One memorable passage in Errata explains how wanton cruelty to children and animals paradoxically brings Steiner the reluctant agnostic closer to belief. How? The shaming rage and desolation (“a hot blackness”) stirred by the beaten child, the tortured animal, seem to arrive from elsewhere, inklings of a “broken contract”.In contrast to the bully’s or the tyrant’s breach of faith, honourable teaching trusts the pupil to outgrow the master. “There comes a moment when the disciple bids you farewell,” he says; when a teacher intuits: “This young man or woman is abler than I am, will go beyond me… Please believe me, that is the supreme reward in the teaching relationship.” Steiner’s own disciples (as Errata reveals) have sometimes forsaken him. Institutions, and a wider culture of cool postmodernism, have often kept his passionate advocacy and admonition at arm’s length.
Although Steiner became a founding fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge (and has never left), this facility did him little good in academic politics. A good journalist’s flair for the snappy epigram survives as his prose scythes through the toughest thickets of metaphysical speculation. His doctoral thesis at Oxford was, at first, rebuffed, and he (happily) wrote leaders for The Economist. According his lovely mosiac of a memoir, Errata, Steiner himself first felt the divine spark of instruction when he lit up Joyce’s “The Dead” for former-GI fellow-students at the University of Chicago: “I knew now that I could invite others into meaning.”Since those Chicago days, Steiner the inspirational master has drunk, if not the cup of hemlock offered Socrates, then at least the bitter brew of intellectual isolation. Given that defensiveness, and given the acid edge of the young – their very fine nose for all that is spurious and hypocritical – it has become a very difficult relationship.”Steiner’s first teacher was his father.
Born in Paris in 1929, he grew up at home in French, German and English, learning Greek at six to find out what happened in Homer’s Iliad. He spent his childhood in France rather than Vienna because his father – a banker by necessity, a voracious scholar by choice – felt a cold wind blowing from the future for the Jews of Austria On a trip to New York, he decided to stay. There was a failure of the humanities to stem barbarism in our time There’s not very much we can be proud of. Perhaps deservedly so.” After all, “There was a treason of the clerics That’s what my books are about. These days, “the humanities are under extreme pressure of doubt”. The transmitter of high culture will look like a mere pedant (if not a paedophile): “The mockery, the metaphysics of ‘Come off it!’, have placed those who teach in the humanities utterly on the defensive. Of course, he registers that in the past “the blackmail went the other way”, as the taught had silently to endure the teacher’s abusive power.