Manning the Barricades

Andreas Huyssen

  • No Passion Spent by George Steiner
    Faber, 421 pp, £20.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 571 17697 6

Railing against academic vogues and the cant of critical fashions is what academic literary critics typically do, and George Steiner is no stranger to the game. He has never been seduced by changing fashion and, at its best, his writing is fluid and incisive. As a critic he has always thought of himself as fiercely independent, but the essays collected in No Passion Spent fit all too well into the current scene of literary criticism: on one side, the practitioners of various forms of post-structuralist and cross-disciplinary Post-Modern criticism; on the other, the defenders of classical canons and criticism in its traditional modes. That Steiner has aligned himself with the latter camp is hardly surprising given his exceptional command of the tradition (much of it in the original languages), his ability to comment astutely on the intricacies of poetic and critical language, and his overall seriousness of purpose.

These essays circle around the ‘legacy of Jerusalem and Athens, of Hebrain and Hellenic “textuality”’. The opening pieces attempt to define an act of reading in the classical mould and to elicit the theological-metaphysical presuppositions in such an act by focusing on the ‘foundational language-acts in our civilisation: the Hebrew Bible, Homer and Shakespeare’. This concern with reading returns to the theme of the ineradicable presence of the work of art in its encounter with the reader, which Steiner, in a challenge to Modernist and post-structuralist notions of authorship, stubbornly defended in Real Presences. Other essays, too, hark back to the themes and arguments of his earlier work. Thus we have essays on translation, on tragedy and comparative literature, and reflections, time and again, on the threat to the ‘centrality and prestige of the Logos’ emanating from what in In Bluebeard’s Castle he infelicitously called ‘post-culture’, and what we find described here somewhat vaguely as ‘an immensity of oral and pictorial “counter-literacy”’. But if the book and the word are in decline, how can Steiner avoid nostalgia for that world of privileged literacy? If amnesia and the loss of cultural memory are said to be the order of the day (an all too reductive idea), what hope is there for literary criticism which depends on remembrance and cultural knowledge? Steiner’s answer is deceptively simple: auctoritas.

As a critic, Steiner believes ‘in the relations, as these were classically conceived, between words and meaning’. He is there to man the barricades against those who ‘have decomposed not only the notion of an author’s intentions in regard to what he seeks to signify, but the ascertainable identity of any such auctoritas or creative individuality’. Indeed, Steiner is a master of the vivid critical portrait (as in his studies of Charles Péguy, Simone Weil and Kierkegaard in this volume), and he is particularly insightful when he engages in close reading, for instance of Chardin’s luminous painting Le Philosophe lisant of 1734 in an essay on ‘The Uncommon Reader’. ‘To read well is to be read by that which we read. It is to be answerable to it.’ But set against the idealised figure of Chardin’s reader, the present can only disappoint: ‘The whole relationship between time and word, between mortality and the paradox of literary survivance [sic], crucial to Western high culture from Pindar to Mallarmé and self-evidently central to Chardin’s painting, has altered.’ Indeed it has, and there may be ample reason to worry about what cyber-space and virtual reality are going to do to the so-called Gutenberg galaxy. But though one may share his nostalgia for the book, his love for the illuminating detail of language, even the privileged status of the word, a prohibition on images may not be the best strategy (if it ever was) to uphold the book’s authority. There must be more pragmatic ways of coming to terms with the pressures of the new media.

Steiner, however, prefers the apocalyptic route. This is where his critical project turns theological: ‘this loss involves the entire theme of auctoritas, of the normative prescriptive status of the written word.’ The ultimate authority of the literary tradition is invoked throughout: Homer and the Biblical prophets, Greek tragedy, the Song of Solomon and Job, Shakespeare and Milton, Hölderlin, Rilke and Proust, Kafka and Celan. Prophecy, epiphany and the mysterium tremendum organise this canon, which is curiously similar to that of the deconstructionists. Not much recognition here of more worldly literary enterprises, comedy or satire, the novel or the novella. But then Steiner’s concern as a theological critic is with first and last things, with the meaning of life in the universe and with the question of redemption in relation to the perennial and ‘instinctual’ forces of inhumanity. At such pivotal points in the argument, his language becomes strident and authoritarian.

We are the wasters of the planet and the builders of death-camps. Ninety-nine per cent of humanity conducts lives either of severe deprivation – physical, emotional, cerebral – or contributes nothing to the sum of insight, of beauty, of moral trial in our civil condition. It is a Socrates, a Mozart, a Gauss or Galileo who, in some degree, compensate for man. It is they who, on fragile occasion, redeem the murderous, imbecile mess which we dignify with the name of history.

