Geprge steiner 1. The Great Ennui
Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture: my subtitle is, of course, intended in memoration of Eliot's Notes of 1948. Not an attractive book. One that is gray with the shock of recent barbarism, but a barbarism whose actual sources and forms the argument leaves fastidiously vague. Yet the Notes towards the Definition of Culture remain of interest. Theyare, so obviously, the product of a mind of exceptional acuteness. Throughout my essay, I will be returning to issues posed in Eliot's plea for order.
It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the mannerof genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures. It tests its sense of identity, of regress or new achievement, against that past. The echoes by which a society seeks to determine the reach, the logic and authority of its own voice, come from the rear. Evidently, themechanisms at work are complex and rooted in diffuse but vital needs of continuity. A society requires antecedents. Where these are not naturally at hand, where a community is new or reassembled after a long interval of dispersal or subjection, a necessary past tense to the grammar of being is created by intellectual and emotional fiat. The "history" of the American Negro and of modern Israel are cases inpoint. But the ultimate motive may be metaphysical. Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise. At some point in more or less remote times things were better, almost golden. A deep concordance lay between man and the natural setting. The myth of the Fall runs stronger than any particular religion. There is hardly a civilization, perhaps hardly an individual consciousness, thatdoes not carry inwardly an answer to intimations of a sense of distant catastrophe. Somewhere a wrong turn was taken in that "dark and sacred wood," after which man has had to labor, socially, psychologically, against the natural grain of being.
In current Western culture or "post-culture," that squandered utopia is intensely important. But it has taken on a near and secular form. Our presentfeeling of disarray, of a regress into violence, into moral obtuseness; our ready impression of a central failure of values in the arts, in the comeliness of personal and social modes; our fears of a new "dark age" in which civilization itself, as we have known it, may disappear or be confined to small islands of archaic conservation -- these fears, so graphic and widely advertised as to be a dominantclich� of the contemporary mood -- derive their force, their seeming self-evidence, from comparison. Behind today's posture of doubt and self-castigation stands the presence, so pervasive as to pass largely unexamined, of a particular past, of a specific "golden time." Our experience of the present, the judgments, so often negative, that we make of our place in history, play continually againstwhat I want to call the "myth of the nineteenth century" or the "imagined garden of liberal culture."
Our sensibility locates that garden in England and western Europe between ca. the 1820s and 1915. The initial date has a conventional indistinction, but the end of the long summer is apocalyptically exact. The main features of the landscape are unmistakable. A high and gaining literacy. The ruleof law. A doubtless imperfect yet actively spreading use of representative forms of government. Privacy at home and an ever-increasing measure of safety in the streets. An unforced recognition of the focal economic and civilizing role of the arts, the sciences, and technology. The achievement, occasionally marred but steadily pursued, of peaceful coexistence between nation states (as, in fact...
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