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Nostalgia for the Absolute (CBC Massey Lecture) Paperback – March 1, 1997
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About the Author
George Steiner was a contributor to The Economist and chief literary critic of The New Yorker. He is a former professor at Princeton University, Cambridge University, and the University of Geneva. He is the author of After Babel, The Death of Tragedy, and Language and Silence.
Top customer reviews
"For the great majority of thinking men and women - even where church attendance continued - the life-springs of theology, of a transcendent and systematic doctrinal conviction, had dried up." (2)
Steiner says ideas matter. Different ideas produce different culture.
Steiner explains; "The political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts - more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent - to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology." (2)
His focus is on the loss of a coherent "total" mental world, which includes past, present, and future.
He says that Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss created three replacements for Christianity. These claimed to be "scientific". Refers to Popper who argues concerning Marxism and Freudism "we have the professional trappings and idiom of an exact science without any of the true substance." (12)
Steiner wrote this in 1973. Now, even more persuasive.
In explaining the profound appeal of Marxism, inspite of the horror, he writes: "It can only be in the light of a religious and messianic vision." (9) The facts were never a counter-argument "because we are dealing with a religious, with a theological force."
Steiner thinks the rise of the occult, astrology and other mindless ideas are a reach for certainty. We are the most superstitious, irrational time since the crisis of the Hellenic world. (38)
The focus on oriental ideas "is the implicit idealization of values eccentric or contrary to the western tradition. Passivity against will; a theosophy of stasis or eternal return against a theodicy of historical progress; the focused monotony, even emptiness, of mediation and of meditative trance as apposed to logical, analytic reflection; asceticism against prodigality of expression; contemplation versus action; a polymorphic eroticism, at once sensual and self-denying, as against the acquisitive, yet also sacrificial, sexuality of the Judaeo-Hellenic inheritance." (45)
This is the visible effect of the loss of confidence in Christendom.
"Christianity in particular, proved helpless, and indeed corrupt, in the face of World War One, and in the face of totalitarian and genocidal terrors thereafter. It is not often said plainly enough. Those who realize that the same church blessed the killer and the victim, that the churches refused to speak out and pursued, under the worst terror ever visited upon civilized man, a policy of unctuous silence, those who know these things are not surprised by the bankruptcy of any theological stands since." (46)
WWI is the defining event of the modern world. The modern world has broken the contract with the enlightenment of Jefferson. "It has now been torn to bits. The impact of this dual failure on the western psyche has obviously been destructive." (47)
Where to turn? Africa? Polynesia? Aliens? Drugs?
Concludes with no clear answer.
Refers several times to the text "You will know the truth, and it will make you free" John 8:32.
Perhaps no better answer will ever be found.
Excellent analysis of current thought from an erudite scholar.
Steiner's point is that we find ourselves at the end of our tether - no God, lots of false gods, lots of silly ways out, demise of the Western paradigm, etc. All too much nostalgia about. Fundamental existentialist position. I like his conclusion that Nietzschian enthusiasm is his choice over Freudian stoicism.
I connect this book to current reading and thought on the long descent of the next 100 to 200 years following the end of the petroleum age.
The first three lectures examine the false gods that he describes as ‘mythologies’: Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and structural anthropology. These require three elements for their success. They must be totalizing visions; they must have monumental ‘texts’ and their masters must have disciples who will stray into heterodoxy and ‘betray’ their leader, creating offshoots and splinter sects.
GS characterizes the fourth lecture as a bit of comic relief, though it’s more grim than comic—an examination of the nostalgia for the absolute that leads to primitive cries for help: the belief in astrology, visits from extra-terrestrials in flying saucers and oversimplified expressions of ‘eastern philosophy’.
The fifth and final lecture focuses upon the western obsession with ratiocination and the search for the truth. Steiner identifies the uniqueness of this activity, locates its sources in ancient Greece, and argues that it is irreversible. We will not revert to primitive, pastoral societies. We will continue to follow our curiosity, even if it leads into moral and military areas that may spell our doom. “The truth,” he concludes, “does have a future; whether man does is much less clear.”
While this summary description sounds bleak, the lectures themselves are not, though they are ‘pained’, for Steiner himself is a great student of religion and a great student of the Bible, but not a person of faith. He is haunted by his insistent sense of not only the intellectual and cultural importance of religious faith but the tragic impact of its loss. While he understands the reasons for the diminution of the influence of institutional religion he is determined to identify false gods as just that—poor substitutes.
At times in his work Steiner identifies very complex, often very abstract subjects and pursues them in imaginative ways that border on free association (very learned free association); here he is pursuing a tight line of historic argument. If I were to be so presumptuous as to offer criticism I would say that it would have been nice to have seen Steiner utilize his vast knowledge of romanticism to position the movements on which he focuses within that larger context to a greater degree. The elements are all there within the lectures but I would have liked to have seen the kinds of details, anecdotes and insights of which Steiner is a master.
Bottom line: a prescient, brilliant set of lectures. Readers might be interested in Roger Scruton’s FOOLS, FRAUDS AND FIREBRANDS: THINKERS OF THE NEW LEFT (international edition, 2017). Scruton argues that the failure of Marxism is the undergirding principle that animates new left thought in a multiplicity of areas. In effect, he identifies new false gods. It is not a coincidence, e.g., that a number of scholars have described capital-T “Theory” as, essentially, a secular religion.