I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by. But I don't know that I've succeeded, either for others or for myself.
Is there any kind of education, schooling in poetry, music, art, philosophy that would make a human being unable to shave in the morning — forgive this banal image — because of the mirror throwing back at him something inhuman or subhuman? That's what I keep hammering at in my own thinking, in my own writing. Hence the move in Real Presences, coming around that immensely difficult corner, towards theology. What about the great poets, the great artists who have known about such things — Dante, for example, or Shakespeare? Could something make us incapable of certain imperceptions, incapable of certain blindnesses, deafnesses? Is there something that would make the imagination responsible and answerable to the reality principles of being human all around us? That's the question...
The key issue here is the sense of what cannot be analyzed or explained. A major act of interpretation gets nearer and nearer to the heart of the work, and it never comes too near. The exciting distance of a great interpretation is the failure, the distance, where it is helpless. But its helplessness is dynamic, is itself suggestive, eloquent and articulate. The best acts of reading are acts of incompletion, acts of fragmentary insight, of that which refuses paraphrase, metaphrase; which finally say, “The most interesting in all this I haven't been able to touch on.” But which makes that inability not a humiliating defeat or a piece of mysticism but a kind of joyous invitation to reread.
George Steiner interviewed in the Paris Review.