• Email
  • Print

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 death camps were the outcome of “the blackmail of perfection” which the Jews three times visited upon Western life: the intolerable idealisms of, first, monotheism; then Christian adjuration; then messianic socialism. “When it turned on the Jew, Christianity and European civilization turned on the incarnation—albeit an incarnation often wayward and unaware—of its own best hopes.” And this “hatred which reality feels towards failed utopia” was not hindered by humanistic traditions, since there are “in humanistic culture express solicitations of authoritarian rule and cruelty.” (Those words are part of a question, but like most of Mr. Steiner’s the question is rhetorical.) Moreover, by abolishing the Christian hell, humanism encouraged the hellish; Mr. Steiner summons “It may be” at this point, but that is to secure his certainty, not to admit our doubt:

We know of the neutral emptiness of the skies and of the terrors it has brought. But it may be that the loss of Hell is the more severe dislocation. It may be that the mutation of Hell into metaphor left a formidable gap in the coordinates of location, of psychological recognition in the Western mind. The absence of the familiar damned opened a vortex which the modern totalitarian state filled.

The presence of the familiar damned did not stanch the Inquisition, but liberal flagellants have all along suspected that somehow it was all their fault. Why couldn’t they have left hell well alone?

In a Post-Culture” claims that traditional culture is irreparably damaged because nobody any longer wishes to create objects or ideas that will outlast their time; and “Tomorrow”—rather in the manner of a sermon’s last-minute reassurances—suggests that things are perhaps not so bad after all since music and science proffer new cultures.

Personally, I feel most drawn to the gaia scienza, to the conviction, irrational, even tactless as it may be, that it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs.

In a book about enormities, “enormously” is shallowly heartening and deeply disheartening; “cruel” dwindles into a mere word.

Words? But what about the intellectual reach? Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp less excessively than this. A man should be capable of thinking that there may be subjects on which he is not capable of thinking. Otherwise, however much he speaks of the mysterious and the appalling, the final effect will be of an effrontery of blitheness. Mr. Steiner does not tire of insisting that these days “language is close-woven with lies” (things being comfortingly melodramatized for us by an averting of the eyes from the painful ancientness of this justified suspicion); but his own accents are too totally unintimidated. The more necessarily complicated are the arguments about this century’s barbarism, the more there is needed an essential simplicity of language, a constant sense of those perils of rhetoric about which Mr. Steiner can forever rhetoricize.

Set side by side two ways of speaking. Mr. Steiner’s:

In our current barbarism an extinct theology is at work, a body of transcendent reference whose slow, incomplete death has produced surrogate, parodistic forms. The epilogue to belief, the passage of religious belief into hollow convention, seems to be a more dangerous process than the philosophes anticipated. The structures of decay are toxic. Needing Hell, we have learned how to build and run it on earth. A few miles from Goethe’s Weimar or on the isles of Greece. No skill holds greater menace. Because we have it and are using it on ourselves, we are now in a post-culture. In locating Hell above ground, we have passed out of the major order and symmetries of Western civilization.

Goethe’s: “From Homer and Polygnotus I every day learn more clearly that in our life here above ground we have, properly speaking, to enact Hell.” I don’t know whether Mr. Steiner was at all remembering those words of Goethe’s; I do know that Goethe’s are words which evince a dignity, an unreflecting indifference to all ostentation, such as earns the right to the insistent authority of “properly speaking.” I know too that when Matthew Arnold realized that what he next needed to say was precisely what Goethe had said, he was able to incorporate Goethe’s self-respect and dignity as his own—was able to do more than merely quote Goethe, or enlist Goethe, or arrange for Goethe to put in a brief appearance as a guest star. There is admittedly a sense in which those words of Steiner have a more personal ring than Goethe’s, but it is a sense in which the personal is the less truly individual.

For what Mr. Steiner has is not a style but styles, factitiously personal and at odds with each other, as the title In Bluebeard’s Castle is irreconcilably at odds with the subtitle, “Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture.” You can’t seek to outdo T. S. Eliot in shrewd fastidiousness while refusing to renounce the Fiedleresque frisson. At some points, the style is that of furrowed scrupulosity:

At best, therefore, I can offer conjectures as to what may be synapses worth watching.

This instability of essential terrain and the psychological evasions which it entails, characterize much of our current posture.

At other points, the style is that of plumped resonance, aspiring to poetry and as usual mistaking it for the poetic:

The past drove rats’ teeth into the gray pulp of the present; it exasperated, it sowed wild dreams.

Or it is poetic, and with the clumsiness of the poetic:

Because the realness of his inward lies at his back, the man of words, the singer, will turn back, to the place of necessary beloved shadows.

