Bill Moyers recalls outstanding moments with three different writers, Archibald MacLesish, Dame Rebecca West and George Steiner. All share their gift for words and their amazing life stories.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. A journalist is a beachcomber on the shores of other people’s experience. Some lives, like some places, bear repeated visits. So in this broadcast, we’ll take a second look at three people I’ve called on before. These are some of my favorite moments with different writers for whom words were gifts. They still give pleasure many years later.
[voice-over] Archibald MacLeish graduated from Harvard Law School at the head of his class then he gave up the practice of law to become a poet. He received three Pulitzer Prizes, including one for his verse play J.B. based on the Old Testament story of Job. Archibald MacLeish held several government posts under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, including Librarian of Congress and he lectured and taught all around the world. But, he always returned to his farm in western Massachusetts, to his beloved wife Ada’s rose garden and to the little cottage where he did most of his writing.
[interviewing] Do you know why you became a poet?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: No. If I knew the answer to that question, I’d be infinitely wiser than I am. I was perfectly happy practicing law. I mean, law — the practice the law is the greatest indoor game in the world. It’s like pocket billiards and it’s great fun and if you’re good at it — and I was fairly good at itit’s very rewarding. Also, it makes a lot of money. But, there is this other thing I had to do and why, Bill, I couldn’t tell you if you twisted my arm.
BILL MOYERS: Well. but without twisting your arm, was there a moment when you realized, without understanding why, when you realized you had to do it?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, there was a moment when I realized that I had to leave the law. This was — this is clear in my mind as — how long ago is it now? Sixty years. It’s as clear in my mind as though it had happened last night. The office that I was in — if you know Boston, it was on State Street back of the old state house. And I used to walk over to Park Street Under and take the subway back out to Cambridge and walk out home. And I started on a late winter night — very clear night, very cold — with the moon in the west, which I can see now, and this nagging thing was in the back of my mind. By the time I got to Park Street Under, I went right by the subway entrance and walked the length of Commonwealth to Massachusetts Avenue and the length of Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square and on another mile home. I don’t know how long that walk is but it took me quite a while. And I simply pounded it out with myself and came to the conclusion that if — if — I was ever going to do the thing that I felt in my heart I had to do, I would have to make the decision then — that night, that bright night. So, I got home, found Ada worried to death and mad, and we sat up all night and talked about it and we decided we’d do it.
BILL MOYERS: And you went to Paris?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: And we went to Paris in about four or five months afterwards and we stayed there for about six years.
BILL MOYERS: You remember those days clearly now?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: Paris days I couldn’t possibly forget. They’re — That city, as itself, enters your memory and sits there. You — you can’t get away from it. The smell of the carpeting made — I think it was sort of cocoa matting that was used in inexpensive apartments — I can smell that. We lived in so many of them. I can smell that in my sleep and awake. And the beauty of the city, the loveliness, that gray pearl light that Paris has, the water carts early in the morning, and the possibility of work. The whole city was working. They left you alone. You were part of the flow of it.
BILL MOYERS: Someone told me that the fall of France in 1940 had shaken you profoundly. Is that true?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: There was a crushing blow. It was — I saw it as the fall of Paris. And it seemed to me to — Paris had become, in the six or seven years that we were there, I mean, it became during that period, not only the center of the creative and artistic life of the world, but a sort of representation of it. Wherever you went there were indications of it. There were things going on. There was a sort of new beginning of the spirit of man and it was expressing itself in the arts. And the — the — the Occupation of Paris seemed to me to be a — particularly by the people who did occupy it and for the purpose for which they occupied it — seemed to me to be the unbearable indecency.
BILL MOYERS: The 20th Century has been filled with unbearable decencies. And most people aren’t poets and cannot see the loveliness beyond the horror. And I often wonder whether poetry isn’t a way out for the poets that somehow justifies — not — doesn’t justify, but it somehow makes tolerable the unbearable decencies that ordinary people are left to deal with.
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: Bill, I would take that and set it in quotation marks if you would change one word: not a way out, but a way in. Poetry is a means of knowing. It’s a means of knowing the kind of thing that can only be known emotionally. It can’t be analyzed, taken apart, spelled out, put back together again. Poetry takes the apple whole: eats the whole apple; doesn’t chew it up and then digest it. It is capable of that kind of truth, of perception. And it is capable of perceiving the tragedy of life as Shakespeare — I must say, demonstrated and many before him — is capable of seeing the tragedy of life as nothing else can see it. The great reaches of the Bible, which penetrate the tragedy of life, are largely like Job poems — like the book of Job. It is a means of knowing and its great triumph is that when it succeeds, which it does much less often than it thinks or anybody else thinks, but when it succeeds, it makes the unbearable bearable because one can see what it is. At last, one feels it. Wordsworth said, “Truth carried alive into the heart by passion.” That’s what poetry was to Wordsworth: “Truth carried alive into the heart by passion.” Well, the truth of tragedy also carried alive into the heart by passion and that also becomes comprehensible.
