In a culture in which triviality seems, for the moment, to have triumphed, there are still some people who are thinking long and hard about serious matters. Certainly, no one could accuse literary critic George Steiner of dodging big questions: He has tackled, among much else, "The Death of Tragedy," "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky," "Language and Silence," not to mention offering us "Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture" (the subtitle of his "In Bluebeard's Castle"). One might, perhaps, accuse him of a propensity to overreact, overgeneralize and over-dichotomize. But the range of his learning and his passionate engagement with values and ideas have made him one of the more dynamic and compelling voices in contemporary criticism.
Steiner has a penchant for the apocalyptic. It is not only that his work is informed by a sense of living in radically dangerous times: the mass murders of Stalin, Pol Pot and, above all, Hitler; the threat of nuclear destruction; the speculations of quantum physics; the discovery (or postulation) of black holes and antimatter; the birth of the Internet; and the dawn of artificial intelligence. All this is undeniably true. What distinguishes Steiner's criticism is his belief that the very nature of the artistic enterprise has been utterly and irredeemably altered by these factors.
"The twentieth century," he states at the outset of his latest book, "Grammars of Creation," "has put in doubt the theological, the philosophical, and the political-material insurance for hope. It queries the rationale and credibility of future tenses." In sum, he suggests, it has undermined both language itself and our idea of what it means to be human. The once-solid relationship between words and truth has been eroded by jargon, hype and propaganda, while the concept of artistic creativity has become as problematic as the traditional belief in God's creation of the universe.
Steiner ranges over an impressively wide array of even more impressively lofty subjects and reference points, including the Book of Job, Plato's "Timaeus," Dante's "Divine Comedy," the poetry of Holderlin, Paul Celan and Rene Char, the art of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, the music of Beethoven, the philosophy of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger, and the achievements of pure and applied mathematics. In many cases, it is more stimulating and rewarding simply to follow him down one or another of these fascinating byways than to stand back and consider the thrust of the book's main argument.
On one hand, Steiner contends that the monstrous lies and inhumanity of the Shoah have put language itself in doubt. Elsewhere, he points out that while language languishes, mathematics and the sciences flourish. Yet science and technology have been put to equally horrible uses: the gas chambers, nuclear weapons, chemical warfare. Why, then, is he not forecasting an end to their sway? Then, on another hand, Steiner seems to be saying that computers and the Internet are to blame: a rather vague idea that he does not much develop. And on still another hand (Steiner is nothing if not multi-dexterous), he suggests that the very idea of authors and creativity was rooted in the no-longer-viable belief in a Creator-God. Not only does this ignore the fact that many people still hold such a belief; it also ignores the fact that there have been intensely creative artists like Shelley, Keats, Swinburne and Hardy who were atheists or agnostics.
Given the centrality of the Shoah to Steiner's thesis, it also seems amiss that none of his many references to Heidegger takes up the issue of the German philosopher's Nazism. What, after all, is the point of developing the most intellectually strenuous, morally rigorous, mystically abstruse philosophy, if all that profundity does not even enable you to recognize pure evil when it presents itself? Geniuses do have flaws and blind spots, but failing to grasp the nature of Nazism bespeaks either rank opportunism or moral stupidity on a truly massive scale. Thus does praxis belie theory. And thus, perhaps, does reality confound prognostication.
One certainly hopes that Steiner's prognostications about the dire future of language and literature prove false. For, when he manages to take his mind off the future and focuses his and our attention on the achievements of past masters, the deep pleasures of reading are evident indeed.