He is the last of the generation of twentieth century great literary scholars. At the age of six he could read Homer's Iliad in Greek. His felicity in German, English and French would finally nudge his whole academic career towards the discipline of comparative literature. He has been a thorough anti-Zionist and has often been extremely vitriolic in his criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. His revitalizing calibre has been his gift of moving from Pythagoras, through Aristotle, to Dante, Nietzsche and Tolstoy in a single paragraph. I have deeply enjoyed the tremendous intellectual synthesis of his vast knowledge behind every lecture that he has delivered.
Francis George Steiner ‘a late, late late Renaissance man', as A. S Byatt puts it, ‘has been debating the fate of culture in modern life with the refrain of the Holocaust that underpins his world view. As he put it, ‘the civilization that produced Bach also produced Buchenwald'. Having escaped the scourge of Nazism, the metaphor of the survivor became the obsession of his thought: ‘My whole life has been about death, remembering and the Holocaust.' And ever since, like the metaphoric homeless Jew, he has been an itinerant scholar moving between continents with Professorships at Harvard, Oxford and the University of Geneva, celebrating culture's survival and questioning its value in an age of atrocity and disbelief. Central to his thought is his ‘astonishment, naïve as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to love, to build, to forgive, and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate.'
The lesson that students and teachers of literature can most learn from him is to acquire languages, try to read the originals and never ignore the relevance of music and art to literature. Steiner has often stressed Europe's debt to Goethe in his translations of the great works into Latin, Hebrew and English, and draws attention to his statement: ‘ He who does not know foreign languages, does not know his own.' Thus the history and principles of language are intrinsic to any reading: ‘Comparative literature listens and reads after Babel… Each and every window in the house of language opens to a different landscape and temporality, to a different segmentation in the spectrum of perceived and classified experience. It is the multiplicity of spoken languages which has been ‘the enabling condition of men and women's freedom to perceive, to articulate, to redraft the existential world in manifold freedoms.'
Steiner's whole life has been underpinned by secular humanism and the interaction between languages and culture which, he feels, has the possibility of bringing to an end the barbaric and the murderous in man. Only then could much of the educated Western sensibility emerge out of remorse and endow itself with sufficient ‘empathy to penetrate into other ethnic guises, to take on the world-views, the rules of consciousnesses of another culture, another society. This is the only way of enduring and acknowledging our links with human creativity of not only the past but of other religions and other lands. As a young lad, he regretted moving from University of Chicago to Harvard for his graduate studies as he found it old-fashioned and tedious and he looked back to his happy undergraduate days at Chicago. In desperation, he wrote to Professor Hutchinson, the Chancellor of University of Chicago, requesting him to give him one of the two nominations to Rhodes scholarship and promising, with his undying arrogance, that he would not let him down and that Chicago would have a Rhode scholar for the first time in history. He won it and happily reached Balliol at Oxford.
On numerous occasions I had attended his lectures at Cambridge and at Geneva. I then met him at Oxford in 1995 when he took over as the first Weidenfield Professor of Comparative Literature. He was returning after forty years to the same place where he had been slighted. Before him F.R. Leavis and A.J.P. Taylor had met with the same fate. The aura was the same, the place was the same. But this time it was the return of the scholar, a homecoming.
The D.Phil in English at Oxford was then looked down upon as an American and German import and his supervisor, Professor Hugo Dyson, who had acted in the movie Darling with Julie Christie, was frank with him on the first day, ‘ I am going to charge you 8 guineas for every supervision. This money we are going to spend on either a dinner at the Bear Pub in Woodstock or a play in London. The evening is going to be well spent and I am never going to read the rubbish you are going to periodically give me.'
And so the day arrived for the viva. The thesis was on the inability and failure of the English Romantics to break into theatre. Dame Helen Gardener, the expert at the viva had only one observation to make: ‘Though cricket is a boring sport, you have to know the rules if you want to play the game. Did you not know that to write a doctoral thesis you need to know the technical aspect of writing footnotes, quotations, etc. Did no one teach you documentation?' The dissertation was rejected outright and Steiner found himself in a very cosy job of writing on foreign policy at the Economist.
A few years passed and one morning he was told that a gentleman from Oxford was waiting for him downstairs. Steiner was pleasantly surprised to find Professor Humphrey House ( famous for his Clark lectures and for his pioneering achievement of the Hopkins Journals) Secretary of the Board of English Faculty in the parlour who immediately came to the point: ‘I do not blame you for not knowing the requisite research methodology for your D. Phil. But I strongly feel it is a great ‘dereliction' of the English Faculty for this monumental blunder. So will you be willing to take up research again under my supervision.' Steiner immediately accepted the offer. He knew this would be one way of making his father happy. The Economist too allowed him to take one day off in a week to go down to the London Library to work on his research. Two days before the viva Professor Humphrey House sadly passed away. It would have been joyful for him to know that this time Dame Helen Gardener would be of the view that it was indeed a ‘congratulatory viva.'
And so on this fateful day of occupying the chair at Oxford, the mysterious choice of destiny and the rational design of God's purpose had finally restored the hero to the rightful place he belonged to. But unlike the Homeric warrior who is aware deep in his heart that he cannot master the workings of destiny, it most certainly was the triumph of a young researcher whose suffering at the rejection of his thesis must have all the more strengthened his resolve to seriously devote himself to the study of comparative literature, and return to the position that he had most desired. In this lay his claim to dignity and grandeur.
Being a Jew, Steiner kept up with the metaphor of a wanderer and thus moved to Cambridge as a founding fellow at Churchill. But at an interview for a lecturer he was not admitted to the English Faculty by the two experts Graham Hough and Muriel Bradbrook because of a disagreement on Hegel. Ironically, two months after this rejection, the same faculty would prescribe two passages from his Death of Tragedy for the Tripos syllabus. Steiner would then move to the University of Geneva as a Professor of Comparative Literature which would occupy him for the next twenty years. With students from various nationalities the job was tailor-made for a course in comparative literature. Being a polyglot, Steiner ensured that he taught every poem in its original language. And in Geneva he could ‘live Europe'. A job at Yale or Princeton would have depressed his father who advised him to think before taking up the position offered to him in the US. Moving to the US would mean that ‘Hitler had won' as the last Steiner had been finally evicted from Europe.