, it might have been altogether more appropriate for me to pay those who invited me to teach?" In other words, he would have done it for nothing. (The other standard teaching cliché has to do with how much a teacher has learned from his students.)

I RECENTLY CLOSED DOWN a university teaching career of thirty years, and I would like to go on record as saying that I wouldn't have done it for a penny less. Teaching is arduous work, entailing much grinding detail and boring repetition--a teacher, it has been said, never says anything once--interrupted only occasionally by moments of always surprising exultation. And I should like to add that I don't think I learned a thing from my students, except that, as one student evaluation informed me, I tend to jingle the change in my pocket.

So high does Steiner come at things, so greatly does he dramatize (and self-dramatize) ideas and all experience, that one may lose sight of the fact that he is himself a very considerable clichémeister. Most of his clichés, of course, come from books. One finds little evidence in Steiner's writing that he knows either man or life. T.S. Eliot once said of Henry James that he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Steiner's is a mind that seems to have been violated by just about every idea he has encountered.

One in particular that plays through "Lessons of the Masters" is the ample "homoerotic" element in the teacher-student relationship. (Steiner doesn't neglect to emphasize that the relationship can also be Oedipal, but let's let that go, for it is probably best to take up only one cliché at a time.) "In the Platonic Academy or Athenian gymnasium, in the Papuan long house, in British public schools, in religious seminaries of every hue, homoeroticism has not only flourished but been regarded as educative." (Hope you picked up on and enjoyed that lilting reference to the "Papuan long house.") The homoerotic element in teaching derives from the statements and conduct in the "Symposium" of Alcibiades, who attempts (with no luck) to seduce Socrates, illustrating the attraction of the beautiful student to the physically unattractive teacher.

Plato, of course, tended to eroticize a great deal, but I wonder if the sexual component in teaching generally isn't vastly overstated. As a student I felt admiration for a small number of my teachers, and as a teacher I found my heart going out to certain of my students, but on neither side of the transaction, as student or as teacher, that is in the role of beauty or of beast, did it occur to me to hop in the sack with anyone. Hannah Arendt may have slept with her teacher Heidegger, and then returned to his bed much later, but Hannah Arendt, however brilliant she may have seemed as a writer, was a woman of consistently poor judgment outside of books.

STEINER TOUCHES ON THE QUESTION of discipleship but does not go deeply into why some teachers want disciples and some are uninterested in them. He makes only a single mention of F.R. Leavis, the Cambridge don who cultivated followers such that, from the 1950s through the 1970s, one spoke of "Leavisites" with supreme confidence that everyone in lit biz knew what one meant. Steiner touches on Leo Strauss, by way of a mention of Saul Bellow's novel "Ravelstein," but does not go into the phenomenon of the Straussians, a school of political philosophy now in its fourth generation of disciples. An investigation of the school of Strauss, as Steiner himself might put it, is a work eagerly awaited.

The question of writing and teaching is treated in the same glancing fashion. Socrates and Jesus, the world's two greatest teachers, chose not to publish. One used regularly to hear about great teachers--Jacob Klein at St. John's in Annapolis, Frank O'Malley at Notre Dame, and others--who published little or nothing. In some ways, their being above the coarse appetite for print added to their allure.

The question of publishing and teaching seems to me a central one in modern higher education. A professor at Washington University in St. Louis, which is enjoying a vogue just now as a popular school, told me that the genius of the place is in its convincing the parents of its students that it is a great teaching college while making plain to its faculty that it remains a research university: Publish, in other words, or perish.

The split is one that is probably in the end reconcilable. In my own teaching experience, I felt that my being a widely published writer gave me a good deal of such authority as I had with my students. Against George Bernard Shaw's famous apothegm--"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches"--I did, and it seemed to help. At the same time, because I always thought of myself primarily as a writer, I felt myself scamping on the full-time duties of teaching. Most of the great modern teachers have not been active writers. One might go further to say that, as Nietzsche claimed a married philosopher was a joke, so a married teacher is at the disadvantage of not being at the full-time service of his students, as was, for a notable recent example, Allan Bloom, a seldom published bachelor, I am told, who was at the complete disposal of his students.

NO HONEST PERSON can teach other than a scientific subject, music, or a foreign language in a contemporary university without feeling at least a bit of a fraud. As a teacher of English and American literature and of prose writing, I know I felt a complex but genuine inadequacy. Sydney Smith, one of the few writers whom Steiner does not quote, once said that if the culinary arts had advanced no further than those of teaching, we should still be eating soup with our hands. Certainly, no other institution is as inefficient in delivering the good as so-called (always "so-called") higher education, especially in the humanities, where one teaches, say, to a room of thirty students and perhaps nine students really grasp one's meaning.

