Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Steiner's holocaust idea

Someone read 'The Classical Revolution' (the 2nd edition as published by Dover) and took the trouble to not only read it more than once, but read George Steiner's book 'In Bluebeard's Castle' which was included in the list of books for 'further reading' at the back. In the form of a blog post, a thorough exploration resulted of Steiner's idea about how high art was, in some way, partly responsible for the holocaust, something which I find utter nonsense, but which is the result of exploring religious backgrounds of antisemitism and as such, an interesting view point.

I reacted with a couple of remarks, but which could not be published on the blog because of the total size, so here they are:

In 'The Classical Revolution', the pages under the heading of 'Further reading' are nothing more, nothing less, than that: mentioning a number of books which have some point of contact with the subject of the book and may enrich the context of the subject, because it is related to all of those writings, in one way or another. So, of course such a collection of pointers is not the context for engaging in detail with the texts of the books themselves, and the descriptions are simply general indications of the subject.

Of course 'classical music' as a genre, in the widest sense, is now all over the place which is a good thing. That does not in any way affect the nature of the classical works of the past and the obvious difference in terms of artistic quality and psychic / spiritual meaning between 'high art' and 'entertainment'. There is nothing against entertainment music, but not understanding the difference, which is not so much on the surface but in the deeper structure of meaning, logically leads to getting into knots about Steiner's Bluebeard book. Where a 'classical composer' like Ravel absorbs influences from jazz, he transforms those elements into something else, he lifts them from the level of entertainment to the level of high art, which is another context (I know this may sound as reactionary snobbery but it is merely a pointer towards the deeper structure of meaning which is, to a great extent, defined by the  context of the works and their traditions). The jazzy gestures in Ravel have turned into references, associations, but their being embedded in a high art structure (with its embedded artistic meaning and working-out) changes their character and expression: hearing the references to jazz in the 1st mvt of Ravel's piano concerto for two hands in the same way as one would hear Duke Ellington would mean missing the meaning and character of Ravel's piece. In other words: that concerto is not jazz, but at certain points reflects on it.

As for antisemitism, it is rather crazy to treat the holocaust more or less on the same level as those frustrated 19C 'philosophies' by people not understanding the enlightenment. The mass murder was not the result of those philosophies but organized mass crime by ethically underdeveloped people. Those 'philosophies' helped to make antisemitism 'salonfähig', which is bad enough, but they merely provided excuses and quasi-reasons for primitive people to carry-out what they were ready to consider without any 'philosophical' help. Therefore Steiner's idea that the holocaust was the result of a pagan-European tendency to get rid of a monotheistic moral blackmailing, can be seen as taking the genocide too seriously as a religious/philosophical phenomenon, thereby giving it some kind of gloss which it definitely does not deserve - it is like excusing the slaughter and torturing by a murderer through exploring his own suffering from circumstances and bad parenting in his youth. (The current surge of antisemitism, racism and 'identity politics' based on exclusion is the result of comparable primitive non-thinking and independent from any civilizational superstructure: it is something at the level of the anxious, primitive masses, exploited by cynical politicians.) By thus 'elevating' the holocaust, Steiner reads its motivation back into and onto regions where it has no place. This is what you get when you forget to think hierarchically about culture, society, crime, human development, which also is demonstrated in Steiner's idea that a fully-developed 'classical music' could - in theory - also be possible by absorbing elements from pop, rock, etc. - which is only possible if these elements can be lifted from their original context and transformed, which seems to me utterly impossible given the intention of those music forms. With his opposition of monotheism and paganism in European cultural and religious history, Steiner creates an abstract and implausible construction through which he can link the holocaust to cultural movements on the level of religion and high art, which I think is a self-created problem. It seems to me obvious that German 20C fascism only could get such force because of the bad peace settlement of 1918 which almost ruined Germany and made the incomprehensing masses vulnerable to such ideologies. Had such ruin taken place in France, it could have been a French rise of nazism which had created the next war and not Germany. Today we witness the strange fact that some form of fascism is always dormant in society and takes-on dangerous forms when circumstances create a breeding ground, because of the great number of people who are not interested in culture, Steiner, history, enlightenment values or even, Wagner. The fascist mentality is a problem of underdevelopment, social circumstances and accessibility of values and can be found at any place or time.

High art is not there to prevent catastrophe. It holds a mirror up to the human being, and if it is not understood, the responsibility of this lack of understanding does not lie with the work of art. Steiner's idea that the arts 'were incapable to prevent barbarism' is putting the problem entirely in the wrong way, again laying some responsibility of genocide at the feet of the arts, which is absurd.

As for the transference of religious meaning to the arts, and especially (art-)music, that is not a 'replacement' of something that 'no longer' fulfills its function in the modern world by something that could do that better, but the understanding that the outward rituals - developed in very different times and circumstances - somehow don't express completely the spiritual meaning they are supposed to convey. A better way of understanding this transferrence is to see the spiritual as working in a much wider field than organised religion, that it has its influences in any religion, and in the arts (hence the ease with which the arts in every culture blend with religious practices). The arts have their origin in religion, which means: both religion and art are human constructs where religious energies are channelled into forms that are comprehensible and accessible. So, the field is a continuum and not something happening in separate boxes. So, Arnold's idea of culture is entirely appropriate and not bound to any time or place, and Steiner's idea of it is, as I see it, too much bound to temporality and too much impressed by the shocks of barbarism and giving them too much cultural meaning. Maybe he was not cynical enough about the human condition. The holocaust was something far beyond comprehension for civilized people, but we have to conclude that a great part of humanity has not as yet evolved to a level that seriously deserves the predicat 'human' in terms of civility and humane behavior and thought. We have to live with that reality, and that means that understanding the best of human nature, as expressed in its high art, is a necessity, for instruction and for compensation. Steiner spoils that possibility by his projecting the holocaust back into a context where it does not belong.


