Reading George Steiner, I discovered that discussions about the future of the humanities, and their decline or demise are not limited to the present. This collection of essays, written between 1959 to 1967 give us a window into the conversation in Steiner’s generation, particularly concerning the place of literature, as well as the other arts, in our society.
Steiner contends that the thread that holds this collection together is the attempt to articulate a philosophy of language after the Holocaust and the totalitarian regime of Stalin. What is evident in reading these essays is the trauma of this period on literature, as words were twisted in ways that represented black as white, and where people could read Goethe and listen to Schubert and preside over the extermination of the Jewish people and consider it all in a day’s work.
The first group of essays in this book particularly explore this theme and whether in fact “Humane Literacy” can have a transformative effect for good. The essay on “To Civilize our Gentlemen” particularly explores this idea and the possibility of reading that fails, in the words of Kafka, “to wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull”. In this same collection, we see the despair of some artists and the lapse into wordless silence where words seem inadequate to the human condition. Equally, in “Night Words” Steiner explores the real problem with “high pornography” which is the utter banality of the writing.
In subsequent sections, he gathers essays under the titles of “Language out of Darkness”, “Classics” (which includes a fascinating essay on Homer and the differences between The Iliad and The Odyssey), “Masters”, “Fiction and the Present”, and “Marxism and Literature”. I found much of this heavier going not only because I don’t live in the world of literary criticism, and even less, am I aware of the critics, and many of the works that were being discussed in the early 60s.
Nevertheless, Steiner draws very fine portraits of critics like F.R. Leavis, and Georg Lukacs, and particularly the literature emerging out of Central Europe in the post-World War II, Stalinist purge era. We have his fresh take on the advent of the media age heralded by Marshall McLuhan and the shifting consciousness of moving from an age of print to an age of the image. Steiner seems dubious of McLuhan’s prophecies, yet it cannot be argued, I think, that in the years since Steiner wrote, we have indeed witnessed and are continuing to witness a media revolution that is continuing to shape and change our relationship to the word and verbal discourse.
Equally, Steiner draws fine portraits of other writers and their work. I think particularly of the essay on Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in her early 30s (“The Art of Dying”) and his essay on the life of Leon Trotsky, a tragic figure in Marxism. The puzzle for me was how all these fit his proposed theme, and yet the exploration of these figures was worthwhile.
Recommendations? I’m not sure I would recommend starting here in reading Steiner (even though I did!). Bettter places to start are his early works, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and The Death of Tragedy or the works for which he is most known, In Bluebeard’s Castle (in which he explores anti-Semitism) and After Babel, where he devlves more deeply into language. This might be best for those acquainted with Steiner’s other work, and the literature of this period.