IN A 1972 LETTER, Hannah Arendt speculates that a thinker has only one real thought in her life, everything else being nothing but variations on this single theme. First published in French in 2014, A Long Saturday is a short book of conversations between George Steiner and the journalist Laure Adler. The volume provides an overview of the main themes that have occupied Steiner’s mind throughout his life, but it also gives us reason to doubt Arendt’s conjecture. For while those of us familiar with Steiner’s oeuvre will hear in these conversations variations on familiar themes, we are left with no doubt as to the plurality of those themes. A Long Saturday shows Steiner to be a man of more than one book.

Steiner begins by speaking succinctly about his extraordinary biography, narrated more fully in his autobiographical Errata (1997). We hear of the effects of the “deformity” that has been part of his life since his birth in 1929, of his father’s prescience about what would happen in Europe (he had already left Vienna for Paris, where Steiner was born) and of the family’s narrow escape from Paris, in 1940, on the last American cruise ship leaving from Genoa, “just as the Germans were invading.” We are left to infer the relationships that may exist between Steiner’s biography and the themes to which his writing has kept returning over the years. As he says, “there must be some connection between statement and a life.”

Steiner’s reflections on Judaism and the state of Israel are penetrating and provocative. He has previously described Judaism as “this small, sharp-edged pebble in the shoes of mankind,” an image on which he elaborates here with instances where Judaism has held humanity to account. First, in the formation of monotheism, “the least natural thing in the world” (in contrast to the multiplicity of ancient Greek deities), the divine becomes inconceivable, unimaginable, and unreachable, yet continues — unbearably — to dispense exacting moral demands. Secondly, in Christianity, the Jewish Jesus’s commandment to sell everything and give the money to the poor reinterprets altruism not as a virtue but as a duty. (Steiner reminds us that the Sermon on the Mount is made up of quotations from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.) Finally, the Marxist championing of justice condemns a person in a fine house with empty rooms while there are people without homes. “Three times, Jews have demanded, ‘Become a person. Become Human.’ It’s frightening. And then as a side note, Freud comes and takes away our dreams. He doesn’t even let us dream in peace.”

Freud elicits criticism from Steiner: “I’ve tried, Laure, believe me, with all my strength, to desire my mother sexually and to make an enemy of my father; I’ve tried and it hasn’t worked at all.” Aside from his misgivings about the Freudian idea of the Oedipus complex (on an uncharacteristically literal reading, it has to be said), Steiner defines human dignity as “having the strength to carry your pain yourself. […] To unload on someone else, for payment, appalls me.” He objects that the practice of psychotherapy simply doesn’t exist in life’s “true horrors” — in the death camps, for example. But he is forgetting about Viktor Frankl, the founder of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, after Freud and Alfred Adler. Frankl not only conducted group psychotherapy sessions for his fellow prisoners in Auschwitz, but also drew on his experiences there to write his unique “On the Psychology of the Concentration Camp.” These contributions are surely no less valuable than the “living books” of whom Steiner speaks: prisoners who could be consulted like texts because they “knew thousands of pages — including the Torah, the Talmud — almost entirely by heart.”

On the origins of anti-Semitism, in My Unwritten Books (2008), Steiner ventures to invert received opinion. The charge of deicide, which has been leveled at Jews for centuries, in fact stands for its opposite: “The Jew is hated not because he killed God but because he has invented and created Him.” Steiner reads monotheism as humanity’s self-critique, by means of which we have placed on ourselves an unbearable psychological and moral burden. From the unimaginable, unreachable God, whose name cannot be uttered, still emanate moral commandments beyond the best intentions of most of us. Whether or not Steiner is right about the origins of anti-Semitism, he manages to articulate a vexing philosophical tension that has persisted in almost all forms of religion since Judaism: that between divine ineffability and human answerability to a God who can never be grasped. Many of the anecdotes that Steiner recounts in A Long Saturday will be familiar to his loyal readers, including the one about the man in Kiev, who accosts Steiner in Yiddish, having recognized that he is a Jew. However, he doesn’t repeat the version in My Unwritten Books, where he asks the man how he knew (“But surely it’s obvious. The way you walk.”), and reflects beautifully on his reply: “Like one, I suppose, who has two thousand years of menace at his heels.”

At least since Language and Silence (1967), Steiner has been preoccupied with the power and limitations of language. Even as a child, he was aware that phrases, lines, and passages of great literature have the power to change everything for their readers, and he speaks compellingly to Adler about the “talismanic” phrases that connect us to life. Steiner views language as an essential vehicle for the expression of ideas, and he mourns the “billions” of thoughts that, for all we know, have been lost for ever for want of a means of expression. For him, the amazement is not only that someone “like you and me” could think as Descartes did, but also that such a thinker had the powers to capture his thoughts in writing. “Can we conceive of a person waiting for lunch or going to tea after writing down what God said in the book of Job?” Yet Steiner is as fascinated by language’s limitations as he is by its extraordinary powers. He reflects on forms of communication that go beyond speech, like music and mathematics, and on the ineffable, which transcends language — on what cannot be said or, like “the ultimate experience of the Shoah,” one shouldn’t even try to say. Steiner is drawn to the points at which language is felt to resist, where the poet and the philosopher each feel the continuity of the other’s work with their own.

These themes of ineffability and transcendence remind the reader that, for Steiner, theological questions (but not answers) are essential for an adequate understanding of artistic creation. Although the “God-question” no longer fuels the majority of contemporary art, literature, and philosophy, Steiner writes (in My Unwritten Books) that, in essence “poiesis, creation, has been an imitatio of, a wrestling with, what is taken to be divine making.” It is startling to find Steiner reaching for Christian imagery here, arguing that the nature of artistic creation is best understood Eucharistically, as the bringing into being of a “real presence.”

