There is a remarkable moment in an interview with the writer George Steiner. That familiar question about the Nazis comes up, of how someone who listened to Bach and Beethoven by day could put people in gas chambers by night:
Steiner: “[there are those who are] certain that the cultivation of the sensibility of beauty, of humanity, of seriousness in art, in literature, in music and painting, would be some kind of help, some kind of barrier, against inhumanity. But it’s all over our world: inhumanity can be combined with high aesthetic experience.”
Interviewer: “So the humanities don’t necessarily humanize, civilization doesn’t necessarily civilize—”
Steiner: “It may indeed barbarize.”
Similarly, a century before Nazi Germany, the Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer said that, “The path of modern culture leads from humanity, through nationalism, to bestiality.”
Steiner, a lover and champion of culture and art if there ever was one, says he has no answer as to why this might be. But let me suggest one: nearly forty years on this earth has taught me one thing about “knowledge,” and that is the arrogance and tribalism wielded by those who think they have it, and the confidence it gives them to condemn other people, other ideas, and other ways of life. Sounds like barbarism to me.
When this happens, suddenly art and culture aren’t about the experience of Bach or Beethoven, and instead become a matter of criticism, classification, and comparison. These things are fine enough on their own, but in this situation they are inevitably put to the use of value judgments which culture—at its explosive and most meaningful core—largely has nothing to do with: notions of superiority (predictably balanced by what is lesser, even debased), competing schools, and opposing interpretations.
There is very little difference between this mindset and similar ones which pervade various forms of nationalism, or pride in one’s religion, one’s city or neighborhood or just the long past of one’s family. Human beings remain, as ever, completely unable to cultivate powerfully meaningful and life-sustaining experiences without condemning the divergent experiences of others. We are still that weak; and so many of us still cling to ideas of superiority of all kinds, whether of race, culture, gender, nation, religion, or otherwise.
Ecclesiastes 1:18 says that, “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.” As the says goes, the more we know, the more we realize we know very little at all. The security and certainty and even pride we take in “knowledge” simply doesn’t exist, and to pretend that study and experience ends at a point of stability rather than one of continuation and flux, can’t help but increase heartache.
And if we pretend this isn’t the case, if we pretend that culture and art are the hammers they were never meant to be, very soon we will arrive at a point which says other ideas and the people who hold them are wrong, then inferior, then dangerous, and finally as subhuman or not fit to live—or at least unfit to live around us, some illusory sense of social or culture “purity” now the goal.
Much like religion, art and culture are tremendous vehicles for empathy and altruism, and the best expressions of them portray humanity and the transcendent in such a way that we can’t help but be opened up. But, much like religion and art, many of us still use these highest expressions as an excuse to close up.
Since we’ve been taught from the beginning that our various identities are actually just excuses to isolate ourselves from others, are we supposed to do away with identity completely? Is any sense of belonging a kind of poison? Even as they inspire me to new work, is it a bit of make-believe to really imagine that I have anything in common with the people of prehistoric Europe, or any poet at all older than a century?
Here’s a paragraph from a novel, where a young Austrian is coming of age during the outbreak of World War One. He sneers at the rabid patriotism of the time, and the ransacking of the past for historical parallels to justify the coming war. But is this just adolescent cynicism?
…belonging was a poison. It was a lie to feel less alone in the company of someone who merely spoke the same language as you, and it was a lie to feel alien in the presence merely of those whose language you would never know. It was a lie to feel more or less alone simply because of one’s place on this or that side of an arbitrary border. It was a lie to feel kinship of any kind with the ancient Greeks or even medieval Germans, for whom Leo’s actual world would be appear to them as inexplicable and even offensive as daily life among their time would feel to him. This didn’t mean that an inkling of commonality, and bond, couldn’t be gleaned from a line of Homer or Euripides or Plato, or from Wolfram or the poets of the Nibelungenlied or the Eddas, but that inkling was always deeply personal, quite ineffable, and could not be made to justify the actions or thoughts of anything beyond one man only….
And so, it isn’t that we cannot look back with personal pride wherever our family tree or our study leads us. Rather, we simply can’t use that attachment for a function it cannot fulfill; that sense of belonging is deeply personal, not public, and proof not of superiority but of that more intangible but also more important thing, continuity.
Because it’s an instinctual sense of continuity, not any literal or complete knowledge of the past; and it’s the individual, vague, and living human element—not some political or social commentary—which makes writers like Shakespeare as new now as they ever were. This continuity won’t result in a neat slogan, but it will support your life.
The deepest experiences of art—and, I would say, of identity, too—are so profound that we cannot live in its cloud all the time. And so, outside of that experience, we create things like criticism, categories, “civilization”; but what we really yearn for is a way of looking at our lives that’s similar to poetry: that which fills us not with any sense of judgmental or self-conscious pride, and more with awe. And we can no less judge another person’s awe, another person’s experience of the sublime, than we can their opinions about art or music or poetry. It isn’t what art is for and, no matter what the headlines say, it isn’t what life is really about, either.