An interesting little article - All the Frogs Croak Before the Storm: Dostoevsky Versus Tolstoy on Humanitarian Interventions. It seems Solzhenitsyn sided with Tolstoy.
Those many literati who read this blog will recognize the little Tolstoy or Dostoevsky image to the right of that text as a cropped image from the cover of George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism.
When I think of Steiner these days, I think of two things - the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, which I have in the past attended in order to sell books, and the widespread use of Viagra in nursing homes.
In a recent nursing school rotation I had in a nursing home, pretty much every male who could move was on Viagra or an equivalent, and as there were considerably more women than men in this nursing home, the men who were able often serviced more than one woman. We were prepared for this phenomenon by the staff before we began our work there. We were told this is the way of things now, indeed the phenomena was praised as a means of providing elderly persons with social and physical comfort - a reason to live in an otherwise dismal situation, if you will. One hears of the exponential increases in HIV, gonorrhea, and syphilis in retirement homes these days, though I didn't see any of that. Perhaps at the nursing home I was at the old duffs used condoms.
At another rotation I was at after that one I was working with primarily men in their mid-50s or older in a medsurg setting and every single one of them I worked with had "sexual dysfunction" among their diagnoses and either had been or were currently taking an erectile dysfunction med. It seems it is now commonplace to have very ill men insist on having the ability to engage in coitus and being provided the pharmacological means to do so. You might be in late liver failure, with ascites extending your abdomen, and your scrotum the size of an eggplant due to edema, but dammit you are going to get a lay before you take the long nap. I have to admit at times when in the room with a given chain smoking, verbally abusive, chronic alcoholic with staples down his front and an ostomy or ileostomy bag needing emptied, now asking about when he can resume sexual activity, I'd catch myself looking at the wife or significant other and think "seriously?" But, of course, I played along as I had been taught, all tolerant and using my dope on a rope "therapeutic language."
At the Medieval Congress there was a dance each year I went. It was a sight to behold. Medievalists and experts in related fields (including patristics, mind you), typically in their 50s and male, would be witnessed in the most unabashed and downright embarrassing attempts to hook up with TA's (usually female) two or three decades younger than them. There was a lot of alcohol involved, and one could watch apparent "successes" occur which seemed altogether unlikely. One year my buddy Danny and I watched from outside, smoking Drummies and drinking Laphroaig out of the bottle, and we placed bets as to whether or not a given attempt to score would work, one of us paying the other as a given middle aged overweight bald nerd either walked out of the dance and toward a car with an attractive young TA, or moved on to the next attempt.
All of this reminds me of Steiner because the book of his I have read most recently is his My Unwritten Books, specifically his essay Tongues of Eros. In it Steiner uses his commanding rhetorical skills and wit to describe the glories of polyphonic sex, as well as to compare, in something of a linguistic-ethnographic manner, the language and correspondent activity of lovemaking among speakers of German, French, Italian, and English. His motivation for writing is thus:
But where it is loved freely, love and its sexual fulfillment emancipate the human spirit and bring it home to the enigma of the human body, of the body's determinant yet enigmatic weight in the realization of the self. No other phenomenality in our means can match or surpass this enfranchisement. Liberté, liberté chérie, proclaims the national anthem in a loving, amorous flourish. As sexual potency withers with age, as anxious onamism returns to substitute for coitus, freedom regresses. In this exact sense, old age is serfdom. Yet even here, remembrance can liberate. Those "snows of yesteryear" still gleam. The man, the woman who have known sex at its most various and unashamed retain the taste of freedom even to the end. One night in Paris, as I entered C., I heard the soft but meteoric laughter of liberty itself. It stays with me.
The essay lists many examples of erotic language in each of the languages, and in the process, Steiner lists to the reader quite more than a few of his sexual exploits. Some of it remains at least behind the thin veil of Steiner's many (and usual, for those of you who have read him) plays on words and complicated rhetorical constructs, but some of it is rather explicitly pornographic, even if cleverly so. I suppose an esteemed scholar who has often been accused of being obtuse and boring might be inclined to play provocateur at the end. Not that the material isn't fascinating. I find it interesting, anyway, that French lovers use vous and not tu with each other when making love, or at least did so until very recently. Steiner predictably praises this formality. He considers the invasion of anglo-american informality into the erotic language of other tongues to be vulgar.
