27. George Steiner - My Brilliant Idiot
Of all the brilliant idiots in all the world, George Steiner is my very favorite. Oh my is he brilliant, and oh my is he an idiot. Here is a man who seems able to quote the entire Western Canon on instant neurological recall, yet can’t see anything about the world further away than what he reads on the page. I once saw a video of him at a gathering of intellectuals, he was sarcastically asked by Martha Nussbaum if he would give up Proust to abolish slavery. His immediate reply was ‘Absolutely not.’ Everything in his scholarship has sentences which read like "Arthur Koestler’s adnumbration of the mimetic is one of the seminal conceptions of the transcendental mysterium in our epoch." Like the similarly grandiloquent Harold Bloom, George Steiner doesn’t write literary criticism, he writes literary criticism porn (y’know...I’m a bit weirded out by how often porn comparisons are appearing on this list). And the intellectually insecure among us thrill to the very idea that someone could be so very learned, and we drink in that thrill with relish. Who knew that within a single sentence, a writer can advise us about the connections between Proust, Plato, Pythagoras, Pasternak, Pound, and Plotinus which we would never think of on our own, even had we read all of their complete works a dozen times?
But even so, there is something about Steiner that I can’t help finding wonderful. I first wamed to George Steiner when I watched the interview I embedded above. At 4:20, Steiner tells the story of being a disabled child and the absolute joy he derived when he was finally able to do something as simple as tie his shoes. As it happens, the day I finally learned to tie a knot when I was ten years old was also the most thrilling day of my entire childhood. From the moment I heard this story, I could not help but see Steiner with more sympathy than many other readers (perhaps rightly) think he deserves. I may disagree with the conclusion he takes from his story. I may think that if I’d grown up in the highest Viennese/Parisian society (like Steiner), I’d have had a lot more willpower to overcome my own childhood handicaps. But I can’t help thinking that I understand why this brilliant moron feels the need to be so brilliant and so moronic.
Steiner’s work is as unfashionable as unfashionable gets - reverence for high culture, for the importance of book learning, the belief that ideas are a matter of life and death. These are all precepts that you have to believe in if you read even an article by George Steiner with anything but agony. But all these ideas, if they’re still considered by people at all, are remnants of the bygone middlebrow era. Perhaps it’s the middlebrow of Postwar America that would tune in to hear Toscanini conduct the NBC Symphony after the Notre Dame-Michigan football game was over. Perhaps it’s the middlebrow of 19th-century England and Germany, in which a father would attend to the parlour piano for an evening of accompanying his cello-playing daughter and then abscond to a night in the whorehouse. Either way, there is something extremely commonplace about the idea that great art, whatever your definition of that term may be, can and should be spiritually sustaining. If you want to be viewed as a true highbrow in today’s world, you have to scoff at the very idea that an attempt at profundity can ennoble.
And perhaps today’s highbrows are absolutely right. Perhaps ‘great art’ is a racket that allows theater groups and symphony orchestras to pull in money that would otherwise be spent on more absorbing entertainment like sports or fashion. But if you believe that there is something about art which sets it apart, or perhaps ‘higher,’ than various forms of entertainment, then someone like Steiner has incredible value.
But if Susan Sontag ever wanted to treat these ‘lower-brow’ artforms with any more reverence than a cheap thrill of something ephemeral and lower class, she would be completely at a loss to describe it (though Camille Paglia did better). It’s probable that there is just as much ‘art’ in the best played games of sport or the best-designed clothes as any great novel or play. But even if there is, there will have to be gatekeepers who separates the great from the good from the bad, and shows what makes each of the great works something more than a toy to be discarded when we lose interest. Perhaps someone like George Steiner (who also claims to be a college football fan) will never understand what is great about clothing styles (to say nothing of movies and rock music), but if critics ever want to treat De La Soul and Coco Chanel as artists whose accomplishments are on a plane with Picasso and Stravinsky (and lest there be any doubt, they should!) it’s the example set by critics like Steiner that we will have to follow if we want to continue to talk about what makes great art great.
George Steiner is an inveterate intellectual name-dropper whose inaccuracies have been extremely well documented. But to read him is to have a genuine sense of the awe which great artistry should instill in all of us. There are many things in his writing that feels synthetic, but his love of artistic greatness is not one of them.
I’d be hard pressed to find a website I find less addictive - but it’s surprisingly difficult to say what it is. So I’ll leave it at a very, very basic description. In brief, it’s a veritable encyclopedia of brief tributes to cultural artifacts, figures, and ideas from around the world. The sole criteria for a tribute is that it cannot be ‘middlebrow.’
Its current front page has a wonderfully thoughtful review of Rise of Planet of the Apes, a tribute to Ted Knight (Ted Baxter from the Mary Tyler Moore show), a piece of poetry from one of the site’s ounders, a suggestion of an unmarketable comic strip about the 60’s that was just released for the first time as a gift idea, a tribute to Nazi deconstructionist Paul De Man, a brief disquisition on wage slavery, a consideration of space in the photography of Jan Lemitz, a tribute to Damia the French Chausoniere, an essay on Orson Welles’s movie Touch of Evil, not to mention tributes to Ozzy Osbourne, Stefan Zweig, Etta Jones, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Botho Strauss, Katheryn Bigelow, whaling songs, a Philip K Dick novel, moths, beards, junkyards, and cornbread.
In the various sub-pages we find descriptions of each generation of Americans from the founding of America onward. But they define a generation as no more than a decade, so there will at some point be 37 different sub-pages to describe the particular characteristics of each American generation. Recently an entry appeared called the ‘Civil War Facial Hair Smackdown.’. All sorts of observations appear on contemporary politics and culture, but they’re mostly from an aesthetic point-of-view rather than a moral/political one. There is all sorts of poetry of a different variety (one recent one is called the Gothamiad, one chapter of that is called ‘Batman in the Garden of Eden’). There’s a whole section devoted to Science Fiction, another to weird images (no other specified criteria), and simply another to weird things that happen. Numerous entries have appeared recently for retro pictures of people who look like hipsters (rather than the other way around)...if Borges and John Waters made a website....
There’s only one problem with this. Once you collect enough high and low brow stuff and mash them into a single currency, all you’ve done is create a new concept of middlebrow. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, except that a site like hilowbrow effects precisely the opposite sort of change from what it wants.
Such is the way of the world. When people are starved for new ways of looking at themselves, they search far and wide for new perspectives, from sources both high and low. The end result invariably is a new middlebrow currency that can be digested by people from all walks of life. Middlebrow is as much part of the solution as high or lowbrow, but it requires intelligent people on society’s margins who will introduce new concepts that may prove shocking at first. But eventually, the ‘common folk’ assimilates these new concepts and accepts them as self evident. Which of course means that people on the margins must start looking for new ways to rebel. And the cycle continues...