A Life of Learning

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.
Keith Thomas The Fifth British Academy Lecture November 20, 2001.

Sometimes I read about a person or situation that cuts through the endless distractions of life and reminds me what a life of learning can be. This was my reaction in reading an interview with George Steiner that appeared at the English Language version of PressEurop as last year drew to a close.

Steiner is an always-thoughtful writer whose knowledge of history, literature and the arts reflects a lifetime of scholarship and serious reflection. He has been described by A.S. Byant as a “…Renaissance man…a European metaphysician with an instinct for the driving ideas of our time.”

Here is what he spoke about during the interview:

• Close to 80 million, that’s 80,000,000 human beings were killed between 1914 and 1945 in Europe through “wars, deportations, concentration camps, famines and bombardments.” He confesses he is amazed that Europe continues to exist.

• His life has been inspired by a rabbi who said, “Truth is always in exile.”

• Steiner finds contemporary science increasingly inaccessible to most individuals. I even find much of the science of psychology, the one I studied and taught for most of my life, is completely inaccessible to me now.

• He has struggled all his life to understand the sources of creative thinking and has written a book, Grammars of Creation, to try to understand it. “But at the end of my life, I still don’t.” I suspect it will always remain a mystery.

• He asks the reader to imagine a world where neuro-chemistry, could explain Mozart. He says it is conceivable and finds it frightening.

• He worries a great deal about the fate of modern refugees. In a recent speech to members of the German government, he concluded, “Ladies and Gentleman, all the stars are now turning yellow.”

• He also worries about the new world of technology as he calls it, and believes it has significantly changed the experience of reading literature.

• Times of silence have also been seriously affected. “Silence has become a huge luxury. People are living in a constant din…Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman?” Does anyone read Plato these days?

• He finds contemporary literature in serious disrepair. “Literature has chosen the domain of small scale personal relationships, and no longer deals with great metaphysical themes.” When was the last time you read a philosophical novel?

• The study of Jewish intellectual history and passion for art in the broadest sense has been the central themes of his life. “I want to stay close to the Shoah, in a place where I can speak my four languages. They are my escape, my greatest joy and pleasure.”


Stefanie said...

He sounds like a very interesting person. I do have to take umbrage with his statement:

“Literature has chosen the domain of small scale personal relationships, and no longer deals with great metaphysical themes.”

A novel does not have to deal with a metaphysical theme to be interesting or thought provoking or great. Perhaps in some respects the personal is the metaphysical. To imply that we cannot learn much from the small does a disservice to literature.

Richard Katzev said...

Surely you are correct. But I believe Steiner still wants literature in the broadest sense to have more of a philosophical character. Human variability rules here as elsewhere.