- Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz by Catherine D. Chatterley
In this extended essay of 134 pages (not including endnotes and other back matter) Catherine D. Chatterley traces a thematic leitmotif in the work of George Steiner, one of the most popular and controversial literary critics of our age. Over the course of his long career, Steiner has established himself as a formidable interpreter of what is generally considered the traditional Western cultural canon, from the Hebrew Bible and the Greek tragedies to the present. Instead of writing a complete intellectual biography, Chatterley aims to reconstruct what she believes to be the animating theme of Steiner’s work: the question of the relationship between the Western canon and the Holocaust.
Chatterley demonstrates that Steiner’s early interest in that seemingly counterintuitive nexus was a by-product of his elite upbringing and education. Born in 1929 in the “posh sixteenth arrondissement of Paris,” the child of wealthy, polyglot, and sophisticated Austrian Jewish parents, Steiner read Homer at the age of six (in the original Greek) and was taught to appreciate the music of Richard Wagner precisely as the National Socialist government in Germany was turning European cultural traditions violently against the Jews (pp. 9–10). After his family fled Nazi-dominated Europe, Steiner entered the hallowed halls of the West’s finest universities: Yale, Chicago, Harvard, Oxford, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Steiner began to address a paradox that eventually came to obsess an entire generation of intellectuals: the “shocking fact,” Chatterley writes, that European high culture not only “coexisted comfortably with Nazi barbarism,” but might also have played a central role in preparing the ground for it (p. 28). Chatterley attempts to show that Steiner was among the first in the English-speaking world to address such uncomfortable questions, for instance in his early essay, “Malice” (1952), published at a time when Western cultural elites were all too willing to move past the genocide of European Jewry. Ever since, Steiner has styled himself what he later called a “remembrancer” of the Holocaust.
A central claim of Chatterley’s book is that Steiner’s Holocaust remembrance underwent a change in the 1960s—one that was significant not only for Steiner himself but also for the history of Holocaust memory in general. Steiner’s early interest in timeless themes such as malice and his engagement with Marxist critics such as [End Page 537] Georg Lukács and Theodor W. Adorno led him to treat the genocide of European Jewry as but another—or possibly the culminating—example of barbarism’s coexistence with culture in Western history. Chatterley argues that a shift occurred in Steiner’s thought between 1965 and 1969, while he was teaching at Cambridge.
The evolution is most evident, she claims, in his criticism of the poet Sylvia Plath. In 1965, Steiner was still able to praise Plath, a non-Jewish American with no obvious ties to European Jewry, for keeping alive the memory of murdered Jews through her use of Holocaust imagery in the poem “Daddy.” Four years later, Steiner called the same poem a “black piece of mimicry,” and its author essentially an intellectual interloper with no right to use Auschwitz as a metaphor for her unrelated “personal disasters.” Chatterley sees in these bookended essays a permanent shift in perspective, from appreciating the Holocaust as a generalizable instance of evil in Western life to understanding it as a quasi-sacred event comprehensible only in its own terms and in the voices of the survivors themselves (pp. 64–65).
Chatterley’s narrative is compelling insofar as she limits herself to a textual analysis of Steiner’s life and thought. However, she also argues in the introduction that “the trajectory of Steinerian criticism is also a trajectory of the development of Holocaust consciousness in postwar Western culture; therefore, studying the work of George Steiner provides valuable insight into this complex, multifaceted historical process” (p. 6). This is the point at which Chatterley...