George Steiner

American writer

Francis George Steiner (April 23, 1929February 3, 2020) was a French-born American literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, translator, and educator, who wrote extensively about the relationship between language, literature and society, and the impact of the Holocaust.

The ordinary man casts a shadow. In a way we don't quite understand, the man of genius casts light.


  • The ordinary man casts a shadow. In a way we do not quite understand, the man of genius casts light. Instinctively, we flinch from this light. We assure ourselves that genius must pay a terrible price. Often history bears us out: the creator, the supreme artist, the master of politics carries the scars of his greatness.
    • "Not a Preface, but a Word of Thanks," foreword to Unfinished Journey by Yehudi Menuhin (1977).
  • The age of the book is almost gone.
    • Quoted in The Daily Mail (London, 1988-06-27).
  • There is something terribly wrong with a culture inebriated by noise and gregariousness.
    • Quoted in The Daily Telegraph (London, 1989-05-23).

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (1960)

  • Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. To borrow an image from another domain: he who has truly apprehended a painting by Cézanne will thereafter see an apple or a chair as he had not seen them before. Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.
    • Ch. 1.

The Death of Tragedy (1961)


Yale University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-300-06916-2

  • We are still waging Peloponnesian wars. Our control of the material world and our positive science have grown fantastically. But our very achievements turn against us, making politics more random and wars more bestial.
    • Ch. I (p. 6).
  • Nothing in a language is less translatable than its modes of understatement.
    • Ch. III (p. 104).
  • Tragedy springs from outrage; it protests at the conditions of life. It carries in it the possibilities of disorder, for all tragic poets have something of the rebelliousness of Antigone. Goethe, on the contrary, loathed disorder. He once said that he preferred injustice, signifying by that cruel assertion not his support for reactionary political ideals, but his conviction that injustice is temporary and reparable whereas disorder destroys the very possibilities of human progress. Again, this is an anti-tragic view; in tragedy it is the individual instance of injustice that infirms the general pretence of order. One Hamlet is enough to convict a state of rottenness.
    • Ch. V (p. 167).
  • Increasingly unable to create for itself a relevant body of myth, the modern imagination will ransack the treasure house of the classic.
    • Ch. VI (p. 228).
  • Tragedy speaks not of secular dilemmas which may be resolved by rational innovation, but of the unalterable bias toward inhumanity and destruction in the drift of the world.
    • Ch. VIII (p. 291).
  • The Socratic demonstration of the ultimate unity of tragic and comic drama is forever lost. But the proof is in the art of Chekhov.
    • Ch. VIII (p. 302).
  • Verse no longer stands at the centre of communicative discourse. It is no longer, as it was from Homer to Milton, the natural repository of knowledge and traditional sentiment. It no longer gives to society its main record of past grandeur or its natural setting for prophecy, as it did in Virgil and Dante. Verse has grown private. It is a special language which the individual poet insinuates, by force of personal genius, into the awareness of his contemporaries, persuading to learn and perhaps hand on his own uses of words. Poetry has become essentially lyric — that is to say, it is the poetry of private vision rather than of public or of national occasion.
    • Ch. IX (p. 309).
  • When the modern scholar cites from a classic text, the quotation seems to burn a hole in his own drab page.
    • Ch. IX: (p. 314).
  • Literary criticism has about it neither rigour nor proof. Where it is honest, it is passionate, private experience seeking to persuade.
    • Ch. X (p. 351).

Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966 (1967)

  • We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?
    • Preface.
  • When he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch's shadow. Who would be a critic if he could be a writer? Who would hammer out the subtlest insight into Dostoevsky if he could weld an inch of the Karamazovs, or argue the poise of Lawrence if he could shape the free gust of life in The Rainbow?
    • "Humane Literacy" (1963).
  • The critic lives at second hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel, or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other men's genius.
    • "Humane Literacy".
  • Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.
    • "The Retreat from the Word," Kenyon Review (Spring 1961).
  • What lies beyond man's word is eloquent of God. That is the joyously defeated recognition expressed in the poems of St. John of the Cross and of the mystic tradition.

