High Mandarin

In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture.
by George Steiner.
Yale University Press. 141 pp. $5.95.

A Phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy (Mr. Steiner will be remembered as the critic who reminds us not to forget the Holocaust)—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression these lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that this book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are immediately prepared for some very high-class prose.

Western culture, Mr. Steiner says, is irremediably shattered, all our certainties destroyed and axioms bent; yet not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp. His style, in all its mincing equanimity, can assimilate equally a few paragraphs on Milton’s verse and a few on the slaughter of six million Jews. His prose remains creamy and mellifluous, a high Mandarin patter that reads at times as if it were a parody by Lucky Jim. Here is a glorious passage:

At every knot, from the voices of public men to the vocabulary of dreams, language is close-woven with lies. Falsehood is inseparable from its generative life. Music can boast, it can sentimentalize, it can release springs of cruelty. But it does not lie. (Is there a lie, anywhere, in Mozart?)

Smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium—and who would be so rude as to remark that the reason there is no “lie,” anywhere, in Mozart’s music is precisely the same reason that there is no “truth”? In short, that Mr. Steiner isn’t making sense?

In Bluebeard’s Castle is divided into four chapters, of which the second and third form a unit; I will therefore consider the book in three parts. Each is marked by an overriding strategy: the author announces urgent themes, names burning problems, dances around them a little, and then avoids every difficulty they raise.

In his first chapter, concerned to bound our cultural crisis, Mr. Steiner looks back to the 19th century and finds that “certain specific origins of the inhuman . . . are to be found in [its] long peace. . . .” He is right. The point has been made frequently, but is surely worth repeating, that in the century of melioristic progress “we can find a counterstatement of nervous fatigue.” It consists of ennui, signs of which Mr. Steiner traces in European culture during the second half of the century, and this ennui gives rise to “a longing for violent dissolution.”

But, we might remember, this is the time in which the cultural phenomenon we call “modernism”—in all its brilliance and force, all its truth and deception—was coming to the forefront. For a moralist of culture, a historian of sensibility, it would, at this point, seem necessary to struggle with the painful question: What is the relation between the problematic genius of the modernist outburst and the historical catastrophe that soon followed it? Are they, in some way or to some extent, causally linked? Are they polar opposites, enemies in a struggle to the death? Is it methodologically appropriate, or merely vulgar, to search for some of the roots of 20th-century social disaster in the cultural upheavals preceding it? By no means sure of the answers, I can hardly expect anyone else to be; but it seems inconceivable that, in a book discussing both the nature of cultural modernism and the subsequent convulsions of Europe, Mr. Steiner should not even ask such questions. Anyone, to be sure, who did ask them would be obliged to confront some major literary reputations and would have to expect, no matter which line of attack he took, some bitter and passionate replies. But why not?

Mr. Steiner’s skittishness deepens in the second part of the book. He sees the triumph of Nazism as the last in a series of impulsive rebellions by natural man against the noble tyranny of monotheism, that dubious and unwanted blessing the Jews lowered upon the world:

By killing the Jews, Western culture would eradicate those who had “invented” God, who had, however imperfectly, however restively, been the declarers of his unbearable Absence. The holocaust is a reflex, the more complete for being long-inhibited, of natural sensory consciousness, of instinctual polytheistic and animist needs.

This notion, too, is rather well-worn, though the claim that polytheism constitutes or stems from an “instinct” may be novel. If at first glance it seems flattering to the Jews to be told that they have been the “bad conscience” of Western history, bringing with them “the blackmail of transcendence,” a moment’s reflection ought to reveal that it is empty talk, at once grandiose and trivial. As an explanation for the rise of totalitarianism, it suffers from a characteristic fault of Geistesgeschichte: the encapsulation of an extremely complex group of historical events by a theory so nebulously inclusive that it leaves no possibility for refutation. And a theory that can’t be refuted can’t be demonstrated. If I say, Nazism arose because of certain nameable failures of German capitalism in the 1920’s, or because there occurred a severe historical dislocation of the lumpen intelligentsia which could then exploit uglier elements of the Germanic and Christian traditions, or because of the vengeful consequences of the Versailles Treaty, or because the Stalinists and/or Social Democrats pursued disastrous policies, then whoever disagrees can bring evidence to bear. But how can anyone verify or argue against Mr. Steiner’s notion? Of what use is it, therefore, to remark that “Western culture” can hardly be said to have killed the Jews, it was the Nazis who killed them, and indeed, it might be a little more plausible to say that “Western culture” destroyed the Nazis? Or that at least in some cultures the “instinctual” pressures of polytheism seem very slight (perhaps because of a difference in climate or geography)? Or that Stalinism, the second major form of European totalitarianism, even though sharing some essential traits of cataclysmic inhumaneness with Nazism, could not possibly be explained by a conflict between regnant monotheism and rebellious polytheistic impulses?

