Posthumous interview with George Steiner: "I did not have the courage to create" | Culture

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"The secret of a good old age is nothing more than an honest pact with solitude"; I couldn't help but think of this wonderful reflection of Gabriel García Márquez when I learned of George Steiner's disappearance. He died Monday at 2:00 p.m. of an acute fever at his home in Barrow Road, Cambridge. The last time we spoke was on the phone last Saturday, and he told me in a very hoarse voice, "I can't take the fatigue of weakness and sickness anymore."

Steiner, one of the sharpest and most important literary critics of the 20th century, spent the last years of his life far from attention, the media, congresses and conferences, from any public event. I had the privilege of being with him also in this last phase of voluntary isolation.

After more than twenty years of meetings in Paris, Italy and other European cities, the monthly calls and the annual visit to Cambridge had become a ritual. But at the last meeting, set for June 14, 2018, no other arrived: the day before, George canceled it because he was not well and did not want to be tired and discouraged. It was during one of these meetings (January 21, 2014, exactly six years ago), that Steiner thought of granting me a posthumous interview: gathering some of his reflections and not publishing them until the day after his disappearance. . A discreet way to break the silence and say goodbye to your friends, your students, your many readers.

He came back to this text last year, modifying a few words here and there and asking me to rewrite a few sentences. Who knows how many unknown aspects of his life and his thoughts will be revealed in 2050, when you can study the hundreds of "autobiographical letters" now sealed in the archives of the Cambridge Churchill College.

Now that he's gone - his son David told me the news - in addition to the deep grief of the loss of a dear friend and a real teacher, not even four months after the disappearance of Harold Bloom, I more clearly notices the consequences of this forced and insurmountable empty silence which he leaves between the defenders of the classics and of literature. I think of his books, his encyclopedic knowledge encouraged by a surprising curiosity. And I think above all of his passion for teaching, his ability to share the love of literature and knowledge with students and the public.

George did not only stand out in writing. He was also a great speaker: his elegant eloquence could ignite students and colleagues.

Question: What is the most important secret you want to reveal in this posthumous interview?

Answer: I can say that for 36 years I have addressed to an interlocutor (his name must remain secret) hundreds of letters which represent my "diary", in which I told the most representative part of my life and the events that marked my everyday life In this correspondence, I spoke of the meetings I had, the trips, the books that I read and wrote, conferences and also normal and current episodes. It is a "shared diary" with my recipient, in which it is possible to find even my most intimate feelings and my aesthetic and political reflections. It will be kept in Cambridge, in the archives of Churchill College, along with other letters and documents which bear witness to life stages which may be too long. These daily letters, in particular, will be sealed and will not be available for viewing until after 2050, that is, after the death of my wife and (possibly) children. In short, they will not be made public until many people close to me have left. Will someone read them after so long? I do not know. But I could not do otherwise ...

Q: Why a posthumous interview?

A: I have always been fascinated by the idea. Something that will be made public precisely when I can no longer read it in the newspapers. A message for those who stay and a way to say goodbye by hearing my last words. An opportunity to reflect and take stock. I have reached an age where every day more or less normal should be considered as added value, a gift that gives you life.

In this phase, memories of the past become the only true inner future. It’s a memory-based return trip that gives us hope. We do not have the exact words to define the memory that tomorrow will contain. I am in a moment of my life where the past, the places that I frequented, the friendships that I had, the impossibility of seeing the people that I loved and that I still love and even the relationship with you, constitute the horizon of my future more than the true future can be.

Q: Do you have any complaints about anything in particular?

A: Of course. More than one thing. I wrote a little book, Errata, in which I speak of the mistakes I have made, I have not been able to grasp certain essential phenomena of modernity. My classical education, my temperament and my academic career did not allow me to fully understand the importance of certain great modern movements. I did not understand, for example, that cinema, as a new form of expression, could better reveal creative talents and new visions than other older forms, such as literature or theater. I did not understand the movement against reason, the great irrationalism of deconstruction and, in some respects, of post-structuralism. I should have realized that the feminist movement, which I supported in Cambridge with great conviction in recognizing the importance of the role of women, would later assume, in the struggle to occupy a dominant place in our culture, a political function and extraordinary human.