On this, he is part of an illuminating yet neglected line of European thinking about art. Drawing on Mallarmé via Valéry, Hans-Georg Gadamer used the same analogy to explain that, unlike prosaic, “everyday” language, poetic language doesn’t simply refer to something because that to which it refers is actually there, really present in the poem. Before Gadamer, Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the “transubstantiations” effected by the artist, as she transforms everything that she wants to present into paint or some other media. In A Long Saturday, we find expressed in summary form an idea developed at length and more or less systematically in Real Presences (1989) and Grammars of Creation (2001): that theological questions are prerequisite to a full understanding of the meaning of artistic creation — and indeed of meaning in general.

Steiner is a polyglot who has devoted his life to the study of the humanities. He is the epitome of a contemporary European humanist yet scathing about what Adler introduces as “so-called European humanism.” “Yes,” he replies, “it’s all in the ‘so-called.’ You might have hoped that Goethe’s garden wouldn’t be next to the Buchenwald camp; but you come out of Goethe’s garden and you’re right in a concentration camp.” The thought is not just that the humanities “put up no resistance” to the atrocities in Europe’s not-too-distant past, but also that in general they fail to humanize — perhaps they even make us inhuman. Our cultivated responsiveness to the suffering of fictional characters can perhaps displace and deaden our response to the suffering of real people. The cry of a character in a play or a novel may drown out the cry in the street.

To illustrate his point that the humanities offered “no resistance,” Steiner gives the example of the subject of yet another of his books: Martin Heidegger, who became the first Nazi rector of Freiburg University in 1933. Intellectually, Steiner is enormously indebted to Heidegger’s writings — without, however, feeling able to defend the man who wrote them. It’s here, significantly, that Steiner does permit a metaphorical reading of the Oedipus complex. Adler asks about Heidegger’s troubled relationship with his Jewish mentor, Edmund Husserl, to whom he owed much of his professional success. Steiner rightly dismisses the unfounded, persistent rumor that, as rector of the university, Heidegger personally banned his mentor from the library. But Heidegger did sign the circular letter that forbade Husserl from entering the building used by the philosophy faculty. Steiner comments that,

as in all great relationships, the student will try to destroy the master. Here, if you like, you are welcome to use Freud’s word ‘oedipal,’ with my respects […] The murder of the father from an intellectual point of view, from a theoretical point of view.

Adler encourages Steiner to explain Heidegger’s refusal to apologize for his behavior after the war, despite encouragement from his friend Karl Jaspers. Steiner responds simply: “Vanity.” But Adler’s mention of Jaspers’s name implicitly raises a stronger challenge to Steiner’s “no resistance” charge against the humanities. Jaspers was married to a Jew, and he remained in Germany with his wife during the years of Nazi rule. Banned by the Nazis from teaching and publishing, Jaspers kept writing. After the liberation, he became among the first to reflect publicly on the collective guilt felt in Germany. And although he felt isolated, Jaspers was not alone. In fact, there were many humanist intellectuals — writers, artists, philosophers — who resisted. The problem is that their stories remain largely unheard. As Steiner describes in My Unwritten Books, Jaspers wrestled in his notebooks with incomprehension over Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazis. Steiner observes that, in these notebooks (posthumously published as Notizen zu Martin Heidegger, 1978), “Jaspers comes to intuit that his own acclaimed labours may fade in the light of Heidegger’s outrageous, despotic stature.” Jaspers’s prediction of his own eclipse has to some extent proved correct, but, this brief passage notwithstanding, Steiner could surely do more to rekindle the flame.

In his essay The Idea of Europe (2004), Steiner refreshingly defines Europe not in the hackneyed economic and political terms that have been worn threadbare since Brexit, but as a cultural entity — in the more ancient and less restricted terms of the joint heritage of Athens and Jerusalem. In his conversation with Adler on the subject, he complains that Europe has become the continent of global tourism: “people travel there to see the old Europe. It’s turned into one big museum and living there is now a luxury. But talking about the future, a positive future, is difficult.” He speculates that we are entering “an era of derision,” where the religious questions that once drove civilization forward are now dismissed as “a romantic joke.” Shortly after the liberation of Heidelberg in 1945, Karl Jaspers was more optimistic about the fate of the European museum. Far from making those of us who remain in Europe into the tourist guides of a lifeless museum, he wrote: “To live as an interpreter who lovingly tends what must never be lost to the consciousness of mankind would not be to live badly […] Museum life becomes a life with an historical soul.”

It is perhaps with a similar sense of hope that Steiner sees the human condition mirrored in Europe, the reflection of a tragic vision incorporating hope as well as despair: “the two sides of the coin of the human condition.” Again, he reaches for Christian imagery: we are living in a “long Saturday” between the despair of Christ’s death on Friday, and the hope of his resurrection on Sunday. It is undeniable that the humanities have very often failed to humanize and, like Heidegger in the Third Reich, have even helped to shore up the establishment and unbalanced structures of power. But Steiner’s work shows that, in the hands of those who have been marginalized, the humanities also have the power to hold humankind to account and challenge us to become more human. There are no guarantees for the future, but this does not mean that hope is out of place. In answer to his own question, “Will humankind experience a Sunday?,” he gives a final, ambiguous response: “One wonders.”

We reach the end of A Long Saturday with the sense that not only in Steiner’s work, but for the future of the humanities, asking difficult questions is far more important than answering them.

¤

Guy Bennett-Hunter is a philosopher and writer based in London. He is the author of Ineffability and Religious Experience (2014).