On Difficulty and Other Essays
George Steiner
New York: Oxford University Press
209 pages, $10.95

These eight essays aim to strike coordinates on the precarious graph of language and society. Steiner’s preeminent concern is the erosion of the private self in modern life. He fears that “the healing silences of the self” are submerging under the chaos and din of contemporary society, and succumbing to the fashion for total utterance, the modern propensity to leave nothing unsaid. “One does not need Kierkegaard,” Steiner warns, “to remind one that where a secret has been dislodged and published, a kind of malign emptiness remains.” Steiner finds Freud at the fulcrum of total disclosure, with
his faith in the cathartic possibilities of rehearsing the tormented past. In free-association the patient pierces the membrane between inner and outer speech, and “consumes” a portion of his reserve of inwardness. Self-scrutiny, once limited to the confessional, the cloister, and the private journal under key and lock has evolved into the domain of “the interviewer, the social worker, the marriage counselor, the spokesman in group therapy,” who “elicit and reward the emission, the detailed externalization of what was once inchoate and private.”

Steiner’s antidote against the hegemony of a race of one-dimensioned, smiling public men and women? Reading. But reading of a measure and intensity nearly extinct. To enact “une lecture bien fait” means, to Steiner, not only to answer the text, but to be answerable to it. The object is not to  imaginatively fuse oneself with the narrative voice, as Georges Poulet suggests when he writes, “Whenever I read I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself.” Instead the reader declares his otherness from the text with a perpetually respondent voice, contending, adding, correcting, annotating, congratulating, collaborating in a dynamic reciprocity that renews the text itself. With this internal exchange we restabilize ourselves, storing up spiritual ballast against a tempest wracked time. This dialogue between book and reader stands moreover as Steiner’s correlative to the interior dialogue Plato designated as genuine thought, the dialectical bridge that takes the discutants from opinion to knowledge. In After Babel Steiner has written, “The formidable gaiety of the Platonic dialogues, the use of the dialectic as a method of intellectual chase, stems from the discovery that words, allowed to clash as in combat, or maneuver as in a dance, will produce new shapes of understanding.” Those new shapes may be possible when our own language commingles with the words of the masters.

To answer the text is a matter of intellectual energy, but the credentials requisite to being answerable to the text are awesome. In The Death of Tragedy Steiner has suggested that it may be impossible to draw succor from contemporary literature. The dissolution of a constellation of values held ‘by consensus and the disappearance of an evocative fabric of myth in the West have enervated the modern imagination: “The myths which have prevailed since Descartes and Newton are myths of  reason, no truer perhaps than those which preceded them, but less responsive to the claims of art.”  Modern language has suffered a like decline. Used to justify rank political falsehood and the barbarism of totalitarian states, it is conceivable that something of these lies and propaganda has become an integral part of current speech. Now assailing us as they do in vast strident hordes, words, furthermore, refuse to give their full yield of meaning. Thus the committed reader must surrender himself to a strenuous recovery of past literature where moral coherence and linguistic integrity may still reside. In On Difficulty, Steiner goes about setting the qualifications for the crucial recovery. To engage a classic fully entails the acquisition of the original language, a measure of historical conversance, an overview of the genre the work participates in, the cultural traditions of the originating nation, and the course of critical response to the work. Foremost, conscientious reading requires a mental tenacity that will not allow a line to pass by uncomprehended, a strange reference to appear  without its being looked up. Steiner frets that at the rate we are dissolving our bonds with the past, we may soon find with certain texts that the distance has grown so drastic “that everything has to be looked up.” Current education, “organized amnesia,” cultivates no such mental vim, but seems to debilitate us for the task. Who now can meet a classic on its own grounds, really be answerable to it?

