Some notes on The Notes


Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes on the Redefinition of Culture isn't much better, alas: Steiner's argument that the world changed with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars because now everyone became involved in the great events of history (because war became total, there was general mobilization, troops marched outside Hegel's window while he wrote Phenomenology, etc.), "whereas in times previous war swept over human beings with tidal mystery" would surprise anyone who has lived through the total horror of the Thirty Years War (between 1618 and 1648 Germany lost half its population); or the French civil wars of the 16th century; or the English civil war; or the contemporary Khmelnitsky uprising.

Besides -- excuse me -- what is "tidal mystery"?


Is there perhaps something lacking in the education of fellows like Geo. Steiner? Do they not get enough maths and logic? Would a course in chemistry perhaps teach them to write sentences that mean something? Should their teachers not have insisted that a sentence's best business is demonstrable truth?

Several in-depth courses on individual historical periods might have been useful, too, to teach these guys how difficult it is to make generalizations about an age (what is an "age", anyway?); and to deconstruct the fanciful "grand-sweep of history" view which one acquires by limiting his reading to introductory textbooks. (Too little education can be more dangerous than none).


I am not sure that Steiner is right in suggesting that ennui was more common in the nineteenth century than it was, say, in the eighteenth or seventeeth; statistics do not exist; but he is right in observing that many nineteenth century writers expressed it. Perhaps boredom was merely generized, which is to say "made into an acceptable genre", that is, it was discovered that it's OK to write about it (i.e., if you do, someone will actually read it). (The way Roth has generized incontinence).

Having said that, personally, I would not be surprised to learn that the nineteenth century were in fact more bored than the eighteenth: unlike Steiner, I have never thought the nineteenth century my Paradise Lost; its culture, for the most part, tires and bores me. Why should it not have bored its own people?

I mean, come on, Donizetti?

(Hurray for the eighteenth century).


But perhaps the nineteenth century did represent a kind of departure from the past: an informatics departure, if you pardon the jargon. The rise of the newspaper, the telegraph, and cheap mass-printed book meant, I am guessing, that cultural figures at least were now spending a far greater amount of their time chasing mundane news -- from the political (Man bites dog in Bakhchisarai!) to the cultural (a new book of poetry by minor heath poets); leading to a low quality information overload. The truth is that the flood of low quality information must be interrupted (the newspaper subscription canceled, the tube turned off, the blog comments (for the most part) ignored, the minor heath poets not read); or else our own brains become stuffed up with their mediocrity, acquire their tastelessness, and -- inevitably -- begin to bore their owners.


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