© Michel Fingerhut 1995-8 ^  


George Steiner:
In Bluebeard's Castle. Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (3)
0-300-01751-3 Yale University Press © George Steiner 1971
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We are very grateful to Professor George Steiner for allowing us to make this text available here.

3. In a Post-Culture

Yet the mechanized, often antiseptic landscape of contemporary Europe can be illusory. The new facades, crowded, economically dynamic as may be the spaces behind them, speak a curious emptiness. The test case lies in the restored urban centers. At great pains and cost, Altstädtte, whole cities, have been rebuilt, stone by numbered stone, geranium pot by geranium pot. Photographically there is no way of telling; the patina on the gables is even richer than before. But there is something unmistakably amiss. Go to Dresden or Warsaw, stand in one of the exquisitely recomposed squares in Verona, and you will feel it. The perfection of renewal has a lacquered depth. As if the light at the cornices had not been restored, as if the air were inappropriate and carried still an edge of fire. There is nothing mystical to this impression; it is almost painfully literal. It may be that the coherence of an ancient thing is harmonic with time, that the perspective of a street, of a roof line, that have lived their natural being can be replicated but not re-created (even where it is, ideally, indistinguishable from the original, reproduction is not the vital form). Handsome as it is, the Old City of Warsaw is a stage set; walking through it, the living create no active resonance. It is the image of those precisely restored house fronts, of those managed lights and shadows which I keep in mind when trying to discriminate between what is irretrievable -- though it may still be about -- and what has in it the pressure of life.

I have to leave out the genetic aspect, and this omission may be severely damaging. Obviously, our current state reflects formidable losses not only of human means -- the individuals who would now be feeling and thinking with us -- but also of future potentiality. Certain vital futures have been eliminated forever from the spectrum of possibility. But, as I said earlier, "biosociology" and historical genetics are, as yet, too rudimentary, too broad in their conceptual schemes, to allow any responsible, verifiable estimate of what the physiological impairment to Western civilization has been. What I want to consider is the destruction of inner forms.

The first of these involves the locale of high civilization. Western culture worked on the assumption, often unexamined, that its own legacy, the repertoire of its identifying recognitions, was in fact "the best that has been said and thought." Out of Judaeo-Hellenic sources, in a geography singularly tempered to creative man, in a racial matrix indistinctly but confidently felt to be preeminent, Western history had developed its privileged strength of being. Seen from that commanding nub, the histories, the social lives, the artistic and intellectual artifacts of other races and terrains took on a diminished, occasional air. Not that they were altogether ignored. At different times, Islamic and Far Eastern cultures impinged on the European sensibility. Eighteenth-century chinoiserie, the interest shown by certain Victorian thinkers and by the German idealist tradition in "the light from the East" are characteristic moments. But in neither case was there a feeling of genuine parity, let alone inferiority. The myth of the noble savage had interiorized a powerful hierarchic dogma: Western sensibility could dwell with nostalgic admiration on Oceanic virtues, and even see in such virtues a reproach to its own failings, precisely because its own primacy was not in serious question. Both the pastoral nostalgia and the self-criticism derived from a stable fulcrum.

That stability was not seriously undermined until the 1920s and 30s. The charismatic appeal of "barbaric forms" on the plastic and musical imagination, as occurs in jazz, in Fauve art, in dance, in the new theatre of masque and ritual, drew on several complex strains. But it cannot be dissociated from the catastrophe of world war and the sudden void of classic values. The African masks which grimace out of post-Cubic art are borrowings of and for despair. But even these explosive insinuations from without did not negate the Western inheritance. The latter continued to provide touchstones of order and of that unbroken continuum of intellectual power which had, in plain fact, made European and Anglo-Saxon man very largely master of the globe.

Today, after only a generation of crisis, this picture looks antiquarian. Slogan-mongers and pseudophilosophers have familiarized the West with the notion that the white man has been a leprosy on the skin of the earth, that his civilization is a monstrous imposture or, at best, a cruel, cunning disguise for economic, military exploitation. We are told, in tones of punitive hysteria, either that our culture is doomed -- this being the Spenglerian model of rational apocalypse -- or that it can be resuscitated only through a violent transfusion of those energies, of those styles of feeling, most representative of "third-world" peoples. Theirs is true "soul," theirs the beauty of blackness and of eros. This neoprimitivism (or penitential masochism) has roots in the core of the Western crisis and needs to be understood both psychologically and sociologically. I will come back to the question. The point to make is an obvious one: there can be no natural return to the lost centrality. For the great majority of thinking beings, certainly for the young, the image of Western culture as self-evidently superior, as embodying within itself almost the sum total of intellectual and moral power, is either a racially tinged absurdity or a museum piece. In America particularly -- and America is, today, the main generator and storehouse of cultural means -- the confident pivot of a classic geography is irreparably broken.

To what extent are that sense of loss and attendant guilt justified?

