Tuesday's Book: The Fateful Question of Culture by Geoffrey H Hartman, Columbia University Press, pounds 17.95

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In the Great British Debate about culture since the rise of mass literacy, we have come to expect certain things: swooping mandarin ironies, raillery, much self-protective humour, jokes about soap-operas, Keats versus Dylan and furious protest activity at the perimeter fence supposed to divide high from low culture.

Had this collection of lectures by the austere Yale critic Geoffrey Hartman been written on this side of the Atlantic, its title would have been coyly ironic. In fact, it is an allusion to Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents. Hartman is definitely not playing this one for laughs.

What he offers is a more rigorous definition of culture, which the British debate sorely needs. If the US debate often seems preoccupied with PC and stalking the slow beast of multiculturalism, it is also more ambitious. Hartman's patient teasing-out of the philosophical issues raised by the word "culture" is learned and complex, but arguably it cites too much and gives too little of himself. He is not possessed of a single thesis or Big Idea but comes nearest to that in reiterating the idea that liberal culture failed us in the 20th century. Between the present and the serene meliorism of Matthew Arnold's idea of culture a great boulder lies across the path: the Holocaust.

The failure of liberal humanist culture to stop Nazism, with the latter's seduction of its intellectuals and borrowing of the terms of cultural discourse, dealt an irreparable blow to culture's high claims. Nor was it a 20th-century aberration. The roots of cultural thinking in pastoralism and nature worship contained a dangerous virus. Idealism, Hartman suggests, is pathological. The dream of a common culture can be oppressive to the uncommon elements. The passionate pursuit of X can easily shade into the annihilation of Y.

Although he thinks multiculturalism is "undertheorised", Hartman is not offering a tetchy conservative opposition to it. But he seems to argue that ensuring a balanced, non-malign culture is profoundly difficult. The way to it is most likely to lie in the separation of culture from politics, the recovery of disinterestedness in the university, the restoration of aesthetic education.

The scandal of "culture wars" - when culture is a tool of violent nationalism or divisiveness - leads him to assert that "Art is not a luxury, a snobbish indulgence, but basic to a measure of freedom from inner and outer compulsions". Often proffered as a unifying force, culture can just as easily be a means of asserting domination. It can also be a way of helping us to connect with the world, resolving our sense of displacement.

In its immediate prescriptions, which are few, Hartman's deeply learned book can seem, on occasion, like an attempt to reformulate those classic liberal nostrums which the book appears, at first sight, to be holding at a distance.

But its heart is none the less in the right place. Too subtle to be a manifesto or a call to arms, this is an important contribution to raising the level of the culture debate.