Q: On a personal level, what mistakes have you made?

A: Basically, I should have had the courage to prove myself in "creative" literature. As a young man, I wrote stories and also verses. But I didn't want to take on the transcendent risk of experiencing something new in this area that fascinates me. Critic, reader, scholar, teacher, these are professions that I deeply love and that are well worth the exercise. But it is completely different from the great adventure of "creation", of poetry, of producing new forms. And, probably, it is better to fail in the attempt to create than to have some success in the role of "parasite", as I like to define the critic who turns his back on literature. Of course, critics (I have emphasized this several times) also have an important function; I tried to launch, sometimes successfully, certain works and I defended the authors who, in my opinion, deserved my support. But it’s not the same. The distance between those who create literature and those who comment on it is enormous; an ontological distance (using a pompous word), a distance to be. My university colleagues have never forgiven me for supporting these theses; many barons and certain strictly academic critics did not accept that I laugh at their presumption of being, sometimes, more important than the authors of which they spoke…

Q: Who do you want to send a message to?

A: I think of some students, who are brighter than me, who do important work; Your success is a great reward for me. I think with deep gratitude of some of my colleagues who have accompanied me on the academic path. And I think especially of more intimate people, like you, who understood what I tried to do and thanks to those who were able to live an intense intellectual and emotional adventure. But, right now, first of all, I am trying to understand why the distance which separates me from modern irrationalism and, I dare say it, from the growing barbarism of the media, of the prevailing vulgarity, is increasing . I think we are going through an increasingly difficult period ...

Q: What made you suffer the most?

A: It made me suffer to be aware of having published essays that I would have preferred to write. Of course, there are pages of my work that I defended and defended with conviction, but also with bitterness. But I know it was probably not what I would have liked to write. And I often think of the injustice of the great talents: no one understands how these supreme gifts arise and how they are distributed. I think of a boy of five and a half who draws a Roman aqueduct near Berne and who suddenly represents a pillar with shoes; since then, thanks to Paul Klee, who is called that, aqueducts have worked all over the world. No one can explain the neurological synapses that can trigger a “crush” on metamorphosis in a child, this brilliant intuition that changes reality. I thought it was an injustice that we could try, try again, try again, just to be able to stay in the wake of adults, but not reach them because they are different from us.

Q: And what made you happier?

A: The happiness of having taught and lived in many languages. The happiness that I tried to cultivate every day, until the end, by leaving my library a poem to translate it into my four languages ​​(French, English, German and Italian). And even if I didn't translate it well, I feel like I let a ray of sunshine into my daily life.

Q: What wishes could you not fulfill?

A: Lots: trips I didn't dare to make, books I wanted to write and didn't write, especially crucial meetings that I avoided for lack of value or availability or energy . I could have met, for example, Martin Heidegger, but I did not dare. And I think he was right. I always followed a principle: no need to disturb the adults, they have something else to do. And besides, I never endured those who consider themselves important because they collect quotes with big names. Excellent people have the right to choose who they want to "waste" their time with. Then it happens that one day, opening memory books, sentences like: "I was disturbed by Mr. X, who insisted on meeting me, but had nothing interesting to say. I’ve always been afraid of making a big mistake. I think for example of Jean-Paul Sartre, specialist in the revelation of circumstances linked to the famous "heavy". And I’ve been struggling lately to give up the company of a dog. After Muz’s death, I realized that at my age it was very risky to have another one. I love these animals, but on the threshold of 90 years it seems terrible to offer a house to leave alone.

Q: What is the greatest victory?

A: Emphasize that Europe remains a very important need and that, despite the threats and the walls that are being built, we must not abandon the European dream. I am anti-Zionist (a position which has cost me dearly, to the point where I cannot imagine the possibility of living in Israel) and I hate militant nationalism. But now that my life is coming to an end, there are times when I think: maybe I was wrong? Wouldn't it have been better to fight against chauvinism and militarism living in Jerusalem? Do I have the right to criticize, sitting comfortably on the sofa in my beautiful Cambridge home? Was I arrogant when, from abroad, I tried to explain to people in danger of death how they should have behaved?