Contrary to the "Scythian" fantasies of nineteenth-century apocalyptic fables, barbarism did come from the European heartland. Though in parodistic and ultimately negating forms, political bestiality did take on certain of the conventions, idiom, and external values of high culture. And, as we have seen, the infection was, in numerous instances, reciprocal. Mined by ennui and the aesthetics of violence, a fair proportion of the intelligentsia and of the institutions of European civilization -- letters, the academy, the performing arts -- met inhumanity with varying degrees of welcome. Nothing in the next-door world of Dachau impinged on the great winter cycle of Beethoven chamber music played in Munich. No canvases came off the museum walls as the butchers strolled reverently past, guidebook in hand.

It is equally true that -- to an extent as yet to be gauged by economic and social historians -- many of the superfluities, zones of leisure, and hierarchies implicit in Western culture drew on the subjugation of other races and continents. That fact is not eradicated, only qualified, by the undoubted elements of creative exchange and beneficial import in colonialism. Specific and often indefensible power relations with and towards the rest of the world energized the cultural predominance of the West. But to be seen in its full scope, the indictment must also be internalized: within classical and European civilization itself, numerous representative achievements -- literary, artistic, philosophic -- are inseparable from the milieu of absolutism, of extreme social injustice, even of gross violence, in which they flourished. To be argued seriously, the question of "the guilt of civilization" must include not only colonialism and the rapacities of empire but the true nature of the relations between the production of great art and thought, on the one hand, and of r6gimes of violent and repressive order, on the other. In short, it is an argument that involves not only the white man's rule in Africa or India but, each in its own way, the Medicean court, Racine at Versailles, and the current genius of Russian literature. (In what sense is Stalinism the necessary condition for a Mandelstam, a Pasternak, a Solzhenitsyn?)

But however accusingly, with whatever penitential hysteria, the argument is put, the fact of Western dominance during two and a half millennia remains largely true. Pace Joseph Needham, whose reorientation of the cultural and scientific map in favor of China and, possibly, India, is itself among the most fascinating, imaginative of modern Western intellectual adventures, the manifest centers of philosophic, scientific, poetic force have been situated within the Mediterranean, north European, Anglo-Saxon racial and geographic matrix. The causes for this hegemony are obviously manifold and, very likely, too complexly interactive for any single intelligence or theory of history to analyze. They may range from considerations of climate and nutrition (the high levels of protein available to Western communities), the whole way to those minute collocations of genetic inheritance and accident about whose shaping role in history we know so little. But it remains a truism -- or ought to -- that the world of Plato is not that of the shamans, that Galilean and Newtonian physics have made a major portion of human reality articulate to the mind, that the inventions of Mozart reach beyond drum-taps and Javanese bells -- moving, heavy with remembrance of other dreams as these are. And it is true also that the very posture of self-indictment, of remorse in which much of educated Western sensibility now finds itself, is again a culturally specific phenomenon. What other races have turned in penitence to those whom they once enslaved, what other civilizations have morally indicted the brilliance of their own past? The reflex of self-scrutiny in the name of ethical absolutes is, once more, a characteristically Western, post-Voltairian act.

Our current incapacity to state these obvious points openly, to coexist with them outside a network of guilt and masochistic impulse, poses severe problems. Seeking to placate the furies of the present, we demean the past. We soil that legacy of eminence which, whatever our personal limitations, we are invited to take part in, by our history, by our Western languages, by the carapace and, if you will, burden of our skins. The evasions, moreover, the self-denials and arbitrary restructurings of historical remembrance which guilt forces on us, are usually spurious. The number of human beings endowed with sufficient empathy to penetrate genuinely into another ethnic guise, to take on the world-views, the rules of consciousness of a colored or "third-world" culture, is inevitably very small. Nearly all the Western gurus and publicists who proclaim the new penitential ecumenism, who profess to be brothers under the skin with the roused, vengeful soul of Asia or Africa, are living a rhetorical lie. They are, in the sharpest sense, en fausse situation, By virtue of the false loyalties which it commands, this situation is further eroding our emotional, intellectual reserves. If we are to understand where, in political, social terms, the classic past went wrong, we must acknowledge not only the incomparable human creativity of that past but also our enduring, though problematic links with it.

At present, however, such a plea is illusory. The confident center is, I think, unrecapturable. Rome n'est plus dans Rome.

Lost also, I would judge -- or at least, decisively damaged -- is the axiom of progress, the assumption, dynamic in its self-evidence, that the curve of Western history was ascendant. Doubtless, there were challenges to this presupposition. I have pointed before to a kind of counterclockwise motion of myth, to the widely held intimations, part theological, part romantic-pastoral, of a lapsed paradise and golden age. But even at their most poignant, these Arcadias did not refute a dominant sense of gain. To an astonishing degree, general feeling suppressed even such dramatic monitions of ultimate ruin as were put forward by the study of entropy and heat-death from the 1820s on. The desolate vision of "eternal return," of all history as gyre and déjà-vu, as we find it in Nietzsche and in Yeats remained an eccentric nightmare. Common sense held otherwise: although there were bound to be temporary setbacks, agonizing detours, and blind alleys, although the arrow might, at times, seem to fly with enigmatic slowness, history was moving forward. Socially, intellectually, in respect of resources and vistas, civilized man was on the march. Indeed, the steadiness of his tread distinguished him from the inertia, from the myth-enclosed stasis of the "savage." (Only poetry and the fine arts, as Marx noted, seemed to offer a teasing anomaly, having long ago attained a pitch of mastery perhaps unequaled, and surely unsurpassed, since.) So far as the major agencies of history went, progress was not a dogma but a simple matter of observation. In this conviction Hegel and Marx were at one. So also were Darwin and Samuel Smiles, whose epochal and curiously parallel books, Origin of Species and Self-Help, appeared in the same month in 1859, at the noon point of a confident era.

