Steiner's essays: connecting ethics with aesthetics

George Steiner: A Reader, by George Steiner. New York: Oxford University Press. 450 pp. $25. George Steiner is the champion and in some respects the eulogist of the old (Matthew) Arnoldian notion that the study of letters has a humanizing effect on the student. George Steiner is also a European Jew, a survivor of a once flourishing intellectual community that was wiped out by the Nazis. A liberal humanist by training, he is a misanthrope by experience. That paradox both animates and injures his criticism.

In ``To Civilize Our Gentlemen,'' the first and most resonant essay in this collection, Steiner states his dilemma nakedly. To paraphrase: We have little evidence that literary studies humanize. We have plenty of evidence they don't. The Nazis at Auschwitz butchered Jews by day and wept over Rilke at night. The literate mind, the mind that perceives the imaginary as real, can, by the same token, tolerate the real as imaginary. The cry in the poem becomes more real than the cry in the street.

In the essays that follow, Steiner offers passionate, dexterous, erudite arguments to show that aesthetics and ethics are, or should be, interrelated. In ``Critic/Reader'' he distinguishes readers -- for whom books are a living presence -- from modern critics, who seek to ``make of the text the labile, ultimately contingent source of its own prepotent display.'' He is not stubbornly antimodern. In ``Marxism and the Literary Critic'' he seeks to free literature from ivory-tower aestheticism by endorsing the Marxist view that art is inseparable from the society that produces it.

His style in these essays is not the chummy wheedling of the common room. Hardly. He is a remarkably powerful writer, as essays like ``The Hollow Miracle'' and ``Postscript'' -- both inquiries into the roots of Nazism -- attest. But he tends to overuse words like ``crisis,'' ``scandal,'' and ``catastrophe.'' They become empty idioms. And Steiner's Latinate paraphrases are not only annoying, they exemplify a style he laments in other writers: ``Instead of precise common usage, there is jargon.''

My main objection to Steiner's criticism: He too often substitutes imaginative comparisons for logical discourse. For example in ``Night Words'' he compares pornographers to SS guards: ``strip, fornicate, perform this or that act of sexual perversion.'' But the comparison quickly becomes the point. Pornography is dangerous because it resembles totalitarianism. This seems illogical. The alternative, censorship, is more totalitarian still.

Steiner's talent is for metaphor, not syllogism; persuasion, not proof. The finest piece in this collection is the least logical. It is an imagined monologue, delivered by Hitler in his own defense, a chapter from Steiner's novel ``The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.'' That ``The Defense of A. H.'' should be artistically brilliant -- yet ethically untenable -- is a more effective rebuke to Steiner's critical beliefs than any opponent could deliver.

John Seabrook is a free-lance writer living in New York.

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