Q: Do you remember crying in your life?

A: of course. In recent times, I have often remembered special circumstances. I think, for example, of great human experiences that ended without me anticipating the end. The sudden disappearance of certain people whom you will never see again. Or places that you have not visited and that you can no longer visit. And I also think of more things, simple, perhaps banal: fish and food that you can no longer try. And sometimes find around the corner or in the garden the shade of someone you love and need a lot, but you know you can never reach.

Q: How important is friendship in your life?

A: Huge importance. No one knows better than you. I would have had a hard time in my last decades without you and without two or three other friends with whom I exchanged an abundant correspondence, distinguished interlocutors with whom I shared a deep emotional intimacy. Maybe friendship is more valuable than love. I hold this thesis because friendship is not the selfishness of carnal desire. Friendship, true friendship, rests on a principle that Montaigne, in an attempt to explain his relationship with Etienne de la Boétie, condensed into a beautiful sentence: "Because it was him; because it was me. "

Q: What about love?

A: Love has been very important, maybe too much. First of all, the happiness that my marriage brought me and that I cannot explain in words, rationally. And then one or two meetings that were decisive in my life. I think that, potentially, women have a higher sensitivity than men. I have had the immense privilege of having romantic relationships in different languages ​​(I have written a lot on this subject). Polyglot Donjuanism was a huge reward for me, an opportunity to live many lives. And it is curious that neither psychology nor linguistics have ever dealt with this fascinating phenomenon. Therefore, in After babel I invented an original definition of simultaneous translation as a good orgasm. I have always considered the phenomenon of words and silences in relation to eroticism as a crucial issue.

Q: Have you ever thought of death?

A: Continuously. But not only now; also when I was young. I grew up in the shadow of the Hitlerian threat, and I remember very well that the only survivors in my high school class were a partner and me. My father and my life prepared me for the loss and the danger of death. Now, I think meeting death can be interesting; This can be revealed as a way to better understand many things.

Q: Do you think there is something after death?

A: No. I am sure there will be nothing. But the moment of the passage can be very interesting. I find children the reaction of those who, having always thought of nothingness, in the final phase of their life change and imagine an ultraterrestrial "world". I don't think being afraid is a question of dignity; Do not lose respect for reason, you must call things clearly by name. It’s true that you can change your mind. I have been fortunate enough to always be in contact with great scientists, and I know that new things are learned every day and others are corrected. In science, this is normal. Now, believing in a life beyond is something very different.

Q: In this posthumous interview, would you like to apologize to someone you fought with?

A: Yes, I would like to apologize to someone whose name I cannot say. I think he would also prefer to remain anonymous. He is an eminent man, a longtime close friend, with whom I argued a stupid affair. A misspelled phrase in a letter blew up our relationship for years. I learned a lot from this experience; how sometimes an insignificant moment can become a decisive fact in life. This is a risk that we often run. An unimportant gesture, a simple word, in a single second, can cause real tragedies. And now, after so many years, I would like to say to my friend, "Come, let's eat together and laugh at what happened. But, with great pain, I realize that there is no time. It's too late.

Q: However, he is famous for his irascibility. Has this always been a weak point of your character?

A: Yes, it is true, but not only in adulthood. I remember when I was a child I was disturbed by little things, sometimes for no real reason. This way of behaving has created many enmities for me. Then, over the years, I had to learn to moderate myself. But I also paid a price for my irony, often very scathing and not always well received. And perhaps the sadness, the result of my awareness of mediocrity, uncomfortably embarrassed my interlocutors. Unfortunately, for so many years, I have garnered many hostilities and broken many friendships. It’s sad to recognize it, but it’s so.

Q: Did you receive advice that changed your life?

A: of course. Especially those that my mother gave me with all her love. I owe it to him to encourage me to live fruitfully with my disability. When I was a child, to make me react in moments of despair, he told me that "difficulty" was a divine "gift". In addition to getting rid of military service, my default gave me the opportunity to learn to improve, to try to understand that without effort you get nothing in life. I remembered it in different circumstances. One of the greatest achievements of my life was when I managed to tie my shoes for the first time with my hand.

© Corriere della sera

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