The culture of barbarism

George Steiner is the most passionate and erudite of critics, but is he too grand to be true? By Robert Winder
The first essay in George Steiner's new volume of criticism is a discussion (brilliant, of course) of the painting on the cover. It is by the 18th century Frenchman Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and shows a philosopher, sporting opulent red and gold robes and a flamboyant fur hat, poring over a fat volume on his desk. Steiner sees in this image a striking illustration of the act of reading; in the man's clothes and posture he finds a poignant courtliness. Reading, in this Utopia, is a ceremonious ritual; a book is not something to curl up with, or an excuse for a lie-down, but a formal occasion that calls for serious dressing up. Citing Mencken's quip about people who think they are emancipated but are really only unbuttoned, Steiner calls for schools of creative reading to encourage the quiet contemplation of words. It is rather a moving plea, even if, in summary, it sounds merely like a blast against slovenly modern manners. Writers who urge us to read more tend to be accused, in these suspicious times, of having a vested interest. And there is indeed a sense in which Steiner seems to castigate the rest of us for not being more like him. His own eager erudition gives him, perhaps, something of the loneliness of the explorer. Nearly every page hums with references to Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, the Bible, Shakespeare, Kafka and Homer - it is pretty certain that anyone reading (or reviewing) his work will be less learned than himself. Perhaps he is simply pleading for the rest of us to keep up, so that he has someone to talk to. Few people would dare such an uncompromising defence of high literacy, but Steiner's zeal - "passion'' is his chosen word - is persuasive and infectious. Reading him is like consulting your conscience: he never stops making a thrilling case for all those books we keep meaning to read some day.

It is telling, however, that his analysis of the painting chooses not to mention the fact that the man in the picture is not actually reading; he is posing for a picture. Steiner talks of his "full engagement" with the text, but in truth he looks like a man forcing himself not to look up and give the game away. It might well be a mark of reading's high status in former times that painters should wish to present it with such pomp - any sociologist would find it an inevitable product of a time when reading was a rich man's game. Steiner unfashionably insists on taking the image literally, as the representation of a state of mind and a way of life, as if it were capturing an unguarded moment. But a true reader, in command of the strenuous absorption accorded to him by Steiner, would never dream of letting a painter fuss away in the corner while he studied.

This is precisely the kind of criticism Steiner least likes - nit-picking, clever-clogs pedantry with no aim other than to subvert the grandeur of art. His own approach has little time for such narcissistic quibbling. The pseudo- scientific theorising which comprises the present critical fashion is a sign of impatience, he feels, and worse, a symptom of a prevailing nihilism, Steiner has a wide evangelical streak: in an age where culture is seen as a leisure-lifestyle option, like watching TV only harder, he insists that literature matters, that it is a high and solemn (though ambiguous and comic) manifestation of humanity's creative power. Artistic creations are to him concrete facts ("real presences" in his phrase) which we neglect at our peril.

Throughout his career, in both fiction and non-fiction, he remains haunted by a central conundrum in western civilisation: how can the Judaeo-Christian tradition which produced such soul-stirring and noble work also have produced the Holocaust? This is the philosophical dilemma which all his reading and writing strives to address. Not content to see this horrendous fact merely as a paradox, he insists that it is not a paradox at all - that there is something in the love of high art which actually inspires barbarism.

This sombre proposal flies in the face of the Victorian conviction that literature is good for you. Like many 19th century reflexes, this one has survived obstinately into our own age. Indeed, the idea of classic art as therapeutic might even be one of the reasons for its relative unpopularity. We assume that things which are good for us must be hard to swallow - like bitter medicine - and so approach masterpieces with reluctant obedience. Steiner isn't like that. He is on familiar terms with the greats, in their own languages. It is not that he drops names; he has a wonderfully safe pair of hands and catches nearly everything. But there is a certain strutting vigour in the rollcall of genius in these pages.

All the time, though, beneath the dizzy web of cultural cross-reference, Steiner sounds a continuous bass note of humanist concern. Whether in his fine, if dreadfully titled, novella The Portage to San Christobel of AH, his wonderfully supple consideration of the arguments against Shakespeare, his far-reaching tribute to Kafka, or the many philosophical debates in his fiction, he never ceases to regard literature as an aspect of life, rather than the other way around. These essays reveal him to be, apart from everything else, a vibrant narrator of the tragedy of Judaism. His interest is in the relations between words and the world, the relations between man and God (or godlessness) and the relations between civilisation and brutality. There aren't many critics, if any, who combine an attentiveness to the minutiae of texts with so powerful and broad a central thrust.

Nor is he some ivory tower- monger trying to sell the virtues of high culture. Many times in these essays he sneers at "the retreat of literature into museum cabinets". And much as he hates the fast-food culture, he still permits one of the characters in his superb short story "Proofs" to defend it: "I wonder whether even these things are inflicting on man a fraction of the pain, of the despair which all our Athens, all our high culture have inflicted. They rocked around the clock not long ago to raise millions for charity. They lectured on Kant and played Schubert and went off the same day to stuff thousands into gas ovens."

These hard thoughts occasionally emerge sounding a bit rum. In his fiction, especially, Steiner gives his characters dialogue which veers from the rabbinical to the everyday with something like tipsiness. The climactic speech of Adolf Hitler in The Portage, the devastating apologia in which he claims to have been responsible for the rebirth of Israel, is inspired as well as clever, but at other times people help themelves to a "snifter of brandy", say "Bleeding Jesus" or "make a hash" of things. When he stoops to idiom, we can almost sense Steiner holding his nose. The dialectical arguments are brilliantly plotted and sustained, but characters rarely leap from the page, however fast their minds race. Still, in his fiction, every bit as much as in his elaborately wordy essays, there is always the unmistakeable sense of language under pressure from thought, of a man pushing words uphill, up to where the light is. One can nit-pick, but these two fresh volumes remind us of his singular, forceful excellence. Maybe the nicest thing about him is that he pays us the compliment of presuming everyone to be as preoccupied with the central questions of humankind as he is. Of how many other contemporary writers or thinkers can that be said?