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?

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game