An interview I did with George Steiner, back in 2015
You once said “Berlusconism” as a definition to vulgar fascism. Do you think the biggest danger in the world now is the lack of the word?
I think that even more dangerous then political censorship, which is dangerous, but even more dangerous, is the power of money. The power of the mass consumer market. And we have a rather new phenomenon, the mass consumer market buys culture, it doesn’t simply stop it, or push it aside, it buys it. There is a television semi-culture, it’s difficult to define, there is an enormous cheap newspaper and magazines culture, like never before, statistically hundreds of millions of people watch television and now what will be more important even then television, the web, the internet, cyber space which can take cultural products and treat them as in a supermarket. And, among intellectuals, among academics, among artists, there has never before been as much as temptation of wealth and immediate celebrity. The western celebrity culture, in order to resist making one’s own work, very cheap, very easy, very flattering, you either need a lot of character or a lot of bad luck. Bad luck helps a lot. When we look at the great products of culture at the moment, what I meant by “Berlusconism” was to say to, the writers, the architects, the cinema people, “if you dance with me, you can have anything”, you can have all the celebrity and reward in the world. The scientists are very lucky, their product is too difficult, you can’t. Some of them, yes, have become television stars. There is something, almost frightening, when the man who many people considers the Newton of our time, Steven Hocking of Cambridge, is on every fashion magazine. There is something frightening. But that’s very unusual and we have vast reasons for this. Scientists cannot be made immediate stars quite as easily, but even if they. I am more afraid of this commercial good fortune then any censorship. I want to give one more example. During the very bad times in Russia, there was the first holocaust television show in America, called holocaust; it was five or six episodes of Hollywood kitsch, and the rule at that time was, that to finance the television you must have an advertisement every 11 minutes and 45 seconds. And there was an advertisement for women’s underwear, panties, in the middle of the gas oven. And I said to myself, which is more dangerous to the survival of human thought, soviet censorship and the Gulag or this, and I didn’t have any easy answer. That’s how I really begun asking myself, which is going to kill the values of culture.
Do you see democracy in a good way?
The famous Churchill answer was “democracy is awful; it’s just a little a bit better then all the rest”, that’s a certain cynical but intelligent answer. Democracy never existed in ancient Greece which was a slave culture as we know and a culture without women largely and so on. There have been certain very lucky countries, Britain perhaps foremost, France in certain moments. Remember that American president have been elected with 33 percent only voting, 33 percent, and the others are not voting at all. In many, many so called democracies the money required to be a candidate, forgive me not being sort of an expert, but I think that for running for congress in many America states, not to the senate, is 50 or 60 million dollars to begin with, so that you can have a campaign. Democracy almost doesn’t exist accept theoretically. And in practical terms we have many situations where there are so many different interest sides in Israel, so many different pressure groups that democracy is a very slow and sometimes too slow a process of adjusting to educate opinion. Democracy will be wonderful with great schools if all our school children are well educated. Democracy will be wonderful if people of talent or people of altruism could run for office without being rich, etc. in practical terms, I don’t see how a teacher, and I’ve been a teacher for 52 years, how teacher and I have students on 5 continents on this world, can be democratic. Teaching is not a democratic process. I always say to my students in the beginning of every course: “ladies and gentlemen’s, you know almost nothing, I know almost everything, and I’ve taken a solemn promise, an oath, that I will change that equation in your favor”. And then we got along very very well. Democracy has very little to do with teaching or with training the human mind, which is difficult, often very bitter process. Are we moving towards other systems, it’s very difficult to tell. We were taught, you and I, though you are very young, but in our textbooks, they told us you can’t have great scientific technological progress without political freedom. You can have despotism, as you do in many Asiatic economies, and do brilliant scientific and technological progress. We have to rethink on notions. I fear, I fear, I hope I am wrong, but some kind of modified partially military technocracy will be the formula. Putin is the absolute example already, he’s a technological tsar, and to most human beings, believe me, I travel so much, most human being say if you have a decent pension when you are old, good hospitals, good schools for your children, a guarantee job, compared to that abstract freedom of debate, doesn’t interest them very much. And why in East Germany they will probably, get a return to the old system if they could choose again, because they felt much more secure. We are facing in, my beloved little England, a pension crisis so severe, old people no longer know how they will heat their house or feed themselves, in many parts of the society the whole pension system is breaking down as we get to old and what this damn technocratic despotism says? We can guarantee you a descent old age. And honestly for many human beings, that is more important and a good free hospital then any other. In American democracy the distance between the privileges of private medicines and disasters I don’t need to tell you, of the poor, are so enormous, that to speak of democracy is almost ironic.
