I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


The Devouring Mind

Kevin Power

Maestros & Monsters: Days & Nights with Susan Sontag & George Steiner, by Robert Boyers, Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, 256 pp, $24.95, ISBN: 978-1942134886

Many critics – and critics are my subject here – spend their lives adding tile after tile to the mosaic of a False Self. A university degree, a glittering essay, an article, a book, a prize: each contributes another precious tile. The mosaic, assembled, depicts an armoured giant, towering above the contingencies of biography and culture. But the tiles are loose, the mortar crumbling. The mosaic is always about to collapse, revealing the bare wall – the vulnerable self – beneath.

The terms – False Self, Vulnerable Self – are DW Winnicott’s. In his 1960 paper ‘Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self’, Winnicott wasn’t talking specifically about critics. Rather, he used the True Self/False Self idea as a generally applicable way of thinking about the relationship between our primary emotions (our experiences, that is, of mother and father) and the part of us that is ‘turned outwards and is related to the world’. The True Self feels; the False Self defends. ‘[I]n some form or other or to some degree,’ Winnicott wrote in 1985, ‘each one of us is divided in this way, into a true and a false self.’ In normal development – whatever that is – the False Self is simply one more element of the compound psyche. In abnormal development, the False Self can take over altogether; become a pathological hindrance to true flourishing.

Whatever you think about the clinical accuracy or otherwise of all this, Winnicott’s idea does feel intuitively right. We all know False Selves, do we not? Media windbags, or self-regarding artists; sacred monsters of one kind or another. ‘My writing/painting/performing saved me,’ such people tend to say, and we rightly raise a sceptical eyebrow. But our scepticism ignores the pathos of deep need experienced by such people. Having found vulnerability intolerable in the past, they cannot now permit themselves to be vulnerable; they must persuade, by force or by wily stratagem, the world to collaborate with the building of their mosaic.

Winnicott did seem to know that the critic – the intellectual – could represent an extreme, indeed a pathological, case of the False Self triumphant. The 1960 paper has it thus:

A particular danger arises out of the not infrequent tie-up between the intellectual approach and the False Self. When a False Self becomes organised in an individual who has a high intellectual potential there is a very strong tendency for the mind to become the location of the False Self, and in this case there develops a dissociation between intellectual activity and psychosomatic experience.

When I first read these words, I thought immediately of Susan Sontag: of her childhood, and of the monumental self she built in order to repudiate or escape it. All mind, all hungry cognition, was Sontag’s public persona. A quick recension of that persona’s achievements: Against Interpretation (1966), still, half a century later, the book that shows tyro critics what criticism can do; On Photography (1977) and Illness as Metaphor (1978), two of the twentieth century’s central works of cultural analysis: critical pieces that solidified, or in some cases rescued, the reputations of Walter Benjamin, WG Sebald, Leonid Tsypkin, Danilo Kis, Machado de Assis …

If ever there was ‘an individual who has a high intellectual potential’, Sontag was it. She was reading Thomas Mann aged eleven, matriculated at Berkeley at fifteen and was writing essays of superlative, inspirational elegance and density by her late twenties. Being intelligent – being more intelligent than anyone else – was not just important to Sontag: it was the thing she needed her mosaic to depict. The cultural critic Mark Greif, who knew her late in her life, said that ‘Susan made you acknowledge that she was more intelligent than you. She then compelled you to admit that she felt more than you did.’ Sontag may have ‘felt more’ than other people – certainly, she swore that her life’s work was ‘to see more, to feel more, to think more’. But there is considerable evidence actually that she spent her life refusing to feel – refusing, that is, to feel vulnerable. She had been vulnerable as a child; she never accepted this, and never got over it.

Winnicott, in the mode of classical psychoanalysis, locates the origin of the False Self in ‘the infant-mother relationship’. (Where we all go wrong.) If the mother fails to recognise the child’s true needs, he says, and instead meets only her own needs, the infant must perforce construct a potentially pathological False Self in order to survive – to tell itself, I don’t need my needs met anyway. Again, reading this, I thought of Sontag. In the second volume of her published notebooks (As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, 2012 – and note the old-school dualism expressed in that title, taken from her jottings), a short note appears: ‘I was afraid of my mother, physically afraid. Not afraid of her anger, afraid of her decreasing the little emotional nourishment she supplied me, but afraid of her.’ There isn’t much else about Mildred Rosenblatt (later Sontag) in the published notebooks, or in the fiction: ‘I had no mother,’ Sontag tended to remark as an adult.

But as Benjamin Moser’s (in many ways unsatisfactory) 2019 biography of Sontag makes clear, Susan viewed Mildred, with some justification, as not just frightening but dangerously inadequate. Mildred reacted to her daughter’s childhood asthma attacks by leaving the room, as textbook an example of not meeting your child’s needs as you could hope to find. As early as she could, Susan began to remake herself – choosing to become, at school, popular; asserting herself, as one friend put it, as a ‘champion student’. Aged fifteen – when most of us are still learning to tie our intellectual shoelaces – she was writing in her diary: ‘The sweetness of renewed and undiminishing acquaintance with this work, the peaceful and meditative pleasure I feel are unparalleled’; she was talking about rereading The Magic Mountain.

