George Steiner was called many things across his lengthy writing career—sage, pedant, philosopher, snob, the last great European intellectual, a “mimic” staging a decades-long “impression of the world’s most learned man”—but the title he always claimed for himself was simply critic. As we reflect on the meaning of Steiner’s work in the wake of his death in February 2020, that self-characterization cannot be forgotten. Steiner was in many ways a formidable scholar, and his commentaries on core texts (Antigone, The Brothers Karamazov, the poetry of Paul Celan) and enduring themes (tragedy, translation, the inhuman) will surely be cited for many years to come. Yet from the beginning of his career in the late fifties to his last notable works at the turn of the century, he was explicitly engaged in the practice of criticism—the goal of which was to reach the wider republic of readers (not just academicians) with his urgent dispatches on the state of the arts and culture. It was as a critic that he asked to be judged.
Yet Steiner’s impact on criticism is not as easy to measure as that of some of his well-known contemporaries—such as Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye, and Paul de Man—whose analytic techniques reshaped the profession. As Martin Jay observes in his remembrance of Steiner published in Salmagundi earlier this year, Steiner did not patent a distinctive method of criticism, his approach relying instead on his broad range of reference and inimitable “sensibility.” Moreover, though he taught for many years, Steiner “left behind no school of thought to carry on his critical project.” There are, to put it another way, many George Steiner devotees but no practicing Steinerites. How are we to understand Steiner’s place among the critics, then? His significance, I suggest, lies not in a set of protocols or adroit maneuvers but in his diagnosis of, and response to, the conditions of criticism in the postwar decades. An important part of his legacy is his criticism of the critics.