We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Over “A Long Saturday,” George Steiner faces down Death. He does so not alone, but with a beautiful, smart French journalist who Chunnels from Paris to England. He does so like a Tai Chi master, using Death’s strength and weight against this, his dark Angel. And, Death will not be proud.
Sometimes a bon mot is just a bon mot. “God is Kafka’s Uncle”; “memory is the greatest library”; “Israel is a miracle we can’t do without” ; “Every language opens a window into a new world”; “In English, there is a flying carpet to tomorrow.”
Sometimes Steiner’s bon mot is an arrow to the mind’s heart: and such shafts in his quiver. “Wherever Catholicism has reigned, reading has not been encouraged.”; “contemporary education …(is) planned amnesia”; “(Islam) abandon(s) …all science since the fifteenth century; the notions of fact, rational demonstration, proof, theorems are not recognized...the fate imposed women…as inferior beings.” Or, this lengthy arrow: Why does German drive people crazy and allow so much in philosophy? Because verbs come at the very end of interminable sentences.” Ha! Or, Heil Heidegger! as he later points out.
This short, but deep book has six chapters: from his exile (Nazi Vienna, Paris) to the US; reflections on Judaism; languages opening windows to a new world; from his memorization of the Bible to other books; how the Humanities can make us inhuman (reflections on the Twentieth Century; and “Learning How to Die.”
This review will only be a small amuse bouche to tempt your appetite both for this book and because of it, to his other writings, such as that on sex and language. His family’s 1940 escape from Paris came from a tip his father heard from a former friend, then executive at Siemens: that the Nazis will cut through France like a knife through Normandy butter. When Steiner’s mother objected that leaving now would interrupt her son’s study for the French bac, his “father’s word was law.” His thoughts on Judaism are deeply personal and challlenging. This great atheist (like Freud, like Einstein, like many other secular Jews) feels and believes himself profoundly Jewish, of an people. He once proudly responded to a self-described British “aristocrat,” that Steiner is descended from a people who have never humiliated another, from a people had ancestors alive during Cesar’s time. His attitude towards Israel is nuanced: it is a miracle, but as a state must do things that states do (and that he does not support). But, he believes the Jews’ identity, even responsibility is to live in exile, to be guests of others in order to remind the world that we are all guests on earth. See Henri B. Levy for a similar stance on his identification with Jonah. That is, Jews should be some hybrid of Cain, Jonah and Christ: cursed to wander and bring undesired messages for which one will be crucified (and perhaps mourned). When Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister had his first secret meeting a Saudi sheik (in Spain, I recall), the sheik greeted him with a derisive “So who made you the chosen people?” Eban responded, “You want the job?”
His writing on books and literature dwell on the relation between sex and language. “…simultaneous translation is orgasmic. The opposite is also true: a true orgasm…is ssiultaneous translation.” He begs for more writing by women. This chapter seduces us to read more.
As for books, when asked why he reads with a pencil in hand, here’s his retort.
“…you can pretty much define Jews as people who always read with a pencil in hand, because they are convinced they will be able to write a book better than the one they are reading…arrogance of my small, tragic people.” And, Steiner gets our thinking revving when he cites Saul’s visits to the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28) as giving us “all of Western literature, we have Macbeth.”
As for meeting death, Steiner begins his mornings translating passages from four languages, checking on the aliveness of his mind. He reads Parmenides each morning. His only major regret: that he hasn’t taken the greater risk of writing more creatively.
This book was published by the University of Chicago Press. It recalls another fine late life study of Piaget, also done by a French journalist, Jean Claude Bringuier. Also a small masterpiece of clarity of Piaget’s thought. The cover photo is of Piaget with beret canted and a pipe in hand. When I showed the book to Bruno Bettelheim to entice him to do such an interview, he responded, “I don’t wear a beret, nor smoke a pipe.” This book-that-might-have-been is a loss to our intellectual heritage.
But, for “A Long Saturday,” here we have a man. Here we have a full life. Let us read, cherish and relish this life of the mind.