Category Archives: Book Review

INTELLECTUAL HEROES

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety of manifestation, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silence as a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could have been so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturday warrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough not to meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this is the voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they do give us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether you are enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauung clouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacy of reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spent or Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear his voice in the process of my deciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes to creative loves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steiner has inspired. This is what heroes do.

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING

I have always been captivated by the idea of memory. While it has been a theme in all my novels it was THE theme in The Memory Trap. In this novel, memory in all its forms – personal biographical memory, national collective memory, memory and obsession, mementoes and memorials – was explored through the lives of the characters.

ABR coverThe American writer and film-maker, David Rieff, has made memory the subject of his past two books. I have reviewed his latest for ABR and reproduce it below

This month’s ABR has a stunning cover to accompany the announcement of the 2016 Calibre essay prize to Michael Winkler. Check out the issue at

http://www.australianbookreview.com.au

 

 

 

IN PRAISE OF FORGETTING
David Rieff
Yale University Press, $36.95 hb, 145pp.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18279-8

Over the past three decades, and particularly since the prime ministership of John Howard, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of young Australians making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli. Most of these people have no ancestors among the ‘fallen’, but rather are following what has become a rite of passage for patriotic young Australians.

Lest we forget, they intone. But what exactly is being remembered? And to what purpose is it being used? After all, until recently, few young people visited the site of this appalling military failure in which Australians were used as cannon fodder by their colonial masters. For that matter, until recently, flag-waving nationalism and loud-mouthed patriotism played little part in any aspect of Australian life.

Memory and its more structured form as remembrance are considered to be positive and desirable attributes. Personal memory is thought to be the primary vehicle by which individuals define themselves, while collective memory helps define a nation. Collective memories, like Gallipoli, act as the struts and foundations of nationalism, uniting poor and rich, urban and rural populations alike. As for history and memory, they are regarded – if thought about at all – as almost exactly the same, rather like identical twins.

In his excellent new book, In Praise of Forgetting*, David Rieff questions the commonly unquestioned: namely the purposes and effects of collective memory. He shows how easily history can fall prey to morally contingent, proprietorial and emotive memory. Ranging across the Irish troubles, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, Israel and Palestine, Stalin’s Russia, and the Balkans’ internecine battles Rieff reveals how collective memory invariably follows a political and ideological agenda, which is itself underpinned by specific moral imperatives. He makes clear that structured, state-sanctioned memorialising is in thrall to contemporary goals and aspirations and not the past it is purporting to preserve. As well, he points out ‘that exercises in collective historical remembrance far more closely resemble myth on one side and political propaganda on the other [more] than they do history.’ Rieff will always see the elephant in the room.

In advancing his arguments, Rieff draws on a wealth of work about memory and remembrance including that of the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz, Theodor Adorno’s classic Minima Moralia, and most particularly the Israeli political philosopher Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory) and the social philosopher Tzvetan Todorov (Hope and Memory and Memory as a Remedy of Evil). Rieff sets up a dialogue of sorts with these latter two luminaries in which there is acknowledgement and agreement, as well as argument and disagreement; crucially Rieff extends the analysis of both men. As a thinker, Rieff is fearless and devoid of sentimentality. To take on those you admire is a difficult task, but if done well, as it is in this book, it yields far richer and nuanced arguments than if you were to pit yourself against a thinker with a diametrically opposing view.

Individual memory degrades very quickly while official memorialising is a tool in service to ideological and cultural currents. Rieff refers to Shelley’s pithy ‘Ozymandias’, as well as David Cannadine’s memoir ‘Where Statues Go to Die’ about the ‘inglorious fate’ of colonial monuments in India. My favourite monument story concerns the Bremen Elephant. This ten foot high red brick elephant was erected in 1932 to celebrate Germany’s colonial conquests, especially in Namibia. By the 1980s this particularly brutal colonisation had become a matter of shame; the monument was an embarrassment and there were calls to pull it down. In 1990, when Namibia gained its independence, the Bremen Elephant was re-dedicated as an anti-colonial monument, and in 2009 a new monument was built adjacent to the old to commemorate the lives of those Namibians who perished in the colonisation. Rather than an enduring truth about the past, monuments rise and fall depending on prevailing political and social concerns.

Official remembrance is big business these days. New monuments, memorial gardens, entire museums are popping up all the time. Rieff is rightfully critical of a number of these, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, where the atrocities portrayed have been book-ended in kitsch. (For an excellent book on kitsch in memorialising see Marita Sturken’s Tourists of History, 2007.) My complaint with the U.S. Holocaust Museum is in its use of experiential exhibits. The underlying premise of this fashionable trend in museum practice is that by promoting a personal involvement in the (long-past) events being portrayed, visitors will be motivated towards a better understanding. So it happens that on entering the U.S. Holocaust Museum visitors are issued with an identity card of a real person who existed during the Holocaust. As you walk past the displays of horror, as you watch the videos, as you linger in the (real) cattle car, you clutch your identity card wondering if your person – your surrogate self, after all – has survived. You have been inserted into these horrendous events. As for the imagination as a means of understanding, it has fallen out of fashion. What this might mean for memory in general, given that memories involve an imagining of past events, is anyone’s guess.

Rieff, in highlighting past atrocities and the way they have influenced current conflicts, recommends forgetting as a means of facilitating individuals to move on. Many Holocaust survivors did exactly this. They had survived and it was incumbent on them to live fully – not only for themselves but the millions who were denied a future. They did not consult counsellors or psychiatrists, rather they drew on their own resilience and determination to separate from their terrible experiences and steer themselves into the future. In many instances, It was their children and grandchildren who insisted on dragging them back to Auschwitz. It seems that the parents’ very productive forgetting interfered with the children’s demands for remembrance – a peculiarly narcissistic remembrance. The therapeutic has indeed triumphed as the author’s father, the sociologist Philip Rieff, predicted in 1966.

Rieff sees more value in forgiveness than do I. I am of the belief that some acts and the policies that allow them to occur are unforgivable, such as the atrocities under apartheid, those committed by the Nazis, and the slaughter being carried out by ISIS now. Nelson Mandela recognised this when he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a Truth and Forgiveness Commission. There can be understanding and reconciliation, there can be a future where past enemies live together in peace, and this can occur without having to forgive the unforgivable (and thereby act in bad faith).

In Praise of Forgetting explores the powerful and often brutal effects of the seemingly benign and beneficent processes of memory and remembrance. It forces scrutiny of what has long been complacently accepted. Over the past half century or so, there has been a sacralising of memory both at the personal and collective levels. For the former it has often lead to a life of victimhood, for the latter entrenched hatreds and shocking brutality. If remembering truly were so therapeutic then such undesirable outcomes would not occur with such distressing regularity.

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*In Praise of Forgetting grew out of an earlier monograph Against Remembrance (MUP, 2011). I am hoping Rieff is planning a third volume titled ‘Against Forgiveness’.