- - Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The renowned critic and scholar George Steiner died last week. He was 90 years old, living in Cambridge, England, after a career teaching at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, Churchill College (Cambridge), University of Geneva, Oxford, and Harvard, as well as serving as The New Yorker’s main literary reviewer for three decades. 

His two dozen books and several hundred essays ranged across Tolstoy, Homer, Heidegger, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, ancient and modern tragedy, Marx, Freud, the decline of Christianity, Celine, and the Holocaust. With his passing, along with the deaths of Roger Scruton a few days before and Harold Bloom last October, it seems as if an extraordinary sensibility is leaving the world, one that will likely never return. They came through a formation that doesn’t exist anymore, one that began with a simple rule: You must read everything.

Among serious humanities students in the mid-20th century, it was not an uncommon expectation. Around the time that Steiner was brought by his parents to America, fleeing the Nazis first from Vienna, then from Paris, English poet W.H. Auden came to the United States and started teaching classes at the University of Michigan. A few years ago, the syllabus for his course “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” surfaced, and it astounded 21st-century teachers. 

In one semester, students had to read more than 6,000 pages of classic literature. There were four Shakespeares, all of the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Kafka, Goethe, Pascal, Racine … Auden included nine opera libretti, too, including Don Giovanni, La Traviata, Tristan and Gotterdammerung.

It takes only two minutes of listening to Professor Steiner speak for one to register the result of that kind of education. There is a video on Youtube taken from a lecture he delivered at Tilburg University in 2012, the clip having the heading “The Humanities Don’t Humanize.” It opens with this pronouncement: In signal instances, writers, musicians, artists, and academics sided more or less overtly or by indifference with the agencies of the inhuman. Goethe’s garden is a few thousand yards from Buchenwald.”

That’s the kind of statement you can get away with only if you have a hundred thousand hours of reading to back it up. It runs against our hopeful conviction that reading and study of the great works of the past will make us better human beings, more empathetic and less cruel. Why would one of the great humanists of the age proceed to say, “when we invoke the ideals and practices of the humanities, there is no assurance that they humanize?”

The answer is a paradox that everyone who pursues a long and deep literary education undergoes. Steiner could dispel the sentimental faith in the humanities as a firmly benign influence, he could say that the achievements of civilization have often become arms of barbarism, he could believe that the life of the mind may be over and done in our utilitarian era … all of this precisely because he had read so much.

Anyone properly immersed in Western civilization knows that it contains too many examples of great art and powerful words contrary to ethical norms. Are we supposed to admire mankind after reading Book IV of “Gulliver’s Travels,” where Swift aligns humanity with the foul, simian Yahoos and Gulliver’s wife (and all women) so repels him that he prefers to sleep in the stable near the horses? How do we manage in our egalitarian society the inability of most people to comprehend Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Rilke’s Duino Elegies? And what are we to make of the fact that the Nazi camp commanders had exquisite taste in music?

In his strenuous course through the intellectual elite, Steiner insisted on this tragic dilemma again and again. We read the masterpieces, we revere the geniuses, but remember that the human stain seeps through them all. We believe in greatness, but expect it to turn now and then to barbarism. Steiner lost his extended family, the ones who didn’t leave Europe and ended at Auschwitz, but when the BBC asked him for the record albums he would want if he were stranded on a desert island, he selected Wagner #1, a recording of Lohengrin. 

Steiner, Bloom, Scruton and the other great Western civ humanists of the 20th century are a lesson for the 21st. The young need to hear their dissent from sunny notions of progress and the dream of a world without misery and inferiority. Our leaders need it, too, because political judgment improves when informed by literary sensibility. It is true that literary learning does not guarantee moral conduct, but as Steiner wrote in an essay on F.R. Leavis, “there is a close relation between a man’s capacity to respond to art and his general fitness for humane existence.”  Intense literary reading doesn’t necessarily produce a saint, but without it, the moral sense is blunted.  

In a democratic era, however, this will always be a minority opinion. To those who never caught the I-must-read-everything bug in their youth, humanitas is an odd aspiration. I presume that is why Steiner, Bloom and Scruton often appeared in the midst of an internal battle against despair.

The education that made them critical giants included a somber wisdom that the modern world would never share. They are the Jeremiahs of a disenchanted time, and we are a lesser society without them. 

• Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University.

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