My rating: 4 of 5 stars
George Steiner is a wonderful writer; his prose is rich with allusion, concisely learned, and grave in its movements. It does sometimes approach a self-serving melodrama, as James Wood once famously noted; it could stand to be aerated by some humor—even, in keeping with its classical bearings, if only of high wit. This lapse indicates a flaw in Steiner’s argument: the fault in much culturally conservative discourse is in construing tradition as a kind of monolith, titanic and marmoreal. Steiner is too familiar with the classics to do this deliberately, but the whole style of his thought leads him into it, into a reverence that seems to be more for some retrospectively-constructed image of the past itself than for any particular literary work.
Steiner tries to make a somewhat difficult case: 1.) that the western canon really is as great as its conservative champions say it is, which means that it is genuinely superior to the products of other cultures and ways of life (Steiner makes some invidious remarks about “drum-taps and Javanese bells” as a metonymy for non-western art that will startle the contemporary reader); and 2.) that the western canon is as irredeemably and unavoidably built on oppression and authority as its radical detractors claim it is, from beginning to end—that you cannot have Mozart without absolutism, Mandelstam without totalitarianism, etc. So the transition to democracy in politics and culture is both a genuine relief from the hierarchical violence of the past and a genuine loss in cultural and intellectual power.
Steiner says that the move away from high culture is both justified by the Holocaust and a betrayal of the Jews. As I understand the book, Steiner is a Holocaust exceptionalist: the Shoah is not to be compared to any other genocide or mass murder. The reason is that, in the Holocaust, western civilization attacked the basis of its moral energy—the invention by the ancient Hebrews of monotheism and conscience—in the persons of the Jewish people. The impatience with conscience and morality that led to the Holocaust were incubated deep within the western tradition, were a part of culture itself, as the first chapter of this book shows. High culture, then, is complicit in the destruction of European Jewry. But the shift to democracy that undoes culture also vitiates the moral demand, the messianic promise, with which Jewish culture was associated.
One sign of this decline is the loss of language, which is itself a form of hierarchical thinking, its grammars an ordered structure on which a society may be modeled. Late modern culture, though, is image-based and music-soaked; the word is drowned in moving pictures and throbbing drums. Our world has closed in on us, in a coerced immanence of sensation: we have lost the belief in transcendence on which any high culture would have to be based. It is telling that Steiner sees modern America as a true break with the western past, a genuine post-culture, whereas he regards the Soviet Union as essentially in continuity with tradition—Stalin, perhaps, just another dangerous monarch for the court poets to warily negotiate with, but one who at least kept the culture free of slackening influences (Steiner also sees Marxism as an episode in the moral adventure of the west that began with the invention of monotheism, an extension of the tradition rather than its repudiation—a view with which Marx himself may have agreed).
I would call the general politics implied by Steiner’s position neo-conservative, though in a very abstract register, one with little in the way of policy implication. Still, there is the ambivalence about America, the desire to preserve tradition, the continuing conviction of western superiority. The book ends with a hymn to science as the truest continuation of the west’s Faustian spirit—the spirit to open every door in Bluebeard’s castle, no matter the risk.
This is a diagnostic and predictive text. How does it hold up after 45 years? Fairly well. The processes he describes have advanced, though I gather there is a stagnation in the pace of scientific innovation that Steiner, with his belief in linear scientific progress, does not predict. High culture is about where it was, though the Internet, which is verbal to a remarkable degree, has complicated the prediction that language is finished as the center of culture—this, even as the originality and inventiveness of pop music have been stalled for almost two decades. There is, oddly, no prediction of a need for the west to confront in some way China and Japan, civilizations with their own long traditions of a high and hierarchical culture that may influence the course of things. I suppose Japan had not yet come to the global prominence at which it would arrive in the ’80s and China seemed another case of a simply communist culture at the time of Steiner’s writing.
There is much to quarrel with here. Steiner’s interpretation of the Holocaust is probably not defensible, is perhaps even offensively allegorical. There is an answer to the charge of the absolute complicity between high culture and oppression; even from within Steiner’s own paradigm, he makes no distinction between artists who flourished because they supported oppressive regimes and those who merely made great art within oppressive regimes, even in opposition to them. But Steiner is brilliant, eloquent, and always worth reading; even where he is wrong, he is intelligent, and he sharpens one’s own intelligence by provoking counter-argument.