When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins.

    • "Silence and the Poet" (1966).
  • The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room.
    • "To Civilize our Gentlemen" (1965).
  • The new pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow.
    • "Night Words," Encounter (October 1965).
  • It was a brilliant, mutinous period. Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classic and Mediterranean tradition. These years, 1920-33, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit.
    • "The Hollow Miracle" (1959).
  • For let us keep one fact clearly in mind: the German language was not innocent of the horrors of Nazism. It is not merely that a Hitler, a Goebbels, and a Himmler happened to speak German. Nazism found in the language precisely what it needed to give voice to its savagery. Hitler heard inside his native tongue the latent hysteria, the confusion, the quality of hypnotic trance.
    • "The Hollow Miracle".
  • Words that are saturated with lies or atrocity do not easily resume life.
  • Often the children went alone, or held the hands of strangers. Sometimes parents saw them pass and did not dare call out their names. And they went, of course, not for anything they had done or said. But because their parents existed before them. The crime of being one's children.
    • "A Kind of Survivor" (1965).
  • Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent.
    • "A Kind of Survivor".
  • To shoot a man because one disagrees with his interpretation of Darwin or Hegel is a sinister tribute to the supremacy of ideas in human affairs — but a tribute nevertheless.
    • "Marxism and the Literary Critic," Encounter, XI (November 1958).
  • If future society assumes the contours foretold by Marxism, if the jungle of our cities turns to the polis of man and the dreams of anger are made real, the representative art will be high comedy. Art will be the laughter of intelligence, as it is in Plato, in Mozart, in Stendhal.
    • "Literature and Post-History" (1965).

Extraterritorial (1971)

  • There are three intellectual pursuits, and, so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess.
    • "A Death of Kings"

In Bluebeard's Castle (1971)

  • It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past.
    • "The Great Ennui".
  • Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, messianic socialism: these are the three supreme moments in which Western culture is presented with what Ibsen termed "the claims of the ideal." These are the three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.
    • "A Season in Hell".
  • When it turned on the Jew, Christianity and European civilization turned on the incarnation — albeit an incarnation often wayward and unaware — of its own best hopes.
    • "A Season in Hell".
  • Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guide-books in hand.
    • "In a Post-Culture".
  • The immense majority of human biographies are a gray transit between domestic spasm and oblivion.
    • "In a Post-Culture".
  • As the glossaries lengthen, as the footnotes become more elementary and didactic, the poem, the epic, the drama, move out of balance on the actual page. As even the more rudimentary of mythological, religious or historical references, which form the grammar of Western literature, have to be elucidated, the lines of Spenser, of Pope, of Shelley or of Sweeney Among the Nightingales, blur away from immediacy. Where it is necessary to annotate every proper name and classical allusion in the dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in the garden at Belmont, or in Iachimo's stealthy rhetoric when he emerges in Imogen's bedchamber, these marvellous spontaneities of enacted feeling become "literary" and twice-removed.
    • "Tomorrow".
  • Creation of absolutely the first rank — in philosophy, in music, in much of literature, in mathematics — continues to occur outside the American milieu. It is at once taken up and intelligently exploited, but the "motion of the spirit" has taken place elsewhere, amid the enervation of Europe, in the oppressive climate of Russia. There is, in a good deal of American intellectual, artistic production (recent paining may be a challenging exception) a characteristic near-greatness, a strength just below the best. Could it be that the United States is destined to be the "museum culture"?
    • "Tomorrow".
  • A good deal of classical music is, today, the opium of the good citizen.
    • "Tomorrow".
  • The really deep divergence between the humanistic and scientific sensibilities is one of temporality. Very nearly by definition, the scientist knows that tomorrow will be in advance of today. A twentieth-century schoolboy can manipulate mathematical and experimental concepts inaccessible to a Galileo or a Gauss. For a scientist the curve of the future is positive. Inevitably, the humanist looks back.
    • "Tomorrow".
  • We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle, even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control. And we shall do so with that desolate clairvoyance, so marvellously rendered in Bartok's music, because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity.
    • "Tomorrow"

Fields of Force (1974)


US title. UK title: The Sporting Scene: White Knights of Rekjavik. Essay originally published in The New Yorker

  • Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and labors on an ultimately trivial human enterprise.

