The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   15

In Bluebeard's Castle

Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture

by George Steiner

New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press and London: Faber, 1971.
I teach physics to undergraduates at a large American university, and there is a moment I dread every semester, when I'm forced to tell my students something they have a very hard time believing, and causes some of them to doubt my honesty. Namely, I own no television, and read for pleasure: about two hundred books a year, which is down a good bit from when I was their age. Quite possibly some of them would find it easier to assimilate my being Martian, on my mother's side. From time to time I like to think of myself as, if not participating in, then at least help perpetuate that ancient, beautiful, monstrous thing, Western culture, the culture of our books. I am someone who smiles or rages, depending on mood, at footnotes defining Venus as ``pagan goddess of love,'' and understands why, on one of the occasions when the Florentines threw out the Medici, they erected a statue of Judith and Holofernes.

In Bluebeard's Castle is a reflection on the death and decomposition of Western culture, of that culture, and a demonstration that those warm, fond thoughts of mine are more than a little deluded. The demonstration occurs at the beginning of the final chapter, ``Tomorrow,'' where Steiner takes the first dozen lines or so of Milton's Lycidas and teases out some of the strands of the web connecting it to the vast body of Western poetry, a web stretching from Homer and Hesiod to Auden and Yeats. It is a web of explicit allusion and more subtle echoes, of shared symbols and shared meanings, of reference in many senses. It is extremely dense, and pretty clearly Milton meant his readers to catch it, and I do not, not more than the merest surface. Laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow it intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a ``vague musicality,'' Milton's references might as well be to Mars. (This is true regardless of their ethnicity, or whether they are supposed to be studying technical subjects or the humanities; when it comes to the social sciences and the professions, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.)

Western culture has not survived this century; we float and make our lives, says Steiner, from the surface wreckage, the post-culture, and in the depths the largest fragments anchor vast, proliferating reefs of coral scholarship. (Would it be too much to see Joyce or Pynchon as deliberately sinking hulls to give birth to new reefs?) Steiner reflects on the causes, the symptoms, and what is left to those of us who have arrived after the twilight of the old idols.

The death of the culture is not just the breaking of the chain of tradition, of reference. The confidence of the culture has been shattered as well. The automatic, unself-conscious elitism it once possessed is gone --- Western culture is unique for its assaults on itself --- and the unforced ease with which it distinguished and evaluated, created hierarchy and gave itself a high place therein is lost to all but the fatuous. That the great events of our century --- the ``Thirty Year's War'' of 1914--19145, the genocides, the bureaucratization of terror and torture and death, the real possibility of deliberate human extinction at the press of a button --- that these were even possible would have struck those of prior centuries as ``nightmarish jokes.'' The optimistic beliefs of those centuries, of the prior tradition --- that there is progress, that the humanities make one humane, that ``the future is holy'' --- in their turn begin to seem like nightmarish jokes.

It is largely with our sense for the future that Steiner is concerned, with what he calls the classical ``gamble on transcendence.'' It is worth quoting him at length, to make clear his meaning and to give an idea of his style.

What is central to a true culture is a certain view of the relations between time and individual death.

The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence. The writer or thinker means the words of the poem, the sinews of the argument, the personae of the drama, to outlast his own life, to take on the mystery of autonomous presence and presentness. The sculptor commits to the stone the vitalities against and across time which will soon drain from his own living hand. Art and mind address those who are not yet, even at the risk, deliberately incurred, of being unnoticed by the living.

There is nothing natural, nothing self-evident in this wager against mortality, against the common, unharried promises of life. In the overwhelming majority of cases --- and the gambler on transcendence knows this in advance --- the attempt will be a failure, nothing will survive. There may be a conscious mania in the mere notion of producing great art or philosophic shapes --- acts, by definition, free of utility and immediate reward. Flaubert howled like a man racked at the thought that Emma Bovary --- his creature, his contrivance of arrayed syllables --- would be alive and real, long after he himself had gone to a painful death....

