The thought that everything was put on this earth with a purpose is consoling, not least because it helps to explain such phenomena as George Steiner. You might have thought that Professor Steiner, best known as the author of the perfectly named After Babel and a frequent contributor to the book pages of The New Yorker, was merely a pretentious windbag specializing in moral obfuscation. We confess that we had been accustomed to think this ourselves. Over the course of his long and wordy career, Professor Steiner has managed to blur more issues than almost anyone else we can think of. He has, for example, written a novel that comes close to justifying the activities of Adolf Hitler and articles defending the social vision of Lenin against the indictment penned by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.
“In the Soviet Union, he knew, great art hangs in public galleries.”
Professor Steiner specializes in the Big Picture. If the art historian Anthony Blunt is uncovered as a Soviet agent, Professor Steiner swings into action with a forty-page article in The New Yorker to explain that, terrible as it is to be a traitor, it just may be the fault of capitalist society. Blunt, you see, couldn’t stand the thought that in the West some great works of art were in private hands and so were inaccessible. Professor Steiner explains: “In the Soviet Union, he knew, great art hangs in public galleries. No scholars, no men and women wanting to mend their soul before a Raphael or Matisse need wait, cap in hand, at the mansion door.” The bit about soul mending is a signature Steiner touch. His basic recipe is to find something nice to say about Marxism, kick capitalism, and, to show that he is a fellow with Depth, end by talking about God, transcendence, or the soul-mending powers of art.
One theme that has much occupied Professor Steiner is the Fate of the Intellectual in Modern Society—i.e., what is to become of people like George Steiner? Professor Steiner’s latest contribution to this question is a review of the memoirs of the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Although he inhabits the dust bin of history today, it was not so long ago that Althusser was a big deal in French intellectual life. His combination of structuralist rhetoric and Leninist slogans made him catnip for a generation of students searching for new ways to be more obscure and more Left than thou. But Althusser had a small problem. In November 1980, he went off his head and strangled his wife. That, anyway, is how the French authorities saw it. It’s much more complicated for the sage Steiner. Here is the relevant passage from his review, published in The New Yorker for February 21:
There are moments when bad taste is the last refuge of common sense. Let me be in bad taste. Perhaps philosophers should strangle their wives. The name of Socrates’ wife has passed into the language as that of an ignorant shrew. Philosophy is an unworldly, abstruse, often egomaniacal obsession. The body is an enemy to absolute logic or metaphysical speculation. The thinker inhabits fictions of purity, of reasoned propositions as sharp as white light. Marriage is about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise. There is something vulgar, almost absurd, in the notion of a Mrs. Plato or a Mme. Descartes, or of Wittgenstein on a honeymoon. Perhaps Louis Althusser was enacting a necessary axiom or logical proof when, on the morning of November 16, 1980, he throttled his wife.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps he was simply insane. We are of course sorry that marriage for Professor Steiner is “about roughage, bills, garbage disposal, and noise”; too bad, that. But we are grateful for his reflections on the philosophical life—not to mention his illustration of what he thinks counts as “common sense.” We had thought that George Steiner was merely a pretentious fool. We were wrong. He, too, is here for a reason: to be a cautionary tale, a warning to others about the dangers of moral fatuousness. It is difficult work, but Professor Steiner has thrown himself into it with abandon.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 8, on page 2
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