The active readings that keep the great books among us must be the responsibility, even, according to Steiner, the prerogative of the few. But democratic egalitarianism militates against the maintenance of a scholarly caste. Then there are the multiform distractions. “The world is too much with us much and soon,” Steinet echoes Wordsworth, and sees the incursion of anarchic music, the shouts of children, and the claims of worldly affairs all conspired to fracture the bookman’s requisite silence. Steiner sees culture perishing by attenuation in a time when the descendants of servants who dusted the tomes in private libraries leaf paperback translations and skim Monarch notes. Even our writers, gross and brutal, have forsaken us.

In “Eros and Idiom,” the collection’s crux, Steiner chronicles the progress from George Eliot’s elegant elisions to current blunt renderings of sexual encounter. He mourns the passing of a subtle and suggestive language that petitioned the reader’s most refined interpretive faculties. George Eliot’s “marvelous grasp of human particularity gives to what is said an unmistakable authority, an energy of undeclared content felt, registered, though as it were, unheard.” Through this unstated presence the traditional novel took on its intensity, its capacity to mirror the complexity of life outside the book.

Maybe the case is not so dire. Sexuality has broken the surface, but perhaps another aspect of life, equally elemental, has filled its subliminal place in current writing. Will the future’s scholars discern religious meanings embedded in the works of a period when religion was, ostensibly, not the subject for serious literature? Moreover, is it possible that the fusion of public and private self that Steiner sees does not signal spiritual penury, but the promise of some wholeness or integration? At the least, Steiner’s method of examining this question is suspect. Throughout he depends on economic metaphors—depletion, balance, reserve, surplus—to gauge interiority. A materialistic understanding just won’t take. It’s absurd to talk about serving out the soul in dollops. More disconcerting than that is Steiner’s nostalgia for the chaste delicacies of Eliot’s idiom and the square-shouldered literary verve of the Victorian age. Does he forget that the return of anything resembling either would entail censorship, political and social repression? Though much he says, particularly his prescriptions for reading, is admirable, Steiner’s judgments demonstrate a taste for the extreme and the excessive. There is something that induces him to overstate every situation, to postulate what might better be suggested, to pronounce what he could imply. Perhaps he fears the inconsequence of literary criticism and aspires to something more profound and lasting. In Language and Silence he has written that, “In the twentieth century it is not easy for an honest man to be a literary critic. There are so many more urgent things to be done.” That was written nearly twenty years ago. Still, Steiner writes criticism.

To do so, he engages assumptions about literature and society that inflate his critical mission and raise what ought to be careful, probing discourse to the heights of prophecy. The first assumption is the centrality of books and reading in past cultures. Steiner believes that in the well-ordered European societies from about the English Renaissance to the onset of literary modernism, a syllabus of central texts has kept continuity with the past and imposed stability by promulgating the values on which the cultures rested. The Book, according to Steiner, held a position something like the sun’s in Ulysses’s famous speech in “Troilus and Cressida”: “In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d / Amidst the others; whose med’cinable eye / Corrects the ill aspect of planets evil.”

No one will deny the weight of literature and the arts on any given civilized age. But a measured approach might understand print as one star in the constellation of forces that defines an epoch’s  character. To ignore the equal, or perhaps more telling, presences of politics, economics, religion, and scientific discovery on the state of past lived experience, or to see those others as ancillaries or derivatives of literature, is unfortunately myopic. A reconstruction of their interplay toward the fuller understanding of a departed time entails the scrupulous scholarship, the habits of looking things up, that Steiner calls for but does not enact.

Steiner’s other disadvantage follows more or less from this central overvaluation. Assuming the Book’s commanding place, it is natural to presume that a society’s values and crises, excesses and inhibitions, translate directly into its literature. Thus the demanding historical scrutiny that moves toward understanding the writer’s position within his particular historical context is not the critic’s job. It is not hard to see that Milton lived and wrote in a far different connection with the values and politics of his time than did Chaucer for instance. In any case, neither of the two qualify as scribes whose works represent unmediated transcriptions of the collective consciousness of their times. To their age’s concern they join their individual dispositions and class interests, along with whatever restrictions and liberties the writer’s vocation entailed at the time. Because Steiner sees literature “enthron’d and spher’d,” he has no obligation to understand such conditions.

