Sunday, February 1, 2009

in lieu of a review of art, a book review from joculum

It is going to take way longer to write a proper review of the Young Movers and Shakers show at MOCA GA than it did to write this off-the-cuff review of George Steiner at the New Yorker, so I offer it instead for the moment (from my joculum blog):

Encountering the collected essays of George Steiner at the New Yorker is a bit like arriving with friends at a restaurant famed for its dessert menu: one wants to sample all the options concurrently, and as just as with the desserts, one may end up feeling slightly ill from one’s excess of self-indulgence.

Robert Boyers’ not-quite-flawless-but-close-enough selection of Steiner’s thirty years of extended review essays is a rich reminder of the verbal felicities of which Steiner was capable, which have often forsaken him during his descent into querulous retrospective mea culpa’s. Damn, but Steiner knew how to write well!

And he still does, when he takes the time and the Muse possesses him.

Steiner at his best, of course, channels the best of the best, both stylistically and conceptually. (Slight rising-tone accent on the second “of.”) Reading not quite at random, one wants to imitate the beginning of his essay on the late Guy Davenport (not “late” when he wrote about him, though far from early either) by indulging in the pleasures of selective quotation:

On Bertrand Russell (in this case, on what Steiner calls the “sinuous empiricism” of Russell’s 1914 Our Knowledge of the External World): “The problems raised are as old as Plato; this means that solutions attempted are less vulnerable to fashion than in other branches of philosophy. We are an epistemological animal, asking both whence and whither but knowing neither, unable to prove that we do not inhabit a long dream.”

On Simone Weil (in a tour-de-force of an opening gambit with which I disagree heartily, even as I admire its stylistic strategies): “She inhabited her body as if it were a condemned hovel.”

One could go on, but aesthetic indigestion would set in. Steiner at his best is downright Steinerian, the which of which there is no whicher (to more or less quote Alan Watts). Steiner at his worst is best described by the words with which he opens a review of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Certain sentences in the book were right from the outset objects of legend and of parody.” (Notice how crucial to the sentence is the grammatically optional second “of,” and how badly the sentence would collapse if “right from the outset” were to be moved to the end or the beginning. Wow.)

Sometimes, we suspect that Steiner is just funnin’ us, as when his incomparably eloquent put-down of E. M. Cioran accomplishes its demolition work in terms that approach Cioran’s own exquisitely rhetorical bathos: “The quarrel with this kind of writing and pseudo-thinking is not one of evidence. … It is conceivable that human greed, the enigmatic necessities of mutual hatred which fuel both internal and external politics, and the sheer intricacy of economic-political problems may bring on catastrophic international conflicts, civil wars, and the inward collapse of aging as well as immature societies. We all know this. … Nor is it possible to refute an intuitive sense, a persuasive intimation, of a sort of nervous exhaustion, of entropy, in the inward resources of Western culture. We seem to be governed by more or less mendacious dwarfs and mountebanks. Our responses to crises display a certain somnambular automatism.” (Steiner was writing in 1984.)

But Steiner, who says his “own instincts are only marginally more cheerful” than “Cioran’s funeral sermon” (and anyone who has read In Bluebeard’s Castle would have to agree with these sentiments), has always given the anti-devil his due. The prospects for cultural and political renewal that are inherent in the horizons of fresh discovery don’t allow him to concur completely with Cioran’s self-consciously mocking assertion that “history itself is running down.”

At the same time, he mostly hates what is coming, even if it turns out to have its good side. As a result, he has missed a good many prospective benefits even as he analyzes incomparably what it is that we are losing.

He is the sort of guy who has inspired later American critics to recover a serious philosophy from the defense of both Mp3 and vinyl. And we read those critics’ Steinerian moments with equal pleasure.

One might quote regarding Steiner the passage regarding Kafka that Steiner quotes from a letter of Walter Benjamin: “Kafka eavesdropped on tradition, and he who listens hard does not see. … Kafka represents tradition falling ill.” But one would then have to quote Benjamin’s further words about Kafka, as quoted by Steiner: “This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: First, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help. The only uncertain thing is: Can such help still do a human being any good?”

Steiner has listened hard, and both detected and embodied the radical decay of the tradition that Benjamin discerned in Kafka. And he has, in his time, mourned it as rhetorically as the thinkers whom he excoriates. But in his tendency to self-regarding seriousness, he has overlooked the dialectical spin that Benjamin and Kafka put on the problem: if only a fool’s help is real help, we will get little enough help from George Steiner, for whom self-aware foolishness is an alien notion.

But we will get an immense amount of insight, and insight is the first step towards real help.

Steiner’s own minimalized playfulness seems to have confused the editor of the book on at least one occasion: The essay title “One Thousand Years of Solitude” appears in italics as though it were reviewing a book of almost that name, whereas the essay is actually about Salvatore Satta’s Il Giorno del Giudizio, a title that the essay cites both in italics and quotation marks. I suspect that the editor was tripped up by the old magazine habit of placing book titles in quotation marks. (I wonder if this habit began when one had to mark up italicized passages with clumsy bracketed instructions to the machine to “set in italic” and “stop setting in italic,” making it easier to substitute the two keystrokes of quotation marks for the seven keystrokes required to indicate “italics.” The compositor’s reach for the adjacent California job case (or other style of type tray before there was a California), in the days of hand-typesetting, was less likely to create errors than a single mistyped keystroke at the end of a command.)

By the way, “One Thousand Years of Solitude” is actually a review of The Day of Judgment, Patrick Creagh’s translation of Satta’s book, which to Steiner’s ear fails to reproduce Satta’s “marmoreal ferocity, the slow fire inside the stone.”

The quick, monosyllabically expressed metaphor that follows the heavy rhythms of its Latinate companion is a stylistic strategy best remembered from Shakespeare (the standard citation being “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red”). It is a reminder that Steiner has gotten his chops from the greatest stylists of eight or nine languages (I am fairly certain as to seven of them), and it shows. Those of us who have mastered at most the several vernaculars of our one native tongue can only gasp with admiration. Those who have mastered all the languages in question may be in a position to imitate his example.

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