Not much of that axiomatic presumption (for it was that) is left to us. The Kierkegaardian concept of "total possibility," of a fabric of reality open at all points to the rift of absurdity and disaster, has become a commonplace. We are back in a politics of torture and of hostages. Public and private violence laps at the foundations of the city, mining, making an acid mark, as does the brown water in Venice. Our threshold of apprehension has been formidably lowered. When the first reports of the death camps were smuggled out of Poland, they were largely disbelieved: such things could not be taking place in civilized Europe, in the mid-twentieth century. Today, it is difficult to conjecture a bestiality, a lunacy of oppression or sudden devastation, which would not be credible, which would not soon be located in the order of facts. Morally, psychologically, it is a terrible thing to be so unastonished. Inevitably, the new realism conspires with what is, or should be, least acceptable in reality.

We do not, moreover, tend to think of the current climate of extremity as a momentary backsliding, as a nasty patch soon to be left behind. This is decisive. Call it Kulturpessimismus -- it is no accident that the idiom is German --- or a new stoic realism. We no longer experience history as ascendant. There are too many cardinal points at which our lives are more threatened, more prone to arbitrary servitude and extermination, than were those of civilized men and women in the West at any time since the late sixteenth century. Soberly, our prognostication must be that of Edgar in King Lear:

And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say "This is the worst."

Yet, at the same time, our material forward motion is immense and obvious. The "miracles" of technology, medicine, scientific understanding are precisely that. Far more human beings than ever before have a chance of living to maturity, of bearing normal children, of moving upward from the millennial treadmill of marginal subsistence. To overlook a truth so evident and humane is to commit rank snobbery. "Imagine a world without chloroform," urged C. S. Lewis.

But it is also a truth that mocks us. It does so in two ways -- both remote from the rationalist meliorism of the Enlightenment and the Victorians. We know now, as Adam Smith and Macaulay did not, that material progress is implicated in a dialectic of concomittant damage, that it destroys irreparable equilibria between society and nature. Technical advances, superb in themselves, are operative in the ruin of primary living systems and ecologies. Our sense of historical motion is no longer linear, but as of a spiral. We can now conceive of a technocratic, hygienic utopia functioning in a void of human possibilities.

The second mock is one of disparity. We no longer accept the projection, implicit in the classic model of beneficent capitalism, that progress will necessarily spread from privileged centers to all men. Indecent superfluities in developed societies coexist with what seems to be endemic starvation over a large part of the earth. In effect, improvement in the chance and duration of individual life, as brought on by medical technology, has fueled the cycle of overpopulation and hunger. Often, the supplies and distributive means required to stop famine and poverty are available, but inertias of greed or politics stand in the way. In too many cases the new technocracy is not only destructive of preceding and alternative values but cruelly impotent beyond local and profitable appliance. Thus we find ourselves in an ambivalent, ironic stance towards the dogma of progress and towards the fantastic well-being which so many of us, in the technological West, actually enjoy.

There are virtues to this ambivalence. Already as argued in Rousseau and in Godwin, the doctrine of perfectibility had its muscular complacencies. We cannot separate a sense of coarse fiber and even of fatuity from much of nineteenth-century optimism. Our current habituation to nightmare is not only a safeguard -- the tongue sliding over an aching tooth to domesticate pain -- but also an adherence to the "reality principle." In Freudian terminology, we have come of age. But at a price. We have lost a characteristic élan, a metaphysic and technique of "forward dreaming" (of which Ernst Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung is the inspired statement). No sensibility before ours would, I think, have joined the adjective "dirty" to the word "hope" as did Anouilh in that bleak phrase in Antigone: "le sale espoir."

The damage is hard to assess. At vital points our disenchantment is a betrayal of the past. It may well be that the messianic program of social liberation was blind from the start, that Marx's vision of "an altered new basis of production emerging from the historical process" was not only naive but had in it the germ of future tyranny. It may be that the felt image of the sciences as servants and liberators of society and the spirit -- an image so vivid in Wordsworth, in Auguste Comte -- was thoughtless from the outset and certain to breed illusion. But the nobility of these errors is unquestionable, as was their energizing function. Much of the truest of our culture was animate with ontological utopia, It is modesty and realism to put aside the millenarian dream, but mendacious to deny the luck of those who dreamt it. Or to forget that our new clear-sightedness stems directly from a catastrophic failure of human possibility.

