- Series: T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures
- Paperback: 154 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press; Revised ed. edition (September 10, 1974)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300017103
- ISBN-13: 978-0300017106
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures) Revised ed. Edition
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Steiner thereafter searches for the images and myths that drive European thought. He thinks the loss of the garden of Eden due to sin is basic. Guilt and a sense of missing paradise drives the culture. However, he thinks the twentieth century also feels the loss of the "imagined garden of liberal culture" of the nineteenth century. So this first talk looks at that "myth".
This short book is four lectures given at the university of Kent at Canterbury in March of 1971.
1) The Great Ennui
2) A Season in Hell
3) In a Post-Culture
Steiner's desire to "understand" is evident on every page. And he does find understanding, at least some. How much is correct, even he wonders. Nevertheless, his journey is enlightening. The questions he ponders and the answers he finds are special. Steiner wants fundamental, even metaphysical explanations for the modern world, for both its horrors and its successes. He finds some.
Born in Paris into an Austrian Jewish family in 1929, he grew up listening to Hitler on the radio. Clearly, this experience colored his view of European culture.
"There are still a good many alive today for whom that famous cloudless summer of 1914 extends backward, a long way, into a world more civil, more confident, more humanly articulate than any we have known since. It is their remembrance of that great summer, and own symbolic knowledge of it, that we test the present cold." (6)
Is this myth or truth? Steiner answers - both.
Quotes Macaulay's famous essay on science of 1837: "It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil. . .it has extended the range of human vision; it has multiplied the power of human muscles; it has annihilated distance. . . . These are but a part of its fruits, and of its firstfruits; or it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. It's law is progress." (8)
Steiner remarks that Hegel, Comte, Scientism all derive from this trust in scientific progress. "We look back on these now with bewildered irony"
"I simply propose to look at the "summer of 1815 - 1915" from a somewhat different perspective - not as a symbolic whole whose contrasting virtues stand almost in indictment of our own difficulties, but as a source of those very difficulties." (9)
His main idea is that the passion, the storm of the French Revolution, the death of feudalism, the creation of wonders and birth of certain hope, gave vividness to that world. . .
"Not since early Christianity had men felt so near to renovation and to the end of night. . . . That immense transmutations of value and perception took place in Europe over a time span more crowded, more sharply registered by individual and social sensibility, than any other of which we have reliable record. Hegel could argue, with rigorous logic of feeling, that history itself was passing into a new state of being, that ancient time was at an end." (15)
"The conjunction of extreme economic-technical dynamism with a large measure of enforced social immobility, a conjunction on which century of liberal, bourgeois civilization was built, made for explosive mixture. . . . These, it seems to me, constitute the meaning of Romanticism. It is from them that will grow the nostalgia for disaster." (20)
Steiner concludes the first lecture with this: "H.G. Wells' "World Set Free" was to prove wholly accurate. Written during 1913, it foresaw, with eerie precision, 'the unquenchable crimson conflagration of the atomic bombs.' And even Wells could not prophesy the true measure of the dissolution of civilized norms, of human hopes, that was to come." (25)
Five decades have past from this conclusion. Still valid.
The second lecture is "A Season in Hell". . .
The question: "Why did humanistic traditions and models of conduct prove so fragile a barrier at political bestiality? In fact, were they a barrier, or is it more realistic to perceive in humanistic culture express solicitations of authoritarian rule and cruelty?" (30)
Excellent question! (Others scholars, i.e., J.L. Talmon, Reinhard Bendix, Julian Benda, etc., spent a lifetime on this question. Also journalists Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Bertram Wolfe.)
"I fail to see how any argument on the definition of culture, on the viability of the concept of moral values, can avoid these questions. A theory of culture, an analysis our present circumstance, which do not have at their pivot a consideration of the modes of terror that brought on the death, through war, starvation, and deliberate massacre of some seventy million human beings in Europe and Russia, between the start of the First World War and he end of the second, seem to me irresponsible. (30) . . . . Much of my work has concerned itself, directly or indirectly, with trying to understand, to articulate, causal and teleological aspects of the holocaust." (33)
"It seems to me incontrovertible that the holocaust must be set in the framework of the psychology of religion, and that an understanding of this framework is vital to an argument on culture. This is a minority view." (34)
Still a minority view. However, religion is now dominating world events. Maybe, as Steiner explains, it dominated the twentieth century also, although without notice.
Steiner says that monotheism is a "new mapping of the world". "The immensity of the event, it's occurrence in real time, are certain, and reverberate still. . . . What we must recapture to mind, as nakedly as we can, is the singularity, the brain-hammering strangeness, of the monotheistic idea. Historians of religion tell us that the emergence of the concept of Mosaic God is a unique fact in human experience, that a genuinely comparable notion sprang up at no other place or time. The abruptness of the Mosaic revelation, the finality of the creed at Sinai, tore up the human psyche by its most ancient roots. The break has never really knit." (37)
Steiner contrasts Mosaic monotheism with Christendom's trinity. "Be it in their Trinitarian aspects, in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons, or in their vividly material realization of God the Father, of Christ, of Mary, the Christian churches have, with very rare exceptions been a hybrid of monotheistic beliefs nod polytheistic practices. . . . The single, unimaginable - rigorously speaking, "unthinkable" - God of the Decalogue has nothing to do it's the threefold, thoroughly visualized pantheon of the churches." (39)
The following comment seems the pivotal point of Steiner's essay: " But that God, blank as the desert air, would not rest. The memory of his ultimatum, the presence of His absence, have goaded Western man." (39)
Fascinating! "By killing the Jews, Western man would eradicate those who had "invented" God, who had, however imperfectly, however restively, been the declarers of His unbearable Absence." (41)
Steiner thinks this explains the holocaust. The Christian morality, Steiner says, is really the same Jewish absolute demand as shown in the Sermon on the Mount.
