Is the writing on the wall for reading?

No Passion Spent
March 1, 1996

What must be true for reading to be possible? The act of reading seems to require conditions that are becoming more uncommon by the day. It presupposes texts, enduring vehicles of meanings that are accessible to ordinary intelligent people, and it presupposes that these people are readers, with interest in discovering for themselves the meanings that texts contain. The reader's relationship with a text is one in which meanings are mediated through writing - rather than through visual images, say - and in which usage in past texts is authoritative for those meanings. The most subversive wordplay has force for readers only against the backdrop of past texts, and of their present expectations of what texts can tell us. It is no accident (as they say) that Finnegan's Wake was written to be read, and not, like the works of Homer, composed to be sung.

Even to state the presuppositions of reading in this way is already to accept that it is a culturally problematic activity and perhaps one that is well on the way to being anachronistic. George Steiner's thesis, in this welcome collection of essays, is that the necessary preconditions of reading, understood as central cultural practice rather than the merely antiquarian pursuit, are being undermined by some of the most dominant and pervasive forces of the age. He cites two factors as contributing to the cultural marginality of reading. New technologies are displacing books as we have known them at least since Gutenberg, and the traditional idea of meaning as a discoverable property of language is being questioned in much recent philosophy and literary theory. In No Passion Spent, Steiner pursues the theme of the marginalisation of reading as a central practice in our culture through reflections on the technological deconstruction of the book as a repository of meaning and the contemporary philosophical interrogation of meaning itself. In the course of these explorations he digs deeper into questions excavated in earlier writings, such as Language and Silence and After Babel - questions about silence and the ineffable, about the very notion of tragedy, and about the more-than-tragic eclipse of meaning that has occurred in the darkest experiences of our century, of which the Holocaust is exemplary. The product of these excavations is an unfailingly challenging and absorbing book, in which Steiner's willingness to take intellectual risks pays off again and again.

Steiner's central argument about reading and meaning is not equally plausible at every point. His claim that the practice of reading is threatened by a modish scepticism about meaning gives a cultural centrality to philosophy, and to the academy, which they are far from possessing in present circumstances. If many more texts are accessible to fewer and fewer readers, that is not because philosophers (who have few readers anyway) have undermined the inherited conception of meaning as a knowable property of texts. It is because cultural consensus on meanings has broken down in society itself. Here the Alasdair MacIntyre of After Virtue seems nearer the mark. He argues that philosophical positions which reduce moral judgements to expressions of feeling, and which thereby deny determinate meaning to ethical discourse, reflect an historical context of individualist forms of life in which common moral practices are few and shallow - in which the social reality is that represented in emotivist and subjectivist theories. The lack of strong forms of common ethical life which is a feature of our present circumstances is one that the theories of Stevenson and Ayer mirror, not that they have caused. If we find it harder to understand one another, the reason is that we share fewer forms of life. Nor is Steiner persuasive in his assertion that new technologies are responsible for the decline of the book - if indeed it is declining. The contribution made by technology to the displacement of reading as a commanding practice in the culture is probably a good deal more indirect than both supporters and critics of the new information technologies suppose. It is doubtful that these new technologies will displace the book, any more than radio or film did. What the flood of new technologies does do is to accelerate cultural change so that the link between the present and the past (on which, as Steiner notes, the practice of reading depends) is harder to sustain.

One of the best of the 21essays in the book, is a sceptical and provocative inquiry into American civilisation, "The archives of Eden". Steiner tells us that this piece "provoked the bitterest rebuke and dismissal" of all his work. Perhaps it has proved so inflammatory because the questions it candidly canvasses are so alien to contemporary, and especially American, sensibilities. Steiner queries the American self-image as a young civilisation whose birth was marked by a radical discontinuity with the past. On the contrary, he suggests, American civilisation's definitive illusion of Edenic novelty is itself a rendition of far older, European themes, most obviously those of Puritanism. America is not a young but an "old" culture, a museum of civilisation in which - "the dominant office of high culture is that of custody", from which little that is really new is to be expected.

Steiner's polemical exercise in the interpretation of American culture strikes me as worthwhile and on the whole plausible. If one thinks of writers of various sorts, how many of those who have been true innovators in the past century or so have been American? Indeed it is not easy to imagine the poetry of Rilke or Celan, the essays and aphorisms of Rozanov or Cioran, the short stories of Kafka, Borges or Ballard, the novels of Beckett, Dostoevsky, Musil or Canetti, the "philosophical" works of Nietzsche, Shestov or Wittgenstein coming from within American civilisation at all. It is difficult to envisage this, partly, because of a feature of American civilisation which does distinguish it from the various European cultures, and from the cultures of Latin America which do not cherish the illusion that history could begin anew in the New World. This is the axiomatic American faith that, in any conflict between the demands of "high culture" and those of "justice", it is justice - construed in modernist-egalitarian terms - that must win. Indeed, it is perhaps the refusal to admit that egalitarian justice may come into irreconcilable conflict with cultural goods that are of necessity rare that is most distinctive of the American worldview. This is a real and enduring conflict of values, even if one thinks, as I do, that Steiner is unnecessarily conservative in apparently excluding from "high culture" contemporary media, such as film, in which some of the most enduring art of our age will be found.

In each of these thought-stirring and unconsoling essays, Steiner is working back to the Hebraic and Hellenistic origins of our traditions, as they were before Christianity sought to banish the notion of ultimate tragedy from the culture. They show Steiner engaged in a genealogical inquiry that never fails to have urgent contemporary interest - a genre which his arresting and unsparing prose has made uniquely his own.

John Gray is a fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.

No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995

Author - George Steiner
ISBN - 0 571 17697 6
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 430

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