NEW YORK — George Steiner, who became one of the world’s leading public intellectuals through his uncommon erudition, multilingual perspective, and the provocative lessons he drew from his Jewish roots and escape from the Holocaust, died Monday. He was 90.
His son, David, said his father died at his home in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. He had been in failing health.
Mr. Steiner, a native of Paris whose family fled to the United States in 1940, indulged a rich life of the mind. Praised by author A.S. Byatt as a ‘‘late, late, late Renaissance man,’’ he wrote hundreds of essays, poems, book length works, and a novella, ‘‘The Portage of San Cristobal A.H.,’’ which enraged some readers with its depiction of Hitler justifying his horrors and connecting them to the modern rebirth of Israel.
In works such as ‘‘After Babel,’’ ‘‘The Poetry of Thought,’’ and ‘‘The Death of Tragedy,’’ Mr. Steiner drew upon what he called his “utter passion for scripture and the Classics, for poetry and metaphysics.” He celebrated the world’s diversity of languages and ideas and inquired into everything from Greek tragedy to the linguistics of sex. But he would also brood over art’s power to advance civilization and over what he called ‘‘the roulette wheel of survival,’’ why he managed to escape the Nazis and so many he knew he did not. A non-believer, he saw himself as a longshot winner in a ‘‘game of chance,’’ one who somehow ‘‘picked the right number.’’
Mr. Steiner both dazzled and dismayed his readers with the range and occasional obscurity of his literary references.
Essential to his views, as he avowed in “Grammars of Creation,” a book based on the Gifford Lectures he delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1990, “is my astonishment, naive as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to love, to build, to forgive, and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate.”
His own speech was polyglot. “On a level self-evidently minor,” he wrote in a memoir of his intellectual development, “Errata: An Examined Life” (1998), “I owe to the cross-weave of three initial languages” — the French, German and English in which he was reared — “to their pulse and flicker within me, the very conditions of my life and work.”
From this “pulse and flicker,” he confessed, arose the major preoccupations of his thinking life — among them the origins of human speech, the myth of the Tower of Babel and its meaning for humankind, the benefits of being at home in different languages, the true tasks of the translator and the superiority of multitongued, or, as he called them, “extraterritorial,” writers such as Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov.
Mr. Steiner was often in conflict with fellow Jews. His heroes were not religious figures, but literary and political thinkers such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, and Karl Marx. He called Israel ‘‘an indispensable miracle’’ but otherwise challenged the purpose of a Jewish state. The Jews were better off in exile, he wrote, ‘‘Instead of protesting his visitor-status in gentile lands, or, more precisely, in the military camps of the diaspora, the Jew should welcome it.’’
Mr. Steiner contributed to The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Guardian among other publications and was credited with exposing English-language readers to such European writers as Walter Benjamin and Paul Celan. His honors included the Truman Capote Award for lifetime achievement in literary criticism.
‘‘His European and Jewish heritage inform his powerful, sometimes bleak but never pessimistic perspective,’’ the Capote citation read. ‘‘Perhaps his most distinguished achievement is that in the process of writing such criticism, he has re-cast the traditional role and identity of the critic itself. In his generous, fearless, challenging prose he has looked at the limits of language, as well as its powers and at the deceptions of the intellect as well as its discoveries.’’
He married historian Zara Shakow in 1955. They had two children: David, who directs the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, and Deborah, chair of the classics department at Columbia University.
Mr. Steiner was praised highly and criticized fiercely. He was called pompous, careless, and irresponsible. The judgments were especially damning for ‘‘The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.,’’ published in 1981. The novella tells of a hunt in the Amazon jungle for Hitler, who defends himself by saying that the Jews were the first to call themselves ‘‘chosen people’’ and otherwise implicates them in their own fate.
‘‘The Jews, in other words, gave Hitler his best ideas. In return, Hitler gave them Israel,’’ John Leonard wrote in The New York Times. Leonard found that Mr. Steiner ‘‘not only denies the power of art to arrange and transcend, but he makes me sick to my stomach.’’
Mr. Steiner grew up in a prominent family of Austrian Jews who had settled in France by the time of his birth. He had early memories of mobs in Paris shouting ‘‘Kill the Jews!’’ in the street outside their apartment. As the family looked on from their window, his father told him, ‘‘This is called history, and you must never be afraid.’’
‘‘For a child of 6, those words were transformative,’’ Mr. Steiner explained to interviewer Laure Adler for the book ‘‘A Long Saturday: Conversations,’’ published in 2014. ‘‘Since that time, I know what to call history, and if I’m afraid, I’m ashamed; and I try not to be afraid.’’
He was educated at a French school in New York and studied at Harvard University and the University of Chicago before moving to London and joining the staff of The Economist. One of his early assignments was interviewing one of the atom bomb’s designers, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who ‘‘inspired bone-chilling fear’’ in Mr. Steiner but also liked him enough to persuade him to join the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Mr. Steiner’s time around Oppenheimer and other scientists added to his ambivalence about the morality of art and the humanities. Science was rooted in truth, but art was an invitation to ‘‘bluffing,’’ because even the most uninformed opinion couldn’t be disproved. The beauty of language, its boundless possibilities, was also its tragedy.
‘‘Language admits everything,’’ he told Adler. “It’s an alarming truth we hardly ever think about: We can say anything, nothing stifles us, nothing shocks when someone says the most monstrous things. Language is infinitely servile, and language — this is the mystery — knows no ethical limits.”Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.