The Librarian of Auschwitz

To read Aeschylus or Shakespeare…as if the authority of the texts in our own lives were immune from recent history is subtle but corrosive illiteracy.  …We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.  To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant.  In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferrable to those of conduct?

~ George Steiner, Language and Silence

It may be impolite to say so, but it seems to me that intellectuals of the war generation frequently suffer from a too acute sense of historical exceptionalism.  Perhaps we find an example here.  Of course, in the mid-1960s -when Steiner wrote the above- the Second World War was a fresher scar than it is today, so some indulgences are granted.  But the idea seems to be that the events of the war, and the barbarity and suffering they entailed, were somehow qualitatively other (rather than quantitatively greater) than the human race had seen before.  According to this line of thought, the war brought to light facts of human depravity and moral fracture no prior generation had ever been forced to grapple with – such that all the past was forfeit and the religious, philosophical, and cultural wisdom of millennia was rendered irrelevant.

Should it be so surprising that a person can recite Goethe by heart or play a Bach prelude with a measure of skill and still be a monster?  It betrays an almost Victorian naiveté to think so.  A generation or two before Steiner, Paul Valery and Thomas Mann thought the First World War had stanched all such idealism – but the myth of the morally ennobling powers of western culture died a slow and sputtering death.  In fact, you can still hear it gurgling today, both among those on the right who continue to bluff faith in its innate superiority and those on the left who make it the West’s only evangelical task to lift the swarming masses of the third world up from poverty and ignorance into the liberating glory of consumerist post-modernity.

In J.G. Farrell’s Booker Prize winning The Siege of Krishnapur, the character of Mr Hopkins is disappointed by the failure of western culture to ennoble, as he saw it, the lives and minds of colonial India’s subject population.  “Culture is a sham” he finally concludes. “It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.”  We needn’t be so completely embittered as that.  But it’s certainly true that the noblest achievements of art and culture do not in themselves confer nobility on their appreciators or chart a progress up from barbarism to any summits of moral refinement.  Something more is required.  The products of a culture are not that culture itself, after all, but they are just that: its products.  They reflect the biases and obsessions and conflicting impulses of a particular people at a particular time, laboring under influences that are often obscure, as well as the constant, unfudge-able human nature that is the same everywhere and at all times.  They are not entirely without the ability to influence, but that ability is gravely limited even within the culture from which they are born, and they work no alchemy on the hard core of the heart.

Lest we fool ourselves, it’s precisely the fact that the same person can recite poetry in the evening and wake in the morning to return to work at Auschwitz that is at once our utter condemnation and our glory.  To hold these two possibilities in tension, albeit unconsciously, is to be human.  The truest and greatest products of art and culture, like the most profound insights of religion and philosophy, reflect that paradox.  This same vexed and violent, despairing wretch, Man, is also Shakespeare’s quintessence of dust godlike in apprehension, infinite in faculties and noble in reason – the most maddeningly contradictory of creatures.

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