Playboy of the Western Word

These essays of George Steiner about modern culture and modern barbarism were the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and their subtitle, “Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture,” alludes to Eliot’s Notes (1948). Or, in Mr. Steiner’s conscious prose, is “intended in memoration of Eliot’s Notes.” So I was reminded of, and should like to memorate, some things that Eliot said about I. A. Richards in 1927, which Steiner had no need to mention but which are apt to his book. (It was to Richards and Mrs. Richards that Steiner recently dedicated Extraterritorial.)

Eliot said of I. A. Richards that “there is a certain discrepancy between the size of his problems and the size of his solutions.” That there is “something almost comic about the way in which Mr. Richards can ask an unanswerable question…and answer it with a ventriloquial voice from a psychology laboratory situated in Cambridge.” That Richards was desperately hopeful:

Poetry “is capable of saving us,” he says; it is like saying that the wallpaper will save us when the walls have crumbled. It is a revised version of Literature and Dogma.

Not long after 1927, the walls crumbled. Mr. Steiner’s book, which is yet another revised version of Matthew Arnold’s Literature and Dogma, seems to wish to show that liberal humanists were gullible not just in thinking that the wallpaper would save us but also in not realizing that the wallpaper itself was explosively mined; for in Steiner’s view, culture, or liberal optimism about culture, is not only no protection against barbarism but even encourages it. Yet just as the bishop who wrote Honest to God did not think it necessary to cease drawing his stipend, so Mr. Steiner shows no sign of wishing to dissociate himself other than notionally from that world of liberal culture—of lectures, universities, indeed university presses—which he claims to be by its very nature not only no bulwark against barbarism but an active encourager of it. I do not myself find much (and Mr. Steiner might find less) in Eliot’s metaphor of wallpaper and walls, but such a metaphor does suggest that the one thing more absurd than trusting that the wallpaper will hold up the walls is the suspicion that the wallpaper knocked them down.

Steiner’s book includes four lectures. “The Great Ennui” claims that “certain specific origins of the inhuman, of the crises of our own time that compel a redefinition of culture, are to be found in the long peace of the nineteenth century.” (Mr. Steiner is fond of “certain specific,” because it is not very specific.) The argument is that the French Revolution produced deep changes in the quality of hope, and that the subsequent disillusionment (“What was a gifted man to do after Napoleon?” asks Mr. Steiner, and does not stay for an answer) left “a reservoir of unused, turbulent energies” and so created a “nostalgia for disaster.”

A Season in Hell” claims that the …

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