It is not the despair about the course of human history which is worrying here but the facile and fanatical tone in which it is expressed. Steiner states his ‘own absolute conviction’ that ‘to grasp, to be able to transmit to others some modest paraphrase of the beauty in a Fermat equation or a Bach canon ... is to give life some excuse.’ Such a radical splitting of art from life, the aesthetic from the historical, is a far cry from Walter Benjamin’s insight, born of a comparable despair about history, that ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’

It is striking how close Steiner comes to Nietzsche’s notion that the world can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. Steiner’s version of European culture and history resembles the post-structuralists’ master-narrative of Western metaphysics, whereby Auschwitz becomes inherent in Western civilisation from its beginnings. Steiner first made this argument in In Bluebeard’s Castle, where he had ‘Western culture’ kill the Jews. Irving Howe retorted at the time that it was the Nazis who killed the Jews and ‘Western culture’ that overcame Nazism. Such mundane observations evidently did not carry enough force to make Steiner change his mind. Not content with blaming the Holocaust on specific historical developments within modern Germany, Steiner holds the rejection of Jesus by the Jews responsible for two thousand years of persecution and anti-semitism. Unless Steiner wants to blame the victims here, it would seem more logical for him to side with those who condemn Western civilisation in toto. Instead, he upholds as the ultimate norm the same high culture which helped produce the catastrophe in the first place.

This contradiction reveals the theoretical blind spot in Steiner: he categorically separates the word – both religious and aesthetic – from history only to fall back into the most insidious teleology of history, one that has become all too prevalent in the very circles of post-structuralism which Steiner otherwise scorns. Unlike the deconstructionists, however, Steiner does not veil his teleology behind a screen of anti-teleological rhetoric, and a possible catharsis still hovers on the horizon, if only the Cross would fully acknowledge its role in the Holocaust: ‘It will not, I believe, be possible for European culture to regain its inward energies, its self-respect, so long as Christendom is not made answerable to its own seminal role in the preparation of the Shoah ... In one perspective such questions are of another dimension than those which pertain to literacy. In another, they are inseparable.’ Inseparable indeed, but not for the facile and ahistorical reasons Steiner advances. Before fabulating about European culture regaining its inward energies (never mind its outward energies, which never once appear), maybe the critic could display a little more historical precision, a little more conceptual ambition, and preferably much less auctoritas.

In the end Steiner’s essays provide an example of the current trench warfare in institutionalised literary criticism rather than moving us beyond it. The title of this collection, with its reference to Milton, may be all too appropriate for a book that to a large degree provokes a sense of déjà lu. The problem with these essays is not only that they reiterate well-known positions, but that they betray a failure of serious engagement with what he opposes – movements (his word) such as critical theory, post-structuralism, deconstruction and Post-Modernism, all of which he puts within quotation marks to mark his distance from them. As a critic of strongly hermeneutic persuasion Steiner would be expected to engage in immanent criticism rather than high-handed theory-bashing; but he is all too comfortably distant for any such detailed engagement. Steiner indulges himself by claiming that he would ‘cheerfully exchange all recent tomes of post-structuralist and deconstructionist verbiage’ for a single insight into Racine by Péguy. In the Introduction, however, he grants that deconstruction is ‘an often seductive, paradoxically “reconstructive” exercise aimed at restoring to literary studies and hermeneutics a lost passion, a lost intellectual challenge’. If the latter is the case, how can deconstruction be both nihilistic (a recurrent reproach) and a mere ‘epilogue to an unnerved culture’? Whose failure of nerve is it, after all? It will no longer do to counteract a nihilistic ‘theory and practice of games’ by simply conjuring up Matthew Arnold’s ‘touchstones’ of remembrance, consensus and meaning, least of all when it comes to ‘test[ing] new literature, new art, new music’. The crisis conditions of modern culture, literacy and meaning are real and corrosive, not something dreamt up by nihilistic and frivolous playmasters in Paris.

In this context, there emerges yet another irony. No Passion Spent includes one of Steiner’s most controversial essays from the early Eighties, ‘The Archives of Eden’, a condescending and amazingly uninformed attack on American culture as merely museal and curatorial. But, in his own appeal to authority and tradition, Steiner himself is indistinguishable from an inhabitant of the archive of Eden he so despises. Like his American colleagues, who lament the alleged ‘closing of the American mind’, Steiner fights the rise of illiteracy and the spread of media culture with similarly ahistorical and simplistic arguments about norms and values embodied in an unchanging canon. It’s like looking at twins: Steiner as a European Allan Bloom, Bloom as an American George Steiner.

Such an observation will not sit well with Steiner’s claim that ‘Europe and North America are, in crucial ways, increasingly distant from each other.’ His foundational gesture against those ‘movements’ is, however, depressingly familiar on both sides of the Atlantic: Habermas’s never-ending lament about post-structuralism, Lyotard’s jeremiad about the slackening of culture, Hilton Kramer’s obsessive rantings against feminists, post-structuralists and multi-culturalists. Add to that Steiner’s dismissive diatribe against American culture, egalitarianism and democracy, which merely reiterates key aspects of a long-standing tradition of conservative European Kulturkritik, unnerved by modernity, mass culture, media and other such stuff that makes up the fabric of our lives. For all the differences in their cultural politics, these anti-Post-Modern arguments are all safely located at the summit level of philosophy, literature and art. None qualifies as a successful attempt at translation after Babel – translation, that is, between national cultures within the bounded Western world. Steiner, more than the others, maintains the Archimedean point of view of a selectively circumscribed high culture from which differences in the landscape below can no longer be defined or become simply irrelevant. But perhaps such elisions are unavoidable, even desirable to a critic who prefers to take the millennial view of literature and sees the word as engaged in prophecy and the other-worldly.