George Steiner has long been preoccupied with two basic paradoxes or problems. How could one of the high moments of European culture (particularly turn-of-the-century Vienna) produce, or allow to develop, the utter barbarism of Nazism? And the other problem is simply the uncontrollable ambiguity of language itself. As Jane Austen put it with characteristic economy, it is rather worrying to realize that people can use words to say a thing is white when in fact it is black. An awareness of the ambiguous uses to which language may be put is as old as literature – Clytemnestra’s ‘welcome’ to Agamemnon, for instance. And no one was more aware of the possible abuses of rhetoric of all kinds than Plato. But with Hitler the problem took on a new dimension, as it were. The problem, we may simply say, is that speech is in some sense a divine gift – the gift of tongues. Yet it can be transformed into the diabolical eloquence of a Hitler. Thus to take two statements uttered by characters in Steiner’s novella, the first by Lieber:
As it is written in the learned Nathaniel of Mainz: there shall come upon the earth in the time of night a man surpassing eloquent. All that is God’s, hallowed be His name, must have its counterpart, its backside of evil and negation. So it is with the Word, with the gift of speech that is the glory of man and distinguishes him everlastingly from the silence or animal noises of creation. When he made the Word, God made possible also its contrary. Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian. No, He created on the night-side a language a speech for hell. Whose words mean hatred and vomit of life . . . There shall come a man whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of hell and teach it to others.
Another character, Gideon, in a feverish delirium, voices a kind of distrust of language which must go along with the feeling that – as a Jew – he is one of the people of the Word:
We are the people of the word. That’s what they call us isn’t it? Well, listen to me . . . He [Hitler] is the master of the word . . . Why there is nothing he could not do with words. They danced for him. They set fire to stone. They made men drunk or battered them to death. We talk too much, Elie. For five thousand years we’ve talked too much. Talked ourselves and the world half to death. That’s why he turned on us, that’s why he could tear the guts out of us. Because he too is a man who made words louder than life. He and us. He and Lieber. O such a need of each other. A dog and his puke.
This is not to say that the novella endorses any one particular statement about language, but it opens up the problems of the languages of politics, racism, genocide, religious intensity, law, retribution, ethics and aesthetics in a vivid and often disturbing way.
The novella itself is based fairly obviously – and no doubt deliberately – on Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and it both is, and explores, what might be said to be an ultimate Jewish fantasy – the capturing alive of Adolph Hitler. It is also an attempt to explore how and why a civilization can collapse into savagery. It goes into the ultimately unexplorable problem of ‘the camps’, not only the evil that they represent but also what surviving Jews – indeed all the survivors – may make, have to make, cannot make, of that unbearable, unforgettable memory. In the novella, a small band of Jews have dedicated themselves to the single cause of a perhaps monomaniacal man, Emmanual Lieber. This is to track down Hitler. Marlow finds his Kurtz, and, after a somewhat Conradian search into the impenetrable depths of South America, this little band of Jews ultimately find Adolf Hitler – the figure who in himself was the heart of the heart of the darkness. He is indeed brought back to face ‘justice’ – one of the many problematical areas touched on in the novella. Are there bits of history, countries, individuals, which are somehow outside the law? As one character argues – either justice, the law, is an ‘ontological totality’ or it is an ‘ephemeral fiat in this or that corner of history . . . If there is a law for the drunken homicide down the street there must be one for Attila.’
And Hitler. Though – and Steiner is well aware of this – confronted with the figure of Hitler, the law, like language itself, seems tempted to give up. And in many ways the most extraordinary section of the novella is the final speech by Hitler in his own defence. As it happens, I am not particularly taken by Steiner’s suggestion – made elsewhere – that anti-Semitism may in part be explained by the fact that the Jews invented conscience, with its attendant travails. On this point I find Sartre, for example, more convincing. However, in this novella he gives the theory in an extreme form to Hitler. It is in fact hard to assess that amazing last speech – which in some ways is mad yet in other ways seems to come close to some very provocative and disturbing ideas. I am not saying that Steiner has given the devil all the best lines, but they are certainly not the worst ones – any more than some of the opinions of the Jewish hunters are far from unequivocal. From that point of view the novella maintains a really quite disturbing ambiguity. And Hitler’s last words – ‘The Reich begat Israel’ – resonate beyond the framework of this fiction.
However, we should remember that it is a work of fiction and in no sense a disguised tract or polemic. As such it does not load the dice, though the very nature of the material is, inevitably heavily loaded. It is the load which had to be taken on by the mid-twentieth-century conscience, and Steiner’s obsessed figures – most of them are obsessed in one way or another – make us aware of many of the difficulties involved in taking on that load, along with the very understandable temptation to junk such an unspeakable load altogether. But finally it is, I think, a fiction centreing on the ambiguity of the word. Words can move mountains, but also Nuremberg rallies. To the extent that the Jews feel themselves to be in some special way the people of the Word, these ambiguities of the word may be felt by them with special force. But they are ambiguities which involve us all – as do the many problems raised by George Steiner’s compact and powerful novella.