To persons of Mr. Steiner’s cast of mind, such matters constitute evidence of a “lower” order, mere historical phenomena, which cannot possibly compete with the convolutions of Geist. Surely, when Mr. Steiner writes, “The abruptness of the Mosaic revelation, the finality of the creed at Sinai, tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots,” he is not making a statement open to historical scrutiny. How abrupt was this Mosaic revelation? Where, in which discoverable instances, was “the human psyche” torn up by “its most ancient roots”? And what does Mr. Steiner make of those cultures that continued to live in benighted comfort, unaware of the “Mosaic revelation”?

Now it will be said that statements such as those I have quoted are not proposed for verification, they are a kind of “historical poetry” to be valued for their suggestiveness. Very well. Any student of Nazism would probably agree that it was freighted with elements of the irrational and demonic, and that these played a significant role in its history—for reasons, however, that had less to do with the psychic damage inherited from Moses than with the strongly visible Germanic and Christian traditions, as well as the specific historical experiences of the last century. But to start considering such elements of Nazism is already to submit oneself to the cautions of partial answers and multiple causation—which means to abandon the lordly tone of humanistic declamation which literary men (all of us) assume when pronouncing on the state of the world.

Mr. Steiner’s theory has the immediate effect of releasing major institutions from their moral responsibilities. For if it is “natural sensory consciousness” that was at work in promoting the Holocaust, how much weight can we then give to Rolf Hochhuth’s denunciation of the Papacy or Leon Trotsky’s of the Stalinists? And if “instinctual polytheistic . . . needs” lie behind the horrors of Auschwitz, then the Christian churches, with their frequently disgraceful records in regard to anti-Semitism in Germany, may partly be let off the hook. Indeed, if such overpowering instincts are at work, instincts that have kept breaking out through the entire course of human history, then how can anyone be held morally responsible for the Nazi murders?



But what interests Mr. Steiner most is not the cause of the Holocaust, it is the consequences that follow. He is deeply shaken, as any sensitive person should be, by the systematic inhumanity of the camps, “the transference of Hell from below the earth to its surfaces.” In scrutinizing Western culture he concludes that things can never be the same again: we have entered a phase of “post-culture.” Precisely what “post-culture” can mean I have tried to make out, and failed. If someone says, we are entering a time of “post-modernist” or “post-bourgeois” or “post-rational” culture, then we may be able to muster some sense of what he means: he is trying to suggest that Western culture has abandoned the norms and securities of the liberal enlightenment, or that it is finished with the need to experiment and transvalue. But I cannot imagine that Mr. Steiner wishes to say anything so limited. He seems to be toying with the notion that we will soon be living in a world that has left behind or gone beyond the institutions, traditions, activities, and values—especially as these adhere to the Word—which we associate with culture in general. Whether this is even possible, he does not ask.

Having stimulated himself with high Germanic notions about culture, Mr. Steiner now seems to be suffering from a bad let-down. “What good did high humanism do the oppressed mass of the community? What use was it when barbarism came? What immortal poem has ever stopped or mitigated political terror?” These questions, in their hopeless mixture of innocence and corruption, are precisely the questions that can be heard in any freshman class. What’s the good of Plato if he “came out of” a slave society? How can I enjoy Chaucer if he contains anti-Semitic passages? Why study physics if scientists made the atom bomb? Several times, in this spirit, Mr. Steiner remarks that Beethoven concerts were held in Munich while people were being tortured in nearby Buchenwald.

To both our freshmen and Mr. Steiner, though with varying degrees of patience, one must give a number of familiar answers: that culture is by no means the only value, nor always the highest value, of human existence; that the kind of questions he asks are likely to be put by those who had mistakenly supposed that culture is the highest value of human existence; that the cultural achievements of the past must be seen not only as conditioned and thereby contaminated by historical exigencies, but also as “transhistorical” or “potential” works which survive those exigencies; that great works of culture are radically defenseless, being available to use and misuse by persons of all kinds, from saints to butchers; and that there is always likely to be an inherent conflict between the domain of culture and the demands of morality.

In the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust Mr. Steiner finds the turning-point of Western culture. One feels that there must be merit in this view, though exactly what it means is very hard to say. What, after all, can it mean? Are we to abandon, as hopelessly besmirched, the heritage of Western culture? Are we to cease engaging in those activities by means of which, well or badly, we maintain that heritage? One can hardly suppose that Mr. Steiner means anything so extreme. Does he then propose that we take a more skeptical attitude toward ideologists of culture, those aristocrats of the Word who dominated European literary life for a good many decades before the Holocaust and who often proved less than heroic when it came? Here any sensible person would agree.

