From an interview with the philosopher George Steiner that was conducted in 2014 by Laure Adler, a journalist. The interview appears in A Long Saturday, which will be published in March by the University of Chicago Press. Steiner is the author of more than two dozen books. Translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
The Economist sent me across the Atlantic to cover the debate on American atomic power: was the United States going to share its nuclear knowledge with Europe? Under Eisenhower, the Americans decided they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a given; there was still hope that there would be true collaboration. So I went to Princeton, a wonderful, unreal little town, to interview J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. He had a pathological hatred of journalists, but said, “I’ll give you ten minutes.” Oppenheimer had set our meeting for noon. He didn’t come. So I had lunch with George Kennan, the diplomat of diplomats; Erwin Panofsky, the leading art historian at the time; and Harold Cherniss, the great Hellenist and Plato specialist.
Afterward, while I was waiting for the taxi that was to pick me up a half hour later, Cherniss invited me to his office, and as we were talking, Oppenheimer came in and sat behind us. It was the ideal trap: if the people you’re talking to can’t see you, they feel paralyzed, and you become master of the situation. Oppenheimer was a genius at this sort of theatrical maneuvering. He was a man who inspired spine-chilling fear; it’s quite difficult to describe. I once heard him say to a young physicist, “You are so young and you have already done so little!” After comments like that, you could only hang yourself.
Cherniss was showing me a passage from Plato that he was editing, which included a lacuna; he was trying to fill it in. When Oppenheimer asked me what I would do with that passage, I began stammering. Then he added, “A great text should have some empty space.” I said to myself, “Hey, you’ve nothing to lose, your taxi will be here in fifteen minutes.” And so I replied, “That’s a pompous cliché. First, your statement is a quote from Mallarmé. Second, it’s the type of paradox you can play with ad infinitum. But when you’re trying to prepare an edition of Plato for the common mortal, it’s better that the empty spaces be filled.” Oppenheimer responded superbly: “No, in philosophy especially it is the implicit that stimulates argument.” He was enjoying our exchange immensely, he whom no one ever dared to contradict. We had a real discussion on the subject. Then Oppenheimer’s secretary ran in and announced, “Mr. Steiner’s taxi is about to leave!” I was going on to Washington for my reporting assignment. At the door this extraordinary man asked me, as one might speak to a dog, “You’re married?”
“You have children?”
“Great. That will make it easier to find lodging.”
That’s how he invited me to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, as the first young humanist.