It is not certain, moreover, that one can devise a model of culture, a heuristic program for further advance, without a utopian core. The question "towards what end effort, towards what end the labor," regresses quickly either towards an obscure instinctual scheme or towards an a priori of hope anchored less in phenomenology, in the actual lines of history, than it is in a dream of ascent:

Dans l'ombre immense du Caucase,
Depuis des siècles, en rêvant,
Conduit par les hommes d'extase,
Le genre humain marche en avant;
Il marche sur la terre; il passe,
Il va dans la nuit, dans l'espace,
Dans l'infini, dans le borné,
Dans l'azur, dans l'onde irritée,
A la lueur de Prométhée,
Le libérateur enchainé!

All the spent counters of energizing vision are there: the ecstatic leaders, the forward march of humanity as in a dream, the Promethean symbol of life-giving rebellion, instrumental to Marx as it had been to Shelley. How are we, who no longer share Victor Hugo's confidence, for whom history is not, or only diffusely and ironically, a marche en avant, to find other reinsurance? A pessimistic critique of culture is a positive construct. And even satire, and there lies its formal strength, worked from or against an Implicit postulate of utopia. We no longer avail ourselves of that "compensating heaven" which gave to the static or circular sociologies of medieval and pre-Renaissance thought their dynamic, aspiring imbalance. How is a linear model, with an explicit vector of forward gain, such as aligned and magnetized our sensibilities since at least the seventeenth century, to be underwritten? Nothing except reality has schooled us for stasis or regress.

This whole issue of a working theory of culture in the absence of a dogma or genuinely felt metaphoric imperative of progress and perfectibility seems to me one of the most difficult now facing us. The key diagnostic insight is that of Dante when he analyzes the exact condition of prophecy in Hell:

Però comprender puoi che tutta morta
   fia nostra conoscenza da quel punto,
   che del futuro fia chiusa la porta.7

[Inferno 10]

"Close the door of the future" -- that is, relinquish the ontological axiom of historical progress -- and "all knowledge" is made inert.

The third axiom which we can no longer put forward without extreme qualification is that which correlates humanism -- as an educational program, as an ideal referent -- to humane social conduct. The issue needs careful statement. The ideology of liberal education, of a classically based humanism in the nineteenth-century scheme of culture, is a working out of specific expectations of the Enlightenment. It takes place on many levels, among them university reform, revisions of the school syllabus, expansion of the educational base, adult instruction, the dissemination of excellence through low-cost books and periodicals. These expectations, Lockeian, Jeffersonian if you will, had grown diffuse and self-evident, or self-evident because diffuse (universality entailing vagueness). But their central tenet was clear: that there was a natural progression from the cultivation of feeling and intellect in the individual to rational, beneficent behavior in and by the relevant society. The secular dogma of moral and political progress through education was precisely that: a transfer into the categories of schooling and public enlightenment -- the lyceum, the public library, the workingmen's college -- of those dynamics of illumination, of human growth towards ethical perfection that had once been theological and transcendentally elective. Thus the Jacobin slogan that the schoolroom was the temple and moral forum of a free people marks the secularization of a utopian, ultimately religious contract between the actuality and the potential of man.

Human folly and cruelty were directly expressive of ignorance, of that injustice whereby the great inheritance of philosophic, artistic, scientific achievements had been transmitted only to a privileged caste. For both Voltaire and Matthew Arnold -- and between them they may be said to date and define the generations of cultural promise -- there is an obvious congruence between the cultivation of the individual mind through formal knowledge and a melioration in the commanding qualities of life. Though they argued in different idioms and brought different elements to their syllogism, Voltaire and Arnold regarded as established the crucial lemma that the humanities humanize. The root of the "humane" is explicit in both terms, and etymology knits them close. All this is familiar ground.

But the proposition needs to be refined. Although concepts of "nurture," of "culture," and of social melioration or perfectibility were intimately meshed and, often, interchangeable, the precise fabric of the relations between them, of the instrumentalities that led from one to the other, continued to be examined. We do find a good deal of boisterous confidence in the immediate correlation of better schooling with an improved society -- particularly in American progressive doctrines and Victorian socialism. But we find also, at a higher plane of debate, a continual awareness of the complexity of the equation. The Essays on a Liberal Education, edited by F. W. Farrar in 1867, two years before Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and three years before the Education Act, are a representative example of how the general axiom of improvement through humanism was revalued, as it were, from within. What concerned Farrar, Henry Sidgwick, and their colleagues was, precisely, the limitations of the classical canon. They were engaged in reexamining the orthodox notion of a classical literacy, and they were testing its appropriateness to the needs of an increasingly technological and socially diversified community.

In the most incisive of these essays Sidgwick argues for the extension of the concept of necessary culture to include modern letters and some competence in the sciences. Greek and Latin literature can no longer be said to comprise all essential knowledge, even in an idealized, paradigmatic form: the claim of these literatures "to give the best teaching in mental, ethical, and political philosophy" is rapidly passing away. Physical science "is now so bound up with all the interests of mankind" that some familiarity with it is indispensable to an understanding of and participation in "the present phase of the progress of humanity." In short, the techniques and substantive content of cultural transmission were under vigorous debate even at the height of nineteenth-century optimism. What was not under debate was the compelling inference that such transmission, if and wherever rightly carried out, would lead necessarily to a more stable, humanely responsible condition of man. "A liberal education," wrote Sidgwick, with every implication of stating the obvious, "has for its object to impart the highest culture, to lead youths to the most full, vigorous, and harmonious exercise, according to the best ideal attainable, of their active, cognitive, and aesthetic faculties." Set in full play, extended, gradually and with due regard to differing degrees of native capacity, to an ever-widening compass of society and the globe, such education would ensure a steadily rising quality of life. Where culture flourished, barbarism was, by definition, a nightmare from the past.

