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Lessons of the Masters
George Steiner
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
$19.95, 198 pages, ISBN 0-674-01207-0.

Véronique Alexandre
Université de Caen

This book is not about teaching—it is about genius and discipleship. It is constructed as a brilliant display of cultural mastery designed to impress and enthuse, and no doubt generate disciples. But not too many, or of such a quality as to deserve the title of aristocrats, happy few, chosen ones. In Steiner’s book, the master is a god, his disciples are the faithful; the master sets “obsession on its way” [p. 19]; the master is hypnotic, erotic, totalitarian, vampiric (all Steiner’s words or concepts) and bent on leaving such an imprint on the disciple’s mind that the latter will be forever his, or “hers” in some very rare cases, as very few “mistresses” appear in the book. Unfortunately (or fortunately) total rapture seldom happens. Most of the time in country schools and the lesser groves of academe where people like me, and you perhaps, teach, no such seismic meeting of brains takes place:

Anti-teaching is statistically close to being the norm. Good teachers, fire-raisers in their pupil’s nascent souls may well be rarer than virtuoso artists and sages. Schoolmasters, trainers of mind and body, aware of what is at stake, of the interplay of trust and vulnerability, of the organic fusion between responsibility and response (what I call 'answerability') are alarmingly few. Ovid reminds us: 'there is no greater wonder.' In actual fact, as we know, the majority of those to whom we entrust our children in secondary education, to whom we look for guidance and example in the academy, are more or less amiable gravediggers. They labour to diminish students to their own level of indifferent fatigue. They do not 'open Delphi' but close it. [p. 18]

Rather than going into an argument, allow me to raise one technical point. Where are Mr Steiner’s statistics? I would also like to ask: where are the footnotes? Indeed, Lessons of the Masters is dotted with quotes and words in italics, yet the book doesn’t contain a single footnote and only offers very few references. How therefore am I to benefit from the master’s insights and take them further into directions I may choose? Admittedly this book is designed for a willing audience, listeners to Steiner’s beautiful music happy to be carried along with their eyes closed. But times have changed and Steiner’s music must increasingly sound clichéd and facile to whoever really tries to make sense of his or her own cultural and educational experience.

In Steiner’s world, footnotes or full references are not needed because the pupil is supposed to listen fervently, absorb, and imitate, only to strike his own note later, but always in a spirit of indebtedness and filiation. Lessons of the Masters, whose title takes after Henry James’s The Lesson of the Master (1888), is really about templating brains. Though he is careful to point out the dialectical dimension of the teaching process in the introduction (“Obviously, the arts and acts of teaching are in the proper sense of this abused term, dialectical. The Master learns from the disciple and is modified by this interrelation in what becomes, ideally, a process of exchange [p.6].”), Steiner imposes his views, stating rather than discussing them, and covering such a wide expanse of intellectual heritage that the chapters often amount to mere catalogues. It is hard for the reader to feel any sense of inclusion in a gallery of the World’s Best Minds whose achievements are taken so literally, so canonically, so absolutely as to lose any relevance to day-to-day normal living, normal thinking and certainly normal teaching. In fact, the whole sublime pageant excludes the reality of human life, constrained by limitations, mistakes, failures, as well as social and historical circumstances—all of which, if they don’t crush, can act as a stimulus towards thought and creativity. Steiner’s iconology of star pupils [p.47] and teachers standing supreme in the halls of fame [p. 138] fails to account for what it is to want to learn, and what it is to want to teach, whether or not you’re a genius, in a world where secondary and third-level education is now accessible to millions. What about ordinary men and women striving towards smaller goals but enormously stimulated by ideas?—One is having to use words such as “ordinary” and “smaller” to fit into Steiner’s elitist conception of culture. But Mr. Steiner is not interested in goal-reaching or the dynamic process of intellectual development. He is interested in the finished product, which has to be a product—a book, a piece of music, a mathematical axiom, a series of American football wins, or “truth,” which he refers to repeatedly as if it were something finite and stable. Despite the emphasis on “the mystery of the thing” [p. 1] and the underlying religiosity of Steiner’s cultural heritage theory, transmission, Steiner believes, can be measured in terms of productivity. Implicitly therefore, where there is no productivity of a kind recognized by him, there is no transmission worth speaking of. Paradoxically, despite the fact that the book deals with intellectual and spiritual excellence, the accumulation of biographies, titles and names sets a materialistic tone.

Clearly Mr Steiner lives in an absolute world of absolute masters and absolute disciples. This book is the printed version of a set of lectures delivered at Harvard in 2000-2001—Mr Steiner has taught in Cambridge and has run a doctoral seminar in Geneva for “a quarter of a century” [p. 19]. Moreover Mr. Steiner’s personal life takes place among scholars, whose support he acknowledges at the beginning of the book: his son, Professor David Steiner, his son’s wife, Dr. Evelyne Ender, his own wife, Dr. Zara Steiner. Considering this splendid intellectual environment, it is no wonder that Mr Steiner should idealize teaching, teachers and transmission. Yet, who is ready today to receive Mr. Steiner’s elitist, male chauvinistic, anti-democratic, opinionated message:

Inevitably, creative writing classes have generated their own parasitic genre. The disorder of 'political correctness' can provide a sombre and hysterical lining. No pedagogy is more charged with erotic potential than that between the campus bard and his flock. There is unavoidable nakedness in the submission of one’s intimate imaginings to the critic’s voyeuristic scrutiny. How can sexuality, now trivialized to 'sexual harassment,' its political-parodistic mode, be excluded? [p.62]

