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The death of the great cultural critic

George Steiner, Susan Sontag and the late Harold Bloom once bestrode the public realm but their reputations have faded. What does this tell us about the role of the intellectual in the internet age?

On his 2015 memoir Going Up, the writer Frederic Raphael describes how as a young man he went to visit Somerset Maugham in the south of France. Maugham had recently visited Max Beerbohm and asked: “Do people still read Max?” Raphael realised that Maugham was really asking whether young people still read him.

There’s a twist here. One could ask the same about Raphael. It is more than 50 years since he wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Julie Christie film Darling, and more than 40 years since his BBC series The Glittering Prizes was shown to great critical acclaim. Raphael has had a successful career and yet, like Somerset Maugham, you can see the anxiety. Is he still read, does he still matter? Who lasts and who doesn’t? Are reputations like sandcastles, all washed away sooner or later by the tides of fashion?

This is a good time to ask these questions. George Steiner turned 90 this year. A major biography of Susan Sontag was published last month. And Harold Bloom died on 14 October. All three were once hugely influential cultural critics, among the best-known on either side of the Atlantic.

Steiner has published more than 20 books, writing on subjects from Heidegger to the legacy of Antigone in Western thought. He taught at Cambridge and for 20 years was the professor of comparative literature at Geneva. But, above all, he bridged the gap between academic criticism and the general reader. He wrote for the Sunday Times and succeeded Edmund Wilson as the lead critic of the New Yorker (writing 134 reviews in 31 years). He was a regular presence on TV and radio. I met him in the mid-1980s and produced several  programmes with him for Channel 4, Radio 4 and The Late Show on BBC Two, where he debated Freud with the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, TS Eliot’s anti-Semitism with Christopher Ricks, and the legacy of French theory with Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Steiner’s range and fluency were remarkable, on the page or on the screen. He was not a dry-as-dust academic who wrote unread monographs. Instead, he asked big, important questions: why do the humanities not civilise? Do tyrannies produce greater art than democracies? Is tragedy dead? Is it possible, he writes in his intellectual memoir Errata (1974), that civilisation as we have known it for more than 2,000 years is coming to an end? “Will there come again a Plato or a Mozart, a Shakespeare or a Rembrandt, a Divine Comedy or a Critique of Pure Judgement?”

Steiner’s greatest achievements, though, are threefold. He was the first major English-speaking critic to talk about the Holocaust, to say that we cannot think about postwar Western culture without asking what happened in the heart of Europe in the 20th century. Second, he introduced a whole generation to the extraordinary writers and thinkers of the central European avant-garde. In the words of one critic, Steiner told “those who would listen in Britain about Heidegger, Benjamin and Paul Celan – the great German philosophers and poets. Now work on those figures is an industry, but he was a lone voice in the Sixties.”

Finally, he had an extraordinary gift for creating a dramatic sense of the great encounters in literature and criticism. He wrote of Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor but also perhaps the greatest modern poet in the German language, visiting Martin Heidegger, the greatest German philosopher of the 20th century, to confront him and ask how he could support Hitler.

When I first met Steiner, we had lunch at The Three Horseshoes in Madingley outside Cambridge. This pub, he told me, was where the critic and literary theorist IA Richards had supervised William Empson – supervisions which led to the writing of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), one of the classics of 20th-century literary criticism. At another lunch, ten years later, Maastricht was in the news. Steiner leaned forward and clutched my arm: “D’Artagnan died at the siege of Maastricht.” For him, every place, every news story, was part of a web of references in the history of Western culture. For countless people, he brought a civilisation to life. But I worry, as he enters his nineties, if his reputation will last. Of all those names, IA Richards and Empson, Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin, who will endure?

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I also first met Susan Sontag in the mid-1980s. She was in London to present a programme for Channel 4 about the great choreographer Pina Bausch. She had recently recorded a programme with John Berger about storytelling and at the last minute she had to drop out of a programme I was producing about Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary film Shoah.

