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Edenic

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I spent a great deal of time and trouble this summer trying to make sure I would have my book done before classes started up for fall term.  

That worked out in the way in which that kind of thing always worked out.  Not only was I not finished by the end of the term, I’m farther behind than I usually am in this stage of the run up to my deadline.

I sometimes think there is a part of my brain that is doing this subconsciously but on purpose.

Actually, there is a lot my brain is doing subconsciously but on purpose these days, but that’s the topic for another post.

My schedule being what it is this term, with the writing and the classes and other commitments elsewhere, I am once again faced with the Fridays From Hell.

They start with an early morning writing Gregor and are then followed by a three hour long 8 o’clock in the morning class in which everybody in the room (possibly including me) looks game to give it a try but mired in something like shell shock.

We will, I think, make it all work, but it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

Needless to say, when I finally got home after class and office hours and everything else, I was in that state of mental fuzzy wool that makes your forehead feel numb. 

I was also at the very end of a book, meaning

55) Erle Stanley Gardner.  The Case of the Blonde Bonanza.

I truly love all things Perry Mason, and I was recently delighted to discover that there’s actually an annual Perry Mason convention, but this particular book is a late entry in the series and a little thin.

That said, you should all be aware that my friend Jeffrey Marks is coming up with a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner fairly soon. 

Anyway, here I was at the very end of a book which, in spite of its complete lack of material for mental exercise, was feeling very hard to get through. 

Me being me, however, the possibility of just getting through the rest of the evening without reading anything was not an option. 

Unfortunately, since I’m doing Real Writing, neither were several other options I sometimes use in similar situations.  I cannot manage to write through anything I read. 

For some reason, reading some things just makes writing harder for me. 

One of those things, some of the time, are the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes stories are my default setting for “can’t think of what I want to read next.”

So there I was. Sitting on the love seat.  Listening to West Wing Season 4 blasting behind my head on DVD.  Sending up little pleas to the cosmos that the single best writer of fiction I’d had in any class in years wouldn’t be one of the ones who just disappeared by midterm.

At that point, I decided to annoy my younger son by announcing that I needed some help looking through my TBR file.  “I want to look through my TBR pile and I don’t know what I want” has the same status in this house as the nuclear attack sirens going off elsewhere.

Nevertheless, we got down to it, and what I finally settled on–something short that would allow me to pick up something longer in the morning–was George Steiner’s “Archives of Eden.”

Yes, all right, I know.  Steiner is not something light.  Ever.

But as anybody who has been reading this blog for a while already knows, I have read this particular essay of Steiner’s several times already.  I have a fascination with it, and with its central idea, and even with several of its subsidiary ideas.

And every time I read it, I find something I haven’t noticed before.

For those of you who have not read this thing, or the other blog posts about it, Steiner’s central point is that great art and great culture are impossible in a democratic country, because great art and great culture are fundamentally and uncompromisingly elitist.

Very few people are born with the capable of truly understanding either, and even fewer people are born with the capacity to do either.

Under the term “high culture,” Steiner includes things like physics and theoretical mathematics. 

That gets us into interesting territory in some ways. 

The idea that theoretical mathematics belongs to an elite, and that very few people are born capable of understanding it or doing it, is uncontroversial.  The stanchest democratic leveler seems to be capable of recognizing that most people are never going to understand Fermat’s Theorem.

The controversy over the elitism of high culture comes in other areas, like those of the arts, where the judgments of what is “high” and what is otherwise can be contested. 

And are.

But the controversial parts of Steiner’s essay are not this.  They come with his corollaries, once this–high culture being always and everywhere the province of a small elite–is stipulated.

(And I think it can be stipulated.  You may or may not think that Picasso or Dvorak is great art, but you can recognize that the existence of such people and the audience for their work is a minority group in every society everywhere.)

Once you agree that high culture belongs to a minority in every society, though, Steiner asks you to contemplate three things:

1) It is possible that high culture not only does not make people better people, but that it may actually make them worse.  There is an odd and persistant correlation between high culture and the worst forms of political savagery.

Unlike a lot of writers on high culture, Steiner does not try to gloss over the fact that many of his examples of high culture excellence and transcendance were also very bad people–that Heidigger was a member of the Nazi Party and personally involved in the persecution of Jews; that Sartre was an apologist for Stalin and something of a Nazi collaborator during the War.

And he asks the question.  Maybe an involvement with high culture does not only not make you better.  Maybe it makes you worse.

2) Even if it doesn’t make people worse, societies in which the high culture elite is in charge and can impose the standard on everybody else lives stunted lives relative not only to the elites but to those of citizens in a democratic country like that United States. 