Anyone who has taught the humanities or history must have longed, at one point or another, as I know I did, to have taught science, or mathematics, or music--subjects where talent and ability show up early and can be tested soundly. Literary talent and skill at humanistic subjects, more often than not, don't come into play until well into one's twenties and sometimes later.

Teaching would-be writers, which I have also done, is an especially complicated enterprise. I used to tell students all that I could not do for them: Give them a love of language, make them more observant, teach them a dramatic sense, reveal the mechanics of wit, and much more. All I could hope to do for them was point out the possibilities in prose style, many of which they were unlikely to be aware of, and where their own mistakes might lie. Not, when you think about it, all that much. I used to end this with a little Zen koan of my own devising: "Writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned."

In teaching literature, there is the question of whether one ought to be teaching what one does in the first place. Lionel Trilling made this point in his essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature," in which he quite appropriately asked if it is right to inculcate the dark visions for the young of such standard curriculum writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Freud. I felt much the same teaching the perhaps less dark but still difficult Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather to people at the end of their adolescence, who already had enough on their minds, and in their hormones, without having to worry about, say, Joseph Conrad's essential message that we come into the world, live, and die absolutely alone. Does one really need to know this at nineteen?

ONE OF STEINER'S BEST PORTRAITS in "Lessons of the Masters" is of the philosopher and teacher Alain, an original thinker long dear to me for telling a friend of his recovering from surgery that he should give way to his depression, which was only natural after surgery, an insult to the body, but that he mustn't let this depression get him down. Alain felt, as do I, that the real teaching was done not in universities but at the secondary-school level, and he spent all his teaching years at the lycée. Yet Alain's most famous student was Simone Weil, who ended up starving herself to death for political reasons. So much for the far-reaching influence of great teachers.

Not long ago I appeared on a panel in which two women, in a slightly scornful-of-America way, talked about the glories of their education in France and in Austria. "At Gymnasium," one of them reported, "we studied Goethe and Schiller in a most careful way." I had to report that I myself went to a high school taught by mentally disturbed teachers. I added that, in education, America was the land of the second chance. One could be an uninterested student at the grammar, secondary, even university level, and still somehow have the opportunity to acquire a decent education. My own recollection as a student is that, when a professor was remarking that there were seven reasons for the Renaissance, I was wondering why he, or anyone else, would ever have bought so dreary a necktie and then stained it with soup.

Perhaps because I was so mediocre a student I have an abiding interest in famous men who, when young, were in the same condition. Henry James was one: inept at engineering school, a flop at Harvard law school. Having established his incompetence in two fields, he found all that was left for him was to write brilliantly. Paul Válery was another. He was thought especially poor at mathematics, which kept him from a naval career; later in life mathematics became one of his intellectual passions.

As a teacher, I noted many students whom I came to think of as "good at school." The phrase, as I use it, is non-approbative and carries no more weight than, say, "good at soccer." These students have been trained to take tests, to write the A paper, to score high on their SATs. They understand that the first question confronting the college student is what the hell does the professor want. Once they discover this, they deliver it. They may or may not be genuinely interested in books, ideas, culture. But culture isn't their goal--business or law or medical school is.

Among the topics that Steiner touches on is, inevitably, the Internet. "Fascinatingly," he writes, "the interactive, correctable, interruptible, media of word processors, of electronic textualities on the Internet and the web, may amount to a return, to which Vico would call a ricorso, to orality." He continues: "The screen can teach, examine, demonstrate, interact with a precision, a clarity, and a patience exceeding that of the human instructor. Its resources can be disseminated at will. It knows neither prejudice nor fatigue. In turn, the apprentice can question, answer back in a dialectic whose pedagogic value may come to surpass that of spoken discourse."

SOMETHING ABOUT THIS SUGGESTS that Steiner, once again nicely removed from reality, doesn't himself spend a lot of time at a computer. As an instrument of learning, the computer is at best a source of quick information--information, surely he would agree, isn't education--and even here it is often incomplete and frustratingly untrustworthy. The most interesting thing I had heard about education on the Internet comes from a man I know who taught a business-education course through computers. He remarked that he thought it possible to learn on the Internet, but that it is hell to teach on it: answering endless emails from students, feeling the inflexibility of programs that could not be easily altered, having no real human contact whatsoever--all this made, on the part of the teacher, for an excruciating boredom.

Almost all that is interesting in education is lost on George Steiner, owing to his relentless profundity. Paul Válery wrote that "only what is on the surface can have meaning," at least for those who are truly percipient. He added: "Being 'deep,' getting to the bottom of things, is nothing. Anyone can dive; some, however, are caught in the water weeds of their abyss and die there, unable to break free." Here is the perfect blurb for "Lessons of the Masters."

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.