There is an eroticism woven inextricably into the art of teaching, trivialised by an obsession with sexual impropriety, but central to the pedagogical relationship. This is one of the coruscatingly argued and dazzlingly documented assertions in George Steiner's lectures on the phenomenon of discipleship. Socrates was ugly, snub-nosed, his body entirely at variance with the prescribed lines of masculine attractiveness, and yet his charismatic masterly powers magicked the comely Alcibiades into his bed, the pupil adoring his master to distraction, consumed by his fascination with the teacher's insights.
Steiner has constructed this essay from a series of such challenging vignettes exploring the ways in which the evolution of the art of knowledge has been accompanied by an evolved symbiosis of attraction and subversion, a reciprocity of trust and love passing between disciple and provider of knowledge.
Steiner attempts a remarkable task in these Norton lectures at Harvard University: he explores the intimacies of the classroom over 2,000 years to search out the "tensions of the heart" that accompany the manipulations of seminar and tutorial, the subtle record through cultural history of the interweaving of love and hate alongside the transmission of knowledge.
In ancient Athens, these intimacies were more openly naturalised than in today's taboo-ridden bureaucratised educational projects. The question-and-answer technique of Socrates (that of teaching by refusing to teach) provokes uncertainty, a profound self-questioning that rouses contiguous ranges of knowledge - Socratic teaching acting as a kind of midwife to the educational process. The knowledge we hold by heart interacts with our existence, modifying the self. Think of Osip Mandelstam's poems, held in the head and heart, immune from the secret police, immune to being uprooted.
Jesus and Socrates are the two most enduring models of disciple collectors, influencing all of western culture, Paul and Plato ensuring the posthumous life of their masters through the written word. But as the spirit passes into the letter, the disciples transmute and deviate. In studying the lessons of the masters, as Steiner puts it, "fidelity and betrayal are close-knit".
Steiner pursues the protean relationship of teachers and taught through Byzantium, Italy, France and Germany, each vignette illuminating the range of the emotions and situations inherent in discipleship. Under Flaubert's tutorship, Maupassant turns to writing prose, his teacher analysing everything sent to him in search of the infinitely specific ("Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it.").
The irréprochable maître , just before dying, was sent the manuscript of Boule de Suif , recognised it instantly as the work of a new master and in his response used tu for the first time in their relationship. Maupassant later wrote to Turgenev of Flaubert's "incessant presence, of a voice that cannot be muted".
Ubiquitous to the seminar room, the conservatoire, the scientific laboratory and the lecture theatre are the three paradigmatic modes of pedagogy: the master destroys his pupil, the disciple usurps the master, the two parties share in the collective paternity of knowledge.
Vasari shows us the jealousy and competition, the plagiarism and aspiration that inhere behind the patron in the painter's workshop. In the master class, as in the experimental laboratory, the apprentice becomes critic, the rival of the master, although the dynamics of such relationships are intricate, often totalitarian. Steiner's account of Nadia Boulanger's apprenticeship (at the hands of Faure) and her ascension as the most intrusive and effective teacher (of Copeland, Menotti, Bernstein and countless others) in American music provides one of his most convincing examples. Gershwin and Philip Glass abreact against her towering pedagogy, her worship of discipline that led her at one point into fraternising with fascism. But her brute perfectionism, insight and determined elitism left her pupils with the confidence to become themselves - the master's supreme donation.
A master, Steiner puts it, is the jealous lover of what might be. The complex interplay of domination and submission gives way to a longer-term worship wherever bows are scraped, keyboards touched or paint applied. In American culture, perhaps the most universally understood example of the granting of such reverence is to be found around the iconic figure of the legendary school sports coach, to whose inspiring domination even presidents have been known to pay later homage.
He has much to say about contemporary dysfunctions of pedagogy - of the ruinous costs of "political correctness", where failures of irony, artificially hyped anti-literacies and pseudo-curricula have made travesties of responsible argument and scholarship. When the intimacy between teacher and taught turns into unguarded warmth, blameless lives are damaged. Almost undisprovable incident becomes subject to mendacious accusations, fuelled by opportunism and by competition for academic position. The teacher-student taboo has its modern martyrs. The paradox is that the sciences avoid many of the follies and the witch hunts that occur in the humanities, rendered irrelevant where the movement is set exclusively towards provable truths.
In this small volume, Steiner provides what must be his most dazzling spectacle of poly-scholarship. Judaism, Confucianism, Zen, Christianity, mathematics, science, the sportsfield, pop music, the classics are all quarried for analogues and examples. In each lecture, he provides wonderful examples of the internal politics of apprenticeship, but he leaves us to consider the issues of our century and its transformations of awareness based on the new machinery for expanding knowledge. Before the internet, pupils were never subject to so many purveyors of the occult, so many tutors of quackery. Meanwhile, the patriarchalism inherent in the relationship between masters and disciples has become subject to a new feminisation and the emotions in which traditional auctoritas is set are bound to change.
Though reverence and homage are rapidly sinking from our range of feelings, voluntary submission, simple respect and admiring pride remain. Our contemporary addictions to denigration and envy, the displacement of deference by downward levelling, of modest fame by money-mad celebrity have all taken a firm grip on our pedagogical culture.
"Plus de Maitres" ran one of the slogans at the Sorbonne in May 1968. And so the reader may not be sure whether Steiner means to end on a note of optimism or not, whether his essay is looking back on something that has passed or something that might still be saved. "No mechanical means, however expeditious, no materialism, however triumphant, can eradicate the daybreak we experience when we have understood a Master."
Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.
Lessons of the Masters: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2001-2002
Author - George Steiner
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 208
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 2 674 01207 0