It is true that Mr Steiner has no time for politics nor social history—though, curiously, he unravels his exposé chronologically—nor social sciences. Max Weber is mentioned because he is an exponent of the “aristocracy of the intellect which is being threatened by the democratization of mass-consumption” [p. 183] but Mr. Steiner clearly rejects sociology or social history which would no doubt open wider, less aristocratic, perspectives, raise questions, and move away from the mystical (or judgemental) to the critical. As a result Mr Steiner’s book is of little use, opening no constructive path. It disconnects humanism from political action and civic involvement. It eulogises and condemns in turn (see the Afterword about “our present age […] of irreverence… […] scientism; feminism; mass democracy and its media [p.182-3].”) instead of exploring complex issues. Someone looking for ideas to reconcile the common good (i.e. education for all) with a respect for the western cultural heritage in a context of “democratization of mass-consumption” will not find any clues in Lessons of the Masters. Someone trying to get his/her first year students interested in books and ideas as the surest way for them to achieve freedom and self-knowledge will not find something to start an introductory lecture with in Lessons of the Masters. Or perhaps the following statement would engage the auditorium, causing a welcome stir: “Inferior people cannot have a master, since they have nothing for a master to be master of [p. 58].” This is taken from Pessoa, and may well have been meant derisively—which is not clear from Mr Steiner’s summary, who adds by way of explanation: “The capacity to be hypnotized distinguishes strong personalities.” One is left to ponder the political implications of such a pronouncement. A teacher trying to develop critical faculties in his students as well as a sense of intellectual responsibility that extends not just to culture but the whole of life (including television and the Internet) will find Lessons of the Masters simply short-sighted. To his credit Mr. Steiner does try on occasion to sound inclusive and organic, but his vision remains essentially compartmented with the Best and the Not-so-Good playing in different leagues:

At its most elementary levels—which are, in fact, never 'elementary'—in the teaching, for example, of young children, of the deaf-mute, of the mentally impaired, or at the pinnacles of 'privilege,' in the high places of the arts, of science, of thought, authentic teaching results from a summons. [p. 16]

With “elementary” at one end and “high” at the other end, with a caveat about “elementary” that sounds like an afterthought, and “thought” placed at the very far end of the period, well away from “elementary,” Mr. Steiner, or his syntax, fails to convince us that he sees the world otherwise than along dividing lines.

Lessons of the Masters is a book written for yesterday as the allusion to Fil de fer et Patapouff [André Maurois, 1930] described as “the French child’s parable” [p. 70] symptomatically reveals, and one gets the impression throughout the book that Mr Steiner’s personal experience serves as a model for his cultural heritage theory. He probably read Fil de fer et Patapouff when he was a child, but not “the French child” as his formula would lead us to believe. Another downright mistake relating to French culture occurs at the beginning when “tenure” is supposed to translate into “stabilization” [p.4]. By Zeus, where “doz” that word come from?! Are there any more substantial approximations in the book? Probably. Mr Steiner crafts his own idiosyncratic tune with a clear bias towards elitism—based on his own understanding of what it is to be great and to be a great teacher—and very often with the Jewish tradition of learning in mind. Why can’t Mr. Steiner treat teaching as a job, for a change, reduce the number of hyperboles and divorce it from religion, sin [p. 18] and the occult? His insistence on the erotic in the teacher-pupil relationship is also typical of a similar confusion. No doubt, there is love at work in teaching, as there is in doctoring, or in any job that requires strong personal interactions with the public, but the erotic is certainly not a basis to work from—especially when the erotic, as Steiner suggests, is connected with domination and prying into the other’s soul. As clear from the title Lessons of the Masters is male-centered and old-fashioned—no wonder therefore that a preoccupation with the erotic viewed conventionally as the result of a subjugation should feature prominently. But if teaching is a job and the purpose of it to empower students, the question of the erotic need not arise. Subjugation is not on the agenda, and I would even add at this point that “mastery" is not either. God protect me from ever being a master—or indeed a mistress!

The overall style of the book—Steiner’s seductive music—is a combination of not enough and too much as the author tries to pack a lot in and turn every single sentence into a forceful statement while leaving out as much evidence and useful explanations:

Christopher Marlowe’s iambic pulse electrifies abstraction. Faustus’s theological and metaphysical propositions have no less nervous thrust than the ravings of empire of Tamburlaine or the crazed vindictiveness of Barrabas the Jew. Marlowe’s incandescent intellectuality spellbound his contemporaries. He had 'in him those brave sublunary things' said Michael Drayton. Long after, Coleridge judges him to have been the most thoughtful and philosophic mind among Elizabethan dramatists. Marlowe remains, with Milton and George Eliot, the most academic of our great writers, the most at home in the arcane glow of learning. [p. 81]

That is music indeed, of the most flamboyant kind, but as literary criticism it is vague. In the chapter entitled “The too ready writer” in The Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1878) George Eliot warned against

the busy Adrastus, whose professional engagements might seem more than enough for the nervous energy of one man, and who yet finds time to print essays on the chief current subjects, from the tri-lingual inscriptions, or the Idea of the Infinite among the prehistoric Lapps to the Colorado beetle and the grape disease in the south of France, is generally praised if not admired for the breadth of his mental range and his gigantic powers of work. […] Such restless and versatile occupants of literary space should have lived earlier when the world wanted summaries of all extant knowledge, and this knowledge being small, there was the more room for commentary and conjecture.

Like Adrastus, Mr. Steiner has the printers’ support; like Adrastus, he tries to cover too much. As a result Lessons of the Masters is sketchy and lacks focus. A book of “famous great men” written for yesterday and doing little to address the questions raised by the cultural and educational landscape—of today.



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