On George Steiner, 1929-2020

ometimes, it seems, timing really is everything. In the week in which Britain left the European Union, when nationalism once more triumphed over internationalism, George Steiner took his leave. Others have perhaps been more influential in shaping the discipline of comparative literature, but no one has embodied it quite so flamboyantly: famously trilingual, ferociously high-cultural, Steiner was the very archetype of the European intellectual, unyielding in his conviction that the humanities express the best – but do not necessarily hinder the worst – of humanity. By turns intimidating and engaging, perspicacious and pompous, Steiner challenged us to keep up, to range more widely, to aspire to a quasi-Olympian manifesto of the mind – citiusaltiusfortius – beyond our ambient mediocrity. In an age of popular culture, Steiner remained, unapologetically, “elitist”.

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