We know now that this is not so. We know that the formal excellence and numerical extension of education need not correlate with increased social stability and political rationality. The demonstrable virtues of the Gymnasium or of the lycée are no guarantor of how or whether the city will vote at the next plebiscite. We now realize that extremes of collective hysteria and savagery can coexist with a parallel conservation and, indeed, further development of the institutions, bureaucracies, and professional codes of high culture. In other words, the libraries, museums, theatres, universities, research centers, in and through which the transmission of the humanities and of the sciences mainly takes place, can prosper next to the concentration camps. The discriminations and freshness of their enterprise may well suffer under the surrounding impress of violence and regimentation. But they suffer surprisingly little. Sensibility (particularly that of the performing artist), intelligence, scruple in learning, carry forward as in a neutral zone. We know also -- and here is knowledge thoroughly documented but in no way, as yet, incorporated in a rational psychology -- that obvious qualities of literate response, of aesthetic feeling, can coexist with barbaric, politically sadistic behavior in the same individual. Men such as Hans Frank who administered the "final solution" in eastern Europe were avid connoisseurs and, in some instances, performers of Bach and Mozart. We know of personnel in the bureaucracy of the torturers and of the ovens who cultivated a knowledge of Goethe, a love of Rilke. The facile evasion; "such men did not understand the poems they read or the music they knew and seemed to play so well," will not do. There simply is no evidence that they were more obtuse than anyone else to the humane genius, to the enacted moral energies of great literature and of art. One of the principal works that we have in the philosophy of language, in the total reading of Hölderlin's poetr y, was composed almost within earshot of a death camp. Heidegger's pen did not stop nor his mind go mute.

Whenever I cite this material, I am met with the objection: "Why are you astonished? Why did you expect otherwise? One ought always to have known that culture and humane action, literacy and political impulse, are in no necessary or sufficient correlation." This objection sounds cogent, but it is in fact inadequate to the enormity of the case. The insights we now have into the negative or, at the least, dialectically paradoxical and parodistic relations between culture and society are something new, and morally bewildering. They would have impressed the Enlightenment and much of the nineteenth century as a morbid fantasy (it is precisely Kierkegaard's and Nietzsche's premonitions on this issue that set them apart). Our present knowledge of a negative transfer from civilization to behavior, in the individual and the society, runs counter to the faith, to the operative assumptions, on which the progress of education, of general literacy, of scholarship and the dissemination of the arts were grounded. 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 to Marx, as it was to Arnold and the reformers of 1867. To say that one "ought" to have known is a facile use of language. Had the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century understood that there could be no presumption of a carry-over from civilization to civility, from humanism to the humane, the springs of hope would have been staunched and much of the immense liberation of the mind and of society achieved over four generations been rendered impossible. No doubt, confidence should have been less. Perhaps the trust in culture was itself hubristic and blind to the countercurrents and nostalgias for destruction it carried within. It may be that the incapacity of reason and of political will to impede the massacres of 1915-17 ought to have proved a final warning as to the fragility and mutually isolated condition of the fabric of culture.

But our insights here (and they are strangely absent from Eliot's own Notes of 1948) come after the facts. They are themselves -- this is the main point -- a part of desolation. No less than our technical competence to build Hell on earth, so our knowledge of the failure of education, of literate tradition, to bring "sweetness and light" to men, is a clear symptom of what is lost. We are forced now to return to an earlier, Pascalian pessimism, to a model of history whose logic derives from a postulate of original sin. We can subscribe today, all too readily, to de Maistre's view that the barbarism of modern politics, the regress of educated, technologically inventive man into slaughter enact a necessary working out of the eschatology of the Fall. But there is in our reversion to these earlier, more "realistic" paradigms an element which is spurious and therefore psychologically corrosive. Unlike Pascal or de Maistre, very few of us in fact hold a dogmatic, explicitly religious view of man's personal and social disasters. For most of us the logic of original trespass and the image of history as purgatorial are, at best, a metaphor. Our pessimistic vision, unlike that of a true Jansenist, has neither a rationale of causality nor a hope in transcendent remission. We are caught in the middle. We cannot echo Carducci's famous salute to the future:

Salute, o genti umane affaticate!
Tutto trapassa, e nullo può morir.
Noi troppo odiammo e sofferimo. Amate:
Il mondo è bello e santo è l'avvenir.8

But we cannot respond either, with full, honest acquiescence, to the Pascalian diagnosis of the cruelties and absurdities of the historical condition as a natural consequence of a primal theological fault.