She was an excellent critic. Sontag’s biographer Benjamin Moser calls her “America’s last great literary star”. She wrote superbly about writers such as Canetti, Beckett and Sebald; critics such as Barthes; film-makers such as Riefenstahl and Syberberg; and, perhaps above all, her beloved photographers, Avedon, Arbus and Mapplethorpe.

If Steiner was the embodiment of high culture, Sontag was a product of the Sixties. She wrote about literature but also about avant-garde cinema and pornography. Steiner asked about the relationship between Western thought and the Holocaust. Sontag asked whether there was something pornographic about the way we thought about those shiny boots and black uniforms, if there was something a little perverse about our fascination with the SS.

Like the Woody Allen character in his film Zelig (in which Sontag appears), she was everywhere. In the early 1960s she was in New York, writing about what was hip and cool. She opposed the Vietnam War and in 1968 and 1969 she was in Havana and Hanoi. In the early 1970s she debated feminism with Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer at New York City Town Hall. By the 1980s, she had denounced Castro and communism. “Communism is fascism – successful fascism, if you will,” she declared. She was on the cover of Vanity Fair in the celebrity-mania days of 1980s New York, but she also wrote about Aids at the height of the epidemic. In 1993 she directed Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo, then under siege from the Serbs. A decade later, she was writing about 9/11 and photos of tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

Moser’s Sontag biography has been widely reviewed, here and in the US, but she only died 15 years ago. Who will be writing about her in 20 years’ time? Or 50?

Harold Bloom died just after the Sontag biography came out. He was an extraordinary figure who taught at Yale from the 1950s. In its heyday, it was the most famous literature department anywhere, the home of literary theory in the English-speaking world. Bloom was prolific. He wrote big books on big subjects: the Romantics, the Bible, Shakespeare, the “Western Canon”. His fascinating readings also contributed to the turn towards studying the Old Testament.

In the days after he died on 14 October, there were a number of mentions on social media and obituaries in some of the newspapers. However, despite Bloom’s enormous range and erudition, who will be talking about him outside the academy in a few decades? In 1982, the London Review of Books published a 4,000-word piece called “Wild, Fierce Yale” about Bloom and his colleagues. Literary fashion has moved on.

When the philosopher Bryan Magee died in July there were numerous tributes online and in the papers. But on the BBC, where he had made his name presenting Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987), there was nothing. No tributes, no repeats, not even on iPlayer.


Critic at large: Susan Sontag was a ubiquitous cultural presence and celebrity from the 1960s

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That determines whose reputation will endure? While they are alive, television matters. During the 1980s and 1990s, Sontag, Steiner and Edward W Said were introduced to large audiences by programmes on Channel 4 and BBC Two. But those programmes are long gone. No one is making programmes about Pina Bausch or French theory now.

What has become of the commanding figure of the critic in the last 20 years? Where are the successors to Sontag and Steiner, and to Empson and Richards, FR Leavis, Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode? There are some fine critics, of course. Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare, Gabriel Josipovici on modernism, Adam Kirsch and Ruth Franklin on Jewish writing, Stephen Greenblatt on almost anything, and many more. But at Jewish Book Week last year, the organisers booked the biggest hall at Kings Place in London for Greenblatt’s brilliant lecture on Adam and Eve and it was half empty. Steiner used to fill any lecture hall in Cambridge at any time.

If you’re running a literary festival today you might book historians rather than literary critics: Antony Beevor, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson or Andrew Roberts. Why? They are all terrific speakers and familiar from TV and radio but, above all, they talk about big issues and big names: world wars and revolutions, Napoleon and Churchill.

That was the secret to the success of a previous generation of critics; they wrote books such as Culture and Society (Raymond Williams, 1958), The Death of Tragedy (Steiner, 1961) and Culture and Imperialism (Said, 1993). They moved literary criticism from poetry and the novel to subjects such as illness and photography, orientalism and the Holocaust. Yes, they were lively speakers, often provocative, but they were also accessible. Steiner spoke on little-known central European thinkers on Start the WeekDesert Island Discs and the South Bank Show.

Subjects matter. Salman Rushdie’s novels are set texts in universities, here and in America, partly because they are about colonialism, displacement and immigration. Edward Said matters not because of his first book, on Joseph Conrad, or his second, about French theory, but because he wrote about literature and colonialism, Conrad and Achebe, Kipling and empire.

A few years ago, I went into the biggest bookstore on the Upper West Side in New York. Saul Bellow’s letters had just been published and I asked the young assistant for a copy. “How do you spell that?” he asked. Forty years ago, Bellow was the most famous writer in America – more famous than Philip Roth, Norman Mailer or Joseph Heller. What could have happened?

In the 1990s Bellow said, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read them.” It was a casual remark to a reporter on the phone but it destroyed Bellow’s reputation. I wonder how many English literature teachers in an American college would dare put forward a Bellow novel as a set text today.

Philip Roth will be next, and David Mamet. Even if Bellow had never spoken about the Zulus, the way he wrote about women would have done for him. These issues will also decide reputations in the years to come. Joseph Conrad was one of the greatest modern writers but will he survive Chinua Achebe’s attack on Heart of Darkness, in which he accused Conrad of being “a thoroughgoing racist”?

And then there are the crimes and misdemeanours in the lives of critics and writers. The most controversial parts of Moser’s biography of Susan Sontag are the sections on her lesbianism. Shouldn’t she have come out sooner? “Her lifelong frustration with her inability to think her way out of the reality of [her lesbianism],” he writes, “led to an inability to be honest about it – either in public, long after homosexuality ceased to be a matter of scandal, or in private, with many of those closest to her.” Once it was scandalous if a writer was gay. Now the scandal is if he or she didn’t come out.

How will George Steiner’s elitism fare in years to come? All those dead white European men, from Plato to Tolstoy. There aren’t many women or non-white writers and thinkers in his masterpieces Language and Silence (1967) and In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971). Perhaps this is a clue to the silence that greeted Bryan Magee’s death. There was just one woman (Iris Murdoch) among the 15 philosophers interviewed on Men of Ideas. The very title feels out of date, and plain wrong.

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Of course, it’s not just writers and philosophers whose reputations can rise and fall. We remember Laurence Olivier because he was a great actor but also because he was immortalised by starring in so many films. John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave were also great actors, but Hollywood never came knocking at their door. Perhaps this was what enraged Peter Cook when Dudley Moore made his breakthrough films in Hollywood. Cook was acclaimed as the most brilliant comedian of his day. Moore was his sidekick. A gifted musician and a good comedian, but not as good as Cook. More than 50 years after Beyond the Fringe, how many remember what a comic genius Cook was?

When Cook died in 1995, Stephen Fry paid a tribute to him on The Late Show. Fry was then both hugely successful on TV and appearing on stage at the same time. His comedy partner, Hugh Laurie, was very good but somewhat in his shadow. Now, after House and The Night Manager, it is clear that Laurie was seriously underrated. Will Fry’s reputation be overshadowed by Laurie’s? And who would have predicted that shy, awkward Alan Bennett would be regarded as one of the outstanding TV and stage writers of his generation while the reputation of Jonathan Miller, a flamboyant comic and raconteur, might not last?

When Maugham asked Frederic Raphael whether the young still read Max Beerbohm, Raphael didn’t have the heart to tell him that the only mention of Maugham in Scrutiny, then the most talked-about literary journal, was one brief, dismissive note. He goes on: “Who now regards Frank Leavis and his ‘connection’ as decisive in literary matters?” I wonder who Raphael or Steiner would now consider “decisive in literary matters” or, once they are no longer with us, whether “literary matters” will matter at all? 

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state