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Monday, January 04, 2016

Literature and the Civilising Project

"Literary criticism, particularly in its present cohabitation with the academic, is no longer a very interesting or responsible exercise. Too much of it exhibits the complacencies of academic or journalistic values and habits of statement developed in the nineteenth century. Books about books and that flourishing though more recent genre, books about literary criticism (a threefold remove), will no doubt continue to pour out in great numbers. But it is becoming clear that most of them are a kind of initiate sport, that they have very little to say to those who would ask what coexistence and interaction are possible between humanism, between the idea of literate communication , and the present shapes of history. The gap between the academic, belle-lettristic treatment of literature and the possible meanings or subversions of literature in our actual lives has rarely been wider since Kierkegaard first pointed to its ironic breadth...

The blackness of it did not spring up in the Gobi Desert or the rain forests of the Amazon. It rose from within, and from the core of European civilization. The cry of the murdered sounded in earshot of the universities; the sadism went on a street away from the theaters and museums. In the later eighteenth century Voltaire had looked confidently to the end of torture; ideological massacre was to be a banished shadow. In our own day the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen.

I cannot accept the facile comfort that this catastrophe was a purely German phenomenon or some calamitous mishap rooted in the persona of one or another totalitarian ruler. Ten years after the Gestapo quit Paris, the countrymen of Voltaire were torturing Algerians and each other in some of the same police cellars. The house of classic humanism, the dream of reason which animated Western society, have largely broken down. Ideas of cultural development, of inherent rationality held since ancient Greece and still intensely valid in the utopian historicism of Marx and stoic authoritarianism of Freud {both of them late outriders of Greco-Roman civilization} can no longer be asserted with much confidence. The reach of technological man, as a being susceptible to the controls 0F political hatred and sadistic suggestion, has lengthened formidably toward destruction.

To think of literature, of education, of language, as if nothing very important had happened to challenge our very concept of these activities seems to me unrealistic. To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare—let alone to “teach” them—as if the texts, as if the authority of the texts in our own lives, were immune from recent history, is subtle but corrosive illiteracy. This does not mean any indiscriminate or journalistic test of “present relevance”; it means that one tries to take seriously the complex miracle of the survivance of great art, of what answer we can give to it from our own being.

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct? Moreover, it is not only the case that the established media of civilization—the universities, the arts, the book world—failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality; they often rose to welcome it and to give it ceremony and apologia. Why? What are the links, as yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy and the temptations of the inhuman? Does some great boredom and surfeit of abstraction grow up inside literate civilization preparing it for the release of barbarism?"

--- Language and Silence / George Steiner
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