George Steiner’s views on culture and barbarism are as relevant as ever

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‘Today … we find ourselves in a culture in which the methodical use of torture towards political ends is widely established. We come immediately after a stage in history (i.e., World War II) in which millions of men, women, and children were made to ash. Currently, in different parts of the earth, communities are again being incinerated, tortured, deported. There is hardly a methodology of abjection and of pain which is not being applied somewhere, at this moment, to individuals and groups of human beings. Asked why he was seeking to arouse the whole of Europe over the judicial torture of one man, Voltaire answered, in March 1762, “c’est que je suis homme”. (“It is because I am a man.”)  By that token, he would, today, be in constant and vain cry.

That this should be the case is catastrophic. The wide-scale reversion to torture and mass-murder, the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political means mark not only a crisis of culture but, quite conceivably, an abandonment of the rational order of man.  It may well be that it is a mere fatuity, an indecency to debate of the definition of culture in the age of the gas oven, of the arctic camps, of napalm. The topic may belong solely to the past history of hope. But we should not take this contingency to be a natural fact of life, a platitude. We must keep in sharp focus its hideous novelty or renovation. We must keep vital in ourselves a sense of scandal so overwhelming that it affects every significant aspect of our position in history and society. We have, as Emily Dickinson would have said, to keep the soul terribly surprised. I cannot stress this enough. To Voltaire and Diderot the bestial climate of our national and social conflicts would have seemed a lunatic return to barbarism. To most intelligent men and women of the nineteenth century a prediction that torture and massacre were soon to be endemic again in “civilized” Europe would have seemed a nightmarish joke. There is nothing natural about our present condition.   There is no self-evident logic or dignity in our current knowledge that “anything is possible.” In fact, such knowledge corrupts and lowers the threshold of outrage (only Kierkegaard foresaw both the inchoate possibility and the corruption). The numb prodigality of our acquaintance with horror is a radical human defeat.’

George Steiner, “In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture”, pages 48-49, Yale University Press, 1971

As the United States becomes more enamored with wicked, ruthless, inhuman modes of thinking and acting, with the instigation of routine torture by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, with the routine use of killer drones by Barack Obama, with the increasing incursion into women’s bodies by right-wing politicians and fundamentalist fanatics, we are well on our way to the abandonment of the rational order of man.

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