This instability of essential terrain and the psychological evasions which it entails, characterize much of our current posture. At once realistic and psychologically hollow, our new stoic or ironic pessimism is a determinant of a post-culture. Not to have known about the inhuman potentialities of cultured man what we now know was a formidable privilege. In the generations from Voltaire to Arnold, absence of such knowledge was not innocence but rather an enabling program for civilization.

We may be able to group these "irreparables" under an inclusive heading. The loss of a geographic-sociological centrality, the abandonment or extreme qualification of the axiom of historical progress, our sense of the failure or severe inadequacies of knowledge and humanism in regard to social action -- all these signify the end of an agreed hierarchic value-structure. Those binary cuts which organized social perception and which represented the domination of the cultural over the natural code are now blurred or rejected outright. Cuts between Western civilization and the rest, between the learned and the untutored, between the upper and the lower strata of society, between the authority of age and the dependence of youth, between the sexes. These cuts were not only diacritical -- defining the identity of the two units in relation to themselves and to each other -- they were expressly horizontal. The line of division separated the higher from the lower, the greater from the lesser: civilization from retarded primitivism, learning from ignorance, social privilege from subservience, seniority from immaturity, men from women. And each time, "from" stood also for "above." It is the collapse, more or less complete, more or less conscious, of these hierarchized, definitional value-gradients (and can there be value without hierarchy?) which is now the major fact of our intellectual and social circumstance.

The horizontal "cuts" of the classic order have been made vertical and often indistinct.

Never again, I imagine, will a white statesman write as did Palmerston in 1863, at the occasion of a punitive action in far places, "I am inclined to think that our relations with Japan are going through the usual and unavoidable stages of the Intercourse of strong anti Civilised nations with weaker and less civilised ones" (even the capitalization speaks loud). A ubiquitous anthropology, relativistic, non-evaluative in its study of differing races and cultures, now pervades our image of "self " and "others." "Countercultures" and aggregates of individualized, ad hoc reference are replacing set discriminations between learning and illiteracy. The line between education and ignorance is no longer self-evidently hierarchic. Much of the mental performance of society now transpires in a middle zone of personal eclecticism. The altering tone and substance of relations between age groups is a commonplace, and one that penetrates almost every aspect of social usage. So, more recently, is the fission of traditional sexual modes. The typologies of women's liberation, of the new politically, socially ostentatious homosexuality (notably in the United States) and of "unisex" point to a deep reordering or disordering of long-established frontiers. "So loosly disally'd in Milton's telling phrase, men and women are not only maneuvering in a neutral terrain of indistinction, but exchanging roles -- sartorially, psychologically, in regard to economic and erotic functions which were formerly set apart.

Again, a general rubric suggests itself. A common formlessness or search for new forms has all but undermined classic age-lines, sexual divisions, class structures, and hierarchic gradients of mind and power. We are caught in a Brownian movement at every vital, molecular level of individuation and society. And if I may carry the analogy one step further, the membranes through which social energies are current are now permeable and nonselective.

It is widely asserted that the rate of social change we are experiencing is unprecedented, that metamorphoses and hybridizations across lines of time, of sexuality, of race, are now occurring more quickly than ever before. Does this rate and universality of change reflect verifiable organic transformations? This is a very difficult question to pose accurately, let alone to answer. We "undergo" much of reality, sharply filtered and pre-sensed, through the instant diagnostic sociology of the mass media. No previous society has mirrored itself with such profuse fascination. At present, models and mythologies of fact, quite often astute and seemingly comprehensive, are offered at bewildering short intervals. This rapidity and "metadepth" of explanation may be obscuring the distinction between what is a matter of fashion, of surface coloration, and what occurs at the internal levels of a psychological or social system. What we know of the evolutionary time-scale makes it highly improbable that psychophysiological changes are happening in a dramatic, observable rhythm. To take an example: far-reaching correlations are being drawn between a revolution in sexual mores and the presumed lowering in the age of menstruation. It would appear that this phenomenology is susceptible of exact statistical inquiry. But, in fact, material and methodological doubts abound. What cultures or communities are affected, and how many cases within them would constitute a critical mass? Are we dealing with primary or secondary symptoms, with a physiological change or one in the context of awareness and social acceptance? Granted the fact, is the correlation legitimate, or are parallel but essentially dissociated mechanisms at work? Skepticism is in order.

Yet there ought also to be a certain largesse and vulnerability of imagination. It is conceivable, to put it modestly, that current changes in patterns of nutrition, of temperature control, of quick travel across climates and time zones, that the prolongation of the average life-span, and the ingestion of therapeutic and narcotic substances, are bringing on genuine modification of personality, and marginally, perhaps, of physique. Such changes could be defined as "intermediary mutations," somewhere between the organic and the modish -- in the strong sense of that term. We have no exact vocabulary in which to express second-order psychosocial or sociophysiological. metamorphoses. Nevertheless, these seem to me to be the most important variant in the whole of post-culture.

Much of this is common ground. So, also, is the insight, first expressed by Benda, still the acutest of cultural critics, that the breakdown of classic hierarchies would occur from within. Wherever a decisive breach has been opened in the lines of order, the sappers have tunneled from inside the city. The conscience of privilege, of seniority, of mandarin rights has turned against itself.