George Steiner: A Reader (1984)

  • But I would like to think for a moment about a man who in the morning teaches his students that a false attribution of a Watteau drawing or an inaccurate transcription of a fourteenth-century epigraph is a sin against the spirit and in the afternoon or evening transmits to the agents of Soviet intelligence classified, perhaps vital information given to him in sworn trust by his countrymen and intimate colleagues. What are the sources of such scission? How does the spirit mask itself?
    • "The Cleric of Treason," The New Yorker (1980-12-08).
  • The private ownership of great art, its seclusion from the general view of men and women, let alone from that of interested amateurs and scholars, is a curious business. The literal disappearance of a Turner or a Van Gogh into some Middle Eastern or Latin-American bank vault to be kept as investment and collateral, the sardonic decision of a Greek shipping tycoon to put an incomparable El Greco on his yacht, where it hangs at persistent risk — these are phenomena that verge on vandalism.
    • "The Cleric of Treason".
  • In the Soviet Union, he knew, great art hangs in public galleries. No scholars, no men and women waiting to mend their souls before a Raphael or a Matisse need wait, cap in hand at the mansion door.
    • "The Cleric of Treason".
  • The absolute scholar is in fact a rather uncanny being. He is instinct with Nietzsche's finding that to be interested in something, to be totally interested in it, is a libidinal thrust more powerful than love or hatred, more tenacious than faith or friendship — not infrequently, indeed, more compelling than personal life itself. Archimedes does not flee from his killers, he does not even turn his head to acknowledge their rush into his garden when he is immersed in the algebra of conic sections.
    • "The Cleric of Treason".
  • Fantasizing about action out there in the 'real' world, spinning dreams abut the secret centrality, about the occult importance of the labours in which he has interred his existence — labours that the vast majority of his fellow men would deem wholly marginal and socially wasteful if they knew of them at all — the pure scholar, the master of catalogues, can sup on hatred. At the ordinary level, he will exorcize his spleen in the ad-hominem nastiness of a book review, in the arsenic of a footnote. He will vent his resentments in the soft betrayals of an ambiguous recommendation or examination report and in the scorpion's round of a committee on tenure. The violence stays formal. Not, one supposes, in Professor Blunt.
    • "The Cleric of Treason"

Real Presences (1989)


The University of Chicago Press, 1989, ISBN 0-226-77234-9

I: A Secondary City

  • We speak still of "sunrise" and "sunset." We do so as if the Copernican model of the solar system had not replaced, ineradicably, the Ptolemaic. Vacant metaphors, eroded figures of speech, inhabit our vocabulary and grammar. They are caught, tenaciously, in the scaffolding and recesses of our common parlance. There they rattle about like old rags or ghosts in the attic.
    • Ch. 1 (p. 3).
  • Where God clings to our culture, to our routines of discourse, He is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech. So Nietzsche (and many after him).

This essay argues the reverse.

It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence.

    • Ch. 1 (p. 3).
  • The private reader of listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force.
    • Ch. 3 (p. 9).
  • All serious art, music, literature is a critical act. It is so, firstly, in the sense of Matthew Arnold's phrase: "a criticism of life." Be it realistic, fantastic, Utopian or satiric, the construct of the artist is a counter-statement to the world.
    • Ch. 4 (p. 11).
  • Literature and the arts are also criticism in a more particular and practical sense. They embody an expository reflection on, a value judgement of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.
    • Ch. 4 (p. 11).
  • The journalistic vision sharpens to the point of maximum impact every event, every individual and social configuration; but the honing is uniform.
    • Ch. 6 (p. 27).
  • What worthwhile book after the Pentateuch has been written by a committee?
    • Ch. 6 (p. 36).
  • To a degree which is difficult to determine, the esoteric impulse in twentieth-century music, literature and the arts reflects calculation. It looks to the flattery of academic and hermeneutic notice. Reciprocally, the academy turns towards that which appears to require its exegetic, cryptographic skills.
    • Ch. 6 (p. 38).

