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 ...

He breaks off for a moment: ‘he was repeating himself, he knew,’ but he can’t stop. Possibly this much of a muchness doesn’t matter; the effect could be that the to-and-fro of conflicting ‘proofs’ offers an even-handed epitome, and hence perhaps an instructive one for future contemplation.

The question Steiner raises is not so much ‘How can we live in a Godless universe?’ as ‘Can we live thus?’ The figurative expression ‘godless’ has virtually taken on a new, literal meaning. Bills of rights, social contracts, humanistic velleities are not sufficient; the incessant chatter of secular politicians becomes an ongoing soap opera, at which we laugh or wince, which in the event doesn’t have awfully much to do with our lives, or what is left of them. Nor can we readily yearn for religious politicians, even if, as Father Carlo claims, they are concerned with our immortal souls, putatively more precious than our mortal bodies, though the latter alas are more susceptible to immediate pain. Humanism has become, if not a dirty one, a risible word in practically every quarter. Including literary studies. I like the sinister undertone in Chris Baldick’s definition, in his Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms: ‘liberal humanism (and sometimes all humanism) has come under challenge from post-structuralism, which replaces the unitary concept of “Man” with that of the “subject”, which is gendered, “decentred”, and no longer self-determining.’

Yet it seems we go on believing in the feasibility of a decent life, although its rationale must be hard to formulate, let alone justify: certainly nothing worthy (thank God, some will say) of being called an ideology. We believe (which may be too strong a word) that society, made up of individuals, isn’t wholly ‘godless’, albeit we would be hard-pressed to name any working god or list that god’s attributes. Maybe we are not as simple-minded as the ideologies we have given birth to, the attitudes we admit to. Maybe in varying, unegalitarian degrees humans possess something approaching what used to be termed a soul before the doctors got to work on it, a fallible and mortal one, though one that doesn’t die too easily. Proust has a passage about the music of his composer, Vinteuil, and how it is so different from the music of other composers as to suggest that in spite of the conclusions which seem to emerge from science the individual actually does exist. A little earlier Proust’s narrator, pronouncedly (one would say) sceptical and this-worldly, asked himself whether the writer Bergotte was dead for ever, a question to which spiritualism offered no better answer than religious dogmas:

All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there.

Proust is ... Proust. With Steiner as a writer of fiction – for Steiner the critic and essayist seems quite another man, with much the same preoccupations but a markedly subtler and surer hand in exploring and defining them – it is hard to be sure of tone and intention. In ‘Proofs’ a sexual episode, when the Professore picks up or is picked up by another shell-shocked Communist, is so perfunctory as to seem there merely for form’s sake, or in order to get away from speeches for a moment, or as a concessionary gesture meant to moderate or delimit the severity shown earlier towards pornography or the Communist conception of it. The programmatic nature of the narrative makes this latter reading not utterly far-fetched. Steiner’s dealings with sex never sit easily: as witness Dr Goldman, the Jewish psychologist in the story ‘Sweet Mars’ (Anno Domini), and the outpouring there of what one might suppose was a crude parody of Freudian ingenuities. How Dr Goldman and his doings are to be seen is unclear. As mistaken? As disgusting, more Soho than Hampstead? As just a man carrying out his responsibilities, disagreeable yet honourable?

Not of course that we want a writer of fiction to lecture us, or underline his views and intentions and pre-empt our imagination and judgment. But these things must mean; given their provenance, they ought to mean deeply. In the same story, is a ménage ‘placed’ by having Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the record-player, Braque prints on the walls, and Penguin books on the bookshelf? And if so, placed where? What are we to deduce of a girl named Vivianne (‘she insisted on the French spelling, though she came from the east side of New York’), who is engaged on a poem in heroic couplets entitled ‘The Lesbian’s Lament’, recites Baudelaire at breakfast, quotes Empson on earthquakes when the laundromat starts up, and on her wedding night is pictured as ‘sitting on the bed in a thing lacy and ephemeral’? Is she a bright, life-enhancing spark? Or a pretentious phoney?

