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George Steiner’s
The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.

[1]2,198 words

George Steiner
The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. [2]
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999

George Steiner’s novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., was published about three decades back and encodes a large number of the author’s non-fiction books which were released beforehand. This is especially pertinent to the analysis published in In Bluebeard’s Castle, for instance. 

For our purposes in this review, the dramatic or theatrical presentation of Steiner’s brief work is almost as important as the text itself. It was dramatized (the only one of the Professor’s works to be treated in this way) by the socialist playwright Christopher Hampton, and, on a personal note, I actually saw it in 1981–82.

The drama starred Alec McCowen as Adolf Hitler in a production which lasted around an hour and a half. He was later awarded the Evening Standard theater award for his riveting performance—particularly his oracular testimony or speech at the play’s close. The critical record suggests that it was performed at the Mermaid Theatre, but I seem to recall seeing it at the Riverside studios in west London. I went with a girl that I was rather keen on at the time, but she was nauseated by the whole thing and fell asleep.

To cut to the chase: I believe that this is largely a work by and about George Steiner rather than the personalities or historical personages with whom he deals. Steiner is an “ultra-civilized” liberal, a polyglot, and an Encyclopaedist who has made a personal or subjective religion out of Western high culture. His play—and the short novel which gave it birth—are his attempts to deal with the fact that no matter how knowledgeable or assimilated he becomes he always remains an outsider . . . an Ashkenazic amongst Gentiles.

What differentiates Steiner from most of his group is that he has not chosen to identify himself with the major pathways that various vanguards usually choose. Not for him, in other words, the ways of commerce, gross materialist accumulation or gain; militant leftism or anti-system revolt; or active and intentional Zionism.

The elements in the play which appear shocking, “transgressive,” non-humanitarian, anti-Zionist, and even “self-hating” in Jewish terms, are quite understandable when you reckon on Steiner’s own sensibility. A pure intellectual who incarnates the mind-body split, Steiner actively dislikes Israel, Ashkenazic enthusiasm, and the normalcy, almost semi-Gentile qualities, of nationalism and group adherence. Like an ultra-liberal in the West, an active vision of Hell would be national service in the armed forces—that is, having to endure the relative crudity, non-sophistication, and “political incorrectness” of all and sundry. Steiner, in other words, wishes to assimilate on his own terms—most of which are basically specific to himself.

His culture is actually quite a small sliver of land that articulates the integrative energies of mid-European Jews from around 1880 to 1940. For him, authors like Karl Kraus, Kafka, and Paul Celan are European culture tout court. Likewise, a special endorsement will always be given to those superior Gentiles and cultural creators (Goethe, Tolstoy, Beethoven, and so forth) who make ready the path of assimilation through humane artistry.

In a manner which is typical of the radical liberals who dominate the cultural space in the West today, Steiner is truly horrified by man’s brutality, ferocity, hatred, and capacity for endless sadism. A keen dualist, many of Steiner’s books contain long, anguished discourses about the Marquis de Sade, for example. De Sade, in gigantic works of megalomania like The 120 Days of Sodom, is rarely pithy or gnomic. But one of his remarks bears recording: when he declares that civilization is an exercise in cruelty which has been tempered by disquiet. Steiner’s whole career is a protest against this assertion; yet, as a liberal pessimist, he doubtless secretly agrees with it.

To return to the play proper, however . . . the whole point of the narrative is to prepare for the enormous speech by the McCowan figure at the piece’s end. It is relatively typical for a creator like Steiner that he loves to hate Hitler and, in all honesty, his view of the German dictator is very similar to that of Norman Mailer in his last published novel shortly before his death. Both of them see Hitler as not a man at all but a force, a hypostatization, a recognition of the absence of the real—even an incarnation of terror, implacability, and death.

In this regard, but in no other, they actually engage in transgression and cross over to the other side . . . if only momentarily. Neither of these mild apostates can really be accused of shoah revisionism or its historical counterpart—by dint of identifying with the discourse of Harry Elmer Barnes. Not one bit of it . . . but they do, luridly, hesitantly, mesmerically (even lambently) become cultural revisionists just for a moment before snapping back into their a priori positions. This would amount to a post-existential and “left” conservative in Mailer’s case; a pained, enervated, diaphanous and painfully raw (or thin-skinned) “rootless cosmopolitan” in Steiner’s.

The piece itself, The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., is essentially front-end loaded. It only really exists as a prop or attainment for Hitler’s great speech at the end. Some of the work’s Zionist or Ashkenazic critics who said that it was poorly constructed or slightly slung together actually have a point—yet what they miss is the deus ex machine moment. This amounts to the aporia in language—the moment of apocalypse at the finale—when a demi-god of inversion (literally an Anti-Christ) is permitted to orate. Steiner was classically educated by his father to a very high level . . . it has to be admitted. But one of his mental conceits is that Greek tragedy, even genuine tragedy without the Grecian overlay, is impossible at this time. He wrote an entire early book called The Death of Tragedy which is essentially on this theme. Nonetheless, I believe in delving a little bit deeper here.

The book itself is a bit of a rag-bag, primarily due to the fact that everything is fed towards (rather impatiently) getting to the end. This is the moment of high Greek drama, the play within the play which signifies the instant when the trial of Hitler begins, and that essentially resembles a playlet within a play. The main purpose of a narrative which runs for a hundred pages or so is to get all of the important characters on stage. Some of this is uneasily handled, and a good deal of it reads like some middle-brow thriller writers from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Hammond Innes or Aleister MacClean.