II: The Broken Contract

  • Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything.
    • Ch. 1 (p. 53).
  • Talk can neither be verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense. This is an open secret which hermeneutics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Croce, have laboured to exorcise or to conceal from themselves and their clients. This ontological, which is to say both primordial and essential axiom (or platitude) of ineradicable undecidability needs, none the less, to be closely argued.
    • Ch. 2 (p. 61).
  • Those who proclaim and apply to poetic works a "theory of criticism," a "theoretical hermeneutic" are, today, the masters of the academy and the exemplars in the high gossip of arts and letters. Indeed, they have clarioned "the triumph of the theoretical." They are, in truth, either deceiving themselves or purloining from the immense prestige and confidence of science and technology an instrument ontologically inapplicable to their own material. They would enclose water in a sieve.

Two indispensable criteria must be satisfied by theory; verifiability or falsifiability by means of experiment and predictive application. There are in art and poetics no crucial experiments, no litmus-paper tests. There can be no verifiable deductions entailing predictable consequences in the very concrete sense in which a scientific theory carries predictive force.

    • Ch. 3 (p. 75).
  • In aesthetic discourse, no interpretative-critical analysis, doctrine or programme is superseded, is erased, by any later construction. The Copernican theory did correct and supersede that of Ptolemy. The chemistry of Lavoisier makes untenable the early phlogiston theory. Aristotle on mimesis and pathos is not superseded by Lessing or Bergson. The Surrealist manifestos of Breton do not cancel out Pope's Essay on Criticism though they may well be antithetical to it.
    • Ch. 3 (p. 76).
  • A sentence always means more. Even a single word, within the weave of incommensurable connotation, can, and usually does.
    • Ch. 4 (p. 82).
  • Almost alone among cognitive-aesthetic movements and strategies of interpretation, deconstruction neither champions any body of past literature or art, nor does it act as vanguard or advocate for any contemporary or incipient school. The New Criticism and T. S. Eliot strove for the revaluation of Metaphysical poetry so as to underwrite, in turn, certain tactics of modenity. Aristotle was advocate for Sophocles. Deconstruction is, intentionally, marginal (a key trope) to all histories of taste and manifestos for innovation.
    • Ch. 7 (p. 117).
  • Even where it is manipulated by major talents, deconstruction tends to bear either on marginal texts (Sade, Lautréamont), or on secondary work by a great writer (Barthes on Balzac's Sarrazine). The classics of deconstruction, in Jacques Derrida or Paul De Man, are "misreadings" not of literature but of philosophy; they address themselves to philosophical linguistics and the theory of language. The masks they seek to strip off are those worn by Plato, by Hegel, by Rousseau, by Nietszche or Saussure. Deconstruction has nothing to tell us of Aeschylus or Dante, of Shakespeare or Tolstoy.
    • Ch. 8 (p. 128).