Given that Steiner fairly early in the essay seems to appreciate in Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio "a determinant Catholic ambivalence as to guilt and sensuality, as to the corporeal and the transcedent" and the eloquence which can arise from this "uneasy synthesis" I am not quite sure about Steiner's rather unrestrained disdain for Christianity (his more urbane and refined Dawkinsly hostility to Christianity is most overt in the next essay in the book, Zion, which concerns his impressions of Judaism). It seems he finds Christianity quite useful, as he often resorts to the Christian faith as a medium of sexual imagery. An example:
When nearing climax, she would cry out, though in a muted register, the name "Sankt Nepomuk the Lesser." A dim personage in the church calendar, this early medieval sanctified soul had this shrine in a lost corner near the Tyrolean border. Carved in limewood, the saint brandished a memorably elongated finger. Invoking him, in either thanks or propitiation, Ch. called up memories of fantastications centered on that appendage. These had been shared during onamism with a coven of friends in her convent school dormitory. Fervently imagined and mimed, Sankt Nepomuk's finger pointed the way to solitary yet also communal bliss.
Here is an image I found online of poor St. John of Nepomuk, though I don't notice anything remarkable about the pointed finger, perhaps this stone is something like the limewood carving so abused by a former lover of the anglo-Jewish literary aristocracy:
Though Steiner has long tried to sell himself as boldly out of step with the times ("an essay in the old criticism", etc.), this essay in question strikes me as a very frustrated reflection on the passing of a sexual-cultural ethos that seems to have been the pinnacle of meaning in Steiner's life. Perhaps this quality is what Steiner is after - he views the passing of the promise of European free love of the 60s with the frustration of the octogenarian onamist. But there is more than a hint of bitterness in the reflection that presents itself as thankful, something like a Newt Gingrich speech, only in Steiner's case with an urbane and masterful vocabulary and rhetorical prowess. I am inclined to think it uncontroversial to say that in works like Real Presences and Tolstoy or Dostoevsky Steiner has been rather flamboyant in his fetishization of language. Reading this essay only solidifies my impression of the Steiner corpus. He definitely infers that the act of sex is somehow more meaningful to a person who is able to articulate the experience with a wider and fuller vocabulary. There is a truism there, but where on earth one takes it is beyond me. The project leaves this reader with a bad taste of rather pedantic elitism in his mouth, but, of course, you don't begin to read Steiner without expecting as much.
As always, he does have his acutely perceptive moment. Early in the essay he regrets the influence of technocratic sexualizations on our contemporary lovemaking:
The erotic and sexual phraseology of the media, the amorous jargon of film and television, the tidal declamation of advertisement and the mass market, stylize, conventionalize the rhythm, the pace, the discursive components of millions of partners. In the developed world, with its corrosive pornography, countless lovers, particularly among the young, "program" their lovemaking, whether consciously or not, along prepackaged semiotic lines. What should be the most spontaneously anarchic, individually exploratory and inventive of human encounters, is to a very large degree scripted. The last freedom, the final authenticity may indeed be that of the deaf-mute. We do not know.
I had to chuckle throughout reading this essay for this reason - the people that first got me reading Steiner wanted me to be formed by Real Presences and Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, hoping to bring some sense to what they perceived to be my overly secularized mind. Those friends were certainly not the sort who would ever choose to read or encourage another to read essays in which the author describes different ways in which lovers across cultures have invited the author into the act of sodomy. Perhaps I should have given up on Steiner years ago. Then again, nah, I read all those boring bits, so I've earned a few dozen pages of titillation.
If nothing else, after reading a text by Steiner there is the lingering of thought on this or that turn he took which one did not expect. This essay was the furthest thing from an exception in that regard.