BILL MOYERS: Why should those of us who are not poets read poetry?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: People read poetry, I think, for the same reason, really, that poetry is written. You — but in reverse. You write a poem, in my experience, I wouldn’t expect to have any agreement about this. But, you write a poem, in my experience, because, as a sculptor gets hold of a piece of marble which he can see has got a girl in it somewhere. If he can get that out, she’s going to get that kneeling girl. You run into a piece of experience which you know contains something that is going to be a poem. You don’t know why exactly but you begin to get a feeling of it. And the work of writing — which is very rarely that surge of inspiration which is supposed to take place but which is usually very long, very laborious and extremely painful — is the work of trying to find the poem within the experience. Now, I think, the reader comes at the same thing in reverse. What he’s faced with is the poem. It’s a combination of sounds, rhythms, images. It’s a whole. It’s almost an object. What did it come out of and what does it really contain? And this experience can be, whereas the creation of the thing may have been laborious and painful, this other experience, though it can also be laborious and painful, is enormously rewarding if he just happens to have to do with a great poem. Take the — take that wonderful, I think it’s the oldest recorded — It’s the oldest poem to which we have recorded music in English. It’s in the Bodleian — the manuscript of it. Oh western wind/ When will thou blow/ That the small rain down can rain/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I, in my bed again. Now this is very simple, very clear, little scene with some very simple observations about weather. But, it’s also a great deal more than that. It almost — almost — for the reader who is sensitive enough, catches a bit of the experience of love. It’s in there.
BILL MOYERS: What are the thoughts of a man who’s lived 83 years about his life and times — thoughts he hasn’t expressed before?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: Well, you — at 83 your views of, not of your life and time, but of yourself in your life and time, which is really the turning point, begin to change quite a lot. You become remarkably less afraid of death if you ever were. I’ve never been much afraid of death. I have no hankering for dying. That’s something I’d like to get by easily as possible. The Irish talk about a happy death. If there is any Irishman around who would like to tell me how to do that, I’d be pleased. But, I’d never been much afraid of death but now I have a very easy feeling about it, indeed. My only feeling about death now is I’m not — if possible to arrange it so that I won’t cause pain to somebody I care a great, great deal about. I have a poem about that, incidentally, that tries to get at it. It’s called “The Old Gray Couple.” There are two. There’s the old gray couple are placed in the scene and then they have a conversation. Now “The Old Gray Couple” goes this way:
They have only to look at each other to laugh/ No one knows why, not even they/ Something back in the lives they lived they both remember/ But no words can say/ They go off at an evening’s end to talk/ But they don’t/ Or to sleep but they lie awake/ Hardly a word/ Just a touch/ Just near/ Just listening but not to hear/ Everything they know they know together/ Everything that is but one/ Their lives they learn like secrets from each other/ Death they think up in the nights alone.” And then they get talking and this is the way that dialogue goes: “She: Love says the poet has no reasons/ He: Not even after 50 years?/She: Particularly after 50 years/ He: What was it then that lured us, that still teases?/ She: You used to say my plaited hair/ He: And then you’d laugh because it wasn’t plaited/She: And now it can’t be / Just the old gray couple/ Love has no reason so you made one up to laugh at/ He: No. To prove the adage true/ Love has no reasons but old lovers do /She: And they can’t tell/ He: I can and so can you/ Fifty years ago we drew each other magnetized needle towards the longing North/ It was your naked presence that so moved mel It was your absolute presence that was love/ She: And now?/ He: Years older I begin to see absence not presence/ What the world would be without your footstep in the world/ The garden empty of the radiance where you are/ She: And that’s old lovers’ reasoning/ They say their love because they know now what its loss would bel Because like Cleopatra in the play/ They know there’s nothing left once love’s away/ Nothing remarkable beneath the visiting moon/ Theirs is the late last wisdom of the afternoon/ They know that love like light grows dearer towards the dark/
Well, this is called “Family Group.” I think it completely explains itself. I had a younger brother — remarkably beautiful young man — who left Yale when the war broke out in 1917 — he was in the class of ’18 — and joined a small group of people who were learning to fly planes for naval aviation. This was the beginning of naval aviation. We had no naval aviation. And he went to the front at — he was on the front flying for something like very close to two years, which is about 20 times longer than most people lasted in those days. He was shot down in — on the 14th of October before the Armistice and his body was not found until the middle of the next winter because he fell in flooded country. This is a poem called “Family Group” and it’s imagined as a photographs — two photographs.
