Tuesday, February 04, 2020

George Steiner (1929-2020)

George Steiner died on February 3 at the age of 90. Born in 1929 in Paris to Viennese Jews who had fled to France to escape antisemitism; they fled to New York in 1940, and with good timing, because the Nazis invaded France shortly after they left. After a number of academic positions, he eventually began to teach at the University of Geneva, where he stayed until retirement. Most of his writing is in comparative literature, cultural criticism, or philosophy of literature. From his work, Real Presences (The University of Chicago Press [Chicago: 1989] p. 145):

No serious writer, composer, painter has ever doubted, even in moments of strategic aestheticism, that his work bears on good and evil, on the enhancement or diminution of the sum of humanity in man and the city. To imagine originally, to shape into significant expression, is to test in depth those potentialities of understanding and of conduct ("thrones, dominions, powers" as the rhetoric and architecture of the baroque have it) which are the life-substance of the ethical. A message is being sent; to a purpose. The style, the explicit figurations of that message may be perverse, they may intend the subjugation, even the ruin of the recipient. They may claim for themselves, as in Sade, as in the black paintings of Goya, as in the death-dance of Artaud, the sombre licence of the suicidal. But their pertinence to questions and consequences of an ethical order is the more palpable. Only trash, only kitsch and artefacts, texts, music, which are produced solely for momentary or propagandistic ends do, indeed transcend (transgress) morality. Theirs is the pornography of insignificance.

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