One function of the False Self, Winnicott says, is ‘the preservation of the individual in spite of abnormal environmental conditions’ in childhood. Mildred was probably not a monster – she may simply have been neurotic or depressed or immature – but certainly Susan saw, or came to see, her as a monster; and in response largely deleted her mother from her life and from her work. Sontag wrote almost nothing about her childhood (and as a rule, beware the writer who ignores his or her childhood as a subject). She focused, occasionally and obliquely, on her father, Jack Rosenblatt, who died in China when she was five (her coyly autobiographical short story ‘Project for a Trip to China’, mythologises her father’s faint memory and includes the line ‘If I pardon M. [Mildred/Mother], I free myself’).

Sontag would keep her adult self safe from these calamitous contingencies – from the pain of a dead father, an inadequate mother. She would burn it all away in the crucible of intellect. This project was well in train by her seventeenth year, when she wrote in her diary, after a visit home to southern California: ‘I think I am finally free of my dependence on/affection for Mother – She aroused nothing in me, not even pity – just boredom[.]’ Saying you’re bored being the intellectual’s first line of defence against emotional pain. Sontag’s goal was to create, as if from the head of Zeus, an Athena that was herself. There is a sense in which the actual subjects of her work – camp; cancer; photography; the fates of modernism – were, in the final analysis, secondary to this endeavour, that her subjects, about which she wrote so brilliantly, were merely, in the end, the material with which she worked as she constructed something else. Tiles, that is, in the mosaic. Her short stories and novels are often organised on mosaic principles; her essays too. Building her self, Sontag was a magpie.

If this is so, it might explain why there is no specific intellectual programme or methodology associated with Sontag’s name – why you can’t perform a ‘Sontagian’ reading of a text. Compare Sontag’s near-exact contemporary, Fredric Jameson, whose work specifically extends the tradition of Western Marxism and is therefore, you might say, driven by a mission larger than the self-rescue of Fredric Jameson; the academic journals abound, or used to, with Jamesonian readings of this or that.

For all its Wildean poses and its unsleeping alertness to the postwar avant garde in fiction, film and the visual arts, Sontag’s critical viewpoint tends to default to humanism – and she became more obviously humanist, and more classically liberal, as she got older. And as she got older, she even relaxed, sort of. ‘No armoured generalities here,’ she wrote, excusing the comparative looseness of a late essay. ‘Just a few remarks.’ Armoured, of course, is the giveaway.

What Sontag was exceptionally good at – and it is, in the end, the only thing a critic absolutely needs to be good at – was pattern-spotting. She had most of the histories of art and ideas at her fingertips; when something new came along, she was able to see how it fitted existing patterns or broke with them. Diagnosed with cancer, she was able to write, largely from memory, a history of how incurable diseases have been metaphorised in the art and culture of the last two centuries. Lacking a specific intellectual programme larger than herself, she was free to think about anything she wanted.

‘She was interested in everything,’ wrote her son, David Rieff. ‘Indeed, if I had only one word with which to evoke her, it would be avidity.’ Deborah Eisenberg said that Sontag was ‘at least twice as alive as most of us’, which is praise, of a sort – who doesn’t want to feel more alive? But there are all sorts of ways of feeling alive. Critical avidity is only one of them. Crucially, critical avidity is a way of feeling alive that you can sustain by continued acts of will. What I mean is that it must have been exhausting, being Susan Sontag: building that mosaic, tile by tile. The catch is this, you see: the mosaic cannot be trusted to maintain itself. It requires constant tinkering. The validity of the False Self demands unceasing accretion of new proofs of its worth.

Fatefully early in her career, Sontag’s false self became a monument. Sontag in propria persona became not that monument’s admiring custodian but its paranoid security guard, frowning at trespassers, shouting ‘Who goes there?’ Evidence for this comes from Robert Boyers’s new memoir of his friendships with Sontag and (her peer in critical reach and near-equal in bad manners) George Steiner. Boyers ‘knew George Steiner and Susan Sontag for most of my adult life, George for more than fifty years, Susan for forty’. Maestros and Monsters is a blast of a book, for those of us who enjoy gossip about dead writers. Not just a breezy, affable account of Boyers’s friendships with these particular sacred monsters, it is also a covert apologia pro vita sua, a defence of the time he spent editing Salmagundi, the literary journal he founded in 1965 (a salmagundi, in case you’ve never come across the word, is a large mixed salad).

