The water-streaked photograph, a lugubrious blur of grays, was taken around 1921. "A man is holding out his hat on a Munich street corner. At first you think he's a beggar. Absolutely nobody's listening.

"That was the discharged, unemployed corporal Hitler," says George Steiner, who first saw the photo in 1975. The image began to gnaw at him: "Five years later, 1 million were listening. Seven years later, 10 million. By '33, he's the master of Germany, by '40 he's the master of Europe. And had he not committed the utter error of chasing his Jews before they gave him nuclear physics . . . I leave that sentence open. For had he not chased them, they would have served him.

"And he did it all with that damn mouth open."

As he grappled with that enormity, Steiner's awe became an obsession, the obsession a novel. He wrote it, or rather, "it wrote me, in a few weeks without any erasure, without any change." And now "The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H."--just published in the United States--has erupted into bitter controversy.

That response will not surprise readers of George Steiner, the polyglot pundit and literary critic who at 53 has been raising contentious questions and issuing sweeping ex cathedra pronouncements for decades in the pages of The New Yorker and elsewhere. Bestriding the millenniums like a colossus ("If there is any true counterpart of the world of Shakespeare, it is that of Verdi; Wagner is Aeschylean to the core"), he has produced scores of essays collected in a dozen books. Along the way, he has been called both a mellifluous genius and an oversimplifying intellectual exhibitionist.

Steiner does not fear the cost of candor. He is paying again now, in this office at Simon & Schuster, 14 sunny floors above the Avenue of the Americas, as he poses the painfully expensive moral problem: What would we do if Hitler walked into the room? Would we rise to our feet? "I'm afraid that the answer, the almost nauseating answer," says Steiner, "is yes." Driven by the same unrelenting logic, he permits his fictional Hitler to tell his Jewish captors: "My racism was a parody of yours, a hungry imitation. What is a thousand-year Reich compared with the eternity of Zion?"

This, say his detractors, is going too far: They accuse him of sensationalism at least and outright anti-Semitism at worst. In England, where the book was published last year, a London stage version has provoked either envy or indignation. And in America, the novel has polarized critics. The Wall Street Journal calls it "a stunning performance . . . a tour de force," and Time "a philosophic fantasy of remarkable intensity." But The New Republic rails at its "febrile, twisted" theories and "false and destructive doctrine"; John Leonard calls it "obscene . . . he makes me sick to my stomach"; and The New York Times Book Review cries "sympathy for Hitler."

"There's a bit of sadness in this kind of aggressive misreading," says Steiner, a Jew whose family fled the swastika in the late '30s. "You can destroy almost any complex idea if you choose to use a bulldozer to misread it." But then, it's his first novel after years as a critic, essayist and professor: "There's a certain bitterness about people who mix not only formal categories but personal ones." However, "I believe cows have fields and men have legs. It's an immense evolutionary advantage."

Steiner begins to fidget. This is getting distressingly personal, and he effortlessly stretches the scope to more seemly proportions: "One of the reasons I'm having such a hostile reception here is that America is in a phase of total anti-heroics . . . extreme skeptical ironic leveling . . . terrific wariness of ceremony and rhetoric. In recent American history, charisma has been almost a death sentence."

The synoptic swagger is pure Steiner. Yet who better to yoke the stubborn intractability of the centuries than this walking concatenation of cultures: Born in Paris of Austrian parents, comfortable in six languages, he is an American citizen educated at Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. He lives in Cambridge, England, with his American wife, Zara, except for the six months a year he spends as professor of comparative literature at the University of Geneva.

"Rootedness is a metaphor for which I have no great sympathy," he says. "My homeland is wherever my typewriter is, or my pen. People whose shoelaces I cannot tie--like Nabokov or Proust--have taught me that one writes world masterpieces in hotels. Wittgenstein says somewhere that it was in railway buffets where he did his deepest philosophy."

Steiner doesn't simply answer a question: His responses emerge in lustrous marmoreal sculptures of words, the slight hiss of Germanic sibilants ("something" becomes zum-sing) pressing through the crisp Oxford baritone. All delivered from an eerie armchair repose. His right arm, withered from birth, is held immobile in his lap, the upturned hand clutching a pipe he does not smoke. The left hand allows itself an occasional muted flourish; the torso tilts forward slightly to nudge a thesis. Anything more would be vulgar:

"Gentlemen don't do that. In England it's totally de'classe'," he says, recalling the story of the duke of Wellington and his good friend Napier at the battle of Waterloo: "It lasted 16 hours, and they'd been in the saddle sitting next to each other. And one of the last bullets, a stray bullet, hits Napier. He falls out of the saddle, and says, 'My lord, both my legs are shot off.' Wellington looks down and says, 'By God, so they are.' That is the code."

