Holy Grails, Promised Lands

D.J. Enright

  • Proofs and Three Parables by George Steiner
    Faber, 114 pp, £5.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 16621 0

‘Proofs’, the longest story here, looks to be George Steiner’s farewell tribute on the passing of Communism; hardly a tribute, but rather more magnanimous than the run of postmortems and obituaries elicited by the event. The main character, an Italian somewhat old-fashionedly referred to as the Professore, is a convinced long-time Communist, by métier a fanatical proof-reader. The Communist, or European Communist, viewpoint is presented forcefully (if predictably): what does Western democracy have to offer but girlie magazines, lacquer for toenails, deodorants? Yes, the Professore admits, we Communists got it wrong, even hideously wrong, ‘but the big error, the overestimate of man from which the mistake came, is the single most noble motion of the human spirit in our awful history ... Every beggar is a prince of possibility.’ (Or, ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp ...’) Father Carlo – the Professore’s friend and debating partner, claims that the atrocities committed by the Church, on the other hand, were carried out by those who laboured to save souls: they saw themselves as God’s agents – or, ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ – whereas the victims of Communism were butchered ‘so that gangsters and hangmen and bureaucrats could fatten’.

Some relative subtleties arise in the course of the disputation. Yes, rock music is detestable, says Father Carlo, but rocking around the clock has raised millions for charity, whereas such refined pursuits as reading Kant and listening to Schubert were the mark of those who then went off ‘to stuff millions into gas ovens’ – and moreover if America is a country where people never grow up, then in Romania babies are born old. In reply, the Professore contends that while capitalism leaves men to wallow in their mud, Marxism encouraged them to attend symphony concerts and visit museums free of charge. His clinching argument is comically solipsistic: he remains a Marxist because otherwise he couldn’t be a proof-reader, since if ‘California’ triumphs (the reference is to Silicon Valley rather than some infamous prison or labour camp), machines will do the job, and do it better, which will put paid to the holy, human occupation of getting it right. ‘Communism means taking the errata out of history,’ the Professore says – later we see him agitating over a misprint in a handbill for an auction, and invoking the cabbalistic story that all the evils of human life derive from a tiny mistake made by a scribe in recording Holy Writ – ‘taking the errata out of history. Out of man. Reading proofs.’ In fact, the Professore’s eyesight is going.

The trouble with this debate is that the opposed and to some extent colluding parties speak with the same peculiar rhetoric, Steiner’s rhetoric – or a debased, stagy form of it. Very well, the Professore allows, perhaps Communism, even Stalinism, ‘horribly overestimated’ man, but the essence of capitalism is to set a low value on us and then, by catering accordingly (obeying market forces, its champions would say), keep us low.

The Holy Grail of cable-pornography for all is in sight. Look: there is the promised land, Disneyworld for all. And there are gods, Carlo mio, in supermarket heaven. Madonna of the sequin tights. And Maradona, he of the hand of God. Has it ever struck you how those two names ...

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