Salmagundi is one of those publications on whose contents pages you could build a synoptic, if somewhat partisan, intellectual history of the postwar United States. Accompanying Steiner and Sontag on those pages were some interesting thinkers and some impressive practitioners of the higher journalism (sometimes these were the same person): Christopher Hitchens, David Rieff, Martha Nussbaum, Christopher Lasch, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty, Marilynne Robinson … Boyers, who edited the magazine from his offices at Skidmore College in upstate New York, also hosted frequent symposia or colloquia, at which these eminences foregathered to sympose or colloquise; Sontag was a regular attendee.

Maestros and Monsters (the nouns are companionate and not antithetical) is divided in two. Part One: Susan. Part Two: George. You can see why Boyers put Sontag up front. Not only because a certain glamour still attaches to her name and doings and because her bad behaviour is perennially riveting to read about but because poor old George Steiner seems rather to have fallen by the reputational wayside since his death in 2020 – a fate that Boyers hopes, with his praise of Steiner’s work, to reverse.

Did Sontag and Steiner get along? Don’t be silly. Like two positively charged particles, they were kept apart by powerful forces of repulsion. They ‘disliked and mistrusted one another,’ Boyers says; ‘the loathing they came to have for each other clearly had much to do with the sense that there was room on the current scene for only one such person.’ It seems hardly worth saying that Sontag and Steiner were alike not just as critics but as psychological case studies. Two False Selves, two mosaic-builders, busily building. If there is one true thing about a False Self, it’s that it loathes and despises other False Selves, perceiving in them, of course, the falseness that it can perceive in itself only at the cost of its existence.

What was it like to be pals with Susan Sontag? What was it like to hang out with her? According to one of my senior literary sources, at social occasions, whenever everyone laughed at a joke, Sontag would narrow her eyes and peer, hawklike, from face to face, wondering what she’d missed. What she had missed was not nothing – was, indeed, the essence of human social interaction, that is, a moment of shared subjectivity encoded as laughter. (I tried to make that last sentence funny and failed; consider it my homage to Susan.) Sontag’s humourlessness has been much remarked upon, but perhaps what hasn’t been mentioned is how gruelling it is spending time with the humourless – how much work it takes to forgo all opportunities for laughter. Boyers deserves credit for much; not least for his patience, amply evidenced here.

Some of the words and phrases that he uses to describe Sontag: ‘unstable’, ‘exhilarating’, ‘frightening’, ‘bullying’, ‘abrasive’ (twice), ‘condescending’, ‘often rude’, ‘breathtakingly nasty’, ‘harsh’, ‘didactic’, ‘unkind’, ‘haughty’, ‘volatile’, ‘angry’, ‘resentful’, ‘pompous’ … She was ‘a person of moods and seizures’. Boyers makes it clear that any occasion on which Sontag was ‘sane and predictable’ was worthy of remark. She took ‘pleasure in reminding us that she was really very different. That she didn’t own a television set. Wouldn’t.’ The hatred of television was actually fairly standard-issue stuff for a left-leaning postwar American intellectual, but never mind that for now: these are peculiar adjectives to apply to a friend.

So what kept Boyers on side? Not just Sontag’s usefulness as an adornment to Salmagundi. (All editors have the ulterior motive of publishing interesting pages.) Sontag was, Boyers says, ‘one of the most compelling persons you’d ever met’. Compulsion goes a long way in friendship; so does admiration: ‘To say that hers was a voracious and restless intelligence is to say not nearly enough.’ And it seems clear that Boyers detected the pain beneath Sontag’s False Self:

She was, for all her apparent conviviality and the access she had to the best and liveliest minds of her generation, a lonely person who needed loyal friends who could be counted on to love her in spite of what she routinely put them through. That sense of her neediness sustained me in times when she was at her imperious worst.

The worst could be pretty bad. Sontag ‘dreaded the aftermath of public events, when she’d be required to pretend she wanted to hear what an audience member or autograph seeker had to say’. (Those autograph seekers, she might have done well to remember, were the people who bought her books.) At a public event, Boyer introduced Sontag as ‘a major essayist, as a thinker and intellectual who had shaped the way we thought about our culture’. Sontag waited for the applause to end and said: ‘Robert Boyers still doesn’t get it. After how many years doing this, he still doesn’t get it. Doesn’t get that I’m a novelist and that all this other writing he talked about is writing I did to keep writing and have something to do while I was developing myself as a fiction writer.’ Boyers remarks that ‘of course Susan didn’t know that what she had done was hurtful or that it amounted to anything to worry over’. Boyers’s crime, I’d suggest, was that he had failed to keep up with the latest version of Sontag’s mosaic; he was praising an outdated iteration of her False Self.

Boyers was heroically patient. But then it seems that Sontag often got by on the forbearance of her friends. ‘Few people,’ Boyers writes, ‘were prepared to tell Susan to fuck off when she was behaving badly. Rarely did she pay a price for her intemperate outbursts.’ It was not just her celebrity that kept her safe; she was, ironically, protected by a social code that she didn’t really understand. Refusing to sign books for queuing students, she asked, ‘Is this rude, to just ignore them as if they aren’t there?’ Who needs to ask such a question? Turning ‘savagely on a serving person who had brought her an undercooked meal or neglected to put out the condiments she had requested,’ she would ask, ‘Was that too harsh[?]’ Again: who needs to ask?

