Steiner among the classics


Relief showing Priam, king of Troy, pleading with Achilles for the body of his son Hector, by B. Thorvaldsen.

After having heard of George Steiner’s death, we asked ourselves what his works have meant for a number of generations of Literature scholars. A key feature in Steiner (1929-2020) was the way he used Classical authors (Homer, Sophocles, Virgil…) to think about Literature without considering the Classical condition of those authors as an issue taken for granted. In fact, they need to go one step further than it has a priori been typified as an exemplary and universal subject and to ascertain its nature. The issue of the Achilles’ commiseration with Priam, the Antigone’s defiance of the laws, or the Dante’s debt incurred with Virgil do not arise from the well-known reasons which are proffered by experts on Mythology, Classical Literature or Comparatism, but rather concern everyone as a reader and human being due to those authors being settled in our thinking, which for Steiner, would be a “life grammar”. By Mª José Barrios Castro & Francisco García Jurado. UCM Research Group «Historiography of Latin and Greek Literatures»

Steiner is, beyond doubt, an author whose books Antigones and After Babel turned into common models among specialists (inside a varied and vast global work whose relationship is easy to find in his every single biography).

Likewise, thanks to their Spanish translations, Steiner also had a good reception over many years ago in Hispanic culture. From his autobiography, Errata, we would point out his jewish diaspora condition by belonging to a family who was obliged to leave firstly Wien and then Paris so as to escape the nazi invasion and the Holocaust until eventually arriving in the United States where he and his family settled down.

We remind ourselves of having read, on one occasion, that Steiner ironically expressed his gratitude to Hitler for his cosmopolitan side. In any case, like many renowned professors of Comparative European Literature, such as Claudio Guillén, Steiner was multilingual and representative of a European Culture that at the time was considered, sometimes in a pejorative way, as bourgeois.

On the other hand, we also want to highlight his deep background in Classical academic training in the Steiner biographical features, mainly thanks to his time at Chicago University over the golden age of this institution, as well as the attraction exerted by Homer and his kaleidoscopic translations to the English language, an attraction similar to that Borges felt.

However, an attempt to outline a relationship between Steiner and The Classical Tradition itself would be a nude matter if this category, Classical Tradition, were used as an abstract and a priori knowledge. Anyway, if there are essential authors, like Homer or Sophocles, who shaped the Steiner’s literary universe, this is a mere coincidence that those authors be called “classics”. As a matter of fact, there are deeper reasons as to why those authors are currently valid among us.

In addition, Steiner belonged to a hermeneutic approach with a deep German background (his jewish condition did not prevent him from writing a book on Heidegger) embedded in the so called “Metaphor of Contagion” or “Contagious Metaphor”, according to which there are ancient authors who “inject” a kind of virus or fascination inherent in themselves. Likewise, this approach is compatible with the idea of some myths, such as Prometheus, Oedipus or Orestes, which have codified and registered along the course of human history primitive social and biological conflicts and have remained as a vivid legacy in collective memory and reconnaissance.

In any case, this assertion transcends the tautology of judging a “classic author” to be good or exemplary just for the fact of being “classic”, as though it were an a priori matter taken for granted.

This Steiner’s attitude, in other words, which focuses on the sensitive thinking sphere over the given category is a distinctive trait in his works, where Homer is not supposed essential by the fact of being an ancient Greek author.

Without trying to be thorough, we would like to remark on three particular moments where Steiner readily showed this sensitive thinking attitude with the ancient authors. Generally speaking, these authors were Homer, Sophocles and Virgil.  

The first one is Homer or the encounter of Priam with Achilles. It was likely reading his book Antigones when we found one of those quotes that marked us for life. Steiner wrote about the moment when the king of Troy, Priam, came overnight to the Greek camp pleading with Achilles, the murderer of his son Hector, for the lifeless body of who so bravely fought.

This homeric scene, to whose translations Steiner himself dedicated some of his more brilliant pages in After Babel, characterizes the Greek tragic sense of life and, at the same time, this scene exemplifies humanity’s beginning after the tragedy. In this way, Steiner makes us feel the moving strength of this passage.

The second one is Antigone by Sophocles. As a good comparatist, Steiner noticed that the homeric scene, which has just been depicted above, and the Antigone tragedy leant on a common underground which is the right of burial. The study of the Antigone’s myth was one of the pillars in Steiner’s work and its influence on later research relating to mythography and mythocritique has been as deep as undeniable.

The Steiner’s study on Antigone along the history of European culture provides a reflection and a travel around the constituent elements of that myth, such as the relationship between sister and brother and implies, likewise, profound revisions about the elements attached to this myth and its modern interpretation, mainly in the light of romantic German thought.

Among the numerous mentioned works in After Babel we are especially fond of the moment when Steiner evoked an eighteenth century book, almost forgotten, The Travels of Anacharsis the younger in Greece and, particularly, the scene when the main character attending a performance of Antigone burst into tears. According to Steiner, this passage itself provoked for centuries the modern passion for this play.

The third one is Virgil, Dante’s guide and master. It is difficult to remain indifferent by the pages Steiner dedicated in his book, Lessons of the Masters, to Dante’s reading of Virgil the poet. This book is the result of an acute reflection about one of the most complex or controversial relationships in human beings, that of masters and pupils.

Moreover, Dante’s Divine Comedy is described and revisited by Steiner as our “Bildungsroman” from the particular viewpoint of master Virgil’s relationship to his pupil Dante. In the same way as Borges wrote in his Nine Dantesque Essays how he was moved by this work, Steiner was particularly moved by the sudden separation of Virgil and Dante in front of the Gates of Paradise, whereas Dante himself, standing before the pleasant vision of Beatrice, evokes a verse which Virgil gave to one of his characters, the queen Dido: “I recognize the sparkles of a former flame”. Therefore, it might well be this one and no other else the role of the master, i.e., the one of inspiring and guiding until disappearing later at that very moment when he is not necessary any more.

Once again, Steiner’s reflections outweigh the literary aspect in the sense that there are fewer quotes to Virgil’s verse as the Divine Comedy goes on, but this, far from being a mere philological ascertainment, is a sign of the pupil’s gradual autonomy from his master.

In conclusion, Steiner was, above all, an original thinker who tried to look beyond what our academic subjects, with their epistemological limitations, let us see. His books require slow and deliberate reading, with a constant need of reading their pages back again. Additionally, Steiner continually gives us back to the dream of an Europe already lost, this of Thomas Mann or Stephan Zweig, writers who provided us with some keys to reconsider our uncertain future. In sum, this is Steiner, an unclassifiable thinker, who gave classes of Comparatism in Geneva and Cambridge, and one of our life mentors with regard to his personality of a non-academic intellectual or, at the very least, an exponent of a former academic world. María José Barrios Castro and Francisco García Jurado

We are grateful for the attentive reading of Mrs. Megan Yoder (The Warehouse)


Prof. Dr. Francisco García-Jurado

Catedrático de filología latina en la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Dirige el Grupo UCM de investigación "Historiografía de la literatura grecolatina en España" y es investigador principal del Diccionario Hispánico de la Tradición Clásica.

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