In his essay ‘Silence and the Poet’, having quoted Adorno’s ‘No poetry after Auschwitz’, Steiner elaborates thus: ‘Silence is an alternative. When the words in the city are full of savagery and lies, nothing speaks louder than the unwritten poem.’ Presumably poetry is singled out for this ambiguous honour as symbolising literature at its highest point. If after Auschwitz writers will go on writing nevertheless, this being in the nature of such people, possibly Steiner reckons that at least self-restraint, self-denial, is in order, and therefore favours a mode which is laconic, at once inexpressive and blatant, ungainly as if impatient or distrustful of ‘poetry’ or indeed ‘taste’, harsh-seeming but non-judgmental, straightforward yet ungraspable. The sort of noise, like a tropical night abuzz with insects, that can conceivably be taken for silence.

‘Proofs’ is a longish story but seems longer than it is. The other three stories are short, and two of them seem even shorter. ‘Noel, Noel’ is a greyly humorous exercise in the fashionable genre of horror. That a good old dog might be distressed by goings-on in the family is believable enough, especially when they include incest between a father and his young daughter, but that they should shock him all the more – to the point that he prepares to tear out his master’s throat – because it is Christmas seems rather less so. ‘Desert Island Discs’ features a sound archive which offers the connoisseur such auditory entertainments as Fortinbras’s belch, ‘thunderous and replete with the promise of a simpler tomorrow’, at the close of his coronation feast, the scratching of Rudolf Julius Clausius’s pen-nib as he puts the finishing touches to the second law of thermodynamics, thereby anticipating the heat death of the universe, and a woman’s laugh during love-making. The last is distantly reminiscent of a less learned and much naughtier story by Apollinaire, ‘Le Roi-Lune’, in which a more sophisticated science-fictional device enables its user to intervene in the affair of Leda and cuckold the swan.

The exception among the ‘Parables’, more distinctly Steinerian in matter and manner, is ‘A Conversation Piece’, where the subject of rabbinical debate is the commandment laid on Abraham to sacrifice his son. Was it that God didn’t altogether trust Abraham, and by supplying the ram left the question of his obedience open? In any case, God couldn’t have gone against the covenant whereby Abraham was to be made a great nation through Isaac and his seed, and Abraham would have understood this, and rested undismayed, since he wasn’t to know that despite his years he was to have other sons. (For Ishmael didn’t count. Of him too was to be made a great nation, but a different one.) Or, since God is by one definition good, might it not have been Satan, in disguise, who commanded Abraham, thus requiring the Almighty to hurry along and install a ram in the thicket? (The Book of Genesis takes a simple, or simple-minded, and by our standards barbaric view of the proceedings: the Lord was testing Abraham, who proved his obedience – that he feared God – by being prepared to sacrifice Isaac. It might appear that God here fails two tests – goodness and omniscience; but then, he moves in a mysterious way.) The most appealing voice in the debate is that of a woman, one of those ‘daughters of silence’, who speaks for Sarah: ‘We women are not called up to read the Torah. A good thing for you. It is between the lines we would be reading, between every two lines.’ But here, in this ‘meeting-house’, men and women are not kept apart, far from it. They are – ‘of course’, one is tempted to say – about to enter the gas chamber. The possible ironies are best left uninvestigated – as Steiner leaves them.

‘Proofs’ has its final irony. At a time when most members are tearing up their Party cards, the Professore, an erstwhile deviationist, applies for reinstatement. But the Italian Communist Party no longer exists. That’s to say, through its remaining managers it has taken a new name – the Party of the Democratic Left – and changed its logo from a red star to a flourishing green tree. Never mind, the Professore puts his name down. He has ‘come home’. Even his eyesight appears to have improved. The need to believe, against all the odds, to believe in something, persists in the most faithless of societies.