Polymaths for the People

By Herman, David | New Statesman (1996), October 25, 2019 | Go to article overview

Polymaths for the People


Herman, David, New Statesman (1996)


Cultural critics George Steiner, Susan Sontag and the late Harold Bloom once bestrode the public realm but their reputations have faded. What does this tell us about the role of the intellectual in the internet age?

In his 2015 memoir Going Up, the writer Frederic Raphael describes how as a young man he went to visit Somerset Maugham in the south of France. Maugham had recently visited Max Beerbohm and asked: "Do people still read Max?" Raphael realised that Maugham was really asking whether young people still read him.

There's a twist here. One could ask the same about Raphael. It is more than 50 years since he wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Julie Christie film Darling, and more than 40 years since his BBC series The Glittering Prizes was shown to great critical acclaim. Raphael has had a successful career and yet, like Somerset Maugham, you can see the anxiety. Is he still read, does he still matter? Who lasts and who doesn't? Are reputations like sandcastles, all washed away sooner or later by the tides of fashion?

This is a good time to ask these questions. George Steiner turned 90 this year. A major biography of Susan Sontag was published last month. And Harold Bloom died on 14 October. All three were once hugely influential cultural critics, among the best-known on either side of the Atlantic.

Steiner has published more than 20 books, writing on subjects from Heidegger to the legacy of Antigone in Western thought. He taught at Cambridge and for 20 years was the professor of comparative literature at Geneva. But, above all, he bridged the gap between academic criticism and the general reader. He wrote for the Sunday Times and succeeded Edmund Wilson as the lead critic of the New Yorker (writing 134 reviews in 31 years). He was a regular presence on TV and radio. I met him in the mid-1980s and produced several programmes with him for Channel 4, Radio 4 and The Late Show on BBC Two, where he debated Freud with the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, TS Eliot's anti-Semitism with Christopher Ricks, and the legacy of French theory with Bernard-Henri Levy.

Steiner's range and fluency were remarkable, on the page or on the screen. He was not a dry-as-dust academic who wrote unread monographs. Instead, he asked big, important questions: why do the humanities not civilise? Do tyrannies produce greater art than democracies? Is tragedy dead? Is it possible, he writes in his intellectual memoir Errata (1974), that civilisation as we have known it for more than 2,000 years is coming to an end? "Will there come again a Plato or a Mozart, a Shakespeare or a Rembrandt, a Divine Comedy or a Critique of Pure Judgement?"

Steiner's greatest achievements, though, are threefold. He was the first major English-speaking critic to talk about the Holocaust, to say that we cannot think about postwar Western culture without asking what happened in the heart of Europe in the 20th century. Second, he introduced a whole generation to the extraordinary writers and thinkers of the central European avantgarde. In the words of one critic, Steiner told "those who would listen in Britain about Heidegger, Benjamin and Paul Celan--the great German philosophers and poets. Now work on those figures is an industry, but he was a lone voice in the Sixties."

Finally, he had an extraordinary gift for creating a dramatic sense of the great encounters in literature and criticism. He wrote of Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor but also perhaps the greatest modern poet in the German language, visiting Martin Heidegger, the greatest German philosopher of the 20th century, to confront him and ask how he could support Hitler.

When I first met Steiner, we had lunch at The Three Horseshoes in Madingley outside Cambridge. This pub, he told me, was where the critic and literary theorist IA Richards had supervised William Empson--supervisions which led to the writing of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), one of the classics of 20th-century literary criticism. …

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