Fourth: may I offer a personal note. I haven’t been on the campus here for five or six weeks, and it felt strange on Thursday morning to be parking in an unfamiliar place and to be watching the bustle of others – sweet was the breath of morn, as the poet says – and it did not feel quite right not to be in the classroom. When I registered for the conference, the young lady assistant knew me, although I had not recognized her, and she said that she had been in my class last year, and had thoroughly enjoyed it. Apart from the immediate vanity, expressed in a blush of pleasure, I was reminded of the long affair I have had with teaching and of how gracious the young can be. How polite they are in general, and how much, as Mr. John O’Leary told us so eloquently, they want to learn. If the unending task of teaching teaches one anything (in answer to an important question raised) it ought to teach humility. But we don’t say much about our teachers, I fear. I have had some wonderful students, but I had two magnificent supervisors: Elaine Feinstein and Kathleen Coburn. I was very fortunate, I think. So you may imagine that I find admirable the magnanimity of Professor Steiner’s views on his great teachers. Chapter nine of his memoir begins: “J’eu de la chance avec mes professeurs,” and he goes on to praise Blackmur, Sirluck, Scholem, and others. We share Ernest Sirluck; but another important teacher whose acquaintance we shared was F. R. Leavis. It has always seemed to me that there is not only a justness in Professor Steiner’s account of that austere and difficult man, but a conclusion that serves as a touchstone for his own passionate advocacy of teaching, indeed of literacy. He says that if there is some nagging doubt about Leavis’s claims to be ranked among the great modern critics, “it is simply because criticism must be, by Leavis’s own definition, both central and humane. In his achievement the centrality is manifest, the humanity has often been tragically absent.”
Finally, such graciousness returns us to Professor Steiner’s real presence here today. It has been generally conceded by reviewers that Grammars of Creation is a crowning achievement to a life of writing. In this book he seeks to give language its mouthful of air, to set it breathing creatively again in a way that can match the ethos and beliefs of our complex, anxious, information w/racked world; to find what Professor Powe on Thursday called the “the soul’s route.” How can we make imagining concrete? ”I am haunted by the possibility,” he says in his autobiographical memoir Errata, “that out of our mammalian midst, a Plato, a Gauss or a Mozart, justifies, redeems, the species which devised and carried out Auschwitz.”
Professor Steiner, Your Scholarship, we are honoured and pleased to have you with us. Welcome to York University.
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