But there is no proscription on vocal gestures, and Steiner is esteemed on two continents as a mesmerizing lecturer. British historian John Costello, who debated him once, is still amazed by the "baroque architecture of his ideas." Even in these workaday confines, with an audience of one, Steiner plays his voice like a chamber orchestra, from commanding tutti swells of certitude to woodwind trills of self-mockery. No wonder the compelling power of language--and our tentative defenses against it--are the central themes of "Portage."

Listening to the Devil

In 170 densely wrought pages, the novel masks an intellectual fable in the trappings of a thriller: Jewish Nazi-hunters discover Hitler, now in his nineties, living in a South American jungle depicted in images of hell and human viscera. They struggle to carry the ancient Fu hrer back to justice, driven nearly mad by the proximity to ultimate evil, kept sane only by the broken radio voice of Lieber, the master-hunter, God-figure, emblem of cultural memory. Government authorities around the globe react in various ways to the news, becoming an epistemological spectrum of human responses to horror. And the portage proceeds--until an errant phrase of music catches Hitler's ear and awakens from croaking desuetude his awful powers of speech.

Steiner calls the novel--his first fiction since 1964--"one more chapter in that same book, that same essay I keep writing over and over," and in fact it is a distillation of his most celebrated ideas. To his thesis from "In Bluebeard's Castle" (1970) that "the concentration and death camps of the twentieth century . . . are Hell made immanent . . . we have passed out of the major order and symmetries of Western civilization," is grafted the notion in "Language and Silence" (1967) that "Hitler heard inside his native tongue the latent hysteria, the confusion, the quality of hypnotic trance."

In the novel, Lieber theorizes that "When He made the Word, God made possible also its contrary . . . on the night side of language a speech for hell. Whose words shall mean hatred and vomit of life." Steiner has speculated (in "After Babel," 1975) that language and lying arose simultaneously in primordial tribes: to hide the source of their food and identity from enemies and "to conceal the true, sexually aggressive function of their lips and tongues." The aggression, he writes, arises "from the life-need of the ego to reach out and comprehend, in the two vital senses of 'understanding' and 'containment,' another human being. Sex is a profoundly semantic act." Man's creation of the post-Babelian profusion of languages is itself an attempt at concealment.

Thus, he says, "The first lie is the beginning of humanity." His fictional Hitler embodies that notion and other themes from "In Bluebeard's Castle," especially the idea that the heritage of Hebrew culture has long been intolerable to Western man: The demands of monotheism, Christ's injunction to painful perfection ("Turn the other cheek," Steiner says, is "a pretty maddening business") and the "utopian socialism of Marx"--all these ask so much of beleaguered animal man that they produce a "profound subconscious resentment" which Hitler sensed and exploited. "The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf," says A.H.

In the final chapter, Hitler defends himself in a superbly guileful crescendo of sophistry, claiming that the Jews taught him "To set a race apart. To keep it from defilement. To hold before it a promised land. To scour that land of its inhabitants or place them in servitude . . ." He concludes by bragging that the Holocaust, after all, made the creation of Israel possible. The speech has pushed critics into moral outrage; yet for Steiner, to weaken its spellbinding casuistry would be intellectually dishonest, diminishing the rigorous ambiguities of the art and its utility to readers--for a Hitler, he believes, could come again.

He is still troubled by the theory of "one of my great friends, now dead, Marshall McLuhan," who "was convinced that McCarthyism was destroyed by TV," and argued that Hitler "was the last figure of his kind in world history because of radio, that he couldn't have done it on TV," which would have "shown up something monstrously cheap and untrustworthy, which the voice didn't." But Steiner believes Hitler would have mastered television, too. "He had an immense visual genius, we know now."

Grammar as Diplomacy

But if speech can hypnotize from without, it can also limit from within--and that is another grand theme of the novel. Steiner has written often about the ways in which a person's syntax shapes his perception of the world, and in the novel, "I've tried in the various languages to allegorize what they contain." This is no literary license: The fact that "we can't jump out of the skin of our speech," he says, has determined the cultural destiny of nations.

