A Review of Poetry, Prose, and Art - Summer 2001
No Passion Spent, by George Steiner
Reviewed by Steve Harris
George Steiner is a serious guy. So serious that, when first encountering his essays, the reader of say "Harpers" or "Vanity Fair" will be taken aback with the realization that what he or she had been consuming up to that reading point were mental potato chips. In his recent collection of essays, No Passion Spent, Steiner covers (with great erudition) an incredible range of subjects: Homer, the Hebrew Bible, Simone Weil, Socrates, Christ, the Holocaust, Kafka, Comparative Literature, etc. In all of Steiner's writings, there is an intense interest in moral truth and folded into this moral stance is the religious act of reading itself. In the collection's opening essay, "The Uncommon Reader," Steiner examines Chardin's 1794 portrait, Le Philosophe lisant. In this essay, Steiner sees the reader in the portrait as representative of a code and system of values quite out of line with our own time:
Consider first the reader's garb. It is unmistakably formal, even ceremonious. The furred coat and hat suggest brocade, a suggestion borne out by the matt but aureate sheen of the coloration. Though clearly at home, the reader is 'coiffed' — an archaic word which does convey the requisite note of almost heraldic ceremony (that the shape and treatment of the furred bonnet most likely derive from Rembrandt is a point of mainly art-historical interest). What matters is the emphatic elegance, the sartorial deliberation of the moment. The reader does not meet the book casually or in disarray. He is dressed for the occasion, a proceeding which directs our attention to the construct of values and sensibility which includes both 'vestment' and 'investment'. The primary quality of the act, of the reader's 'self-investiture before the act of reading, is one of cortesia, a term rendered only imperfectly by 'courtesy'. Reading, here, is no haphazard, unpremeditated motion. It is courteous, almost a courtly encounter, between a private person and one of those 'high guests' whose entrance into mortal houses is evoked by Holderlin in his hymn 'As on a festive day' and by Coleridge in one of his most enigmatic glosses he appended to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The reader meets the book with a courtliness, a scruple of welcome and entertainment of which the russet sleeve, possibly of velvet or velveteen, and the furred cloak and bonnet are the external symbols.
Even though I often read in slovenly attire (T-shirt and gym shorts), I am ready to concede the power of Steiner's image (and its attendant responsibility ) of the reader as thinker, contemplator, and to some limited extent, channel for the word (Logos) — particularly in this, our Age of Iron. Steiner is not a prig -- his concern is for truth. On occasion this can seem cramped, as found in his essays upon the French poet Péguy ("Drumming on the Doors -- Péguy"), and the French philosopher Simone Weil ("Sainte Simone"). In these two essays (as in so many of Steiner's essays), the question is: how does the western non-Jew (read: intellectual) react towards the Jew? In Péguy's case, we have a mystical Catholic poet who was a fierce defender of Dreyfuss. So fierce, that he (Péguy) felt Dreyfuss sold out by accepting amnesty, when in fact he was completely innocent. Steiner thus sees Péguy as a good Christian who's writing and thinking "burns to the touch." No doubt it was Péguy's drive for truth that so deeply impressed Steiner. With Steiner, this uncompromising desire for truth can indeed be like religious conviction -- which is certainly true in the case of Péguy.. With Weil, Steiner is not so expansive. Weil is something of a darling with certain Catholics due to her flirtation with the Church. But she ultimately rejected joining the Church because she thought it was too Jewish! Like Steiner, I'm suspicious of her, and he accuses her of a kind of holy anorexia, which ultimately led to her early death. Her fascination with the dualistic Cathars is a clear clue to her hatred of this world, but he carries it further, seeing her as in fact hating her own Jewishness, which of course places her in a historical continuum of Steiner's own devising. Maybe so. But I think he makes the case for her being somewhat mad by showing just how inarticulate a thinker she really was and not whether she loathed herself because she was a Jew.
