Thursday, January 19, 2006

George Steiner and Hitler
 George Steiner

One of the pre-eminent Literary critic cum philosopher is the polymath George Steiner. As a literary critic he is extraordinary as a philosophical commentator on history he occasionally leaves much to be desired.

In the late 1970's George Steiner published the short novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. The novel brought together various thoughts that George Steiner had been percolating on for quite some time. It was eventually turned into a play.

In this novel Israeli commandos abduct Adolf Hitler and they are taking him to be tried amid difficult physical conditions. In the end Adolf Hitler gives a long soliloquy, and then the helicopter arrives.

The amusing thing is that George Steiner puts into the mouth of Hitler his own thoughts, rather transgressive of him.

What is remarkable is the intellectual poverty of Hitler's ideas in the novel. Of course the real Hitler would have have ranted out an hysterical anti-Semitic screed not the 3rd rate philosophizing of George Steiner.

In Hitler's screed, since repeated in numerous publications by Steiner, we have the standard "correct" posture of blaming the victim.

We have:

a), Hitler got his racist mind set and exterminatory ideas from the Jewish idea of the "chosen" people and his exterminatory ideas from the Old Testament, (unpleasant passages from the Books of Numbers, Joshua, Judges).

In other words Hitler's racism is a parody of Jewish. To quote the play "a Hungary Imitation". Further Hitler claims that he was carrying out the universal wishes of the whole world.

b), "The blackmail of transcendence", supposedly the Ten commandments of Moses, Sermon on the Mount of Jesus, the Social justice of Karl Marx. Supposedly the tortures of that are very bad. Hitler says "What were the camps compared to that?".

c), Hitler claims to be some sort of dark Messiah whose horrible acts enabled the Jews to re-establish Israel.

d), Steiner has claimed that since Kafka in his fiction in some ways pre-figured totalitarian terror he was in some sense "responsible", because it was suddenly there as a "possibility". Somehow Steiner blames Kafka for the death camps for conceiving of something like them in fiction.

e), In a interview Steiner has claimed, as a possibility, that since the Jews were the occasion for unimaginable bestiality it would have been better if they had never existed.

f) Steiner believes that the tortures of conscience "over the long run" are worst than the tortures of the camps.

Steiner has claimed that "I have demanded an answer [to those questions] and never got one".

To get to the last point first Steiner has been answered but has chosen to ignore the answers.

To go through the points.

a), One of the sources of Hitler's ideas was the semi racism of antiquity, has abundantly illustrated by comments concerning non-Greeks, non-Romans and foreigners in antiquity. Included in this could easily be the frequent exterminatory military campaigns of the Romans. But then Steiner greatly admires Greco-Roman civilization and avoids asking hard questions of it including it has a source of Racism. I note he does not refer to Plato and his myth of the four metals; breeding the master race from the Republic of Plato. Steiner prefers not to look and put the blame elsewhere. Aside from speculation Steiner gives no evidence concerning this alleged influence. Steiner further ignores the influence of Enlightenment Philosophers, who were frequently anti-Judaic and based their "racist" theories concerning humanity on their reading and interpretation of Classical learning. Regarding the passages from various books of the Bible, the irony is that many of the atrocities mentioned apparently never happened, unlike the rather frequent Roman atrocities. (The destruction of Carthage for example).

I could also point out the rather fundamental difference between the Judaic concept of "Chosen" and a "racist" one. Quite simply one could convert to Judaism. The idea of an "innate" essence corresponding to "race" can all to easily be seen in certain Greco-Roman attitudes. (for Example Plato, Greek attitudes towards barbarians etc.) As for the concept of "Choseness" what is remarkable is the tendency for so many to talk has if the concept is unusual. It is not. From the Chinese to the Romans, Greeks etc., the idea that my group is "chosen" is omnipresent. Certainly the human habit of naming themselves variations of "human", implying of course that others are not quite "human" bespeaks of a common if not universal characteristic.
Steiner's Hitler is quite wrong in asserting that "Mankind" secretly desired to destroy the Jews. After all Anti-Semitism is basically a western phenomena, (only recently spreading to Islam). The majority of "Mankind", has been quite non-affected. But then by universalizing Anti-Semitism Steiner can elide the issue of Christian responsibility.

b), "The blackmail of transcendence", this is really absurd. It goes back to St. Paul's notion that Christ came in part to liberate man from the burden of the "law". The "law" because of its "impossible" demands was a barrier between man and God dooming man to eternal hellfire because of inability to satisfy the demands of a remorseless deity. What is striking about this notion is its falsity. The actual demands of God in the Old Testament are not that every ritual rule had to be observed. Although given the immense network of custom we live in and have always lived in, why these "demands" were especially unbearable is beyond me. The Prophet Micah put it simply "This and this alone the Lord doth demand, that thou love mercy and walk humbly with thy God".

As for blackmail, are Mose's / Jesus' demands anymore impossible than those of Confucius, the Buddha, and that of hundreds of other religious teachers and philosophers? Just what was so irksome about these? Steiner just assumes irksomeness based, in my opinion, on a Christian tradition concerning Judaism. One response to Steiner has been to merely note that the demand are quite realizable and not irksome. Further the Christian tradition, (not shared by all Christians then or now), that assumed the irredeemably sinful nature of man, such that he could never satisfy God, which arose after Jesus and owes a lot to Pagan philosophical concepts concerning the divine is the one that set up a "blackmail of transcendence". I note that no one seems to be filled with a desire to exterminate Christians to deal with this blackmail. But then Steiner seems to be anxious to not deal with the Christian roots of anti-semitism and get Christianity off the hook.

Steiner seems to believe that the tortures of conscience are worst than actual torture. There speaks a mind innocent of reality, and one not interested in listening to the actually tortured.

c), Hitler has a "dark Messiah", is simply Steiner trying to "epater le Bourgeoise". It is trite and silly. Intellectually it is repulsive. The fact Hitler is no more responsible for Israel than a rapist is for his victim marrying her rescuer.

d), Steiner once again goes to silly street. Kafka was writing fiction, which can be demonstrated rather easily. Practically nobody read Kafka until after the Second World War. Besides it can be demonstrated that the concentration camp "universe", predated him. To give a few examples, The Boer War camps, the Belgian Congo camps, (also mass extermination), the South West Africa camps, (German colony along with Genocidal slaughter and murder), the Soviet concentration camp system. I could go on. The fact is Hitler didn't need Kafka and even before Kafka wrote, in real terms the murderous concentration camp existed and was well known in Europe. Aside from the fact how little known writer had this amount of influence despite the fact virtually no one read him until after 1945 is a bit mysterious.

e), No doubt if a woman was raped it would have been better if she had never lived because she was raped. This is simply contemptible. That Steiner thinks this morally repellent dross, which significantly ignores the perpetrator and blames the victim simply for existing is worth a hearing is beyond me. The Nazi sentenced the Jews to death for existing. Steiner thinks that it is worth serious thought that since Jews were the occasion for a unimaginable bestiality, i.e., for being a victim, for that reason non-existence might have been a good thing. In other words non-existence for being.

f), This is false and only a naive innocent could think this. Only someone who does not hear the testimony of terror from survivors could spout this gibberish. I rather doubt that Steiner is terribly interested in hearing this testimony. I would also like to hear about the evidence Steiner has for this assertion, otherwise it is just a flaky opinion. This is all for Steiner for the time being.
Steiner, George, The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, (Original publication 1979).
Rosenbaum, Ron, Explaining Hitler, Chapter 17. George Steiner: Singling out the Jewish "Invention of Conscience", Random house Inc., New York, 1998, pp. 300-318.
Maccoby, Hyman, George Steiner's "Hitler", Encounter, vol. 58, No. 5, May 1982, pp. 27-34.
Sagiv, Assaf, George Steiner's Jewish Problem, Azure, Summer 5763 / 2003, pp. 130-154.

Pierre Cloutier