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Catherine D. Chatterley


Disenchantment

 

Lionel Steiman

Lionel Steiman 's Review of Catherine Chatterley's Book Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz

Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Lionel B. Steiman, February 19, 2012

 

Lionel B. Steiman, Review: Catherine D. Chatterley. Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

This is an important study of a major cultural critic and thinker whose ideas and insights will remain a stimulus to our understanding of the tragic history of the west. Fittingly, it is a 2011 National Jewish Book Award Finalist (in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience). 

The literary and cultural critic George Steiner is easily one of the most learned men alive today. His career of teaching and writing about the great works and issues in the western literary canon has spanned six decades, in as many languages and countries.  Deeply learned in philosophy, science, and music as well as in literature and cultural criticism, he is well positioned to interpret and offer reflections on the towering questions of the age.  For Steiner the question overarching all others is that of the meaning and value of western culture after the Holocaust. 
The title of Catherine Chatterley’s book, Disenchantment, refers to Steiner’s ambivalent love affair with western culture.  The book’s recurring image or leitmotif is that of educated Germans returning to the gas chambers after an evening of refined entertainment, with lines of Rilke or notes of Schubert still in their heads.  What meaning, Steiner asks, can poetry and music and all the other sweetness and light of western culture have when they not only failed to deter such killers but positively refreshed them for continuing work in their hellish factories?  Why do the “Humanities” not humanize?  Chatterley is the first scholar to recognize these fundamental questions as the driving force and unifying element in all Steiner’s work. Neither she, nor her subject, offers any simple answer, but neither do they discount the value of humane culture.  On the contrary, Steiner remains convinced that learning is the repository of indispensable values, despite the fact that they do not always humanize. 
Tragically, it was the Jews of central Europe who best exemplified these values, and did so despite the pervasive antisemitism permeating western culture from its roots. What moved Steiner to offer his first theoretical analysis of that culture from this perspective was T.S. Eliot’s Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, which appeared in 1948.  Steiner took umbrage at the presumption of an intellectual of Eliot’s stature offering to define culture without mentioning the death camps. Almost as a retort, he developed a sweeping view of western history and culture which placed Christian Jew hatred at their heart.  
Where did this Jew hatred come from, and what made it so infinitely adaptable and enduring?   Of course the origin lay in the old gospel-derived canard that the Jews “killed Christ”, but the reality underlying the canard was the force of Christian guilt over Christian failure to follow the ethical commands of the Savior. This turned resentment of the Jewish denial of Jesus as Messiah into hatred for Jews.  Repeatedly through the ages, Christian Europe discharged this guilt and hatred upon living Jews.  Steiner sees Auschwitz as “a cosmic act of Christian vengeance against the Jews who, in the Christian imagination, both invented and killed God.”
Of course this schema does not purport to be an empirically verifiable account of the origins and history of antisemitism, which is probably why Chatterley resists any temptation to critique it on that score.  Instead she regards it more as a heuristic approach to a theory of what antisemitism is as a historical phenomenon, a theory Steiner integrated with the Christian theology of deicide (the Jewish murder of Christ) and placed at the centre of his analysis of western culture.
Steiner’s strong Jewish identity is firmly rooted in an idealized image of the central European Jew as exemplar and vehicle of the highest cultural values of cosmopolitan humanism, values he sees embodied in the likes of Freud, Einstein, Adorno, and Arendt.  He has a particular dislike for Zionism because it conflicts with his notion of the ethical and cosmopolitan mission of Judaism, and he finds it implausible that the goal and justification of Jewish suffering and the miracle of Jewish survival should be “a small nation-state in the Middle East, crushed by military burdens, petty and even corrupt in its politics, shrill in its parochialism….” While admitting this state to be “a heroic national attempt to guarantee the physical survival of the Jewish people after their devastation in the Shoah”, Steiner wonders whether, by thus forcing Jews to transform themselves into a nation like any other, Israel does not risk the destruction of Judaism.

From the time his father had him writing précis of the classics they read together when he was a child, George Steiner’s primary fidelity has been to the “text” rather than to any faith, school, discipline, or nation state. Not everyone will be convinced by Steiner’s often provocative ideas, but Chatterley has provided the first clear, comprehensive analysis of his critique of western culture in relation to the Holocaust and antisemitism as historical phenomena. Her book is an important contribution to scholarship, and an indispensable introduction to the thought of a major contemporary cultural critic.

Lionel Steiman is  Senior Scholar of the Department of History at the University of Manitoba.

 
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