Thursday, October 6, 2011
October 3, 2011 Issue
A sentence in Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Peace in Our Time,” in this week’s issue of the magazine, hit me with the force of a Floyd Mayweather uppercut. Near the end of her piece, which is a review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Kolbert says, “Before Pol Pot invented the killing fields, he studied in Paris, where he developed a taste not just for Marx but also for the classics of French literature.” This is a potent observation. It compels us to ask whether knowledge of the best that has been thought and said results, as Pinker’s book apparently asserts, in a decline in violence. George Steiner explored this very point in a series of haunting essays collected in his 1982 Language & Silence. For example, in “Humane Literacy,” Steiner says:
The ultimate of political barbarism grew from the core of Europe. Two centuries after Voltaire had proclaimed its end, torture again became a normal process of political action. Not only did the general dissemination of literary, cultural values prove no barrier to totalitarianism; but in notable instances the high places of humanistic learning and art actually welcomed and aided the new terror. Barbarism prevailed on the very ground of Christian humanism, of Renaissance culture and classic rationalism. We know that some of the men who devised and administered Auschwitz had been taught to read Shakespeare or Goethe, and continued to do so.
Obviously, this is appallingly relevant to the study of literature. We have to consider the possibility that, as Steiner says in his piece, “the study and transmission of literature may be of only marginal significance, a passionate luxury like the preservation of the antique.”
I share the skepticism that Kolbert expresses in her review. Her conclusion is well said:
Hate and madness and cruelty haven’t disappeared, and they aren’t going to. Systems break down and, worse still, can be subverted. This is one of the lessons of Auschwitz, and it’s why, since 1945, most people have hesitated to argue that modernity and violence are opposed.