Nevertheless, Steiner is often at his best when discussing God, history, Jews, and Christians. He asks tough questions, forces the reader to think, squirm. In a similar, but more developed vein, Steiner lays out his thinking on these subjects in the essay, "Through That Glass Darkly":
Whatever the reasons, Judaic inattention to the New Testament, to patristic literature, to Augustan and Aquinan propositions, comports a consequential void. For it is in these writings that the record of Jewish suffering among the gentiles and of the Shoah is, as 'through a glass darkly', writ large. Let me be absolutely clear on this. Positivist examinations of the roots of the Shoah and of modern anti-Semitism are of self-evident weight. Political history, sociology, the history of economic and class-conflicts, the study, rudimentary as it is, of mass behavior and collective fantasies, have contributed much. But the sum of empirical understanding falls drastically short of any fundamental insight. We will not, cannot, of this I am persuaded, be capable of 'thinking of the Shoah', albeit inadequately, if we divorce its genesis and its radical enormity from theological origins. More specifically, we will not achieve penetration into the persistent psychosis of Christianity which is that of Jew-hatred (even where there are hardly any Jews left) unless we come to discern in this dynamic pathology the unhealed scars left by the Jew's 'No' to the crucified Messiah. It is to these unhealing scars or stigmata that we may apply, in a dread sense, Kierkagaard's injunction that the 'wounds of possibility' must be kept open.
Whether one agrees with this line of thought seems somewhat irrelevant, what you do have to admire is the intellectual gusto with which Steiner swings for the fences, along with the incredible precision of his language. But Steiner doesn't stop with these radical statements, but like a dog running ahead with his well-chewed stick, he writes of Paul:
No volume, and it is never ending, of commentary, of hermeneutic 'gentling', however subtle, can blunt the terrible edge of relegation in Romans 10-11 or 1 Thessalonians. Now that the Son and Deliverer has come, 'ungodliness' is taken away from Jacob' and Israel is redeemed, but only in so far and exactly in so far as it ceases to be itself. Only if it understands that wilful self-exclusion from the new dispensation will make of it an 'un-people', a vestigial absurdity and lamentable scandal. But why should the existence, so obviously marginal and pitiful, of this obdurate remnant so trouble the Apostle? Why should it be a fierce vexation to a Christendom already on the way to it Constantine triumph?
There is much to find fault with in the above passage, not least of which is Steiner's confidence that Paul's first century letter writing efforts will somehow determine the coming of Constantine (and a triumphant Christendom) a few hundred years later. This sentiment, for me at least, betrays Steiner's own classical leanings, and how some of his understandings spring not from his awe of the burning bush, but rather his deep appreciation for Greek Tragedy. This can be jarring, when later in the essay, Steiner faults the Roman Church for its Hellenistic and gnostic compromises. By essay's end, Steiner suggests there can be no rapprochement among Jews and Christians, because we (Jew and Christian) have perhaps reached an historical point – in this postmodern twilight – where men and women concerned with the truth must be content to pick through the blackened shards, resigned to the failure of language. Here Steiner sounds more like a resigned Jewish classicist than a Jewish religious thinker. Nevertheless, and whether you agree with him or not, it is Steiner's scrupulous honesty in the essay that most impresses the reader.
Moving beyond the religious (though with Steiner, questions about God are always present in his writing) you will find that Steiner is not afraid to take on various cultural idols. In his essay "A Reading Against Shakespeare," Steiner takes on the biggest literary idol of all and scores some points worth considering. He does this by following Dr. Johnson's lead and then jumping on the backs of previous arguments put forth by Tolstoy and Wittgenstein but, as always, following his own sense of truth. Ultimately, Steiner finds the fault with Shakespeare to be that he is not a truth-seeker but a magician:
Where is there a Shakespearian philosophy or intelligible ethic? Both Cordelia and Iago, Richard III and Hermione are instinct with the same uncanny trick of life. The shaping imagination which animates their 'spectacular' presence is beyond good and evil. It has the dispassionate neutrality of sunlight or of wind. Can a man or woman conduct their lives by the example or precepts of Shakespeare as they can, say, of Tolstoy? Is the 'creation of words', even at a pitch of beauty, musicality, suggestive and metaphoric originality scarcely accessible to our analysis, really enough? Are Shakespeare's characters, at the last, more than Magellanic clouds of verbal energy turning around a void, around an absence of moral substance?
These are tough questions, all posed with intelligence and an awareness that Shakespeare is indeed great – but that Shakespeare's greatness requires scales that weigh also the moral truth in the Bard's writings, which is the kind of probing Steiner feels has been largely ignored since Dr. Johnson's day. It is this kind of devotion to truth that the reader can expect in all of Steiner's twenty-one essays. For Steiner, this devotion is the essential requirement we as humans should always insist upon in our writing, reading, and thinking.