The European

Reading between the lines.
July 30 1996 3:30 AM

The European

George Steiner's Old World critique.

No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995

By George Steiner

(Yale University Press; 430 pages; $30)

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George Steiner has been writing his incandescent essays on high culture for nearly four decades now, steadily deepening his insights and widening his topical reach, but carrying on the same essential errand. In earlier times, he would have been one of Enlightenment's missionaries; in our own, he has come to be seen more as a guardian, a defender of embattled humanism. While Steiner has hewed to traditions and verities, the world around him has been mutating. Post-structuralism has come and gone; multiculturalism is exercising its liberations and tyrannies; the computer has become the dominant tool of discourse. And Steiner has been quietly gathering the authority of his intransigence.

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No Passion Spent, the latest of the critic's many studies and collections, sends its root threads back to nearly every phase of his complex endeavor. There are essays on all the familiar Steiner subjects--translation, tragedy, the eclipse of humane culture, the connection between language and ethics, and Judaism and the Holocaust. New, if not unexpected, subjects include Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, dreams, the deaths of Socrates and Jesus, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

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Steiner opens the collection with "The Uncommon Reader," a tour-de-force meditation on Jean-Siméon Chardin's painting Le Philosophe lisant, which becomes, through attentive reading of details--"his folio, his hourglass, his incised medallions, his ready quill"--an emblem for the vanishing culture of book and reader. Reading has always been, for Steiner, a quasi-priestly activity. As he writes in "Real Presences," the second essay: "Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text ... incarnates... a real presence of significant being." Chardin's reader, in his solitary bearing, his grave demeanor, honors this most freighted obligation, which can be construed as an obligation to being itself. But "the revolution ... brought on by computers, by planetary electronic exchanges, by 'cyber-space' and (soon) 'virtual reality,' " as Steiner puts it in his introduction, has all but brought this particular sense of presence to extinction. He lets himself dream that there might arise "schools of creative reading," but he also knows that his dreams will remain just that.

For all his elegiac rumination, though, Steiner does not lack a polemicist's instinct for the intellectual or ideological "hot spot." He begins his attack with smaller provocations: In "A Reading Against Shakespeare," for instance, he uses Wittgenstein's stated reservations about the Bard to test some of our dearest assumptions about this mythic figure. Without ever calling Shakespeare's linguistic greatness into question, Steiner suggests an alternative requirement for true greatness, that comprehended in the German term Dichter, which carries certain lofty notions of witness and moral responsibility. Steiner knows his Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is no Dichter. The work is too teeming, too multiform; it lacks the felt force of either the presence or absence of God. Shakespeare gives us plenitude at the expense of ethics or higher spiritual aspiration. The conclusion, cagey, teasing, is one of Steiner's typically pregnant equivocations. Plato, he proclaims, "was wrong when he banished the poets. Wittgentstein misreads Shakespeare. Surely this must be so.

And yet."

The essay called "Archives of Eden" seeks to provoke on a larger scale. Advancing example after example, measuring reputations--those of composers Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, say, against those of Stravinsky and Schoenberg--Steiner insists that America has produced very little that can stand up to the intellectual or artistic achievements of Europe. The "dominant apparatus of American high culture," he writes, "is that of custody"; they make the art, we build the museums. If there is truth to the contention--Steiner is persuasive when he compares various fields and finds that only architecture and modern dance, those uniquely American triumphs, exhibit signs of life--his argument still feels more like animadversion than rigorous reflection.

If, as Steiner claims, the greatness of a culture rests upon traditions, upon history, then America must be found wanting. In a dangerously cantilevered sentence of the kind that Steiner does at times resort to, he asserts: "[I]t may well be that the ethnic-demographic elements in the successive waves of American settlement are 'Darwinian negative,' that they embody the brilliant survival of an anti-historical species, where 'anti-historianism' would entail an abdication from those adaptive mechanisms of tragic intellectuality, of ideological 'caring' (Kierkegaard's, Heidegger's word Sorge) which are indispensable to cultural creation of the first rank." For the rest of us, a translation: What those tired and huddled masses that wash up on America's shores are tired of, specifically, is history.

The argument continues. Steiner rears up to make his well-known linkage between elite culture and eruptions of barbarism. He notes that "the correlations between extreme creativity ... and political justice are, to a significant degree at least, negative." In this regard, he argues, the American choice for a leveling democracy "makes abundant sense."

He ends by questioning whether the threat to thought and creation of the first rank lies in the "apparatus of political repression" or in "a consensus of spiritual-social values in which the television showing of 'Holocaust' is interrupted every fourteen minutes by commercials, in which gas-oven sequences are interspersed and financed by ads for pantihose and deodorants?" His own answer, maddeningly brief, invokes Archimedes' garden in Syracuse, where the philosopher worked defiantly on his theorem even as barbarians clamored at the gates. "That garden may have been a 'counter-Eden,' " writes Steiner. "But it happens to be the one in which you and I must continue our labor. My hunch is that it lies in Syracuse still--Sicily, that is, rather than New York State."

This is all pure Steiner: high-toned and irritating, vibrating with barely curtailed snobbism, but also venturing hard queries and unpopular responses. His views are calculatedly divisive. Indeed, it is hard to square one's indignation at being patronized with the nettlesome suspicion that he may be right. Ours is not now, nor is it ever likely to become, a "civilized" culture in the European sense of the word. Most of us--God bless America--couldn't care less. This is Steiner's point precisely. We long ago decided to ignore the poet's counsel and took the road more traveled. We narrowed our intellectual horizons and flattened our discourse, and more than ever, we need a critic like Steiner to remind us of what a difference that choice has made. Those who feel no sense of crisis about late-modern life will nibble and scowl and drop the book with an impatient thump. The rest of us will be piqued, shamed, outraged, instructed, and maybe perversely fortified.

Sven Birkerts is author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and recently edited Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse.