We Are the Guests of Life and of Truth: Concerning the Capriciousness of Existence, the Wonder of the State of Israel and the Lost Nobility of the Jewish People (a Grateful Response of Acceptance to the Borne Prize)

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How did George Steiner respond to this laudatio? With his permission, European Judaism here brings most of his response, fully aware that, as always, translators are traitors to the text; we lose so much of the delicacy of the text, but we must be grateful that one of the great teachers of Europe permits us this partial ingress into the changing patterns of European thought in a moment of reflection and response to a literary prize which must be recorded by us as surveyors of the European scene. (AHF)


As you know, Aristotle defines 'surprise', thaumazein, as the origin of all philosophic thinking. If that is correct, I became a serious philosopher today. I am deeply surprised to find myself here as the Borne Prize Laureate in St Paul's Church here in Frankfurt. It strikes into my heart, if I can use this expression, even more than in my mind. I am neither a German author nor at home in the daily life of German literary criticism, in the universities or in the German language media. My first visit to Germany, of course, took place after the Second World War. It, like the first one, was a European civil war. The professors at German universities, with the laudable exception of Gadamer, never had much joy in my work. I am at home in Germany with two great publishing houses; one in Frankfurt and the other one in Munich. My German is somewhat stiff and old-fashioned. It arises out of a vanished world and is the risky attempt to seek 'compensations' which lie, according to Paul Celan, in 'the North of the Future'.

And nevertheless: something within that great honour, which you prepared for me, is justified, is even an essential aspect of it. Borne was not only a Jew who had to enter into Christianity without Heine's opportunistic irony and self-hatred; he was not only one of the first 'high culture' journalists after Lessing--he was 'a stranger everywhere'. Even within himself, in a public and private condition, he was in exile. I believe that he belonged to a constellation which was particularly part of the German language and of German letters: that constellation of the masters of the German language and of German thought who created their work outside of Germany. I am thinking of Heine, of Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka. I call to mind the long years of extraterritoriality of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Robert Musil and Hermann Broch. I remind you of Peter Weiss and the American years of Brecht, of Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. Exile, expulsion, and flight across the borders, with some hatred for the homeland and a tragic uneasiness and discontent which has crept into their speech, in Nietzsche as well as in Canetti and Celan. In no other history of literature and culture known to me does the outsider, the boundary walker or, as Herr Hitler allowed himself to say, the Luftmensch stand so close to the centre. Stefan George and Hermann Hesse are buried in Switzerland. That is a shattering phenomenon, a witness to a most complicated and often cruel relationship between authority and the freedom to think and write, between political persecution and civil courage.

The human being is thrown into life, geworfen, to use Heidegger's powerful expression. For this Geworfenness there is no 'Why', no fundamental explanation. One enters existence blind or deaf or already condemned by genetic illness. One is beautiful as Apollo or ugly as Socrates. One enters the world into riches, into a culture, into safety. The other one enters a shadowed world, already devastated by hunger and AIDS, an African or Asian province. The one has genius, the other one lives out his days in stolid stupidity and helplessness. 90.5 percent of humanity will only have one in memoriam: the telephone book. Thank God: the Library of Congress collects all telephone books; there, we can find our immortality. The very small minority of great thinkers, artists, scientists, statesmen or criminals did achieve a relative, but nevertheless authentic immortality. …