Nihilism and the Future of Culture

This post takes the form of a review of George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle.

The blind spot which motivates the argument in this book is so extreme that one might suspect the author of dishonesty.

I was actually with him at the beginning as he described how a disillusionment swept Europe after the French Revolution. Great hopes were placed in a total reorganization of society into something expected to be revelational. The powerful spirit of Napoleon swept the people along as much of Europe was reorganized. Then it all came to a halt and a new status quo reigned. The untapped energies of the people no longer had a clear outlet in a monumental cause. Boredom and disillusionment reigned. That disillusionment was understood as crushed hopes and betrayed dreams. Yet the memory of near apocalyptic changes remained and in the hearts of those who were disillusioned to the point of borderlining desperation, apocalyptic visions became a new obsession as nihilistic energies wished to set themselves free upon the world with no clear goal.

Where this book really starts to go wrong is in the transition towards discussing the holocaust. Steiner discusses the entrance of the monotheistic god into Europe and makes much of the fact that this god is withdrawn from the world and inaccessible. This put a pressure on Europeans which they were unable to deal with, according to Steiner. For that reason, they needed to kill the god (symbolically) which left a spiritual gulf in Europe and opened the path for the entrance of a new kind of nihilism. They targeted the Jews for being the creators of this god and killing the Jews was the final most concrete act to complete the murder of the god.

There are some big problems with this interpretation on a few levels. First, just to get it out of the way, it is the interpretation of a believer imposing his god on others who cannot handle his awesome might. But there are more concrete problems in the text. Steiner discusses how culture did not stop the Germans from committing the atrocities of the holocaust, because many Nazis were highly cultured. He then takes this as a sign that culture does not have a connection to moral behaviour.

There are two huge problems with that conclusion. The first is that the Germans were not all of Europe. The disillusionment that he spoke about in the earlier part of the book took place transnationally, yet it did not result everywhere in the same conclusions as it did in Germany. This brings us to the second huge problem with this conclusion. Steiner nowhere discusses cultural developments in Germany around the time of the rise of the Nazis and in particular those cultural products which heralded National Socialistic and anti-Semitic ideas. This is the first enormous blind spot in the book. Perhaps he did not want to ‘justify those works by giving them recognition’, but the fact remains that he has constructed a theory which completely ignores the subject which his theory is intended to explain. Anyone with intellectual honesty should raise their eyebrows at such a fact.

The next problem in this book comes when Steiner transitions towards a prospect of the future. He no doubt already feels that he has justified himself by criticizing the causal link (to my mind, as explained above, poorly) between culture and behaviour. He talks about how traditional culture is disappearing and being forgotten (an example he gives is how poetry had an internal symbolic and reference system which connected diverse poets across time and created a kind of dialogue). In its place is the dominion of music as well as the sciences. The ultimate suggestion is that one not worry about the withering of earlier culture and embrace these new emanations and whatever flowers they might produce.

There is a very serious flaw here, as I see it. Both music and science are not meaning-making, they don’t transmit values, and they don’t deal with the everyday cares of people. Steiner had earlier criticized the fact that the 20th century view of the 19th century is in a large part skewed by the depictions of novels which do not adequately express how harsh and disillusioning life was in that time.

There are a few problems with this. First is that he had already gone on at length describing the ennui and disillusionment expressed in earlier forms, but he ignores depictions of lower class conditions in writers such as Dickens but also later proletarian writers, and so on. The second problem with this is that the arts are not always a direct mirroring of the world but a sort of transmutation of the cares of people into frequently idealistic forms. For example, the poetry which he does reference which describes so intricately the facets of the countryside are not meant as scientific guides to the countryside but to teach people a greater appreciation of the countryside. To take another example not in the book, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard would contribute to contemplation upon our mortality in the same way that memento mori did in earlier eras.

So, Steiner’s ultimate suggestion is that people be left bereft of their capacity to create and share meaning in an age which is already afflicted by nihilism.

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