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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

"In Bluebeard's Castle" by George Steiner

Subtitled some notes towards a re-definition of culture, this book is based on four lectures given at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, as a response to the 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture of T S Eliot.

It is written in four parts (presumably originally four lectures):

The Great Ennui
This attempts to characterise the period between 1820 and 1915 which has been called the “garden of liberal culture”. Steiner rightly points out that this period is seen in hindsight through spectacles tinted a heavy shade of rose. “Anyone who takes the trouble to find out, will come to realise what a day's work was like in a Victorian factory, what infant mortality amounted to in the mining country of northern France in the 1870s and 1880s ... that the intellectual wealth and stability of middle and upper middle-class life during the long liberal summer depended, directly, on economic and, ultimately military, dominion over vast portions of what is now known as the underdeveloped or third world.” 

Nevertheless, Steiner seems to believe that he can see trends within this period, involving the great shake-up of the French revolution and Napoleon, and involving the spread of urbanization, which caused the development of a distinctive culture of ennui (defined as “febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea ... of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase.”) Sex was beginning to be written about: “Nothing that I know of at an earlier period truly resembles the self-dramatizing, self-castigating eroticism of Hazlitt’s extraordinary Liber Amoris (1823).” (But what about Ovid?) Cities were growing: “The megalopolis whose uncontrollable cellular division and spread now threatens to choke so much of our lives ... The urban inferno, with its hordes of faceless inhabitants, haunts the nineteenth-century imagination.”

In the end, he seems to suggest, every culture will destory itself but it will burn most brightly at the end like a supernova star: “Is it reasonable to suppose that every high civilization will develop implosive stresses and impulses towards self-destruction? Does so delicately balanced, simultaneously dynamic and confined an aggregate as a complex culture tend, necessarily, towards a state of instability and, and finally, of conflagration? The model would be that of a star which, after attaining a critical mass, a critical equation of energy exchanges between internal structure and radiant surface, will collapse inward, flaring out, at the moment of destruction, with just that magnitude of visible brilliance which we associate with great cultures in their terminal phase.”

  • Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise. At some point in more or less remote times, things were better, almost golden. A deep concordance lay between Man and the natural setting.
  • Madness, death are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life-form.
  • Salammbo by Flaubert: “This frenetic yet congealed narrative of bloodlust, barbaric warfare and orgiastic pain.

A Season in Hell
Here he argues that Eliot’s 1948 work was necessarily incomplete in that it failed to address the Nazi genocide of Jews. He sees the distinctiveness of anti-semitism as somehow bound up with the fact (as he sees it) that Moses invented monotheism.
In polytheism, says Nietzsche, lay the freedom of the human spirit, its creative multiplicity.
Pauline Christianity ... while retaining something of the idiom and centralised symbolic lineaments of monotheism ... allowed scope for the pluralistic, pictorial needs of the psyche ... in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons.

We conduct a good part of our lives amid the menacing jostle of the crowd.

In a Post-Culture
Here he argues that art is an attempt to gain immortality: “There is nothing natural, nothing self-evident in this wager against mortality ... In the overwhelming majority of cases - and the gambler on transcendence knows this in advance - the attempt will be a failure, nothing will survive.

This may imply that perhaps, perhaps as a result, the preservation of a work of art may be worth a few, or even many, deaths: “Where it is absolutely honest, the doctrine of a high culture holds the burning of a great library, the destruction of Galois at twenty-one or the disappearance an important score, to be losses paradoxically but none the less decidedly out of proportion with common deaths, even on a large scale.”

It may be that the coherence of an ancient thing is harmonic with time.” so you can replicate but not recreate it.
Voltaire and Arnold regarded as established the crucial lemma that the humanities humanize.” but we know that death camp commandants enjoyed classical music.
In the old days there were divisions between strata of society: “The line of division separated the higher from the lower, the greater from the lesser; civilization from retarded primitivism, learning from ignorance, social privilege from subservience, seniority from immaturity, men from women. And each time, ‘from’ stood also for ‘above’.”The immense majority of human biographies are a gray transit between domestic spasm and oblivion.

We know now ... that material progress is implicated in a dialectic of concomitant damage, that it destroys irreparable equilibria between society and nature. Technical advances, superb in themselves, are operative in the ruin of primary living systems and ecologies.
I found this bit hardest to accept. He is arguing for the preservation of his favoured culture. The problem, as I see it, is that globalism and the technological explosion have led to an exponential increase in art and culture and that each one of us no longer has a sufficient lifetime to master everything. Two hundred years ago a well-read man might have had a library of a thousand books. I have read and reviewed on this blog over a thousand books over the last few years and yet I am only aware of how many books I have not yet read and the impossibility of keeping pace with the tsunamis of books being published each year. So, if you are going to argue that Homer and Racine and Goethe ought to be read by everyone there needs to be massive evidence to back up your argument. Steiner does not offer evidence, he just orates.
  • Would we have something at least of the main legacy of our civilization made accessible to the general public of a modern, mass-society? Or would we rather see the bulk of our literature, of our interior history, pass into the museum?
  • Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.
  • The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources, is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an after-culture.
  • Let us suppose that the Victorian public school boy ... to whom the text of Homer, of Racine, of Goethe, offered natural purchase, were always but a small number, a conscious elite. ... Restricted as it may have been, that elite embodied the inheritance and dynamics of culture.
  • The absence of the history of science and technology from the school syllabus is a scandal. It is an absurdity to speak of the renaissance without knowledge of its cosmology, of the mathematical dreams which underwrote its theories of art and music.”
  • The flower-child in the Western city, the neo-primitive chanting his five words of Thibetan on the highway, are performing an infantile charade - founded on the surplus wealth of that same city or highway.
  • Grasp the riddle of ... our apparently imprinted a sense of harmonic accord, and you will touch on the roots of human consciousness.

The problem with all of this work is the lack of evidence. Steiner may be a very well read man and it may be that everything he has read has led him to develop these ideas. But he sounds so dogmatic and so certain of his ideas and they seem to be founded on so little evidence and, crucially, he never seems to consider that there might be alternative theses developed from a different selection of readings. So I wasn't convinced.

I love the power and beauty and elegance of his rhetoric though.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle even if it leads ... on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control ... because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity.

September 2019; 107 pages

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