Depressed about Spenser

BOOKS THINKERS NO PASSION SPENT:Essays 1978-1996 by George Steiner, Faber pounds 19.95
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The Independent Culture
GEORGE STEINER fits society's idea of the intellectual with almost comic perfection. Cosmopolitan, erudite, engaged, Steiner has spent his career wrestling with the great questions of culture and society. Though he has been working within a university environment, the range of his concerns and the scale of his intellectual ambitions have extended far beyond those of an ordinary academic - something reflected in his new collection of essays, which finds him considering, among other things, the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard and Kafka, the results served up in characteristically dense, allusive, sometimes infuriating and often brilliantly illuminating prose.

The aspect of Steiner's thought that comes across most strongly here is its pessimism, in particular its gloom about our current disrespect for culture. "Nostalgic pathos and lament would be fatuous," he says, but there is much that Steiner feels we should be depressed about. For a start, books aren't made properly any more; paperbacks may have brought learning to greater numbers, but they have also carried with them a trend for abridgement and irreverence towards the printed word. No one reads properly these days. Whereas our ancestors would have been well-versed in the classics, would have memorised long stretches of poetry, would have been familiar with the Bible, current generations know nothing: "Schooling today, notably in the United States, is planned amnesia." In contrast to this lamentable state of affairs, Steiner points to the atmosphere of intellectual seriousness that he detects in Chardin's painting "Le Philosophe Lisant", in which a plump figure sits piously reading an enormous, solid-looking volume which appears to have a proper, sewn hardback binding (a privilege which Faber have unfortunately resisted giving Steiner's own pounds 19.99 book, though they have included a beautiful reproduction of the Chardin).

In the universities, fashionable trends of post-modernism and deconstruction have created what Steiner sees as a "nihilistic" tendency. No longer is there a canon of great books to which a whole culture can turn, and by which it can interpret experience. Whereas books used to be our teachers, the idea of being taught anything is now anathema to our post-Romantic, individualistic temperaments; we are living in a world which revels in what Steiner calls "the primacy of personal experience against the derivativeness of even the most deeply felt of literary emotions".

There is no doubting Steiner's distress at this state of affairs, but unfortunately he seems unwilling to subject it to the sort of deeper analysis that might reveal why we have reached it, or indeed, why it really matters that we have. "Is Spenser still a cardinal presence in our repertoire of feeling, as he was to Milton, to Keats, to Tennyson?" he asks in a passage deploring the decline of the memorisation of poetry, expecting the reader to share his disgust at the fact that answer is of course no. Though there might be very good reasons why this represents a loss, Steiner seems to consider it too obvious, or perhaps too vulgar, to ask why.

As a result, it is easy to feel that Steiner is simply preaching to the converted, while leaving those less well-read than he (almost everyone else) to nurse a sense of guilt at their ignorance, and of regret for the passing of a more literate age. Frustration is particularly liable to arise in relation to Steiner's almost manic obsession with quoting other thinkers in such a way that prevents those not intimate with the original texts from understanding his argument. Steiner's imagined reader is far from being a common one. He or she has to deal with such comments as "remember Pushkin's matchless reprise of Horace's tag" - name-drops which are wonderful if one can, and slightly frightening if one can't. All this might be a mere irritant, were people's alienation from culture not one of Steiner's central concerns and yet one which he does nothing in this book to alleviate.

Then again, in other essays, Steiner is refreshing in his willingness to grasp by their horns some of the most un-PC bulls in the current cultural arena. He floats the idea that there might be an inherent opposition between high culture and democratic, liberal society.

Even though the United States pours huge resources into museums, concert halls and universities, it does not, in Steiner's view, have a flourishing cultural life when compared with what went on a few years ago in the Soviet Union, in the dictatorships of Latin America and Eastern Europe. Steiner raises uncomfortable questions about the links between barbarism and high culture, and agonises here, as in many of his other works, about the emergence of the Holocaust in a world that was supposed to have been civilised.

It would be easy to satirise Steiner for some of his excesses, or even condemn him for spreading himself thinly at times across subjects, but this collection of essays nevertheless leaves the reader impressed by the sincerity and intelligence with which he weaves his complex, rich arguments.