If our object is to make life decent and livable for most of our citizens, then a democratic culture–a democratic ethos–is what we need to get us there.

But we should recognize, when we do that, that we are condemning high culture to, at best, a thing of the past, dead as a doornail, imprisoned in museums and treated as an historical curiosity.

3) And then the kicker–in spite of the betterness of democratic culture for nearly everybody, in spite of the possibility that the encouragement of high culture is in some way related to the worst (Nazi, Soviet) political outcomes every invented–

In spite of all that, we should side with high culture anyway, because what we lose by not doing so is the only thing that makes life worth living, and the only think that makes human beings actually human.

High art, the abstract realms of metaphysics, the pure science of mathematics and physics–these are the things that make human beings human, what distinguish them from beasts.

To give Steiner his due–and he deserves all the due we give him–he isn’t really comfortable with this last thing. 

He did, after all, come to the US as a child as part of a family that was trying to outrun the Nazis.  Every last member of his extended family who did not make it here died in the camps.

He is such a beautiful writer that it took me several run through to realize how incoherent so much of this essay is.

At one point, he goes off on a riff about immigrants and what they really were.  We’re told all about heroic immigrants, but the poem says tired and poor and huddled masses–and maybe that’s just what they were. 

Ordinary people.  Not heroes.  Just the lumpen mass. Not very bright.  Not very anything.

To somebody who was brought up with the American idea, this just seems silly.

Yes, of course they were just ordinary people, just like the waves of Latinos coming up from South America now are just ordinary people.

But I always thought the history of immigration in the United States was a testament to just how much ordinary people could do.

The real lumpen mass of Europe didn’t consist of the people who came here. It consisted of the people who stayed, who responded to misery and oppression with passivity and patience.

It’s not a small thing to rip up your life, leave everything and most of everybody you know, and start all over again in an alien place.

I kept trying to figure out if Steiner was distressed to think he was classes with all these ordinary people who could not understand philosophy, or if his own passage to American, having been under more comfortable circumstances, didn’t let him see what most people who make the journey put themselves through to make it.

(My Greek relatives, and the Greeks I meet in Greece, are entirely distainful of “Greek Americans.” Obviously, only lower class people went to America. And that is, of course, quite true.   I do think it’s not lost on any of us, though, who is providing what to whom at the moment, or how likely this situation is ever to reverse itself.)

But the really big thing I noticed this time that I hadn’t noticed before is the fact that the world he thinks he’s nostalgic about, the world of artists doing art not for the money but for the passion of it, of standards of value not based on cash or professionalism or conspicuous consumption but oriented to the practice and experience of the art itself–

Such places and communities exist right now in the United States–several of them do.

They just exist in places and among people and with kinds of art Steiner doesn’t know exists, and, if he did, would probably declare didn’t count.

I’m not saying that the vast variegated content of science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romance and the rest of the genres is the artistic equivalent of Dostoyevsky or Stravinksy.

I’m saying that to the extent that what he wants is a certain kind of communal approach to the art, it can be found these days in those genres.

The last thing is a little more speculative.

Steiner in this essays bemoans the fact that America “archives” all the past artistic achievements of Europe, but does not expand on it, does not produce new high art of its own.

But I wonder if that has anything to do with America.

It seems to me that many of the specific forms of high art are dead or dying everywhere. 

There are few great painters these days–maybe none–because the social function of painting is no longer what it was. That social function has been taken over by photography, and there are some truly astonishing (and, yes, high art) advances in photographic art.

Maybe the old forms have simply run their course, which happens.

Maybe some of the old forms have found new and different kinds of outlets and audiences (think John Williams in music).

I don’t really have any answers to those last questions.  I haven’t thought about them enough.

But there’s my Saturday.

Written by janeh

August 31st, 2013 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Edenic'

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  1. [If anyone else has trouble looking up essays, you can find “The Archives of Eden” in Steiner’s NO PASSION SPENT.]

    I’m going to try to understate here my visceral rejection of that particular essay. Steiner is an educated and intelligent man, and I’ve read him with pleasure and interest before–but not that time. Steiner speaks, I’m sure, many more languages and more fluently than I do, but the word for what he’s doing in English is “cheating” unless he doesn’t realize it, and we have to make do with “muddle-headedness.”

    Let me start by nit-picking. He gives as a throw-away example Bloomington, Indiana, with its excellent library and “no tolerable bookstore.” Can’t dispute the excellence of the Indiana University Main Library and the associated Lilly Library, but a quick computer search revealed everything from a Book Rack (used paperbacks) to a Barnes & Noble. If a B&N is not a “tolerable” bookstore, I’d be interested in knowing how many volumes and what volumes Mr. Steiner requires. It’s a small point. But if he’s not honest where I can check him, how do I know he’s honest anywhere I can’t?