There is something autistic about Sontag at such moments. As a critic, she could talk about patterns, effects, trends, concepts, forms; about such things she could be a sinuous and surprising arguer. But she could not really talk about how people relate to each other, the actual manifold thing that is the subject of art and the object of ideas. Pace most intellectuals, people do not really live according to concepts but according to relationships, which are fields of play on which concepts find themselves enacted and often mangled. (No ideas but in people.) The best critics – as opposed to the most glamorous or impressive critics – tend to be the ones who recognise this.

Good critics also tend to take psychology seriously, though perhaps not always in a systematic way. Sontag tended to reject psychology (and its militant wing, psychoanalysis) out of hand; Boyers mentions ‘Susan’s almost total lack of interest in issues central to the psychoanalytic tradition’. And this, of course, is fairly classic, for anyone committed to the False-Self solution. Turning up psychoanalytic material –that is thinking about your childhood – will almost certainly lead you back to the ‘vulnerable self’, to all the pain that the False Self has been constructed to annul, and to those inescapable dialectics of early love and parental failure. How could the mosaic survive such an assault?

It sometimes seems, from Boyer’s pages, that Sontag did not understand the first thing about how people relate to each other. It seems, indeed, that she was not even theoretically interested in the subject. (‘There are people in the world,’ she once wrote in her notebook, as if to remind herself.) This explains, inter alia, her failure as a novelist. Her best novel, The Volcano Lover, is about how awful people are; it ends with the words ‘Damn them all.’ If you want to write fiction but are not interested in the fundamentally relational nature of human experience, you might be able to write novel-like things, trinkets made of language, mosaics of ideas, or jeremiads, but you will not be able to write novels that, by dramatising human connection, connect on a human level.

But to connect, first you have to be vulnerable, and Sontag wasn’t having that. Even the vulnerability of enjoying something trivial had to be carefully guarded against. Boyers once tried to get Sontag to talk about Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. She wouldn’t be drawn. Boyers writes: ‘Her sense of herself, and of what mattered and deserved to matter, required that she not further engage with those movies. Not venture in the direction of things apt to be unworthy.’ To be imprisoned by a self-flattering idea of taste, of seriousness: is this being ‘twice as alive as most of us’? Half as alive surely.

Boyers notes that Sontag often suffered from ‘an uncertainty as to what sort of critic she wished to be’. There are several ways of being a critic. One is to review new works of art. But Sontag never really wanted to do this – she came to regret including a batch of (superb) theatre reviews in Against Interpretation. What if she reviewed too many books that were unworthy of her? (It never occurred to Sontag that an honest critic might sometimes feel unworthy of a given work of art.)

Another way of being a critic is to make canonical pronouncements. Sontag, in her later life, was often full of emeritus puffery. Robert Walser’s prose possesses the virtues of ‘the most mature, most civilised art’. What does this mean? It might mean: you should read Robert Walser, he is very good. Or it might mean, it is me, the critic, who is the most mature, the most civilised. Either way, it is a debatably useful thing to write. One more way of being a critic: you can use works of art to think about society, that is, human relationships. Sontag was never really going to do that either.

Increasingly, after her great decade, the 1970s, Sontag came to specialise in the polishing of canonical statues (Barthes, Benjamin, Brodsky), or in the pocket theorisation, the aphorism standing high on wobbly stilts. Boyers notes her fondness for ‘a somewhat theatrical generalisation at once striking and more than a little dubious’. His example, from Where the Stress Falls: ‘A poet’s prose is the autobiography of ardour.’ The generalisation might be dubious but this is certainly a striking sentence, not just for its aphoristic compression but for the poetic idea it half-conceals, the idea that an emotion might write an autobiography. The phrase sounds assertive but is really suggestive – like poetry. Poetic prose about poet’s prose: one way in which criticism becomes art. Boyers is right to say that you can’t teach this stuff, that there is no critical methodology here, and that Sontag’s impulsions were never pedagogical – ‘she was not in any sense called to the vocation of the teacher who wrote to edify or educate the literate public’. Of course not. She wasn’t writing for other people; she was writing for, and to, herself.

And yet she does teach. Of course she does. She teaches by example, by inspiration, as well as by insight. Reading Sontag – any Sontag, even the slightly etiolated later essays collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001) and At the Same Time (2007)– gives you a bad conscience about the limits of your own reading, the poverty of your own analytic powers, the meagreness of your own capacity for synthesis. And critics should give you a bad conscience, even as they spur you onwards. On the page, if not in life, Sontag created one of the best False Selves in the business. It must have been hard going, as she sojourned through the unwritten world – and not just for her. She was lucky to have friends like Robert Boyers; I hope she knew how lucky.

