Saturday, 29 April 2017

Steiner on the humanities

On the website of 'Standpoint', a review of a new book on George Steiner draws attention to one of the most eloquent self-destructive postwar voices that use the holocaust to finish its job also on the level of the humanities - i.e., claiming that the most abject evil is an organic, natural part of Western high culture.

So, where a concentration camp brute combines his daily murderous job with his love of classical music, it is the art form's failure to sensitize the psychopath which demonstrates music's culpability. But as we know, psychopaths have no difficulty with putting different experiences into different boxes and failing to comprehend what they are doing, feeling, thinking. That is why they are considered psychopaths. Steiner made his claim a Leitmotiv of his career, while defending the elitist attitude of the humanities, including high art.

The accusation that the humanities / the high arts are potentially capable of 'dampen' moral awareness, of 'making us bad', is based upon the misunderstanding that when elites fail to 'fight against barbarism', it is because the humanities are somehow culpable, because of somehow approving evil and destruction. The more obvious explanation is, that the practitioners - where they fail to raise their voice against injustice and barbarism - don't understand the humanities enough.

Also there is the distinction between levels: the humanities take place on another level than politics, and only when the real world threatens to intrude into the quiet study, elites may wake-up and often it is then too late. To make victims culpable is relocating the problem. Steiner's claim that evil and selfdestruction are at the heart of Western civilization, is plain ridiculous and utterly stupid. When you read Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle' you realize he has built an enormous polemical edifice upon most feeble grounds, and it is self-defeating: he wants to defend high culture and is attacking it in the same time.

And his celebration of Jewry is quite nonsensical too: it is entirely irrelevant which ethnicity brilliant people have. Jewry being a combination of ethnicity and culture, gets into scrapes when confusing culture with race, the same mistake Wagner made. As far as culture goes, it is the liberation from orthodoxy, and the cultural training of text interpretation, that contributes to the skills of people of Jewish descent (something that the philosopher Brian Magee has already explained very clearly). The 'Jewish renaissance' that happened since the beginning of the 19th century was made possible because Jews got civil rights and could freely partake in society. It was this sense of liberation and no longer being locked-up, both physically and mentally, within a ghetto, that stimulated people from Jewish descent to develop and to achieve. This, together with the continuous confrontation with antisemitism - mostly based upon envy - made them 'fanatically' over-achieving. Once I talked with a refugee musician from the Soviet Union, who said about his Jewish family that they were raised with the continuous instruction 'to be better than anybody else', to fight for your place in the world because of 'being Jewish' and thus, being discriminated against all the time and everywhere.

Culture is something that can be absorbed and identified with by anyone, as people from Jewish descent have already proven extensively over the last ages. Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Einstein etc. etc. were Europeans through and through, and Steiner's inclination to give them special status as 'Jews', is misplaced and, basically, racist.

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