III: Presences

  • Do the identifications with fictions, the inner, tidal motions of pathos and libido which the novel, the film, the painting, the symphony unleash within us somehow immunize us against the humbler, less formed, but actual claims of suffering and of need in our surroundings? Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street?
    • Ch. 1 (p. 144).
  • Self-projection is, more often than not, the move of the minor craftsman, of the tactics of the hour whose inherent weakness is, precisely, that of originality.
    • Ch. 3 (p. 170).
  • Though acts of reception and of understanding are in some measure fictions of ordered intuition, myths of reason, this truth does not justify the denial of intentional conduct. It is as absurd to discard as mendacious, as anarchically opaque, the bearing of contextual probability and suggestion, as it is to invest in such probability any blind trust. The negations of post-structuralism and of certain varieties of deconstruction are precisely as dogmatic, as political as were the positivist equations of archival historicism. The "emptiness of meaning" postulate is no less a priori, no less a case of despotic reductionism than were, say, the axioms of economic and psycho-sociological causality in regard to the generation of meaning in literature and the arts in turn-of-the-century pragmatism and scientism.
    • Ch. 3 (pp. 174-175).
  • Cheap music, childish images, the vulgate in language, in its crassest sense, can penetrate to the deeps of our necessities and dreams. It can assert irrevocable tenure there. The opening bars, the hammer-beat accelerando of Edith Piaf's Je ne regrette rien — the text is infantile, the tune stentorian, and the politics which enlisted the song unattractive — tempt every nerve in me, touch the bone with a cold burn and draw me into God knows what infidelities to reason, each time I hear the song, and hear it, uncalled for, recurrent inside me.
    • Ch. 4 (p. 183).
  • To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial. It is to immure him in emptiness.
    • Ch. 4 (pp. 190-191).
  • For many human beings, religion has been the music which they believe in.
    • Ch. 6 (p. 218).
  • For it is a plain fact that, most certainly in the West, the writings, works of art, musical compositions which are of central reference, comport that which is "grave and constant" (Joyce's epithets) in the mystery of our condition.
    • Ch. 6 (p. 224).
  • What I affirm is the intuition that where God's presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable. And I would vary Yeats's axiom so as to say: no man can read fully, can answer answeringly to the aesthetic, whose "nerve and blood" are at peace in sceptical rationality, are now at home in immanence and verification. We must read as if.
    • Ch. 7 (p. 229).

Proofs (1992)

  • I am and remain a Marxist. Because otherwise I could not be a proofreader… If California triumphs, there will be no need of proofreaders. Machines will do it better. Or all texts will be audiovisual, with self-correctors built in. Night after night after night, Carlo, I work till my brain aches. So as to get it absolutely right… Getting it right. The holiness of it. The self-respect. Gran Dio, Carlo, you must see what I'm driving at. Utopia simply means getting it right! Communism means taking the errata out of history. Out of man. Reading proofs.

Do Books Matter?

  • Women began their inner emancipation by their access to literature, by access to the world through books; an access they could not have socially or politically, or of course economically, in the world at large.
  • In the United States dramatically, here fortunately much less so, the book store as we have known it is dying. In the United States it is now largely an emporium, featuring music, records, Christmas cards, a large range fo semi-cultural and kitsch products with books fighting for their actual spatial lives. In some of the great university towns such as New Haven, or Princeton, within the past decade, the last good book stores have had to close, and what we have now are text book emporia which are not book stores, but store-houses bracketed according to set reading lists: in other words—where there is none of the genius of waste which a great book store has, where you cannot find what you are not looking for, which is the very essence of a book store.
  • That is to say that every single book will be magnetized, will be ordered under complicated mathematical clusters, by related subjects, and semantic markers. You will state your questions, or the subject you are interested in, and the computer will find the books for you. Instataneous retrieval brings with it enormous changes in our relation to the history of a subject, because there is a cut-off point in all these systems beond which the previous books are no longer relevant. They have been adequately subsumed in the later ones. You have a completely different way of organsing knowledge—an immensely efficient and in many ways powerfully logical way, but which blocks the essential motion of the hand reaching along a shelf and stumbling on what it did not know was there. When these great knowledge and data-banks, as they are called, are operative there will come a whole change in the way the human mind and eye live with books.

Quotes about

  • George Steiner, speaking of writing under totalitarian rule, calls for the writer to stop writing 'a few miles down the road from the death camp... when the words in the city are full of savagery and lies, nothing speaks louder than the unwritten poem'.