George Steiner was similarly lucky, though as a friend he seemed to require less in the way of tolerant understanding. Born in Paris in 1929 to Viennese-Jewish parents, Steiner incarnated the high culture of ‘Old Europe’ that Sontag never entirely stopped worshipping; in a sense, Steiner made the preservation and transmission of that culture his life’s work. Steiner’s father got the family safely to New York in 1940, a month before the Wehrmacht reached Paris. The immoral triumphs of Nazism are never far from Steiner’s pages. In a 1966 essay, ‘A Kind of Survivor’, he wrote:

If I am often out of touch with my own generation, if that which haunts me and controls my habits of feeling strikes many of those I should be intimate and working with in my present world as remotely sinister and artificial, it is because the black mystery of what happened in Europe is to me indivisible from my own identity. Precisely because I was not there, because an accident of good fortune struck my name from the roll.

Steiner’s emotional landscape was also shaped by a prior trauma: he was born with a withered right arm, which his mother insisted he learn to use as normal. ‘I was severely handicapped,’ Steiner later recalled. ‘Due to Maman, I overcame it […] It took ten months for me to learn to tie a lace; I must have howled with rage and frustration. But one day I could tie my laces.’ Steiner evoked this memory in accents of gratitude and love. But all that ‘rage and frustration’ had to go somewhere. What lies behind the mosaic pages, with their heavy freight of learning? Easy, perhaps, to diagnose a whole critical consciousness on the basis of such details; and hard not to.

Steiner’s mosaic was, if anything, even more impressive than Sontag’s. Asked if he’d ever read anything trivial as a child, he said Moby-Dick. (Unlike Sontag, Steiner had a sense of humour, of a sort.) Criticism he vanquished simply by ignoring it. In 1970, at a seminar, it was pointed out to him that his lengthy excursus on Dostoyevsky’s use of the definite article was rendered nugatory by the fact that Russian contains no definite article. ‘It was as though a fly had landed on his shoulder,’ a colleague recalled. ‘A criticism that should have been devastating made no impact.’

Polyglot and polymathic to a bewildering degree, Steiner was not often vulnerable to such basic errors: his were generally of a more highfalutin sort. Like Sontag, he was prone to the wobbly aphorism. ‘The critic is an activist of apprehension.’ You see what he means, sort of; but you also wonder why it needs to be said – it feels, as Steiner’s aphorisms often do, like an aphorism spun for the sake of having something impressive to put on the page. On the other hand, he could be a truly superb close reader of literary texts – see the opening pages of his book on linguistics, After Babel (1975) – and an aphorist of considerable skill (‘Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love’, ‘Good reviews are even more ephemeral than bad books’). His work has two modes: it is either brilliant or empty. Perhaps this is appropriate for a writer who claimed loudly and often to despise mediocrity. He had no middle register. He wrote no merely mediocre works.

His career: Oxford, The Economist, Princeton, Cambridge, The New Yorker, the University of Geneva; first book, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky: A Study in Contrasts, in 1959; second book, The Death of Tragedy (‘We are entering upon large and difficult ground’), 1961; essay collection, Language and Silence, 1967; monograph on Heidegger, 1978; a novel about Hitler, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., 1981; sundry essays, articles, books, covering history, politics, linguistics, comparative literature, music …

Unlike Sontag, Steiner was a passionate teacher, and spent most of his working life in universities, where he felt, and sometimes was, undervalued. Another of my senior literary sources tells me that Steiner never got over being ‘banished’ to Churchill College in Cambridge – Churchill being a ‘new’ college, founded in 1958, and far distant, both geographically and reputationally, from the ‘old’ Cambridge colleges. In the preface to the second edition of After Babel, Steiner described himself as, during the book’s composition, ‘increasingly marginalised and indeed isolated within the academic community’, and decried an academic culture rotten with ‘opportunism and mediocre conventionality’.

‘In England,’ Robert Boyers writes, Steiner was ‘resented for pointing out the monolingual provincialism of English literary culture’; Boyers traces the resentment of Steiner to ‘envy felt by academics who couldn’t quite accept that someone could write essays in challenging, if not arcane, subjects and reach a large, general readership in the best weeklies and monthlies’. What Boyers doesn’t say is that there was almost certainly an element of antisemitism in the English academic response to Steiner; it tended to take the form of complaints that he brought up the Holocaust too often (how often, we might ask, is too often?).