Less widely asked is the question of whether certain core-elements in the classic hierarchy of values are even worth reanimating? Is there a conceivable defense of the concept of culture against the two principal attacks now being pressed home? Particularly if we adhere to Eliot's central proposition "that culture is not merely the sum of several activities, but a way of life."

It is on the fragility and cost of that "way of life" that the attack has borne. Why labor to elaborate and transmit culture if it did so little to stem the inhuman, if there were in it deep-set ambiguities which, at times, even solicited barbarism? Secondly: granted that culture was a medium of human excellence and intellectual vantage, was the price paid for it too high? In terms of social and spiritual inequality. In regard to the ontological imbalance -- it ran deeper than economics -- between the privileged locale of intellectual and artistic achievement, and the excluded world of poverty and underdevelopment. Can it have been accident that a large measure of ostentatious civilization -- in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medicis, in sixteenth-century England, in the Versailles of the grand siècle and the Vienna of Mozart -- was closely correlate with political absolutism, a firm caste system, and the surrounding presence of a subject populace? Great art, music, and poetry, the science of Bacon and of Laplace, flourish under more or less totalitarian modes of social governance. Can this be hazard? How vital are the affinities between power relations and classic literacy (relations initiated in the teaching process) ? Is not the very notion of culture tautological with élitism? How many of its major energies feed on the violence which is disciplined, contained within, yet ceremonially visible, in a traditional or repressive society? Hence Pisarev's critique, echoed later in Orwell, of art and letters as instrumentalities of caste and régime.

These are the challenges put contemptuously by the dropout and loud in the four-letter graffiti of the "counterculture." What good did high humanism do the oppressed mass of the community? What use was it when barbarism came? What immortal poem has ever stopped or mitigated political terror -- though a number have celebrated it? And, more searchingly: Do those for whom a great poem, a philosophic design, a theorem, are, in the final reckoning, the supreme value, not help the throwers of napalm by looking away, by cultivating in themselves a stance of objective sadness" or historical relativism?


I have tried to suggest, throughout this essay, that there is no adequate answer to the question of the frailty of culture. We can construe all kinds of post facto insight into the lack of correlation between literacy and politics, between the inheritance of Weimar and the reality of Buchenwald not many kilometers away. But diagnosis after the event is, at best, a shallow and partial comprehension. So far as I can see, much of the harrowing puzzle remains.

The question as to whether a high culture is not inevitably meshed with social injustice can be answered. It is not difficult to formulate an apologia for civilization based firmly and without cant on a model of history as privilege, as hierarchic order. One can say simply that the accomplishments of art, of speculative imagining, of the mathematical and empirical sciences have been, are, will be, to an overwhelming extent, the creation of the gifted few. In the perspective of the evolution of the species towards an even more complete enlistment of the potentialities of the cortex -- and the sum of history may be precisely that -- it is vital to preserve the kind of political system in which high gifts are recognized and afforded the pressures under which they flourish. The existence of a Plato, of a Karl Friedrich Gauss, of a Mozart may go a surprisingly long way towards redeeming that of man. The immense majority of human biographies are a gray transit between domestic spasm and oblivion. For a truly cultured sensibility to deny this, under pretexts of liberal piety, is not only mendacious but rank ingratitude. A culture "lived" is one that draws for continuous, indispensable sustenance on the great works of the past, on the truths and beauties achieved in the tradition. It does not reckon against them the social harshness, the personal suffering, which so often have generated or made possible the symphony, the fresco, the metaphysic. Where it is absolutely honest, the doctrine of a high culture will hold the burning of a great library, the destruction of Galois at twenty-one, or the disappearance of an important score, to be losses paradoxically but none the less decidedly out of proportion with common deaths, even on a large scale.

This is a coherent position. It may accord with deep-seated biological realities. For perfectly obvious reasons, however, it is a position which few today are ready to put forward publicly or with conviction. It flies too drastically in the face of doubts about culture which we have seen to be justified. It is too crassly out of tune with pervasive ideals of humane respect and social concern. There is something histrionic and psychologically suspect even in the bare exercise of stating an élitist canon.

But it is important to see just why this is so. Using the terms I have indicated, and made with complete honesty, a contemporary defense of culture as "a way of life" will nevertheless have a void at its center. To argue for order and classic values on a purely immanent, secular basis is, finally, implausible. In stressing this point Eliot is justified, and the Notes towards the Definition of Culture remain valid. But if the core of a theory of culture is "religious," that term ought not to be taken, as it so largely was by Eliot, in a particular sectarian sense. If only because of its highly ambiguous implication in the holocaust, Christianity cannot serve as the focus of a redefinition of culture, and Eliot's nostalgia for Christian discipline is now the most vulnerable aspect of his argument. I mean "religious" in a particular and more ancient sense. What is central to a true culture is a certain view of the relations between time and individual death.