The dramatis personae are Emmanuel Lieber, the Nazi hunter and instigator of events; Simeon, the presiding judge at Hitler’s mock-trial; Gideon Benasseraf, who falls ill and dies before the trial; a young Israelite Isaac Ansell, who represents the post-war generation; and Elie Barach, an Orthodox Jew whose faith is disturbed by Benasseraf’s fever-induced dream that Hitler is Jewish. Benasseraf is the holy fool of the group—the Fool or Tom o’ Bedlam figure, if you like. For Benasseraf is mildly mentally ill, suffers flash-backs, and casts an alternative light on things. He even serves the dissentient role of an esoteric Hitlerist—albeit in reverse order.

There are two Gentile characters (other than Hitler). The first is John Asher (who is half-Jewish) and who Steiner basically considers to be Gentile. Like all radical liberals, Steiner is overly-drawn to the other. He evinces quite a lot of sympathy for this character and possibly identifies with him. Asher is fascinated by the whole affair, but not pruriently. He suffers from no metaphysical lusts. The other Gentile is Teku, a Latino Indian or an indigenous South American . . . he is probably conceived as a largely silent witness to the trial, an incarnation of Mankind looking on.

As I say, the real purpose of the narration is to get these characters together so that the trial can occur. The elderly figure of Hitler (played by McCowan) has no real role until the trial sequence commences. When this happens he brushes aside any rudimentary defense apparatus provided by the “court” and represents himself. The whole point of the novella is really this trial.

The Hitler figure defends himself with vigor and urgency, irrespective of the fact that it’s obviously not a real court case. The point here is philosophical, semi-religious, and higher in tone or intent. The whole event is primarily metaphysical in aspect—and Hitler defends himself metaphysically. Once Hitler emerges in Steiner’s sequence, and despite his great age, he effortlessly dominates the scenario and virtually all the other characters lose their reality.

Hitler is really conceived of as being intimately connected to the Jewish destiny, so much so that he appears to be a part of their very development. To Steiner, he is no longer a man but an anti-god; a personal Satan not for mankind at large like the devil in Christianity or Islam. No. He is an Israelite devil; a Loki, a sprite of destruction—almost the pagan anti-god for one particular people, namely his own.

Throughout all of this we have to remember that Steiner is an uneasy co-optee; he doesn’t really identify with his people that much . . . like most liberals. He admires the “hard” Jews and Israelis in his plot device—the men who have hunted down the Great Beast (666)—but he doesn’t really share their passions. Unlike all of them (to varying degrees) he is not a nationalist; he strives not to allow himself group emotions.

Nonetheless, a peculiar thing occurs during Hitler’s great speech (performed by McCowan) and which is quite reminiscent of the Bailiff’s endless oratory in The Childermass (a novel by Wyndham Lewis which I have reviewed elsewhere on this volume). The Leftist and Zionist critics who loathed this short book (as well as the play that came out of it via Hampton’s redaction) do have a point. Hitler is the genius; they are underlings. Like the malevolent Anglo-Irish landowner Pozzo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, he has the power. Steiner knows this, wills it, and lets it happen. At the deepest possible level, so to say, Steiner is a masochist who worships and adores Hitler as a negative god, albeit filtered and sublimated through aesthetic inversions (the catalog of which is multiple). In this moment of post-Christianity, he is truly a Satanist.

The arguments which Steiner/Hitler uses are less important than the way it is delivered. Hitler is not a man but a force; a diabolical instantiation; the encomium of the Word turned around. He is an avatar; an Odin in a rival religion to the one which Steiner was brought up in (Judaism) and has rejected subsequently. Like most academics with tenure, he’s an Enlightenment man now.

It has to be said that in McCowan’s dark threnody one comes close to a species of black metal or cacophonic white power music—of a sort that Professor Goodrick-Clarke tabulated, with little overt criticism, in Black Sun. Steiner agrees—in a fragmentary moment or a semiotic register—with everything that Savitri Devi has ever said about the Führer, but he does so as an instant of nausea and ontological victimhood. Albeit raised to a high artistic level, it is a cosmicism whereby the liberal-minded victim of a street mugging forgives his attacker, even thinks it was justified.

None of the arguments the Hitler character uses are original; moral and historical relativism; together with the fact that many Orthodox Rabbis believe Hitler to have been part of God’s plan—i.e., to whip the chosen people for transgressing from the divine path of allegedly being Man’s beacon. A role which involves waiting for the coming of Jehovah and his messiah . . . Might Hitler have been him—in the way that a sect like Jews for Jesus believe that Christians have a point?

Steiner leaves these questions unanswered, but to my mind this secularist sees Hitler as a savage god—much like Stasinopolous’ view of Picasso, but more importantly. The only way out of Steiner’s dilemma is to attempt a caveat—and Nietzsche comes to his aid here. For in a pagan (Gentile) world Steiner believes that Jews are being punished for inventing conscience. This, although complicated, and passim. Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morals is Nietzsche’s understanding of anti-Semitism as a metaphysical postulate. Didn’t he partly reject Christianity as the Judaization of European gentility?

In any event, Steiner achieves an artistic madness here—in his own terms—that reminds one of Hans Prinzhorn’s Art of the Insane. Where, following on from the manner of Kafka in Metamorphosis, the mild-mannered insurance salesman, Gregor, transforms into a gigantic cockroach overnight. It is the ultimate Hieronymous Bosch morphology or curdling, and at the end of the rival novella the roach-man just dies. He lowers his head plus mandibles (so to speak) for the last time, and gradually his epidermis or shell gets closer and closer to the carpet. Finally, he expires—all passion spent. It is the post-facticity of degeneration; the world-weariness, sadness in the face of Man’s nature, and masochism which lurks at Humanism’s heart. It, to switch one’s foray into entomology, involves the endless circling of a moth around the candle-flame which will devour it.

Professor Steiner seeks cessation, a Heideggerian full-stop: he wishes to flop down and worship the Black Sun.