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Week of 2 April 1999

Vol. II, No. 29

Feature Article

UNI lecturer Steiner looks to the future of futurity

By Eric McHenry

Noting that his visits to BU had become more frequent than "occasional," George Steiner nevertheless gave a University Professors Occasional Lecture March 29 in the SMG Auditorium.

"It's a great delight for me to be back here today," said the renowned humanities scholar and Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, who addressed the UNI seminar in literary translation less than two years ago, "and doubly so because a member of my family is joining your faculty. It gives me almost the sense of a homecoming." Steiner's son David was recently named a senior research associate at SED.

Entitled A Passage from Plutarch, or The Sleep of Oracles, Steiner's lecture began, fittingly, with a passage from Plutarch. In it, the great first-century Greek chronicler recalls the death of the god Pan, and its proclamation from the island of Paxi to travelers on a passing ship.

"And the caller, raising his voice, said, 'When you have come opposite to Palodes, announce that great Pan is dead,' " Steiner quoted. "'So when we came opposite to Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thanus from the stern looked toward the land and said the words as he had heard them. "Great Pan is dead." Even before he had finished, there was a great cry of lamentation not of one person, but of many.'"

Steiner called Plutarch's description of that disembodied cry in the night "one of the most haunting passages in Western literature.

"Its grip on the imagination has never lessened," he said, "and there is gathered around it centuries of commentary." For scholars, thinkers, and artists from François Rabelais to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, he observed, the death of Pan has signified the end of paganism.

This became Steiner's point of entry into an erudite meditation on the oracular. He traced the evolution of prophecy in the postpagan epoch. The mortality of the pagan gods made inevitable a cessation of human contact with the divine, he said. Similarly, in monotheistic religious traditions there is an identifiable moment in time that marks the end of direct communication with the divine, making clairvoyance and prophecy impossible.

Scholars of Christian theophany, he noted, have "wrestled with the problem without arriving at an agreed solution. Is there a moment in Christianity when . . . immediate encounter with the divine will no longer be available?"

He examined the ways in which a succession of great thinkers -- Dante, Spinoza, Kierkegaard -- have treated the question. The latter two conclude comparably, he noted, summarizing Spinoza's position that "prophecies out of the Hebrew Bible are as infantile as any pagan oracle. Natural human understanding enlightens us as to ethical principles. . . . The sciences allow some insight into the development of natural phenomena. Knowledge of the future is not given to human intellection outside of perfectly natural and probabilistic bounds."

Kierkegaard, Steiner added, never departed from an "intuitive conviction," fleshed out in his posthumously published study of a Copenhagen clergyman who claimed to have taken divine dictation, "that the age of personal encounter with revelation . . . is irremediably over.

"Sinai and the Mount of Olives have fallen silent, as did the great god Pan on the island." The future -- "and here," Steiner said, "Kierkegaard is at his most bitterly clairvoyant" -- will not bring revelation, but only journalism.

Nevertheless, Steiner pointed out, the influential secular writings of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, contemporaries of Kierkegaard, are "saturated with futurity." And in the 19th and 20th centuries the oracular has become a hydra-headed phenomenon. Approximately 50 million residents of the southwestern United States share religious beliefs that are essentially fundamentalist, he said, and three times as many U.S. citizens are registered astrologers as belong to scientific associations. Members of all three groups, Steiner added, feel entitled to predict the future. Pan is not dead, he concluded, but will be with us as the new millennium convenes, speaking "through innumerable, contradictory, and often maddened voices."

George Steiner
Photo by Vernon Doucette

Gregory Nagy, chairman of the department of classics at Harvard University, delivered a brief reaction to Steiner's lecture, contributing five additional points. Each concerned the notion of sequence and how it bears upon the distinction between what is oracular and what is archival. Nagy introduced the Greek word telos, which has various meanings, including "circle," "ending," and in a religious context, "being initiated." It is significant to a discussion of prophecy in history, he said, that time has traditionally been looked upon both as a linear and a circular phenomenon.

The floor was then opened to questions from audience members, including poet and UNI Professor Geoffrey Hill, to whom Steiner had earlier referred as heir to the poetic tradition of Paul Célan.

"You will probably be as surprised to hear me say this as I am to hear myself saying it," said Hill in response to Steiner's view of the future, "but I think I'm slightly more hopeful than you."

Hill suggested that Steiner's bleak predictions could be to some extent counterbalanced by a recent redemptive precedent set in Christian doctrine.

"Centuries before the Nazis made it a hideous actuality, the crime of Christianity was to speak grammatically of Judaism in the past tense," he said. "To some extent the possibility of redemption comes when, around the time of Vatican II, Christianity itself repents of its grammatical horror and declares that the covenant of God with Abraham has never been superseded."

Steiner replied that his despair, which he called "provisional," was informed principally by the fact that "the massacres have no end." At the time of Cambodian killing fields, he noted, both of the world's superpowers were aware of the atrocities and capable of intervening.

"Arms continued to be sold by all parties involved, including my beloved Britain, to the Khmer Rouge," he said. "And since then, that massacre has been eclipsed by a million and a half in Africa, approximately 700,000 in Indonesia, and the unspeakable situation in the Balkans now."