Some words and phrases that Robert Boyers uses to describe George Steiner: ‘hard’, ‘brusque’, ‘abrasive’, ‘harsh’, ‘ungenerous’, ‘brutal’, ‘overbearing’. Ouch. ‘As with Susan his characteristic accent was high intensity.’ But the list of condemnatory adjectives here is short. Steiner was evidently easier to love than Sontag was, even if the reverse is true of their respective presences on the page. Boyers first met Steiner as a student at an NYU graduate seminar in 1965. Here Conor Cruise O’Brien, Steiner’s fellow teacher, makes a cameo as part of an amusing double-act: Steiner the blowhard Europhile intellectual, O’Brien the commonsensical Irishman bursting his balloon. When Steiner complained about his students’ faulty German, O’Brien said, ‘I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it, George, and we will all have to live with you, won’t we?’

Boyers paraphrases some of Steiner’s pedagogical discourse from this period: ‘I did understand, did I not, that many philosophers, from Plato to Sartre, had been attracted to despotism, that it was not only Nietzsche or Heidegger who were drawn to hierarchy and tyranny.’ What Boyers refrains from saying is that this has the patina of intellection but makes a point familiar to any undergraduate philosophy student; and that it uses knowledge to bully. The real despot in this discourse is, of course, George Steiner.

Steiner could be a bully on the page, too. Here’s a more or less representative paragraph, from his 1980 essay ‘The Archives of Eden’:

The twentieth century offers graphic evidence: there is, quite simply, no American metaphysician, no “thinker on being,” no enquirer into the meaning of meaning, to set beside Heidegger or Wittgenstein or Sartre. There is no phenomenology of American provenance comparable to that of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. No philosophic theology of the order of radical challenge proposed by Bultmann or by Barth. The inheritance of ontological astonishment (thaumazein) and systematic response remains unbroken from Heraclitus to Sartre’s Les Mots. It runs through Aquinas, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche. There is no American membership in that list.

The constant use of heavyweight proper nouns, here, is absolutely characteristic. So is a phrase like ‘the inheritance of ontological astonishment’, with its supporting parenthetical phrase of Aristotelian Greek (thaumazein means ‘astonishment’ or ‘wonder’, and hence isn’t strictly needed to clarify the sentence; but of course its purpose isn’t to clarify the sentence, its purpose it to let you know that George Steiner has read Aristotle’s Metaphysics in the original).

As for Steiner’s actual argument in ‘The Archives of Eden’, it combines Henry James’s point, in his book on Nathaniel Hawthorne, that the relative youth of America’s social and political institutions provides a thin soil for the artist, with a version of Theodor Adorno’s anathemas against the culture industry. ‘The Archives of Eden’ was controversial on its first appearance but it’s hard to see why. Beneath its carapace of austere invocations, it articulates a standard, that is to say an uninteresting, highbrow anti-Americanism. (Why attack America on grounds of culture, for God’s sake?)

In his books and essays Steiner is forever throwing around phrases like ‘the cancer of the transcendent in Western Man’. This phrase, to dwell on it briefly, does mean something; but perhaps it doesn’t mean quite enough, or include enough in the way of suggestion to be a useful spur to further thought. In other words it verges riskily close to being a pseudoconcept – a semifrequent Steiner failing. A typical Steiner paragraph (and they’re all typical Steiner paragraphs) goes on for two pages and uses words like ‘ontological’, ‘theological’ and ‘transcendent’ without deigning to supply specific referents or contexts for them, and cannot end before it has invoked ‘a Socrates, a Mozart, a Gauss, a Galileo’ and the Nazi death camps. To generate your very own Steiner essay, all you would need to do is think hard for thirty pages about the fact that human beings have produced both great art and Auschwitz, and about the fact that at Auschwitz, some of the cruellest SS men were conversant with great works of art. What does this mean? Does it mean that art cannot civilise us? (Answer: yes.) Should we, therefore, despair? (Answer: no.)

I’m being unfair. But Steiner’s criticism seems to invite caricature, whereas Sontag’s does not. In Steiner’s worst pieces, there is an unmistakeable whiff of the flim-flam artist, the empty generaliser. Greatness! We must stand in awe before it! Steiner often assembles long trains of sanctified proper nouns (Kafka! Wittgenstein! Dante! Mozart!) and sends them rumbling down the tracks in place of thought. ‘You cannot avoid his colossal pomposity and egotism,’ wrote Edward Said, producing his own parody of the Steiner manner: ‘Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in a café on the Danube, to the strains of Schonberg, Greek dirges, and screams.’ James Wood, setting out Oedipally to vanquish his predecessor at The New Yorker, wrote: ‘George Steiner’s prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a monument.’ Steiner, Wood observed, has ‘a fear of exhibiting even rhetorical ignorance’, accompanied by ‘a superstitious worship of “greatness”’.

Wood’s assault on Steiner – in a belated review of his Real Presences (1986) –detects in his thought a barely disguised hunger for tyranny, a hatred of democracy, a buried conviction that only authoritarian regimes, from the Medicis to Tsarist Russia, can truly nourish great art. Is this fair? Boyers tells us that Steiner often spoke about the ‘dilemma of the relation between democracy and excellence’, and followed the essentially Tocquevillean line that democracy, by its very nature, curbs individual excellence. There are several objections to this argument. One is to say, well, it depends what you mean by excellence. Another is to point out that democracy, precisely, puts no obstacles in the way of excellence; it is merely an unpleasant form of snobbery that perceives this particular ‘dilemma’ where none in fact exists.