Steiner connects this vision of paradise with messianic socialism . . .
"Even when it proclaims itself to be atheist, the socialism of Marx, of Trotsky, of Ernst Bloch, is directly rooted in messianic eschatology. Nothing is more religious, nothing is closer to the ecstatic rage for justice in the prophets, than the socialist vision of the destruction of the bourgeois Gomorrah and the creation of a new, clean city for man." (43)
Steiner is not the only scholar who says this.
"Using theological metaphors. . .the holocaust may be said to mark a second fall. We can interpret it as a voluntary exit from the Garden and a programmatic attempt to burn the Garden behind us. . . . With the botched attempt to kill God and the very nearly successful attempt to kill those who had "invented" Him, civilization entered, precisely as Nietzsche had foretold, "on night and more night". (47)
The horrors of political starvation and torture is "an abandonment of the rational order of man. . . . I cannot stress this enough. To Voltaire and Diderot the bestial climate of our national and social conflicts would have seemed a lunatic return to barbarism." (48) "The numb prodigality of our acquaintance with horror is a radical human defeat."
The third lecture is "In a Post-Culture"
"What we now know makes a mock of the vision of history penetrated, made malleable by, intelligence and educated feeling - a vision common to Jefferson and Marx. . . . We are forced now to return to an earlier, Pascalian pessimism, to a model of history whose logic derives from a postulate of orginal sin. . . . Our pessimistic vision, unlike that of a true Jansenist, has neither a rationale of causality nor a hope in transcendent remission. . . . This instability of essential terrain and the psychological evasions which it entails, characterize much of our current posture." (80)
"If the gamble n transcendence no longer seems worth the odds and we are moving into a utopia of the immediate, the value structure of our civilization will alter, after at least three millennia, in ways almost unforseeable." (93)
This is an extensive review. I wanted to give the reader highlights of this profound essay. Many insights on each page. Not light reading. Reader will need an interest in intellectual history and European thought. Steiner is not writing for the general reader. He is an erudite scholar. Requires concentration. Well worth it!
She opens the door and the three wives are all there, alive and bedecked with jewelry. Bluebeard falls at their feet, praising them, and asks Judith to accept the jewelry that he offers and his love for her as his fourth wife. She does, but she is weighed down by the jewelry. When she joins the first three wives the door closes behind her and the castle is again plunged into darkness. Thus, the book positions us in a frightening, dark locus with doors that might hold hideous secrets . . . in other words in the seventh decade of the 20th century, with the holocaust in our immediate past, the decline of culture an everyday reality, the future uncertain and ominous. Still, like Judith, we want to open the final door. Steiner eases it open and allows us to briefly see beyond.
There are four lectures. Some involve vast cultural speculation. How could we look back to the 19thc and find an era of peace and calm and civility and yet see that century’s experience lead to two world wars and the holocaust? What seeds had been sown there? Some possible explanations: the release of energy caused by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars left a psychic gap in those who followed (who were not there to experience the Wordsworthian bliss) and that gap was filled with Yeats’s blood-dimmed tide. We were crowded into metastasizing cities with huddled masses and we craved some personal lebensraum, at any cost.
Why were the Jews singled out for extermination? He mentions all of the traditional explanations and then suggests that the Jews made a series of impossible demands on their all-too-human brothers and sisters. By introducing a distant, perfect, virtually unintelligible God, we lost the slack offered by the polytheistic pantheon with its own human failings and resulting room for human sin. The Jews then gave the world early Christianity, which brought with it more impossible demands. Finally, the Jews (largely) gave us messianic socialism. In each case our collective unconscious was burdened with impossible expectations and resulting guilt. The Jews were then to be exterminated so that our guilt could somehow be ameliorated. With obstacles produced that made it difficult to achieve heaven we instead reproduced hell in the concentration camps.
With high culture thus coexisting with a hellish barbarism, that culture was impugned. What was its purpose if not to prevent savagery, butchery, chaos and old night? As it appeared to fail it was abandoned. The logos was replaced by the image, poetry by popular song, the humanities by science. The book closes with an optimistic vision of science (though without any naiveté concerning its threats) and an invitation to find the drama, vision and voice of the humanities in scientific endeavors.
This is a very schematic summary which cannot hope to approximate the subtlety and complexity of Steiner’s argument. As always, he draws on multiple literatures, multiple languages and multiple disciplines to articulate that argument. The book is haunting, fascinating and utterly riveting. It offers a vision of contemporary experience that is beyond prescient. It is simply dazzling to see the fullness of his vision from the vantage point of 1970, even down to his perception of the centrality of contemporary neuroscience.
The book is replete with interesting observations. Without burdening my own readers, just one example: he argues that the absence of the history of science from the required college curriculum is a public embarrassment and describes the unintelligibility of art and culture from antiquity forward in the face of our ignorance of it.
This is one of Steiner’s most important works as well as one of the most significant books of the second half of the twentieth century.