November 23, 2002
THE SILENCE OF THE STRADIVARI:
Curious George and the postliterate
: George Steiner has written bleakly about the death of the culture of higher literacy, but the renowned scholar is an unexpected optimist in person. (RAY CONLOGUE, November 21, 2002, Globe and Mail)
When George Steiner was eight years old, in 1937, his father tricked him into reading part of The Iliad in the original Greek. The translated version, he said, left out the best parts.
Steiner's father was a lawyer, not a scholar. But in that rich cultural brew that was inter-war Jewish Europe, it was not impossible that a lawyer and his young child might together sound out the 25-century-old syllables of Homer's epic poem.
"I owe my life to that," says Steiner, today a courtly 73-year-old scholar of world renown. He means "life" in the sense of the life he has led (he also literally owes his life to his father, who sent him from Paris to the United States shortly afterwards when Jews could still escape). "But," he adds, thinking again of the life of culture he has known, "I have no illusions that others will live like that." [...]
Every generation loses a little bit of the past, as new poems and novels jostle for attention. But Steiner...believes that the catastrophic forgetfulness that has overtaken the West since the Second World War is a sign that the print culture that sustained us for six centuries is actually dying.
"The things that have been at the core of my life will be found only in museums, which saddens me. I think of the Coolidge Room at the Smithsonian Institute. It contains 20 silent Stradivari. It's the saddest room I know."
Realistically, what proportion of the Western population ever partook of such culture? I wonder if what we see is no so much the decline of literary culture but the recognition that even if it's readily available to the masses they won't immerse themselves in it--especially not if Survivor or The Batchelor is on that night.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 23, 2002 6:23 AM
So who were the bestselling authors of bygone
times, Ned Ward or Maria Edgeworth?
Reading ancient poetry in a foreign tongue is
never going to be a mass activity -- even
Moslems don't understand the Koran that they
memorize. So what?
The real problem is that the elites have stopped trying to be elite-- they are the people promoting dung encrusted paintings as works of art.
Maybe. The real elites are in the sciences and
The funniest line in modern poetry was "I
saw the finest minds of my generation ..."
The author was referring to a bunch of feckless
drunks, while some of the actual finest
minds of his generation were just across the
street. But he couldn't comprehend what they
Count me in with Harry. "Howl's" a hoot, typical of the absurd rhetoric of pop literature, but it allowed the "Lion of the Dharma" to lead a very comfortable life. Now, if I turn my eyes to my bookcase, I see a number of works by Steiner, some of which I revere, and some of which I find pretentious and self-promoting. The learned gentleman has never seemed to understand that the top levels of any particular culture were historically shared only by a few thousand in each generation, and they filtered down to more and more with each passing year. I have now lived in Albuquerque for a decade, a provincial city by any account. For many years before that, I bought my books by the carton in New York and London, and they would have been counted rarefied if not esoteric by many people. And yet, when I go into the local bookstores and to the great monthly library book sale here, I am amazed at the learned books I find in several languages on many topics. Yes, of course, we have the state university here, but we must have dozens if not more likely hundreds reading at a very high level indeed in what is ultimately a backwater, no matter how congenial I find it. My former boss in a huge publishing company thirty years ago told me never to gauge a book by my interest in it since, by his estimate, there weren't five thousand people in the country reading at my level. It was a lovely compliment, but I think he was wrong, very wrong. Here, in the heart of this poor agricultural state, I see evidence in a number of fields that there are lots of folk reading very sophisticated material, and obviously buying it in or ordering from foreign cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City etc. I come from the first generation in the last five in my family not to have produced engineers, so I'm not capable of gauging the sophistication of the technical works, but after all, we do have two of the main national labs here. I'll lay money on the fact that these folks are reading at the cutting edge in their fields if they aren't actually writing it. Dear old Professor Doktor Steiner belongs to that noble and admirable tradition of the Kulturtraeger German Jews, but simply because his Landsmen are dying off is no reason to assume that Kultur an sich is withering away. Am I being too democratic and optimistic about this?