That’s my younger brother with his Navy wings/ He’s 22 or would be but for six months flying camels at the front/ I’m beside him in my brand new Sam Brown belt/ The town behind us ought to be Limoges/ That’s where we met by accident that April/ Someone’ s lengthened shadow, the photographer’ s, falls across our feet/ This other’s afterward, after the Armistice/ I mean the winter floods/ The months without a word/ That shattered barnyard is in Belgium somewhere/ The faceless figure on its back/ The helmet buckled wears what looked like Navy wings/ A lengthened shadow falls across the muck about its feet/I’ m back in Cambridge with clean clothes/ A comfortable bed/ My wife/ My son.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what can one say. be far more naked than prose and if you can tell me why, I’ll bless you. I don’t know why. You can be, in fact, we’re besieged these days with a literature that is, as they say, explicit — extremely explicit. Nakedness deprived even of its nakedness. But, somehow there’s nothing embarrassing about it. And yet, a poem without being explicit at all can be much more naked. And there isn’t anything to say about things like that. There they are. They either are or they aren’t.
BILL MOYERS: What’s been the agony of Archibald MacLeish behind the poetry?
ARCHIBALD MACLEISH: Well, I tried — I tried a few minutes ago to — to talk about the specific events — the sorrows, the death of a son, the death of a brother, the miseries of the First World War — all these things which eventually become part of a pattern, part of a fabric and, therefore, part of life and, therefore, acceptable. I think the real — well, agony is not the wrong word for it. The real motivating agony with me, if I can talk about a motivating agony, has been the long struggle with the art. When Frost was 80, we gave a dinner for him down here in Amherst and he was asked to read a few poems, which he did. I was running the dinner so I suggested to him, in taking advantage of the chair I sat in, I suggested to him that, maybe, he’d like to say a word about his poems as separate from himself. And he said, well, he’d do that. And what he said was that he had always hoped to write a few poems which would be hard to get rid of and that’s really it. And the motivating agony in my life has been the constant defeat. I suppose it’s the defeat that any artist feels. I don’t suppose any artist, in any art, is ever sure that he has really perpetrated a work of art It may be a fake. This doubt afflicts, I think, any artist. For reasons, perhaps, having to do with my Scottish and Yankee background, it afflicts me more than most. But the real suffering has been in work itself and also, of course, occasionally real rewards.
BILL MOYERS: Archibald MacLeish was 83 when this program was broadcast. He died six years later on the 20th of April, 1982. Ada MacLeish survived him by two years. She’d been studying music when they met and married in 1917. After making her singing debut at Carnegie Hall, she gave up her career during the Second World War. When she died in 1984, she was 91. Rebecca West was just about to tum 90 when I called on her in London in 1981. Her health was failing but she was still the Dame of the British Empire. It wasn’t hard, even at her age then, to recognize the power of the mind and the force of personality that kept her at the center of the London literary scene for 70 years. Critics call her, indisputably, the 20th Century’s number one woman writer or “the purest, finest most modem English force there is.” And when President Harry Truman bestowed an award on her in 1948, he said Rebecca West was the world’s greatest reporter. Few subjects escaped her attention as journalist, novelist and critic. She lived and loved the way she wrote: at many levels. And she witnessed the tumult of the century. When, in her quiet old age she could look back on a life as a radical, an early feminist, a reformer and a literary lioness, she continued to look out with delight and wonder at the world around her.
[interviewing] When did you discover, Dame Rebecca, that there was one set of rules for women and one set for men?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, I can’t put a name or a date to it. But then, we were fortunate in that way. My father and mother both were very clever, much cleverer than any of us were, and they talked to us as if we were grownups, not about sex, I’m bound to say, but we did know that the opportunities of women were very much less. We also knew that women were oppressed in — that it wasn’t — It was considered very rude and vulgar and abnormal for women to ask questions of the speaker at political meetings, even if they were doing public work, doing charitable work or public work that made them recipients of relevant information, they just had to stop quiet. And I remember my — a silly old uncle of mine saying — somebody came to our house in Edinburgh and said that they’d been to lunch, or dinner, somewhere and one of the guests was Miss Jack Spleck, who was one of the earliest doctors, and my uncle said, “Oh, and how did she behave?”
BILL MOYERS: He was surprised that she could behave in public?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, it almost sounded as if he expected her to do the cancan on the table, it was so — such terror.