Including American English? There is, as usual, no pause: "Scholars tell us," he begins in practiced podium tones, "that subordinate clauses are beginning to drop away very rapidly. That in daily speech, in advertising, in the press, you try to have only main clauses. The subjunctives, too, are dropping away." Thus producing two cultural "imperatives." One is behavioral: Americans' proclivity for pragmatism, "that the said thing must be if at all possible translatable into performance and as quickly and directly as possible." The other is political/ecumenical: "In a class society, a hierarchical society as in England, dependent clauses are the way that a privileged person, a master, can qualify and ironize, undermine his main proposition--one of the ways he governs" by "subtle intimidation" those with fewer verbal resources. But the egalitarian syntax of American English "makes for the present tense, makes for equal rights on both sides of a debate," and "there is nothing at all in America like the bullying through irony which is inherent in England.

"What amuses me," says Steiner, "is that American audiences should now be mesmerized by 'Brideshead Revisited,' by 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' 'Nicholas Nickleby' and whatever vestiges there are of the hierarchic and archaic--the mirror reversal" of American linguistic democracy, which is "spreading over the Earth like soapsuds":

"The tu-vous distinction, which organizes French life and literature," Steiner says, is disappearing, and "it is American speech habits which are becoming the world Esperanto . . . all over the Earth the underprivileged see in American speech the chances for equality which many of their native complex structures did not give them. From here to Vladivostok, and right through King's Road in Chelsea, it is the American pop tune or the American verb form or the American word 'man' or the American cadence which the young are using. This is a great political act, saying: 'We will not accept any more to have the mandarin codes on top of us.' "

Steiner, who has spoken of how "all over the world, since 1945, people are killing each other over language questions," now believes that "the new forms of creativity and of invention must come out of some kind of pidgin or Creole across borders, across frontiers. Even as I am committed to the view that some of the great masters of our age are the multilingual writers like Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, so I would imagine that one of the few hopes against murderous chauvinism, murderous regional hatreds, is to hammer out some kind of humane Esperanto."

It must be a dismal prognosis for a mandarin of letters whose life is devoted to the making of fine distinctions? "Oh no! I think an enormous number of human beings have been bullied for too long," Steiner says. "I'm of course a Tory anarchist, an elitist to my fingertips because of the system in which I was brought up. But I would be a damn fool if I did not see that for the great mass of humanity it isn't possible anymore."

Fire in the Ivory Tower

The Tory elitist, who claims a photographic memory, never doubted that he would be a scholar. "I was very lucky. The streets I walked through to my school in Paris were called Rue Descartes or Rue Victor Hugo. And I asked, 'Who are they?' and was told they had written books. In the French system, the smallest boy and girl is told that glory--gloire--is to contribute to the heritage of the mind . . . Plus the Jewish background. Remember that at the Sabbath service, there is a benediction every Saturday for the scholar . . . There is no prayer for bankers, generals, stockbrokers, journalists."

Georges Borchardt, Steiner's agent, has known him since they played together as children in Paris: "It was evident even to a 6- or 7-year-old that he was exceptionally bright. When we were about 10, we decided to coauthor the definitive book on Napoleon." Steiner says he was also writing plays and treatises, driven by rigorous pedagogic discipline. By comparison, he considers American education "planned amnesia." No wonder: As a boy, he already knew German and French, was learning Greek and Latin, picked up English at the American School, and was taught Hebrew by his father, a Viennese banker who worked for Lazard Freres.

With the rise of Hitler, the family moved to the United States and Steiner, who became an American citizen in 1944, began his studies at the University of Chicago. He started playing chess and poker 24 hours a day, and "for about three or four weeks I knew what LSD must be like . . . And then I pulled out of it because I wasn't good enough to become a chess master, I didn't have that creative spark. And became normal again. But I have at least once in my life known what the spell of the absolute is, the cancer of totality which eats up all else."

A master's degree from Harvard followed and a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he began writing for the Economist of London and finished his doctorate in Elizabethan theater in 1955. After teaching at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, he returned to England to become an Extraordinary Fellow at Cambridge University, where his wife teaches history. (Their two children live in the United States--David is a banker in New York, and Deborah will finish her BA at Harvard next month.) He immediately became controversial, upsetting some conservative dons by his cavalier cross-cultural comparisons. "They believe he synthesizes things that have no business being synthesized," says a colleague. The problems began with his first major lecture--on Freud, Marx and Darwin--at which specialists caviled over oversimplifications; reappeared in 1960 with "The Death of Tragedy," which experts claimed contained numerous errors of fact, and continue to the present day.