On the other hand, snobbery in a critic is almost always a venial sin. For Wood, Steiner’s snobbery shaded unmistakably into contempt for the masses and love of hierarchy. But this, I think, overstates. As Steiner himself wrote: ‘No play by Racine is worth a Bastille, no Mandelstam poem an hour of Stalinism.’ The best we can say of Steiner’s politics is that it was an uneasy mishmash of declinism, liberalism, elitism and cosmopolitanism, and that as he negotiated the inevitable contradictions of such a worldview, he was occasionally able to perceive things that no one else did. And as Boyers says, Steiner really was himself excellent in many ways – a genuine polymath, ‘a one-man humanities faculty’:

George really did impress scholars of Russian literature with his Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, in spite of his having no Russian. He did seem to classical scholars to write a first-rate book about Antigone without the training of a classicist. He also composed a compelling book on Heidegger for the Fontana Modern Masters series without having the credentials of an academic philosopher.

Even Edward Said suggested that Steiner’s faults ‘are not the disabilities of mediocrity’, and James Wood grudgingly conceded that the book on Heidegger was ‘creditable’ (it is more than creditable; it is still, half a century later, a good place for the student of Heidegger to start).

Declinism, in Steiner, took the form of frequent lamentations for the linguistic and aesthetic provincialism of postwar Western education: ‘The world of classical mythology,’ he wrote in Language and Silence, ‘of historical reference, of scriptural allusion, on which a preponderant part of English and European literature is built from Chaucer to Milton to Dryden, from Tennyson to Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, is receding from our natural reach.’ Exam question: who does Steiner mean by ‘our’?

Almost all intellectuals end up as declinists, as their own decline advances. But Steiner started out as one. In his first book, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, he wrote: ‘All about us flourishes the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read short words or words of hatred and tawdriness but cannot grasp the meaning of language when it is in a condition of beauty or of truth.’ This is both still true and too simple. It encodes a fear of ordinary people that often finds expression, in members of the elite, as a passion for high standards, deep culture, all the rest of it. Now, as then, a besetting vice of intellectuals.

I recently asked an academic friend what they thought of Steiner. ‘Good old-fashioned humanist critic,’ was the cheerful response. ‘They don’t make them like him any more.’ Another bit of declinism, perhaps, though of a sanguine sort. Reading through some of Steiner’s work – some of it already familiar to me, some new – in preparation for this piece, I found myself agreeing that ‘humanist’ is as good a descriptor as any for what he was and did. The swift posthumous depreciation in value of his critical stock is perhaps due to the fact that humanism is currently in bad odour among literary intellectuals, and perhaps also not entirely unrelated to Steiner’s maleness, heterosexuality, and blunt-force ex cathedra pronouncements (no Sontagian transgressive glamour hereabouts).

It might also have something to do with the suspicion, more readily provoked by Steiner’s work than Sontag’s, that the true project of these books and essays is the burnishing of the critic’s intellectual self-image; with the suspicion that in worshipping the greatness of others, Steiner was chiefly endeavouring to ratify his own. Reading Steiner, you are impressed, dazzled. But you also often feel that you are being striven at; that you are watching a man making a gargantuan effort. Some of his arguments and ideas, indeed, reek of strain: for instance his proposal that, in response to the supposed nihilism of deconstruction, we should read “as if” texts had meaning (this is from Real Presences). In conversation, Boyers notes, Steiner had a ‘will to performance’. He had it on the page too – which writer does not? But there are various kinds of performance; the kind we trust least has, as its ultimate aim, the inflation of a fragile, scarcely hidden, ego.

Steiner saw mediocrity everywhere: in literature, in scholarship, in politics. The searcher after excellence – in others or in himself – always risks becoming a finder of mediocrity, partly because mediocrity is never hard to find, and partly because the passion for excellence as such tends, over time, to become abstract, not to mention calcified. And also because the effort to keep the mosaic from crumbling cannot for one instant be relaxed. Excoriating mediocrity is, of course, a way of saying that you are not, yourself, mediocre. It isn’t the grumpiness or the snobbery that we dislike in such complaints. It’s the insecurity.

Steiner saw himself as a belated man, coming in at the end-stage of human glory. (Hence a book called The Death of Tragedy). Yet he was no declinist merely, or simply. He was perfectly capable of examining declinism, of rooting out its assumptions and costs. He could be an iconoclast when honesty demanded it. In his 1971 book In Bluebeard’s Castle, (publishing the TS Eliot Memorial Lectures that he gave at the University of Kent at Canterbury that year), he wrote:

Our experience of the present, the judgements, so often negative, that we make of our own place in history, play continually against what 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 c. the 1820s and 1915. The initial date has a conventional indistinction, but the end of the long summer is apocalyptically exact.