BILL MOYERS: How were women harassed in those days?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well whatever — A man got the lion’s share of money always and if his talent was developed, if he had a talent, it had to be cultivated, expensively if need be. Women just had to scrounge along with what training they could get. And there was disadvantage in every way. They hadn’t got a vote and they weren’t considered.
BILL MOYERS: When you started writing, how did men treat you as a woman writer?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, the only thing that — My father had worked successfully for an Australian paper out in Australia and, as so, I thought had the same editor after — After he died, I thought, well the same editor’s there. I will go and ask him to see if he’ll employ me as a reporter or something. So, I went to his office in Fleet Street — this was when I was about 17 or 18 — and, at the same time it happened, a colleague of my fathers had also died — a former colleague — and he had — his son was up for a job. Well, the man wouldn’t look at me. His editor said, “Oh, I think you’ll find something more suitable to do than writing.” And he immediately gave the boy a job. And it was all on those lines. There’s always a story I like about Mendelssohn’s sister —
BILL MOYERS: What’s that?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, Mendelssohn had a sister called Fannie and Fannie had very great musical gifts. And when he went to see Queen Victoria, he played a song that was — she liked very much and she said, “Oh, I see it’s one of your songs.” Looking at this piece of sheet music. And he said, “Well, that’s what it says on the cover but it’s really by my sister. It’s by Fannie.” And then he went on to explain that his father felt so that a woman lost all her value if she came before the public in any respect. So, she wasn’t allowed to study music properly and her musical compositions were all published under her brother’s name. And they were exceedingly good. It was all to his advantage. I don’t suppose he thought of that but it was — it seems an extreme form of anti-feminism.
BILL MOYERS: Did you just fall into writing or how did it happen that you wrote your first piece?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, a young man said to me, “I’m not going to a matinee but I have to write a notice of it.” And it was — I said, ”I’ll write the notice if you’ll give me the tickets. Because I hadn’t much money and it was very tempting to have two stall — ticket in the stalls. So, I went to the play, with one of my sisters, and then I sent in the notice and they said it was very good and they made me a sort of stand-in for him. And I was very pleased.
BILL MOYERS: And this was the first writing you did?
DAME REBECCA WEST: It was the first — Well, I’d done a whole lot of writing, you know, as children do.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. But I mean, for publication?
DAME REBECCA WEST: When I was about 14, I wrote a spirited letter to The Scotsman on women’s suffrage and my — my headmistress sent for my mother and said, ”Can you get your daughter not to do these extraordinary things.”
BILL MOYERS: And your mother said?
DAME REBECCA WEST: My RNA was very much amused.
BILL MOYERS: Over the years, you’ve listened and written about many of our geniuses. You’ve read everybody, written about many of them. You’ve known many of the writers of the 20th Century personally. Let me ask you, in a sentence, to appraise them today. What do you think, for example, today about Henry James?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Oh, great, great artist way beyond description because he gives us the feelings of the people. For example, in two books, in The Winds of a Dove and The Golden Bough, as you get it in very good poetry, you get the emotional effects which is not easy to do in prose. He’s a very great — he was a horrid old man and he had a horrid old brother who made him much worse — William James.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, the philosopher.
DAME REBECCA WEST: Wasn’t he awful to his brother?
BILL MOYERS: They were not a happy couple.
DAME REBECCA WEST: They were not a happy couple.
BILL MOYERS: What about George Bernard Shaw?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Curiously enough, the more — the longer I live, the more extraordinary, it seems to me, that Shaw didn’t say more. He could say anything wonderfully. He had a wonderful technique. His phrases run out like arias —Mozart’s arias. They’re absolutely wonderful. But, as to his ideas, they were all pretty old hat when you look at them.
BILL MOYERS: H.G. Wells?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Oh, that’s the straight scientific stuff was — was — To be the father and mother of science fiction is quite a considerable thing. But, there he was. The trouble was that he was not a strong man and he had this overwhelming desire to run about. He really wrote carelessly so much of his life.
BILL MOYERS: He spent too much energy on other pursuits?
DAME REBECCA WEST: He spent — It wasn’t that at all. It was sort of that he was really a sick man in that he wrote like an invalid. He wrote, you know, feverishly page after page and in the end, it didn’t work out very well. Except that, I think, the mind at the end of its tether is a magnificent essay and it images a state of despair.
BILL MOYERS: What was there about H.G. Wells’ mind that enabled him to anticipate the scientific development of the 20th Century?
DAME REBECCA WEST: A very good scientific mind. I used to know a famous doctor here, A. Horda, and he always said that Wells’ greatness was in his being a teacher.
