Monday, April 18, 2011

Polymathic Perversity

“War and Peace” is the title TLS editors gave to George Steiner’s review of Pierre Bouretz’s D’Un Ton Guerrier en Philosophie (TLS, 3/25/11). The title is prescient, since the critic in question has never been a stranger to hyperbole. Steiner opens his review, which deals with how “Derridean, Foucaldian and Lacanian doctrines exercised a defining spell on the teaching of the humanities…” by arguing that “academic quarrels…far outweigh the factitious mummeries of diplomacy.” Steiner has a talent for obfuscating what is merely obtuse while at the same time asserting that what goes on in the stacks of a library is equivalent to the Trojan War or to the Manhattan Project for that matter. The sententious prose and the way he apotheosizes intellectual struggles that few on earth could care less about, or understand, is actually refreshing and becomes a kind of meaning-making in and of itself. Steiner is an undeniably brilliant man and a vestige of a form of polymathic learning that is becoming ever harder to locate in our culture of specialization. And there is one piece of great brilliance in his review. Trying to account for the attraction of deconstruction, Steiner says, “Deconstruction and post-structuralism seemed to validate resort to the theoretical, to an idiom comparable to that of the sciences… ‘String theory/French theory’: the labels, however irreconcilable from any serious point of view, chime. Had Levi-Strauss not donned a white coat and designated his rooms a laboratoire?” Just when exasperation at Steiner’s millenarian prose is about to set in, he produces a gem which hits the nail right on the head in dealing with the aspiration of poets, psychoanalysts and explicateurs de texte to produce the intellectual version of the Salk vaccine.

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