  1. If you're attempting to articulate a case that the mistake Steiner made was treating the Holocaust as a far more unique genocide than it really was that's a useful point. There have been plenty of other mass killing events that have not been imbued with any unique cultural significance at the level the Holocaust has in relationship to European cultural legacies. Westerners do not treat the atrocities perpetrated at Nanking as if that were indicative of Japanese culture as a whole. The early 1930s genocide via famine in the Ukraine does not generally get brought out as symptomatic of Russian or Soviet arts. Perhaps in a comparable way the Ottoman massacre of Armenians should not be taken as emblematic of Turkish cultural legacies.

    In that sense, high art traditions are irrelevant to atrocity. They have no power to prevent them from occurring in any civilization. Conversely, no one is going to refrain from perpetrating an atrocity simply by being exposed to high art any more than admiring high art indicates well-formed social or moral character.

  2. "Steiner's idea that a fully-developed 'classical music' could - in theory - also be possible by absorbing elements from pop, rock, etc. - which is only possible if these elements can be lifted from their original context and transformed, which seems to me utterly impossible given the intention of those music forms."

    except that, having read Steiner's book cover to cover, there's not even a single sentence in which he ever indicated this. I'm not sure why you'd ever get that sense from his book.

    Your mention of Ravel has reminded me that what seems utterly impossible for you to imagine was fairly easy for Ravel to imagine. He was able to draw inspiration from jazz and blues (both popular styles from the United States in his time) and compose vibrant music. Steiner didn't even need to suggest a fusion of classical music traditions with contemporary popular styles was conceivable. Ravel had already proved that was possible before Steiner ever wrote In Bluebird's Castle. In an earlier century Haydn and Mozart accomplished a similar feat. That the composers who can achieve that feat are so historically rare doesn't mean they couldn't exist in our own time.

    1. I don't think that the entetainment music of the 18th century can be compared with the entertainment music of the 20th century. The only link between the two is that iit is music for entertainment. But their expression, aesthetics, forms, and the link with high art music, is fundamentally different. It would require an extensive essay to demonstrate this very obvious truth, but it can also be immediately heard in the musics themselves.

    2. In the sense that entertainment music in the 20th century tends to be composed and mediated by the use of mechanical recording technology and studio work compared to 19th century entertainment music mediated by traditions of Western music literacy I would agree that the two are not immediately comparable.

      But it's not as though entertainment music in the 20th century abandoned equal temperament. They didn't all go to a style like that of Harry Parstch (thankfully). Even in the early 20th century ragtime and early jazz composers drew on the Western concert music traditions in fairly obvious, if occasionally jocular ways (Bubber Miley's Chopin quote, for instance). When George Cobb transformed a Rachmaninov prelude into a rag he was simultaneously demonstrating awareness of contemporary concert music and keeping up a tradition within ragtime of "ragging the classics".

      My proposal was that if the span between high and low was not impassable in the 18th century and if Haydn and Mozart could compose music that had both popular appeal and learned technique it is not a given that such a fusion cannot occur in the 21st century. A moderately detailed account of even early 20th century popular styles can demonstrate that the boundaries between entertainment music and high art music have remained permeable provided people don't have an ideological predetermined commitment to seeing them as thoroughly separated.

    3. The artistic level of 20C and 21C entertainment music, or at least most of it and its general aesthetics, are incompatible with the notion of an artistically-developed and sophisticated musical art. Especially when a society is drenched in low-level pop music, which spills into every corner of public space and in the media, thanks to modern distribution technologies, poisoning modern life, it is a ridiculous idea to even consider a fusion as something culturally desirable. Such ideas are, in the context of today's society, populist in nature.

    4. In order to establish why entertainment music and sophisticated musical art are incompatible you might have first to define what music is. You didn't do that in The Classical Revolution and you haven't done it yet. One of the keys to reducing the possibility of being misread is defining terms. Authors sometimes change the way they use terms. Take Leonard B. Meyer. His use of "formalist" in Emotion and Music wasn't the same as his use of "formalist" in Music, the Arts and Ideas. But he did, at least, make a point of explicitly defining what he meant by his terms in his respective books.

      There have been arguments made as to why popular entertainment music isn't art. Someone pointed out in the 1940s what a case can be that popular entertainment music isn't ar.
      Standardized chord changes accompanying stock melodic phrases in modularly constructed pieces that have more or less interchangeable parts full of lyrics with juvenile content in which overt sexuality is a cipher for celebrating social status was a set of reasons for why popular entertainment music could not be musical art. And ...

      That was the case made by Theodore Adorno in his collected writings that have been published as Current of Music. But The Classical Revolution doesn't define what music even is, let alone in entertainment or sophisticated art forms. Adorno, at least, wrote his polemics in such a way that he managed to also define his terms, whether we agree with all of them or not.

    5. 'The Classical Revolution' is not about definitions, but about the revival of tonal music in the 20th and 21st century. But there are enough descriptions in the book about how music functions, enough for the subject of the book, to offer a clear idea about why organised sounds cannot be music: they lack the psychological dimension which is another level than the purely material level of sound.

      Roger Scruton explores this further in his 'Aesthetics of Music', showing that music is not its sounds, and describing the difference between a sound and a musical tone.