BILL MOYERS: Was he a disciplined writer?
DAME REBECCA WEST: I don’t know what a disciplined writer is?
BILL MOYERS: Someone who sits down, even when his will prefers to be elsewhere, and makes himself get from his mind what is there.
DAME REBECCA WEST: Yes, I think he did. But, he wrote too much.
BILL MOYERS: How does a writer know when not to write: when to stop?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Well, it’s the same with thing — One morning you look at your sponge and say I must throw this away and I must go and buy another one.
BILL MOYERS: James Joyce. How was it you anticipated so early that this was a genius?
DAME REBECCA WEST: I felt that from the first moment I looked at the book.
BILL MOYERS: His characters —
DAME REBECCA WEST: I liked his short stories, too, and a play that he wrote. There was solidity there. He could have gone on and done much more if he hadn’t got trapped into that Paris emigre life.
BILL MOYERS: How did you avoid that Paris emigre life? You must have been tempted?
DAME REBECCA WEST: It doesn’t amuse me to stay up very late and I’m not awfully good at getting drunk. Where was my place in that world? I admired some of the people very much and I had an ardent admiration, that was not shared by many people, but I had a feeling that Zelda was very — was somebody with great potentialities in her. But she was — You see, there — you see, it was an absurd thing when she was desperately unhappy because her husband was showing the effects of the immense amounts they had drunk — drank, how they drank in those days. Well, there — when she showed — saw that it was really affecting poor Fitzgerald and she was — thought that he wasn’t very nice to her at times, she cried out and she cried to God. And they said, “Oh, she must go to a psychiatry clinic.” Well, it’s so much a habit of humanity to call out for God that it seems rather silly.
BILL MOYERS: Silly?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Yes, silly of them to say she’s got to go to a psychiatric clinic because she’s calling out to God. She was calling on a time-honored recipe for clearing up one’s mind.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote about the Nuremberg Trials as brilliantly as anyone and somebody once said to me that Nuremberg was an effort to make what the Nazis did comprehensible, understandable. Do you think Nuremberg accomplished that?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Yes, it did. It did this minute. I think it had the effect on — of lessening the vague works that would have been written in justification. I think, after all, the — every defendant had a counsel — German counsel — and they had the papers — the only papers — as well as the attacking — the prosecuting counsel. If there had not been Nuremberg Trials, the papers would have fallen into the hands of historians and God guard against that.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Because they’re the greatest liars in the world.
BILL MOYERS: Liars?
DAME REBECCA WEST: I don’t know why they are but it’s just something that attracts an occupation that attracts the sons of Anais Nin.
BILL MOYERS: You once told someone that Doris Lessing was the only person today getting the mood right. What is the mood of the day?
DAME REBECCA WEST: A desperate search for a pattern and her — She’s so good in describing the conversation of foreign exiles — of Continental — of European exiles in South Africa — in Africa rather, I should say.
BILL MOYERS: And why is that important?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Because they’re people who have the pattern destroyed and you get the fullness of the desolation.
BILL MOYERS: And the 20th Century has certainly destroyed many patterns?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Yes and somehow or other western Germany has not been successful in making another pattern? Well, neither has France. How many books do you buy in France when you’re there? Didn’t you once, when you went in France, buy sackfuls of books and take them home with you. I did. I don’t now.
BILL MOYERS: And? Why is that?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Because the people don’t — aren’t inspired by a vision of the scheme of things. They break down.
BILL MOYERS: Where do we look today for the patterns?
DAME REBECCA WEST: Within ourselves. That’s the trouble. If anybody is failing, we are.
BILL MOYERS: Dame Rebecca died in 1983, two years after our conservation was broadcast. She left a body of work as formidable as the mind and talent that produced it. Of course, her own life has been the subject of many other writers and the latest book about her is called Rebecca West: A Life, by Victoria Glendinning. For an adventure this summer, read it, along with Rebecca West’s own Black Lamb and Gray Falcon or her novel, The Thinking Reed.
[voice-over] If you’re ever asked to define genius, you need only reply with two words: George Steiner. Born 60 years ago on Shakespeare’s birthday, this prodigy of languages is a prolific and daring essayist, a philosopher, a scholar and critic who’s intellect roams the world’s literature in search of meaning, connections and irony. His family came to America when war engulfed Europe. George graduated from the University of Chicago at 19, received his Masters at Harvard and went off as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford where he won the Chancellor’s Essay Prize and earned his doctorate of philosophy. Since then, his books, essays, articles and lectures have kept George Steiner a prominent and controversial figure in the world of letters. He holds the titles extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge University and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He was in New York to lecture back in 1981 when we met at Columbia University.