Again one suspects Mr. Steiner has more in mind, as witness his fashionable references to the Third World and to the fact, or supposed fact, that young people no longer take for granted “the image of Western culture as self-evidently superior.” Yet the very values Mr. Steiner would like to advance—where do they come from but Western culture? And those Jews who survived the camps, Jews who one presumes are precious to his imagination—how are they to find sustenance in the scraps of “post-culture,” what are they to live by if not the heritage that somehow they have kept?

The claim that after the Holocaust nothing can again be as once it was in our cultural and intellectual experience must strike some deep chords in our being, just as does the repeated verbal injunction by some writers that the only authentic response to the Holocaust is silence. But there are elemental continuities in our existence which, even if they make us uncomfortable, cannot be denied. People continue to live; living, they develop a culture; and at this moment it would seem just as well that it be grounded, with whatever modulations, in the Western tradition. This means to accept—as if we had a choice!—the bone in our throats: the knowledge of the possible misuses of culture, the memory of the topographical, and spiritual, juxtaposition of Weimar and Buchenwald. Speaking of that juxtaposition, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Mr. Steiner’s book aptly remarked: “There are facts that the mind can do nothing with, and this seems to be one of them: by itself it offers neither condemnation nor vindication of Western liberal culture.”

Even those Jewish writers who employ Yiddish and Hebrew find themselves obliged to live by some such view. Mr. Steiner, though notably distraught over the fate of the Jews in general, pays very little attention to Jews in particular. Surely, no one is under the slightest obligation to know a Jewish language or be familiar with the. writings of Yiddish and Hebrew poets and novelists; but a cultural critic who has become distinguished for his concern with the fate of the Jews—he, one would think, might trouble to find out what they have been saying in the post-Holocaust years. He might look into Jacob Glatstein’s poems about the Holocaust, or into Aaron Zeitlin’s “I Believe,” a long Yiddish poem that deals with some of the matters troubling Mr. Steiner:

Can I then choose not to believe
in that living God whose pur-
when He destroys, seeming to
      forsake me,
I cannot conceive;
choose not to believe in Him
Who having turned my body to
      fine ash
begins once more to wake me?
      (translated by Robert Friend

Among the survivors themselves—actual, bodied Jews and not merely tokens of literary gesture—a dominant motif is not that of discarding or declaring obsolete the traditions of either the Jews themselves or Western culture but rather of reasserting them in defiance of Gentile history. Mr. Steiner would be at liberty, if he wished, to regard such assertions as parochial or ritualistic or inconsequent, but given the concerns that dominate his book, it would be appropriate if he knew something about them.

There is, however, one respect in which Mr. Steiner’s claim that the Holocaust is the great turning-point in modern life ought to be insistently affirmed, and that is in our politics, a low order of affairs with which he will apparently have little commerce. If someone were to write that after Hitler and Stalin, intellectuals must never, no matter what the occasion or pretext, allow themselves to provide ideological rationales for the suppression of liberty, he would be saying something profoundly important. If he were so unmannerly as to name a few of the intellectuals who, in behalf of the Revolution or the Third World, do provide such rationales, he would be performing a double service. But about such mundane matters not a word enters In Bluebeard’s Castle.



Mr. Steiner, in a final chapter called “Tomorrow,” proposes to “offer conjectures as to what may be synapses worth watching.” The conjectures have to do with the familiar problem of the relation between high culture and mass literacy, the “musicalization of our culture,” and the growing dominance of mathematics and science, all of which threaten to destroy the power of the Word. About this threat Mr. Steiner is either unclear in his mind or so ambivalent as to seem unclear. Part of what he says is commonplace and thereby acceptable, part an effort to hop onto the disintegrating bandwagon of the “counter-culture.” At times Mr. Steiner sounds like a humanist in mourning. At other times he can write, “Personally, I feel most drawn to the conviction, irrational, even tactless as it may be, that it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs.” Perhaps; but as a conclusion to so darkly portentous a book or as a statement of cultural diagnosis, this Saturday Review-like sentence, chin up and best foot forward, seems absurd.

There is, however, no reason to get angry, no reason until one remembers the central point of the book: the gas ovens and the collapse of Western culture, the juxtaposition of Weimar and Buchenwald. And then it is hard to remain calm. After all those rumblings of apocalypse, is this to be the conclusion? The critic declaring the death of Western culture in the ovens of Auschwitz—he can then, a few pages later, content himself with the journalistic fatuity of “it is enormously interesting to be alive etc. etc.”? One minute Western culture is dying, and the next we are to be charmed by new developments in linguistics and long-playing records?

There is something strange and tasteless in so extreme an incongruence. One fails to understand, one looks for complex explanations. But perhaps the truth is really simple, perhaps this book is just an old-fashioned case of teakettle chopping (cf. Uriel Weinreich, Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish-English Dictionary, p. 202, col. 1, entry 15).



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