The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence. The writer or thinker means the words of the poem, the sinews of the argument, the personae of the drama, to outlast his own life, to take on the mystery of autonomous presence and presentness. The sculptor commits to the stone the vitalities against and across time which will soon drain from his own living hand. Art and mind address those who are not yet, even at the risk, deliberately incurred, of being unnoticed by the living.

There is nothing natural, nothing self-evident in this wager against mortality, against the common, unharried promises of life. In the overwhelming majority of cases -- and the gambler on transcendence knows this in advance -- the attempt will be a failure, nothing will survive. There may be a cancerous mania in the mere notion of producing great art or philosophic shapes -- acts, by definition, free of utility and immediate reward. Flaubert howled like a man racked at the thought that Emma Bovary-his creature, his contrivance of arrayed syllables -- would be alive and real, long after he himself had gone to a painful death. There is a calm enormity, the more incisive for its deliberate scriptural echo, in Pope's assertion that "to follow Poetry as one ought, one must forget father and mother, and cleave to it alone." For "Poetry" in that sentence, one can read mathematics, music, painting, astrophysics, or whatever else consumes the spirit with total demand.

Each time, the equation is one of ambitious sacrifice, of the obsession to outlast, to outmaneuver the banal democracy of death. To die at thirty-five but to have composed Don Giovanni, to know, as did Galois during the last night of his twenty-one-year existence, that the pages he was writing would alter the future forms of algebra and of space. Perhaps an insane conceit, using that term in its stylistic sense, but one that is the transcendent source of a classic culture.

We hear it proclaimed at the close of Pindar's Third Pythian Ode (in Lattimore's version):

I will work out the divinity that is busy within my mind
and tend the means that are mine.
Might God only give me luxury and its power,
I hope I should find glory that would rise higher hereafter.
Nestor and Sarpedon of Lykia we know,
men's speech, from the sounding words that smiths of song in their wisdom
built to beauty. In the glory of poetry achievement of men
blossoms long; but of that the accomplishment is given to few.

Note the modulation from poetic action to aristocratic truth -- "but of that the accomplishment is given to few." It is not accidental. The trope of immortality persists in Western culture, is central to it, from Pindar to the time of Mallarmé's vision of le Livre, "tenté à son insu par quiconque a écrit," which is the very aim of the universe. The obsession is crystallized once more, memorably, in Eluard's phrase "le dur désir de durer." Without such "harsh longing" there may be human love and justice, mercy and scruple. But can there be a true culture? Can civilization as we know it be underwritten by an immanent view of personal and social reality? Can it be vital without a logic of relation between "the divinity that is busy within my mind" and the hunger for a "glory that would rise higher hereafter"? And it is precisely that logic, with its inference of active afterlife in and through artistic, intellectual creation, which is "religious."

This logic and its idiom are now eroded. The notion, axiomatic in classic art and thought, of sacrificing present life, present humanity, to the marginal chance of future literary or intellectual renown, grates on modern nerves. To younger people today, the code of "glory" of intellect and creative act is highly suspect. Many would see in it no more than romantic bathos or a disguised perpetuation of élitist idols. There are currently, particularly in the United States, some fashionable, silly theories about total revolutions of consciousness. Mutations of internal structure do not occur at such rate. But in this key matter of the equivocations between poiesis -- the artist's, the thinker's creation -- and death, deep shifts of perspective are discernible. Psychologically, there is a gap of light years between the sensibility of my own schooling, in the French formal vein, with its obvious stress on the prestige of genius and the compulsion of creative survival, and the posture of my students today. Do they still name city squares after algebraists?

The causes of this change are multiple. They may involve elements as different as the standardization of death in two world wars and the "bomb culture," and the emergence of a new collectivism. An analysis of these currents lies outside the scope of this essay, but the symptoms are plain to see. They include the ideology of the "happening" and of autodestructive artifacts, with their emphasis on the immediacy, unrepeatability, and ephemeral medium of the work. Aleatory music is a striking case of the diminution of creative authority in favor of collaborative, spontaneous shadow-play (Werner Henze has declared that there is exploitation and the menace of arbitrary power in the very function of the composer). More and more literary texts and works of art now offer themselves as collective and/or anonymous. The poetics of ecstasy and of group feeling regard the imprint of a single "great name" on the process of creation as archaic vanity. The audience is no longer an informed echo to the artist's talent, a respondent to and transmitter of his singular enterprise; it is joint creator in a conglomerate of freewheeling, participatory impulse. Away with the presumptions of permanence in a classic oeuvre, away with masters.

It would be absurd to try and pass judgment on the merits of this new "leveling" -- I use the word because there are obscure but substantive precedents in seventeenth-century Adamic and millenary dreams of all men as artists and equal singers of the moment. I am only saying that if this revaluation of the criteria of "lastingness," of individual mastery against time, is as radical and far-reaching as it now seems, the core of the very concept of culture will have been broken. If the gamble on 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.

Speaking with the serene malice of age and work done, Robert Graves has recently asserted that "Nothing can stop the wide destruction of our ancient glories, amenities and pleasures." This may be too large a sweep, and in place of "destruction" it might be better to say "transmutation," "change." Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the old vocabulary is exhausted, that the forms of classic culture cannot be rebuilt on any general scale.

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