There is an old saying of Rabi Nachman Mibreslav, he said: “in your youth you learn to speak, when you old you learn to be silent, and this is the big disadvantage of the man, he learns to speak before he learns to be silent”. The silence is more important?
Let me put it a little a bit differently; we live in a world of noise, like never before. To have silence has become a great luxury. To be able to be alone, privately, without electronic music pouring out of the walls, you get in elevator lift in America and the music starts, as you enter. The city is now day and night noise. The nights in the country are still quite and here, on the hills of Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv for example. We have entered a 24 hours a day noise world. 80 percent of adolescence, we are told, cannot read without some kind of accompaniment walkman music on, because reading alone and in silence has become a difficult, specialize art. It is a crazy condition to be in, and the portable phone is a logical piece of hell, logical, so that very young children are in a constant noise envelope or are texting minute after minute. But I am an optimist, I think there is going to be a disaster, I believe in disaster, I am a great believer in the education of force of catastrophe, things will probably go wrong, and if they go wrong, human being will have to find in themselves again the powers of privacy, of a little bit of silent and above all, the privilege of being a little bit alone.
You once said to Gershom Sholem that deconstruction and post modernism might be a Jewish act
Absolutely it is. 90 percent of the people who did deconstruction with Deridda and others were Jewish. It was a great revolution against the Talmudic authority, of the text. In classical Judaism we grow up with a profound reverence for the text, with the conviction that there is meaning in it. Endless commentary of commentary, of commentary will finally arrive at insight. And deconstructionists said enough. It didn’t work, it didn’t help us, and it didn’t save us. It is a brilliant kind of gymnastics on a high wire over nothingness. But it is, I think, a circus. A circus can be great art, we know that. It’s a kind of circus and it’s a profoundly Judaic revolt against Talmudic textual authority and eternity. What does the Jewish language saying “bereshit”, in the beginning, what was Deridda said that there is no beginning. The challenge is direct and fascinating. Footnote: Once he had the terrible cancer, in the last three years of his life, Deridda wrote only almost about Talmud, he came back home. It was very moving and very interesting return.
After the fall of the wall of Berlin, the artists felt un-employed, the lack of subjects. Can you see the same thing in your explanation about the contribution of the exile to the Jewish mind? When the exile if finished, even artificially like in Israel, there is no catalyst for creativity?
The enormous advantage of living in a gentile community is the pressure. Joyce said, he is not a Jew, but he created Leopold Blum, the greatest Jewish figure in literature, in Ulysses. Joyce said, I am an olive, squeeze me. It’s a nice way of putting it. If you want the oil, squeeze me. The pressures of the gentile community of certain anti-Semitisms force Jew to try and be even better. And in many traditions that better is also intellectual and spiritual. But not necessarily, he maybe a better businessman, he maybe a better impresario. The whole of the media world in America, as you may know, is in Jewish hands. But he can’t relax, and relaxing is very bad for Jews in my opinion.
Do you think Jewish can be arrogant about their “genius loci”? Do they have one?
