A Long Saturday

There comes a time when it’s too late for many things. George Steiner

A Long Saturday is a provocative exchange between the the eminent scholar, George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The book-length interview treats the many issues that have occupied Steiner throughout his life—languages, culture, Judaism, literature and the Holocaust.

I quote below some of the Steiner’s answers that struck me as most interesting:

First, we have a fundamental philosophical problem. A critical judgment on a piece of music, art, or literature cannot be put to the proof. If I declare that Mozart was incapable of writing a melody (there are people who believe that), you can tell me I’m a poor fool, but you can’t prove me wrong. When Tolstoy said that Lear is an overblown melodrama by someone who doesn’t understand tragedy at all, you can say, “Mr. Tolstoy, I regret to inform you that you are laughably wrong.” But you can’t prove him wrong. In the end it’s scary: opinions are not refutable.

And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been staying a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it.

L.A. Do you define yourself as a Jew, as a Jewish thinker?
G.S. No. A European Jew, if you like. A student, I like to consider myself a student. I have teachers.

But really, what fascinates me most is the mystery of Jewish intellectual excellence. I’m not being a hypocrite: in the sciences, the percentage of Jewish Nobel laureates is stunning. There are areas in which there is almost a Jewish monopoly. Take the creation of the modern American novel by Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and so many others. The sciences, mathematics, the media, as well; Pravda was run by Jews.

For me, to be a Jew is to remain a student, to be someone who learns. It’s to reject superstition, the irrational. It’s to refuse to turn to astrologists to find out your destiny. It’s to have an intellectual, moral, spiritual vision; above all, it’s to refuse to humiliate or torture another human being; it’s to refuse to allow another to suffer from your existence.
There comes a time when it’s too late for many things.

L.A. I think I’ve read that you distinguish two types of people: those who read with a pencil, and those who don’t….
G.S. You have to make notes, you have to underline, you have to wrestle with the text by writing in the margin.

In the evening the officers played Schubert and sang Mozart; in the morning they tortured people in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Majdanek.

Leading historians believe that between August 1914 and May 1945, in Europe and the western Slavic world, more than a hundred million men, women, and children were massacred in wars, in concentration camps, and by famine, deportation, and major epidemics… It’s a miracle that anything managed to survive.

It is inconceivable that we keep people alive against their will, when their only wish is to leave this world. It seems grossly sadistic to me.