If your favorite delicacy were served to you three times a day, you’d have some idea of the rich fare that is offered in the superb new collection of essays, “George Steiner at the New Yorker.”
Steiner is a public intellectual who has served for many years as cultural critic for the New Yorker. Out of more than 150 articles by Steiner published in the New Yorker between 1967 and 1997, editor Robert Boyers, professor of English at Skidmore College, has selected 53 for inclusion in this book.
Steiner’s brilliance and breadth of knowledge are fully displayed in these essays. His vocabulary and his writing skill make them a treat to read. After a helpful introduction, Boyers presents the essays in four categories: history and politics; writers and writing; thinkers; life studies. They range far beyond Steiner’s expertise in comparative literature although he fully demonstrates his mastery of that field. He also shows that he is at home with classicists, philosophers, psychologists and linguists. In the best sense of the term, he is truly a learned Renaissance man.
For Jews, Steiner’s thinking poses a number of problems. He wrestled mightily with his Judaism and Judaism lost the match. His parents moved twice because they feared the threat of Nazism. First, they went from Vienna to Paris where Steiner was born in 1929. Then, they settled in the United States in 1940 and, in 1944, Steiner became an American citizen. He was educated at the University of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. A year after he earned his doctorate at Oxford in 1955, he went back to the United States where for two years, he was a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He then taught at Princeton, Innsbruck in Austria, Cambridge, Geneva, Oxford and Harvard. Currently, he lives in Cambridge, England, where he is associated with the University of Cambridge.
Perhaps this cosmopolitan background has given rise to Steiner’s dubious attitude toward Jewishness. He rejects Zionism in favor of a universal human consciousness. As restless refugees, Steiner claims that the Jews are a cultural vanguard, promoting morality among all nations. When they are “isolated” in the State of Israel, he says that Jews surrender their mission to break down the barriers, which separate people from each other. He argues somewhat dubiously that the very rejection of Jews, which contributed to the development of Zionism, also led to the genius of Marx, Freud and Einstein, whose inability to establish roots gave rise to the nurturing of their talents. Somewhat immodestly, he asserted that his own wanderings helped to foster his creative ability.
Few of these ideas appear in the essays selected for inclusion in this book. The New Yorker would, in all likelihood, have been an inhospitable venue for them. Instead, there is a positive discussion of Gershom Scholem, the great Jewish scholar and Zionist. Also, one essay deals with Simone Weil, a French Jewish philosopher who rejected her Jewish background and who is called by Steiner a “transcendent schlemiel.” In still another essay, Steiner writes affirmatively about Claude Levi-Strauss, an important French Jewish anthropologist. The book concludes with a partially autobiographical account of Steiner’s years at the University of Chicago where Robert Hutchins was president and finally, with a list of all the essays that Steiner wrote for the New Yorker.
Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Steiner’s views, especially his attitudes toward Zionism, his impressive contributions to contemporary scholarship cannot be denied. Moreover, the wide-ranging nature of his learning and his superlative writing ability make this collection an important asset.
(Morton I. Teicher is the Founding Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)