Ho, yes. Many Jews get very optimistic about staying in place. Usually it goes wrong, usually. Suddenly one has to pack one’s bags. But not always. And for god sake, nobody wants again explosion, but if it comes it will do us allot of good. I can only answer personally. If I am now, well, I am at the age of 75 plus so the answer is more theoretically, but during my life, If I had to leave again, let’s say I would have to go to Turkey, let’s say, which many great intellectual Jewish had to in 1939. a. I would have to learn the language. Wonderful, it would have done me allot of good. b. my first job would have been very very bad, not the second. The second job will be already much better. I would have a fascinating different experience, and I can tell you that I will not telephone god and say to him “how could you do this to me”, absolutely not. I grew up in allot of languages, many cultures, it did me, I hope, allot of good. I never been any place that isn’t interesting. The world is a fascinating place. The more you learn about it, the more fascinating it is. And, I think that’s what I tried to say yesterday, to learn to be a good guest is a difficult art, it can go wrong, it can go very wrong, but one has to keep trying.
Do you think Judaism has overcome the conflict of art, the figure, now days?
In music, it has. In literature it has American literature today been largely for our generation the great Jewish masters, I am not an expert in art, there are problems. Iconography, iconoclastic, they can be very real problems. There are very great Jewish architects, many of the greatest; I think it’s early to tell, after all the escape from the ghetto isn’t very long ago, it begins with Heine and then it begins to produce Mandelstam and Celan, Kafka, and so on and so on. But it’s early it’s a difficult to try and guess. I think science is the more obvious road for Jewish talent.
What is the relationship between the object and its commentary? As a critic
An enormous distance. My whole difficulties, my whole life, with my colleagues in the academic are to tell them the different between the creator and even the best commentator is enormous, Mr. Shakespeare does not need Mr. Steiner, Mr. Steiner desperately needs Shakespeare. A great work of art can wait, as Walter Benjamin said, 500 years, before somebody reads it rightly, he doesn’t need to worry. No, Commentary is lovely, it’s exciting, it’s what I’ve done my whole life, never mixed it up with the original act of creation.
For you, what is the most limitless, language, art or music?
That is in part a question of age. With age, music has become more and more important. I re-read constantly, but that’s age, but I still feel I can listen to the newest music with great interest and great passion and pleasure. Certainly not to the latest conceptual art, I cant’, I don’t understand it I don’t follow it, I don’t try to, my fault. But this is, all people of my age will tell you. And it seems to me that music asks the right questions. Human beings are really very drecky, very filthy. We torture each other, we are selfish, we are small, but we have done 3 things which are totally useless and which are transcendent. Higher mathematics, high metaphysics and music. No other species, animal species, can do the same. We don’t know why we do them, no one can think of any use and these pure activities of speculative ecstasy of I can put it in no other way, are the supreme dignity, the dignitas of man. The music finally will be the most mysterious. A great philosopher, Leibniz, pulled it all together, he said: when god sings to himself, he sings algebra. That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I can’t sing algebra, but I can listen to music. And it open ups doors which perhaps no other forms of human activity opens up.
Do you think music is essential?
We not know no culture without music, we know many culture without literature, many, and complex communities even. Music, there has never found on this earth people however small however primitive, so called primitive, without music. It seems to be the one universal constant.
When you observe your life, you see yourself more as a fisherman or as hunter?
No, an asker. I ask. I know what you mean by hunting. You are probably a fisherman expecting to get the biggest fish, a lucky fish I should say. I am not like that. I have an instinct, a wish to know. I would still; I hope go a very long way to meet someone who can teach me something, very long way. The person who can teach me something is to me the most important man, so in that sense I am hunting. But, much more “ma nishtana halayila haze” (what was change in this night), someone who asks questions. Why this is different and once you stop asking, there is a wonderful saying by Heidegger, it’s probably wrong but it’s wonderful, he said why science boring, because it’s only gives answers. That’s a wonderful saying. Metaphysics and poetry asks questions. It’s an unfair saying but it’s worth thinking about. Answers are not the interesting thing, the questions are.