A classic is not, then, one limited expression of its culture’s character. It is the definitive undeniable version. Therefore, for Steiner, the critic’s task is to touch a superbly formed mechanism of response to the work, and elicit depths, nuances, and meanings that a less well-wrought constitution might miss. There is nothing worth knowing about the text that the text does not somewhere contain. Look at Steiner’s finely tooled definition of criticism: “A major exercise of understanding . . . is one which circumscribes the original text with a scrupulously drawn circuit of inadequacy. It says to us: ‘analysis, location, echo can go so far and no further.’ But it says so in a manner that leaves the work itself more spacious, more autonomously lucid, and that leaves criticism stronger, more worth attempting and disagreeing over.” It is not hard to see how that “scrupulously drawn circuit of inadequacy” might serve as a paste-on halo, or at best a sallow ghost of the book considered. The danger of hawking a sensibility as literary criticism is that work under study. “It is an adjunct,” Steiner admits. There are two solutions to this contingency. The one Steiner takes is to overemphasize the role of the Book, and thus upgrade the status of its stunted shadow, criticism.

The other, and I think preferable, approach is to understand criticism not as an exercise in appreciation, but as a way of obtaining knowledge. To understand a book as a coherent expression of an ideology, and to measure that ideology against the known political and social conditions of the time, will produce a richer yield I think. This frees criticism to speak strongly and significantly about any work, regardless of the work’s importance. The object is not to “leave the work more spacious,” however one does that, but to fill in the work’s silences, articulating the knowledge its limited point of view places out of its scope, illuminating its central contradictions, and understanding them in terms of the work’s historical position.

Concomitant with his role as itinerant sensibility, Steiner’s expert reader serves as the guardian of linguistic purity. Steiner’s dismissal of contemporary tainted language is intended not to just send us back to past writers, but to indict modern life. A sick culture poisons its language. Since Orwell’s famous essay, this has become rather too facile a truth. With the onset of the organized domination of man by man, those who enforce what Auden wisely called “the lucrative patterns of frustration” have habitually bent language to their uses. That this has undermined the power of language is debatable.  Certainly there was deceit and charlatanry within Shakespeare’s hearing. Words that function consistently as the common coin, the vehicle for everyday transactions, gradually lose their force until they issue nearly stillborn, devoid of their former impact. The critic’s day to day mission is not, except marginally, to point out hollowed language; any moderately intelligent reader can do that. Instead, the critic is obliged to mint and discover and redesignate works of language that swell with power, to take us to language that will “refresh,” in Stevens’s sense. If one does not believe that such language exists, and is coming to being daily, then it may in fact be dishonest to practice as a critic.

By posting the critic as a Swiss Guard defending literature against the incursions of the multitudes,  Steiner has aggrandized his vocation enough to guarantee its worth. But there is more to come. The critic, Steiner has it, holds off doom’s sure harbinger: the descent of the Book from canon to commodity. Steiner suggests that the completion of that descent will signal the final hour for Western  culture. Even now the forces of political and spiritual authority embodied in the classic texts from Homer to Shakespeare to Milton are entering eclipse, and we inhabit the waning light of the last. Like Eliot and Arnold, his progenitor’s in literary conservatism, Steiner pits literature against the uncreating word, but he professes to lack even their hope in culture’s triumph. We are, since Spencer and Nietzsche, terminalists, he says, heirs to the intellectual exhilaration and bleak nobility that hopelessness confers. We, the bookmen, comprise the last pockets of resistence against chaos.

Shallow and self-celebratory, Steiner’s eschatology is too elegant to swallow. Behind his black forebodings resides a smug assurance that he will abide as literature’s distinguished retainer in dubious strife with the common and the uncultivated for many years to come.