[interviewing] What is there in literature that has been worth the great investment of your life in it?
GEORGE STEINER: Oh, unquestionably something which one can’t paraphrase and, which is very dangerous: that the page in front of you, of the poem you learned by heart, or the play you’ve seen, comes to possess you more than any other order of experience; that living things seem unreal compared to the intensity of the imaginative experience. I think that’s the most exciting thing that can happen. Why do I say it’s dangerous? Because like many other people too addicted to literature, I’ve often noticed in myself that the cry in the street seems mysteriously less powerful, less important, than the cry in the book, in the story; that the tears that come over the great tragic scene have a bitter despair which, after all, should be elicited by what is happening in the city around us. So, there is a danger in imagination, too utterly absorbed and fascinated by great art and literature, can become autistic and whir within its own very closed world. On the other hand, great art is probably our one constant — constant — window on something much larger than ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: When did you first discover literature?
GEORGE STEINER: I was very lucky. I was born and brought up in Paris and you went through streets called after great writers. Now, that is not a trivial point. It isn’t called 116th Street and Broadway. You went through rue Victor Hugo, Place Ia Fontaine, Square Moliere. Everything was named after the great masters. And when you came to these grim military barrack lycees, teachers were able to tell even very young people, remember these are the liars. These are the immortals. And if you’re fantastically lucky, we’ll teach you how to read them well and maybe one in a million of you will one day write a major work himself. The pact, the contract with immortality is central to that culture. It’s a very anti-democratic pact. It’s an elitist pact but it’s very lucky if you’re built that way.
BILL MOYERS: How was it that, as a young person, poetry became so seductive to you1
GEORGE STEINER: I guess I was very lucky. I found out that I began picking it up by heart very quickly and very young.
BILL MOYERS: How young?
GEORGE STEINER: Oh, that’s very young. Remember, much of what is called education in America, I would consider as planned amnesia meant to destroy all memory. I come from an old-fashioned system where you drill memory. You learned by heart. You learn by heart, in fact, dates, places, history, names. And I began seeing that when I loved the poem, it came into me rather quickly like children who start piano lessons very early and who say I’m picking it up through my fingers. In fact, the score is entering into me. I must have been six or seven when the first poems, which I deeply loved, began taking up house inside me. And poetry does seem to me one of the three or four things which puts us furthest from our own black and rather ugly biological selves and which is a mystery of our transcendent nature, possibly. Why it works, we don’t know. How it works, we donít really know. The greatest poets hesitate to look into their own workshop too deeply and, for all the massive studies of modem psychology, we don’t really know very much about it. And the sense of that mystery possessed me early. .
BILL MOYERS: But that does confirm Eliot’s observation, it seems so me, that some poetry, at least, communicates before it’s understood because surely a child cannot understand what is being communicated with it at such a tender age.
GEORGE STEINER: Unless he’s translating it into his own terms and could one of the secrets of very great art be that we all keep translating to our level right through our lives. The person you and I are today is not reading a great nursery rhyme in the way we then did and when we’re very old, we may read it again differently. And some of the most haunting poetry is minor poetry: Walter de Ia Mare, a neglected poet. And, it sings to us as a child. It sings to us in adolescence quite differently when it seems to wake physical responses. Isn’t part of the magic of the great artist to say I can also speak to you. Don’t worry about it. I am reaching you though not necessarily at all at the same level in which I’m reaching someone else.
BILL MOYERS: You know, your critics say that no man could possibly read everything you’ve read.
GEORGE STEINER: Oh, I divide the world into two groups — a small world which matters: there are those who have read everything, and that’s quite a large and vulgar group, and there are those who have reread it. That’s the one I’d like to belong to. And, of course, the trouble with my critics is probably they sleep at night. Now, once you take the habit of sleeping at night, you’re going to read less and less. It’s a very worrisome thought.
BILL MOYERS: Do you not sleep?
