Grammars of Creation

by George Steiner
344 pages,
ISBN: 0300088639

The Last Empire:Essays 1992ű2000

by Gore Vidal
465 pages,
ISBN: 0385501544

Post Your Opinion
America, America. Essays by George Steiner and Gore Vidal
by T. F. Rigelhof

If the "crusade" against the daemonic Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the name of "saving civilization" with "infinite justice" (as George W. Bush labelled it in the immediate aftermath of September 11th) has left you as queasy and uneasy as it seems to have left many, an antidote to the self-aggrandizing propaganda of destruction is at hand in the form of Grammars of Creation, an expansion of George Steiner's Gifford Lectures (delivered at Glasgow University in 1990 but now published for the first time).

Grammars of Creation is Steiner's great summing-up of all that he has been thinking about in his fifty years as a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cambridge, Geneva, and Oxford, and as an author of a dozen formidable books of essay, memoir, criticism, and fiction¨including The Death of Tragedy (1960), In Bluebeard's Castle (1970), and The Deeps of the Sea (1996). It's an attempt to unite all the knowledge within Steiner's polyglottic and polymathic reach and to compress a gazillion ideas into five chapters, and it's mesmerizing. His outpouring of sustained, strenuous thinking will no doubt stun first-time readers into a stupor. But comprehension does come with a less bedazzling second reading. Steiner may be congenitally incapable of taking anything other than the most circuitous, most allusive route from A to B but his line of argument here is a set of variations on one great theme: the twentieth century has altered the human condition in more profound ways than most of us are capable of recognizing or willing to admit:

We have no more beginnings. Incipit: that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty 'inception.' The medieval scribe marks the opening line, the new chapter with an illuminated capital. In its golden or carmine vortex the illuminator of manuscripts sets heraldic beasts, dragons at morning, singers and prophets. The initial, where this term signifies beginning and primacy, acts as a fanfare. It declares Plato's maxim¨by no means self-evident¨whereby in all things natural and human, the origin is the most excellent. Today, in Western orientations¨observe the muted presence of morning light in that word¨the reflexes, the turns of perception, are those of afternoon, of twilight. (I am generalizing. My argument, throughout, is vulnerable and open to what Kierkegaard called 'the wounds of negativity.')

Wounded. Negative. We of the twentieth century are "children at twilight¨irrational and incredulous at the approach of darkness," the extinction of the future. We are "latecomers" suffering from "core-tiredness" as the shadows lengthen. Inhumanity is "perennial" and there never were any earthly "communities of justice or forgiveness" but "the European bourgeoisie experienced a privileged season, an armistice with history, . . . a century of progress, of liberal dispensations, of reasonable hope" between the Battle of Waterloo and the massacres on the Western Front in 1915-16. It is in the afterglow of this "selective nostalgia and illusion" that we have witnessed "the collapse of humaneness" in the twentieth century, a "time out of hell" in which more than seventy million men, women, and children have been "done to death by warfare, starvation, deportation, political murder and disease between August 1914 and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans." What is truly enigmatic is its origin "not from riders on the distant steppes or barbarians at the gates" but from a summoning forth of National Socialism, Fascism, and Stalinism "from within the context, the locale, the administrative-social instruments of the high places of civilization, of education, of scientific progress and humanizing deployment, be it Christian or Enlightenment."

This catastrophe not only undid previous human advances but demonstrated that "refined intellectuality, artistic virtuosity and appreciation, scientific eminence will collaborate actively with totalitarian demands or, at best, remain indifferent to surrounding sadism." It is this damage done to man as a species by the events since 1914 that render us incapable of grasping "the co-existence in time and space, a co-existence sharpened by the immediacy of graphic and verbal presentation in the global mass media, of Western superfluity and the starvation, the destitution, the infant mortality which now batten on some three-fifths of mankind. There is a dynamic of clear-sighted lunacy in our waste of what is left of natural resources, of fauna and flora." It is the "magnitude of massacre", "the insane contrast between available wealth and actual misere", and "the distinct possibility of a reversal of evolution" which "renders plausible Camus's famous saying: 'The only serious philosophical question is that of suicide.'" The determinant of our situation is "the eclipse of the messianic."