Steiner, for his part, can be hard on scholars. No one has written more scathingly of the obsessive professor and "the wild primacy of his addiction." Such a creature is "monomaniacally disinterested," Steiner wrote in a 1980 New Yorker piece damning Anthony Blunt, "indifferent also to the distracting claims of social justice, of familial affection," to the world itself which "is a formless, boorish impediment that keeps him from the philosopher's stone." He regards sleep "as a puzzle of wasted time, and flesh a piece of torn luggage that the spirit must drag after it."

Yet "these autistic passions are the fascinating ones," Steiner says now, recalling the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match in Reykjavik, which became first a New Yorker article and then a book, "Fields of Force," in 1974. "I will never forget when Spassky realized that something inhuman was across the table. A hatred which he couldn't master! Spassky knew that it was a game. He had a wife, he loved to read Tolstoy, he plays the piano. He was doomed, utterly doomed. For the man who knows that it is a game . . . is doomed."

Steiner says he can befriend and respect even the most self-absorbed pedant "if there is something outside himself that he loves much better than himself and which he wishes to serve. If someone comes to me and says, 'My life is the study of ninth-century Chinese chamber pots,' I may say to myself silently, 'That's odd,' but I can absolutely work with him. I cannot work with human beings--and this is my tremendous problem with American narcissism--who find themselves the most interesting thing around."

"What George is doing really is lighting fires," says novelist and biographer Geoffrey Wolfe, who studied under him at Princeton and Cambridge. If some regard Steiner as a snob, Wolfe can see why: He once asked Steiner if he watched British TV. "I don't watch television," Steiner replied, "I am on television." "But it was all said with a twinkle," says Wolfe, who found him "certainly finely tuned to social distinctions," but "typically arrogant to his superiors and immensely generous to his students. He's enormously serious, but not solemn--except on the subject of the Holocaust."

And no pedant, Steiner says: "I'm a very normal person and sleep and have a family and am wildly infatuated with my dog and take walks and I know the world is there. The great masters don't. The great masters of the absolute abolish the world."

The Bird on the Rhino

Steiner has often hypothesized with Spenglerian gloom that those masters have vanished in our era, that the great works of Western culture have already been written. Perhaps, he says now, "the masterpiece, the opus classicus, is not available to us because the structures of confidence which underlay the classic forms are no longer available." One of "the commanding images" he uses to think about our impoverished Zeitgeist is insurance: "Even our re-insurers have gone bust, and there is an anarchic possibility that we have entered into a period of receiverships."

But the metaphor has buoyancy: As the West declines, American museums and universities have "graciously, generously taken into receivership that which Europe has produced over the centuries." Are there no more Medicis? Then, "Put it in the Library of Congress! Hang up all the Stradivari!" He has just spent a few days in Bloomington, Ind. "The treasures! It's now probably the world's greatest collection of Victorian literature--things the British Museum does not have are in Bloomington," and "probably the best music department in the world."

As his enthusiasm gathers momentum, Steiner talks of his next large work: "I'm throwing out the following challenge. From Plato to Wittgenstein, Proust, the present, the contribution of homosexuals to thought, art, literature, music, is a great role of honor, uninterrupted. But not one name in science! Nobody has mentioned this. Now I want to do some hard thinking: Does this not suggest that eros touches an interface, an osmotic zone with cognition, perception . . . What is it in science that synapses with eros differently? That's fascinating." The mysterious relation between the things we call mind and body is "the terra incognita--outer space is tiny compared to it"; and "the next Copernicus will be the man who can tell me . . . how thought can make a wart go away."

But meanwhile there are the quotidian demands of criticism, and a welling humility suddenly softens his voice as he muses on the symbiosis of critic and artist. "At my best, I hope I am that curious bird which I have seen in nature films. It sits on the rhinoceros and does two very interesting things. It cleans the ticks off . . . and it flies a little ahead and gives warning of the beast's approach.

"I take that to be the greatest thing I can do--to help prepare the audience for new ideas. So that when rhino comes, people aren't too frightened."