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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

After the Shoah: Blackmail, Vengeance, and the Death of the Future

A review essay by Cliff Edwards

Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz by Catherine Chatterley. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press

Catherine Chatterley is founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, and teaches courses in modern European and Jewish history at the University of Manitoba. Her compact volume on George Steiner, the literary critic, philosopher of language, and novelist whose family escaped from Europe to France and then America as Nazi power threatened, is an engaging model of philosophic-humanistic biography. She balances carefully selected, and often provocative, quotations from the works of her subject, George Steiner, with her own illuminating commentary on the unfolding significance of his original thought on critical issues of the Shoah, the destruction of Middle-European Jewry, the nexus of humanism and barbarism in our time, and the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, language and criticism, transcendence and messianism.

Chatterley’s task is a huge and complicated one, and could easily become a confusing and frustrating journey for the reader. In my view, Chatterley has so mastered the primary sources, including Steiner’s essays, lectures, studies, critical reviews, and novels from the 1950’s to the present, that illumination and excitement will mark the reader’s experience, and appreciation of Steiner’s original thought will lead many to search the web and library for Steiner’s novel on Adolph Hitler (The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., 1981), Real Presences (1989), Grammars of Creation (2001), My Unwritten Books (2008), or his critical essays on Paul Celan, Kafka, Levinas, Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and dozens of other writers and philosophers who have fashioned our world.

It is Steiner’s early faith inculcated by his father that the humanities have the power to humanize, that was destroyed by the Holocaust and has become the personal crisis fueling his search for answers to the human dilemma. As Chatterley explains:

“One image in particular, which reflects this collusion of humanism and barbarism, obsesses Steiner: the polished Nazi officer who operates a death camp during the day and in the evening reads Rilke and listens to Beethoven. There is no question that this image of the cultured Nazi death camp commandant forces the allegedly opposed worlds of culture and barbarism together in a shockingly unexpected manner. Clearly the Holocaust violates cherished European assumptions about the humanistic nature of Western culture, the importance of “good breeding,” and the progressive and humanizing tendencies of education.” (page 3)

That the advanced culture of Europe, embraced by most Jews of the region, could reveal itself to be riddled with hatred for Jews in the twentieth century, and against all rational thought seek to annihilate those of its own members whose only crime was “existence,” is the horrifying conundrum at the center of Steiner’s puzzlement and life-work.

Steiner has not claimed to have solved that crucial riddle. He admits his own sense of guilt at having escaped the Shoah due to his father’s foresight and connections that made possible a youth of study and relative ease in New York. He has come to the view that scholars and critics concerned with the humanities cannot avoid the questions raised by the destruction of middle-European Jewry without their work being reduced to “academic trivia,” and he has dedicated his own most engaged thought to clarifying the issues involved. His attempts at answers have led him to note the special vulnerability of academics (as in the case of Heidegger and others) in failing to witness through humane acts of hospitality to those threatened in times of political crisis, and he is well aware of contemporary situations that share the horrors of pogroms of the past. Further, he has plumbed the depths of Judaism’s own inner nature to find some answer to the “hatred of Jews.” His suggestion is that Judaism’s creation of an authoritative God who insists upon the human struggle for a “moral” life might have struck Western humanity as a “blackmail of transcendence” that stirs up deep animosities. Later, according to Chatterley, Steiner added to this “explanation” for the Shoah “a symbolic symmetry with the Jewish rejection of Jesus” that led to the death of “messianism” and Christianity’s turn toward an “enactment of Christian vengeance.” She writes:

“So, then, for Steiner, the origins of the Shoah lie deep within the religious imagination of Western culture, in which the Jews are responsible for both the creation and destruction of God.” (128)

But Steiner is not without hope, in spite of the horror of the Shoah and the retreat of Western culture from religion over the past three centuries. Further, as a scholar of the world’s rich heritage of languages, Steiner sees “the future tense” itself as a promise that there is a healing way forward for humans, the language-animal. “Hope” and its incarnation in language, in fact, is in itself a force to be reckoned with. Chatterley writes that Steiner believes “it is still possible to look toward the human future with hope for its redemption without a formal belief in God,” and that, as Steiner writes, “the two validating wonders of human existence are love and the invention of the future tense. Their conjunction, if it will ever come to pass, is the Messianic.” (128)

As an afterword, allow me to note that Chatterley’s judicious use of quotations from the huge store of Steiner’s writings led me to gather several of Steiner’s works and seek to further discover the amazing scholar of languages and cultures at the heart of her book. Her ability to organize and explicate Steiner’s complex and developing thought over a half-century and more became all the more daunting. My reading in Steiner himself, encouraged by her study, uncovered further fascinating layers to Steiner’s life and work, and I would encourage others to try their hand at Steiner’s Real Presences (1989) or Grammars of Creation (2001). If one wishes to experience the “singularity” that is Steiner himself, I would suggest the autobiographical collection of chapters he titled Errata: An Examined Life (1997). There I discovered more clearly than elsewhere the individuality of the scholar and human being, the mix of sometimes self-indulgent novelist and story-teller, whose chief resource is his own appetite for living, sometimes lover of culture who flies trial kites before the scholarly world hoping they will become targets for others, will provoke a good argument, and just possibly might provide some illumination for confused and despairing human beings.

Cliff Edwards is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and editorial consultant of Menorah Review.

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