GEORGE STEINER: Too much. But, I hope that with advancing and grim old age, I shall sleep less and I look forward to reading more.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you suffer sometimes from idea fatigue. When you take ideas here and connect them here, you plumb here, explore there, doesn’t sometimes your brain overload, as the cliché goes…
GEORGE STEINER: That, again, is a very suggestive question because you’ve got a computer model somewhere in back of that question and we do know of over loadings if the thing is built that way. You know, my definition of a great university is a terribly simple one: that the student should come within smelling distance of those cancerous, passionate, possessed beings who eat ideas, who live thought. And once you’ve caught the smell of that, even if you can’t do it yourself, even if you reject it and say I want something quite different out of life, you’ll never again be uneducated. And, I think, that’s a tremendous excitement of somewhere coming in reach of them as they walk across a campus or down a library step or down a corridor and then you know the real thing, as you do when you’ve seen a great athlete. When you’ve seen a really great athlete walking across a room, he is not wasting motion. And suddenly you know that yourself spilling over, in all sorts of useless ways, even when you sit down or get up, that’s a tremendous lesson. Or watching a great dancer. To watching a great dancer tie their shoes. Degas talks about that. Degas says if you want to know what great art is, please, watch a dancer putting on her slipper. There is no single waste. And that, I think, again, is a wonderful lesson.
BILL MOYERS: You once said that poets need not know many books but that they must know well those they do know. Which are the books you know well.
GEORGE STEINER: This will strike you as terribly old fashioned but, I think, in the English language tradition — to stick to that for a moment — the authorized version of the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare are the constant inner echo chamber of reference. That is to say, we bounce our own sounds, like radar, off against those walls to place our own selves and our own use of language. Those Anacreontic moments of our training, they’re the dictionary of reference inside us. There are, then — Each one of us carries, I think, a selection of poems not all of which need be very great poems, or major. They’ve hooked into us at some mysterious point in our own lives and this is how we find our homes in the dark of our being. We find our way home. They light our steps home. Perhaps, certain scenes in plays, to carry a complete novel is almost impossible within one. It will be moments from great fiction but the marvelous thing is you begin building a mosaic: a kind of mosaic of the indispensable of that which you cannot do without.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the experience I have of remembering the impression that a poem created on you but not the words per se. I know you memorize poem and you know much more poetry by heart than I do but sometimes —
GEORGE STEINER: I think you’re absolutely right even a smell, a memory of where you know it was in a room, oh, with a certain human being. I think human encounters can be like poems in that sense. Certainly there was something that jelled in your memory and it is associated with a voice of someone who read it to you the first time. And I do desperately want to get a plug in. God help the culture, i.e. here, where people don’t read out loud anymore to their children; where people have not heard from earliest childhood major texts read to them by a living voice: their mother or their father or an older brother or sister or closest friend. Because that which you have not heard will not sing for you later. And great literature, God help us, was not made only for silent pages. It speaks. It was made to speak and to sing. And reading out loud, speaking out loud, learning by heart imprints, quite literally, on our consciousness the codes of recognition.
BILL MOYERS: And what happens to a society where these codes of recognition are never deciphered?
GEORGE STEINER: I think it’s like a ship without ballast. One of the immense strengths of Russian culture is the oral transmission of great poetry and literature. Under censorship, under brutal police suppression, in a place which burns books, there is one way to keep them going, you speak them. You learn them by heart. You pass them on from person to person. And that can never be crushed. There is a brilliant science fiction ftlm, Fahrenheit 451: which showed what would happen once the book burners were trying to root out human memory. It’s a very frightening, indeed, thing. But, other things can censor: the stimuli of mass media which stopped quiet reading; the constant pressure of a certain kind of speed of daily life in our great cities which blocks out the moments of calm. I think we’ve got to be very, very careful. Many of us are losing the habit of being at home with ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that there is some literature which, if we do not remember and hold in common, we lose something irretrievable?
GEORGE STEINER: Absolutely, as there is certain music; as there are certain songs. If we become what the great 17th century philosopher Leibnitz called “monads”: dreadful, little, hard eggs with no windows clashing against each other in atomic isolation. What makes a living community is the shared remembrance of its language and culture. Moreover, the language itself will, of course, get hollow and very cheap when it doesn’t have in it the maximum pressure of living presence which is great literature.
BILL MOYERS: So this-It matters if you can remember old testament legends and if you have a resonance for Homer? It matters to a society?
GEORGE STEINER: Desperately. It’s a political act. It means nobody — it means nobody can ever make a zombie of you. There will be part of you hooked into a great tradition of strength and remembrance. It’s one of our last defenses against the political inhumanities of our time.
BILL MOYERS: This is what you meant, I gather, when you talked about the organized amnesia of the past? That is, we blank it out.
GEORGE STEINER: That’s right. We blank it all out in the way in which Stalinism, for instance, decided overnight to rewrite history and says, ”This didn’t exist. This never happened.” This person is, as George Orwell said in his marvelous word, an ‘unperson’. The attempt to pour the detergent of forgetting over human minds and spirits — can’t be done. Can’t be done if you carry something inside you.
BILL MOYERS: You keep relating it to political action, to the political consequences of it, but what about the consequences for simply the aesthetics of living? What happens to people who do not remember the past?
