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terribly surprised

George Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle', subtitled 'Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture' (1971) is a dense, searching and oldfashionedly erudite investigation of the remaining moral foundations of Western culture after the holocaust.

In other ways, too, this is a quintessentially 20th century text. Still firmly rooted in an old world intellectual tradition - if only in the way the book is intended "in memoration" of T.S. Eliot's 'Notes Towards the Definition of Culture' (1948) - but at the same time marking perhaps the last time Culture could be discussed in such a monolythic way.

It's no coincidence that Steiner talks of "current Western culture, or post-culture". More commonly known as postmodernism, for Steiner it has the specific meaning of culture-after-the-holocaust, when the old ideal of Culture (or Bildung) had failed as a safeguard against barbarism, and the new ideal of everyone piecing together their own private piece of culture started to take root.

Here's a key passage, also illustrating Steiner's penchant for intellectual namedropping.

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 haven't been able to locate this in Dickinson, but what a sharp phrase, "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.
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