Steiner is called "apocalyptic" and "hyperbolic" by his many critics but what his general argument captures that eludes many is his insight that the nature of creativity has been utterly and irredeemably altered in the twentieth century: Language is "used up" and "the rationale and credibility of future tenses" is under question. Jargon, hype, and propaganda have eroded and undermined solid relationships between words and reality. Creative responses commensurate to the problems we face on a day-to-day basis are as incredible and unworkable as traditional belief in God's creation of the universe. As language and music become ever more simple-minded, mathematics and science flourish and generate more and more inhumane and de-humanizing technologies. Even so, it "is difficult to believe that the story out of Genesis has ended" and that "planetary culture" will result in an "implosion or inward collapse" into "negative entropy." "Human exultation and sorrow, anguish and jubilation, love and hatred, will continue to demand shaped expression ...will continue to press on language which, under that pressure, becomes literature" but under a new and startling condition: the "aspirin-agnosticism" of "our post-modernity" must be replaced willy-nilly in philosophy, literature, music, and art by the "authentic atheism" now demanded by mathematics and the sciences.

Advancing his argument in a university setting before an audience of academics, Steiner is every inch a professorial peacock who includes all possible reference points within his strut (but his greater touchstones in measuring out the damage done by the twentieth century to all that preceded it are Aristotle, Borges, Paul Celan, RenT Char, Coleridge, Dante, Marcel Duchamp, Goethe, Hegel, Heidegger, H¸lderin, Homer, Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann, MoliFre, Nietzsche, Plato, Proust, Shakespeare, Virgil and Wittgenstein.) Steiner does all the song and dances that professors usually do at a lectern¨he describes, analyzes, explains, illustrates, pleads ignorance (occasionally), acknowledges bias and limitation (en passant ), falls into obscurities, befuddles with attenuated quotations, and overindulges a penchant for writhing Latinisms. And comes off looking a bit of a fraud when he tackles mathematics, the internet and techno music. But most (and best) of all, he raises truly disquieting questions about the extinction of human hopes in our time. Our future may well be "hopeless" in classical terms of discourse but Steiner remains curious about it and passionate in his conviction that the closer the attention we pay to language, the more it reveals to us the fundamental truths of "civilisation" and that civilisation (as Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare understood) is something more than whatever purposes it serves the American Empire to defend while its military (with the obeisance of satellite states) obliterates others in its name.

For Gore Vidal, an American-in-voluntary-exile who does not dislike his country but is deeply disappointed in it, the American Empire is the Last Empire: It will either be dismantled from within or will destroy all future beyond itself. Of the 48 individual pieces in The Last Empire: Essays 1992 ű 2000, a goodly number diagnose some of the consequences of what has happened since "Harry Truman replaced the old republic with a national-security state whose sole purpose is to wage perpetual wars, hot, cold and tepid. Exact date of replacement? Feb. 27, 1947. Place: White House Cabinet Room. Cast: Truman, Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a handful of Congressional leaders."

"Put bluntly," and Vidal is very sharp, "who collects what money from whom in order to spend on what is all there is to politics, and in a serious country should be the central preoccupation of the media." It isn't. To inject anything serious into the media in America, it's almost always necessary to disguise it as "bookchat." Vidal is a master of the genre and without peer since the death of Anthony Burgess. (Of Burgess, he writes, "He was... truly notorious because he had reviewed, pseudonymously, several of his own books in a provincial newspaper. 'At least,' I said at the time, 'he is the first novelist in England to know that a reviewer has actually read the book under review.'")

The first third of The Last Empire is "literary" in the sense that it revisits, remembers, scrutinizes and rehabilitates the reputations of Burgess, C.P. Cavafy, Edmund Wilson, Dawn Powell, Sinclair Lewis, and Mark Twain. "Twain on the Grand Tour" is particularly colourful reading in the monochrome afterglow of Ken Burns's recent documentary which failed to make clear that Twain spent seventeen years in Europe not simply for economic reasons but because "other than douceur de la vie, ... he was admired on the Continent in a way that he never was, or so he felt, by the eastern seaboard gentry, who were offended by his jokes, his profanity, his irreligion, and all those Scotch sours he drank." Vidal is, of course, a traitor to that same eastern seaboard gentry and unadmired for much the same reasons. He grasps, as his ancestors never did and even well-meaning contemporaries like Ken Burns fail to do, that Twain "will be with us as long as there are English-speakers in the United States" because "he made, from time to time, essential literature, including the darkest of American novels, Puddd'nhead Wilson (1894)." Essential, in this context, has less to do with addressing the issue of "race" than with the proposition that "if there is a God (What is Man?, 1906) he is, if not evil in the Manichean sense, irrelevant, since man, finally, is simply a machine acted upon by a universe 'frankly and hysterically insane.'"

Vidal says of Edmund Wilson, Twain's successor as the great critic of all things American, "He is certainly at his best when he turns the lights on a literary figure whom he knows and then walks, as it were, all around him." As he takes turns around Twain, Wilson, Dawn Powell and Sinclair Lewis, illuminating their sexual proclivities, personalities, and real achievements, Vidal is wonderfully evocative of an America too few any longer know because an anaemic academia finds it "incorrect" in its political judgements and corporate media regard it as "banally anal" in its attitude to money when their own prosperity depends on the "florally oral." Good as he is in rescuing Dawn Powell's novels from unwarranted obscurity, Vidal is always better on the attack than as a witness for the defence, and it's in "Rabbit's Own Burrow", his scrutiny of John Updike, that he ups his amperage to full intensity.

In this 1996 review of In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Vidal starts, "Although I've never taken Updike seriously as a writer, I now find him the unexpectedly relevant laureate of the way we would like to live now, if we have the money, the credentials, and the sort of faith in our country and its big God that passes all understanding. Finally, according to the mainline American press, Updike has now got it all together, and no less an authority than The New Yorker's George Steiner (so different from Europe's one) assures us that Updike now stands alongside Hawthorne and Nabokov, when surely, he means John P. Marquand and John O'Hara."

In a mood less generous than Norman Mailer's when he wrote that Updike writes "the sort of prose that those who know nothing about writing think good," Vidal claims of "next year's Pulitzer Prize novel" that "Updike is frugging wildly into the Collins sisters' territory. But where the Bel-Air Brontds are well advanced in the art and arts of popular fiction and write roman a clef with phallic keys, Updike, ever original, disposes of the keys." Vidal is distressed by Updike's lack of the essential skill "without which nothing can ever come together to any useful end in literature, empathy." In its place, in the place where imagination should operate, "one has the sense that there is no received opinion that Updike does not hold with passion." In the presence of Presidential authority, Updike is "like a bobby-soxer at New York's Paramount Theatre when the young Frank Sinatra is on view." To wit: "Updike is constitutionally unable to respond to satire, irony, whit, rhetorical devices that tend to be offensive to that authority." He is a writer "who believes that no matter how misguided, tyrannous, and barbarous the rulers of one's own country have become, they must be obeyed; and if one has actually made money and achieved a nice little place in the country that they have hijacked then one must be doubly obedient, grateful, too." This is not just bald assertion: Vidal substantiates his points with close readings of In the Beauty of the Lilies and Updike's memoir Self-Consciousness ("what human material this novel is based on") not because there is anything "surprising in Updike's ignorance of history and politics and of people unlike himself... in... what Vice-President Agnew once called the greatest nation in the country" but because "Updike's work is more and more representative of that polarizing within a state where Authority grows ever more brutal and malign while its hired hands in the media grow ever more excited as the holy war of the few against the many heats up. In this most delicate of times, Updike has 'builded' his own small, crude altar in order to propitiate ¨or to invoke?¨'the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.'"

Bookchat is essentially reactive and, good as he is at extending its boundaries, its too small an operating theatre for Vidal. The Last Empire is divided between literary, historical and political subjects; bookchat gives way to a great deal of journalistic comment on the policies and practices of the federal government of the United States through the course of the past 53 years. Much gets repeated from one essay to another. This is either a sign of manic obsession (as the reviewer for The New York Times would have us believe) or a sign of just how insistent (and persistent) a commentator must be to get the majority of Americans to realize how badly they are being abused by the minority within their own country. Again, one could say (and the Times reviewer glories in so saying) that Vidal's "crankiness" (about such things as the perfidy of Truman, the coercive practices of the income tax system, the imperialism of the American military und so weiter) is merely a mimicry of Edmund Wilson rather than recognize it as a continuation of a worthy tradition of dissent against "Received Opinion" that remains vital, accurate, and insightful.

Domestic events in the United States since September 11th (the shredding of the Bill of Rights, the surrender of the Budget to the Pentagon's demands, the corporate mocking of the Sherman Antitrust Act inter alia) were predictable and many of them are predicted here, (including the most chilling of Vidal's premonitions that under George W. Bush "[w]e are now faced with a Japanese seventeenth-century-style arrangement: a powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon ruler counsellors"). Few politicians come out looking good in his book but Vidal notes this of Jean Chretien: "The Canadian prime minister, even more tiresome than the French, was heard to say to his Belgian counterpart (over an open mike) that if the leaders of any other country took corporate money as openly as American leaders do, 'we'd be in jail."

Gore Vidal considers what he considers not to be unkind. Having lived through three-quarters of the last century, he "understands that those who live too long with unquestioned contradictions are not apt to be able to deal with reality when it befalls them. ". . I enlisted in the army of the United States at seventeen; went to the Pacific; did nothing useful¨I was just there, as Nixon used to say, WHEN THE BOMBS WERE FALLING. But, actually, the bombs were not really falling on either of us: he was a naval officer making a fortune playing poker, while I was an army first mate writing a novel." The shaping of human exultation and sorrow, anguish and jubilation, love and hatred that Gore Vidal began in Williwaw continues. It's the better game. ˛


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