There is more genuine creativity in two misprints which the sardonic compositor from Yale University Press thought up as criticisms of Steiner’s prose: Mr. Steiner has not succumbed to worldly comfort, but he should heed the compositor’s suggestion that he give up “wordly comfort,” and he should heed too the warning that what he offers us is not an intellectual threshold but a flailing embrace, a “threshhold of complication.”

But it isn’t just a matter of style. There is the old problem of what it would mean for us to assent to, or dissent from, propositions so ample and fluid that we can’t even imagine what would count as evidence for or against them. As when it is claimed that “until the French Revolution…history had been, very largely, the privilege and terror of the few…. It is the events of 1789 to 1815 that interpenetrate common, private existence with the perception of historical processes.” How large is very largely? And the events in England in the seventeenth century? No doubt a reason would be equably offered for disposing of the Civil War, but such a reason would be all too easy to offer since no stringencies are envisageable.

It is not difficult to see in what ways an intensification and widening of the erotic could be a counterpart to the dynamics of revolution and European conquest.” Sorry, but there are those of us who do find it difficult to see and who would need to be told a lot more about what those words mean and about what phenomena, what erotic changes, it is claimed are manifest, before we could even start to speculate other than luxuriously about the relationship (counterpart?) between the erotic and the dynamics of revolution.

A similar fundamental doubt—is the matter when put in this way accessible to argument at all?—comes up with Mr. Steiner’s insistence that the Jews’ responsibility for monotheism is responsible for their suffering: “The holocaust is a reflex, the more complete for being long-inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and animist needs.” Mr. Steiner says that monotheism “tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit.” But what disturbs me is the very undisturbingness of this, the frightening ease with which such a speculation—just because it is so weightless a speculation—can now find itself casually at home, reassured and reassuring, in political polemic. As when Atallah Mansour (NYR, October 7) can accord it the parenthetical calm of an incontrovertible fact: “The Western world, Christian and Muslim alike, has been grateful to the Jews or has hated them (consciously or unconsciously) because they introduced monotheism.”

In Bluebeard’s Castle persistently wobbles between an inquiry into history and an inquiry into myth. It vacillates in order to suit its own argumentative convenience. “It is against their remembrance of that great [pre-1914] summer, and our own symbolic knowledge of it, that we test the present cold”: as prestidigitation this is fine, with “remembrance” and “symbolic knowledge” eliding all the difficulties. Instead of insisting upon the crux—the relationship between historical truth and potent myths—it makes things too easy for itself by an artificial dissociation. “It is not these propositions in themselves I want to consider, but only the degree of exasperation, of estrangement between society and the shaping forces of spirit which they betray.” Either “only” there is chimerical, or “society” is. “It may be that our framework of apocalypse, even where it is low-keyed and ironic, is dangerously inflationary.” Yes—and?

But it matters, and matters to Mr. Steiner’s own arguments, whether such apocalypticism is true to the facts or not. One page later, we are told not to worry—that is, to blankly worry: “Whether or not such intimations of utter menace are justified is not the issue. They permeate our sensibility.” But the reason why it is not the issue is simply that Mr. Steiner does not intend to think about it, his sensibility being permeated by an attitude to historical truth which is so grandly concessive as to concede nothing in particular.

Christians have long claimed that the Enlightenment has long had everything its own way (as the rich claim that they have been taxed out of existence), has altogether triumphed, has secularized everything, and has at last been revealed to be bankrupt. But Christians rightly repudiate the idea that Christianity ever had its own way and was shown not to work; they and their apologists would be at least prudent to extend the same admission to the Enlightenment. Mr. Steiner wistfully wants a religion but not Christianity; this position, to which T. S. Eliot would not have been kind, radiates hell-bent good intentions of just the kind for which the Enlightenment is unjustly pilloried.

Myself, I believe that the Enlightenment enlightened. I believe too (and the point is distinguishable but not distinct) that Mr. Steiner has yielded to the religiosity which T. S. Eliot detested in G. K. Chesterton, and that Mr. Steiner should recall the words with which Eliot deprecated that irresponsible proliferator: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” I believe, finally, that anybody who really wants to conceive of the possible relationships between traditional culture, the Christian religion, and the death camps—anybody, that is, who realizes that it will be only an unusually creative intelligence that will here be able both to notice and to speak—should defer the reading of In Blue-beard’s Castle and should instead engage with Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich”:*

non peccat, quaecumque potest pecasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.
(Amores, III, xiv)
I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

  1. *

    King Log (Dufour, 1968).

  • Email
  • Print