    Whether there is any philosopher of any nation worth paying attention to after about the mid-Nineteenth Century–or any poet after 1918–I shall leave for others to decide. Where I feel I have a defensible opinion:

    Music. The finest symphonic composers of the past century worked in the United States. Many of them were born and raised here. It’s a line that begins with Eric Wolfgang Korngold and runs through Roscza, Tiomkin, Herrmann, Newman, Elmer Bernstein and William Goldman down to John Williams.

    Story-telling. Did no one else notice that Europeans, Russians and Chinese are flocking to the theaters to see American products? And that the most popular of those products are derived from either the Depression and the run-up to WWII–SUPERMAN, BATMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA–or reflect the turmoil of the Sixties–STAR TREK, X-MEN and THE AVENGERS?

    It’s certainly true that the United States preserves much of Western culture, but it takes a willful pig-headedness not to recognize that America makes its own contribution, often in novel forms.

    Ah, but is it the HIGH Culture? Who decides? And this is where I call the inclusion of mathematics cheating. Certainly you can identify superior mathematicians and engineers–which lets Steiner gloss over our inability to identify superior composers and painters. Is Frank Frazetta inferior to Picasso? Not to me–and not by any objective standard. The High Cultist is reduced to saying “WE know what is superior, and if you don’t agree with us, that proves you are inferior.” Steiner to the contrary, I don’t think listening to Wagner or (probably) even admiring Picasso makes one morally suspect. But a fixed belief in the objective superiority of your own taste and that of your associates might well be just that corrupting.

    Totalitarianism. A side-issue first: has ANY composer EVER been prosecuted for his work, as opposed to his race, class standing or associate, which can happen to anyone? It’s the wordsmiths–poets, novelists and playwrights–who take the heat. And I would agree that eras of war and persecution produce better work. But I think it’s the stress that does it rather than the dubious joys of censorship and destructive labor camps. Fighting for survival focusses one on just what IS worth living and dying for. Post-Soviet Russia has no Bulgakov–but we’re not going to produce another CASABLANCA anytime soon either, and absent the Persian and Peloponesian Wars, Greece produced no successor to Herodotus and Thucydides.

    As for immigration, certainly we have drawn more than our share of stiff-necked men and women who would not bend to the religious and political winds, and as Heinlein wrote “the cowards never started, and the weak died along the way.” But I have no doubt the people who could paint a really flattering picture of His Nibs drawn just the way he wanted it were better off staying in the Old Country. In time, they’d become academicians and get to decide what the High Culture was for everyone else.

    Steiner thinks because I wanted to read his essay and could understand it, I was one of his, and should turn against freedom and democracy in the hope of producing more Klimts and Mondrains. I can’t say I’m flattered by his claim to my allegiance.

    robert_piepenbrink

    31 Aug 13 at 3:18 pm

  2. For those of you who have not read this thing, or the other blog posts about it, Steiner’s central point is that great art and great culture are impossible in a democratic country, because great art and great culture are fundamentally and uncompromisingly elitist.

    Counter example? Ancient Athens was considered a democracy and we still remember the Greek drama and art.

    jd

    31 Aug 13 at 5:30 pm

  3. Wasn’t ancient Athens a rather elitist democracy? A lot of people weren’t included.

    Cheryl

    31 Aug 13 at 6:05 pm

  4. Depends, Cheryl. Slaves, metics (resident foreigners)and of course women and children couldn’t vote in classical Athens–but that might still leave them with a higher percentage than the pre-1860 or even pre-1900 US, depending on how many slaves and metics we think there were. Also a many offices were filled by lot. Picture a lottery of all registered voters to populate the Senate and the Supreme Court. Certainly Athens was a lot more democratic than any number of states which somehow failed to produce sculptors, playwrights and historians of comparable quality.

    (In absolute fairness to Sparta, their best events were choral recitation and dance, which don’t have the shelf life of statuary–but I think jd has an excellent point.)

    robert_piepenbrink

    31 Aug 13 at 6:58 pm

  5. Is there enough data to allow us to draw conclusions?

    We have thousands of years of monarchy and only a few hundred years of democracy. And even the 19th century European democracies were rather elitist. Think of Victorian England.

    jd

    31 Aug 13 at 8:31 pm

  6. Well, the democracies Steiner thinks unsuitable for the High Culture are the ones of his lifetime, so we’re not looking for an effect which kicks in at some more democratic level than 30’s Britain or 40’s U.S.

    robert_piepenbrink

    1 Sep 13 at 8:18 am

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