Each time, the equation is one of ambitious sacrifice, of the obsession to outlast, to outmaneuver the banal democracy of death. To die at thirty-five but to have composed Don Giovanni, to know, as did Galois during the last night of his twenty-one-year existence, that the pages he was writing would alter the future forms of algebra and of space. Perhaps an insane conceit, using that term in its stylistic sense, but one that is the transcendent source of a classic culture.

What artist or thinker today would want to say exegi monumentum aere perennius, would be able to say it with a straight face? Who, a hundred years ago, would not?

If, then, our current state is divided between ``an archival pseudo-vitality surrounding what was once felt life,'' ``surface noises and salutations to a past whose splendor and authority are still atavistically recognized,'' and ``semiliteracy or subliteracy outside, making it impossible for the poem [in the broadest sense, the made thing] to survive naked, to achieve unattended personal impact,'' two questions arise. The first is whether it was ever different; as Steiner admits, a delicate and difficult and open question, but one whose definite feel is ``yes.'' (``There is a comprehensive decline in traditional ideals of literate speech. Rhetoric and the arts of conviction which it disciplines are in almost total disrepute. Pleasure in style, in the `wroughtness' of expressive forms, is a mandarin, nearly suspect posture.'') The second is where there are possibilities for new life. Steiner sees two other ``literacies'' emerging in our time, in music, now that machinery has made it commonplace and available on demand, and in science and technology; on both he rises to great heights of eloquence.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dream of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, onto realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control. We shall do so with that desolate clairvoyance, so marvelously rendered in Bartók's music, because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity. ...

Personally, I feel most drawn to the gaia scienza, 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. If a dur désir de durer was the mainspring of classic culture, it may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.

It is hard for me to be objective and detached about the book's argument. Away from the book, I grow cool and skeptical, and its conclusions, like those of Hume (who, with the rest of the English and analytic philosophical traditions, is pretty much absent) seem fantastic. Problems and reasons for doubt occur to me: Steiner relies on Freud; some of his hypotheses seem only to work if the masses of Europe shared his rather audacious ideas about what certain things symbolize, i.e. he commits, if not William James's ``psychologist's fallacy,'' then the cultural critic's; he often says that x should be investigated, and then argues from what he is sure those investigations must find; he is disinclined to compare Western culture in detail with other high cultures (though he admires Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, for demonstrating ``that many-branched coherence of design which builds a great house of language for memory and conjecture to inhabit''), and his assurance that Western art is just as superior to other art as Western science (modern science, really) undoubtedly is sticks in my craw; he indulges in odd biological and even linguistic speculations; he neglects social and economic factors in favor of the internal development of the culture; at times he attributes an all but Hegelian power to the ideas of the high culture, even to eminent writers; that he was writing in 1970 is evident, and not always in ways that improve the book. Away from the book, all these give me qualms; I grow dubious, and even sanguine. (I have much less access to our poetry than my classically-educated mother or her ancestors, but my students at least know how to read, and are learning physics and organic chemistry, while a hundred and fifty years ago their ancestors were oppressed and appalling German peasants and proletarians.)

Then I return to the text, and I am lost.

I have just finished reading In Bluebeard's Castle straight through for the third time, accompanied, this time, by Bartók's opera. There is some witchcraft in his style, a complete mastery of the rhetoric of a certain sort of prophesy, which captures the mind as it disturbs it. Joan Didion has something of it, without the same great weight or easy erudition. Before general relativity or mathematical logic I will make jokes and pick nits, but this leaves me awed, quiet and more than a little afraid: if it is not true, it is very well told indeed. Closing the book I feel disconnected, unreal, as though my body were hollow and I was floating within it. Nothing is settled by this book; at its close Steiner leaves us standing ``where Bartók's Judith stands, when she asks to open the last door on the night.''

141 pp.
Cultural Criticism / Europe / Modern History / Philosophy
Currently in print as a paperback, US$14, ISBN 0-300-01710-3, LoC CB428 S85.
25 June 1996 / 5 May 1997