For Steiner, this myth ‘makes for a rich and controlling image, for a symbolic structure that presses, with the insistence of active mythology, on our current condition of feeling’; and, ‘if we pause to examine the sources’ of the myth, ‘we shall see that they are often purely literary or pictorial, that our inner nineteenth century is the creation of Dickens or Renoir’. And, lest we smugly think the anti-imperialist critique of history a twenty-first century invention, Steiner is there to remind us that our age’s righteous truths our not our possession uniquely:

The recognition is inescapable that the intellectual wealth and stability of middle and upper middle-class life during the long liberal summer depended, directly, on economic, and ultimately military, dominion over vast portions of what is now known as the underdeveloped or third world. All this is manifest.

In Bluebeard’s Castle is basically a critique of liberal and technological-scientific concepts of progress. Like Bluebeard’s wife, we open the door we should not open – the door into the knowledge of doom. I quote from it to give a sample of what Steiner could do, at his best, and because of my sense that, if he is no longer much read, then this is a pity: he still has much to offer. Some of his essays stand up extremely well. His essay-portrait of Georg Lukács (‘In the twentieth century it is not easy for an honest man to be a literary critic […] But then, it never was’) takes a lucid and synoptic view of its subject, and preserves what is valuable in Lukács’s work for non-Marxist readers. Steiner was inveterately hostile to Marxism (no Marxist ever ended up writing for The New Yorker, but it wasn’t just careerism that drove Steiner’s hostility). He was also open to the insights that Marxist criticism could generate. He admired Lukács for suggesting that the historical novel, beginning with Scott, arose from and grappled with the ways in which ‘[t]he French Revolution and the Napoleonic era penetrated the consciousness of ordinary men with a sense of the historical’, and for proposing that, by the time of Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862), the forces of history feel ‘beyond rational comprehension’ and the relationship between the bourgeois novelist and history is no longer one of ‘live continuity’: an argument useful not just to Marxists.

In 1980 Steiner wrote for The New Yorker about Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and Soviet mole. Perhaps only Steiner could have given, in the same essay, both an authoritative account of Blunt’s accomplishments as a scholar and a sophisticated meditation on the doubleness of his mind. Both of these pieces are examples of what he called ‘haute journalism’. Though he may not have wished it said, this was what he was best at. It is far from nothing.

They met, of course, Sontag and Steiner. Robert Boyers took them to lunch. They were, on that occasion, disappointingly civil to one another. But later, Sontag asked Steiner to send her some rare books. She never paid for them, and ignored his letters of entreaty and reproach. The next time they met, at one of Boyers’s conferences, there was some childish foofaraw about bus seats. It seems clear that Sontag was at fault; also that Steiner was not prepared to be the bigger person. What fools these immortals be! It’s tempting to say: if you can’t conduct a decent, civilised daily life, why should we trust your critical insights? But this is jejune. A great mosaic – a great False Self – is itself a work of art, each tile fashioned according to the highest standards of intellect, artistry, craftsmanship. Admire the tiles, learn from them; be mindful of the mosaic as a whole. If what that mosaic ends up depicting is, in the end, an ogre – well, que faire? For the rest of us, a little vulnerability – a little humility – might just be the place to start.

It might be said in protest that I have understood the works of these two gifted critics as merely the epiphenomena of childhood unhappiness; and perhaps I have. (Steiner: ‘in good criticism, bias is made visible, is made lucid to itself.’) But this is surely just one way of saying that there is really no such thing as a natural or spontaneous criticism, that criticism arises in response to a wound either personal or political – I hope an unexceptionable remark, in the age of historicism. It is certainly not to say that a critic’s perceptions are less valid for being rooted, finally, in personal pathology. Without personal pathology, where would any of us be? It is personal pathology that allows us to see what is wrong with impersonal pathology – with the pathologies of the world and its systems.

The critic, Steiner wrote in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, ‘should be concerned with masterpieces. His primary function is to distinguish not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the best.’ This is high-minded piffle, really, but it does serve to prick the conscience of any critic who spends too much time assessing dud new novels, or whinging about the latest hyperdynamic superhero trivia. Both Sontag and Steiner spent decades unapologetically saying that greatness in art existed; that true culture was, perhaps tragically but certainly inarguably, the province and patrimony of a tiny elite; that we should nourish our souls chiefly on the greatest works of the greatest artists; that triviality, in art and culture, was to be despised; that one should not celebrate ignorance or stupidity, or abase oneself before the hungers of the mob. And it seems to me that if you haven’t got someone around to say all of these things – indeed, to insist on them – then you really are in trouble. It is one of the necessary positions to hold, in a culture. But heaven forbid it should ever be taken for the last word.


Kevin Power’s The Written World: Essays and Reviews (The Lilliput Press) includes several pieces that first appeared in the Dublin Review of Books.



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