GEORGE STEINER: You know, aesthetics of living, which is a very challenging phrase, I would want to link to politics. I’ve never seen how you keep the two apart. One of the frightening things is the impulse of the young at the moment, wherever one teaches and goes, to shut the door. To say, all right, aesthetics of living, lifestyle, quality of life but not out there, not on the marketplace. What you could call privatism — the obsession with privatism — which includes art; with doing your thing, your own scene with a few friends, a few beloved, within a closed surface. I entirely see the tremendous temptation of that but I always want to remember the Greek definition of the word idiot. It’s a technical definition and it goes like this: A man who shuts his door and does not go into the marketplace. And that is what they meant by an idiot because once we do that, we yield the marketplace to the hoodlums.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I think this is what concerns so many people now in America that we’re retreating into this kind of privatism at the expense of — well, the old clichÈ is the public good. I think it’s the idea of the commonwealth. The idea of the commonwealth is besieged at the moment, partly by communications, which makes us all individual consumers of news and information; partly by politics and partly by an inattention to the aesthetics of living which relates each of us to the larger world.
GEORGE STEINER: And we can tie it directly to matters of verbal style. This country had a tremendous tradition of public speech, of great oratory, of noble rhetoric of every kind. This has passed into grim suspicion. Sometimes I have the feeling here that someone who speaks well, who loves the language, who is articulate, who hears the music of English as it has rung out in its politics and history, is almost automatically regarded with suspicion. Aren’t we in trouble when a culture begins thinking that because a man mumbles, he’s honest.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to the imagination as we erode the ability to read?
GEORGE STEINER: Well, I think we, unfortunately, see in all of us. We get lazier. We lose the muscles of attention and I do mean muscle. It looks as if the power of concentration — the powers of going deep into a thing — are almost physical and that, like an athlete when he doesn’t practice, first they start aching like the devil, then they go flabby and finally, it’s an agonizing process retraining them. There seems to be an almost physiological side to serious uses of the mind. Let it go. Stuff yourself with tranquilizers and the muscle won’t work.
BILL MOYERS: What is language to you? To me, it’s an adventure, an effort to try to put something new or personal into the world, to try to — well, change reality not by confronting it or addressing it, but by trying to infiltrate it with a phrase, an idea or some image that might illuminate your own journey, if not the destination. Does that make any sense to you?
GEORGE STEINER: Enormous sense and I think the way we jumped out of the animal kingdom into being men was when two things happened in language. Somebody came along and said where is the water hole. And, instead of pointing to where the water 4ole was, the person he asked, perhaps his enemy, perhaps a practical joker, said it’s a couple of hundred yards over there and lied. The first lie. The first lie is the beginning of humanity. That is to say, the almost unfathomable power to say that which is not, to say otherwise, to say no to the world, to restructure it for one’s purposes. Animals have camouflage. So far as we know, they cannot lie. They cannot counter state the world. That’s the first miracle. The second one was the first time a human being spoke about the Monday afternoon after his own funeral and made the discovery that the future tense can go any distance. I don’t take that for granted. That astrophysics can talk of certain collisions of the galaxy billions of years from now. That we have ways to speak of infinite time beyond our own life means that the future tenses are the doors on hope, on dreams, on the forward dreaming which is human history. And, if we didn’t have these future tenses, if our sense of language stopped with our sense of biological being, I’m not sure we would have made it. I’m not sure we would really have wanted to be men.
BILL MOYERS: So language is the power to resist the world as it is?
GEORGE STEINER: To resist it, to say no, which is a quite fierce thing but also to hope. Hope is a kind of future tense often without any anchorage in substantial reality. And again, so far as we know, animals can look for forage, they can certainly store for the winter, it doesn’t look like that miraculous gamble on futurity which we call hope. That, again, seems to be radically linguistic and human.
BILL MOYERS: So language, art, literature, all have been civilizing influences on our journey?
GEORGE STEINER: They have been the drugs of dreams without which, I think, in the face of the scandalous fact that all of us have to die. And again, I find that a profoundly scandalous fact. In the face of this lousy, rotten scandal that none one of us will get away with it. In the face of this, we have simply refused to lie down and we have constructed these great anti-worlds — these worlds of antimatter — which are art and literature.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] George Steiner is still going strong. His new books include Antigones and a collection of the first 25 years of his work, George Steiner: A Reader. He recently finished his 160th essay for The New Yorker where he has been a contributor since 1966. And he was just elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Art and Sciences. [on camera] Oh yes, when he’s not writing, reading, teaching or speaking, he’s out on some mountain climbing for recreation. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.