[The first por­tion of this lec­ture can be found here.]

George Steiner: What is worse? In sin­gu­lar instances, writ­ers, musi­cians, artists, and aca­d­e­mics sided more or less overt­ly, or by indif­fer­ence with the agen­cies of the inhu­man. Goethe’s gar­den is a few thou­sand yards from Buchenwald. Heidegger lec­tured on Hölderlin. Sartre regard­ed occu­pied Paris, I quote, as a per­fect pro­lit­er­ary and philo­soph­ic pro­duc­tion,” end of quote. In short, when we invoke the ideals and prac­tices of the human­i­ties, there is no assur­ance— (You touched on this in your most gen­er­ous intro­duc­tion.) There’s no assur­ance that they human­ize. My sense of the ques­tion sim­ply tor­ments me. I use the great phrase of the American poet Wallace Stevens, supreme fic­tions.” Supreme fic­tions may, may enable us to for­get the cry in the street. I come from a sem­i­nar in the after­noon, hav­ing taught let’s say the third and fourth acts of Lear. I am com­plete­ly enveloped in the tor­tures of Cordelia and the cry of Lear, Never, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er.” And some­body scream­ing in the street, Help me.” And I don’t hear it. In some mys­te­ri­ous sense, I don’t hear it. This haunts me.

A sec­ond major fac­tor may relate to the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion. To the accel­er­at­ing exten­sion of uni­ver­si­ty entry to vir­tu­al­ly every order in soci­ety. Yes, human poten­tial­i­ties are indeed wide­spread. Yes, they are far too often suf­fo­cat­ed by eco­nom­ic injus­tice and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Ladies and gen­tle­men, the fac­ul­ties of the human mind, its poten­tial­i­ties, are not—are not—infi­nite­ly elas­tic. Sorry.

Talent, let alone genius in the arts, is enig­mat­i­cal­ly rare and unpre­dictable. So it is in the gym­nas­tics of the brain. The num­ber of women and of men, of men and of women, qual­i­fied to respond to a cho­rus in Aeschylus, to a cat­e­gor­i­cal proof in Kant, to a Duino ele­gy in Rilke, may be larg­er than hier­ar­chi­cal reac­tionary ide­olo­gies assume. It is not, how­ev­er, lim­it­less­ly large. The sci­ences have no hypocrisy about this—we do. We human­ists lie to our­selves con­tin­u­al­ly. The sci­ences say, Sorry, you can’t do an equa­tion of the fifth degree. Sorry, good­bye. Become a banker.” [audi­ence laughs] You don’t sur­vive a first-rate sci­ence course of the first year if you don’t know how to do the damn things. They don’t bluff, they can’t bluff. They’re not going to lose their time with bluff­ing. The sci­ences rapid­ly weed out the inept, those to whom ellip­tic func­tions or string the­o­ry are sim­ply inac­ces­si­ble. There is no egal­i­tar­i­an con­tract, no demo­c­ra­t­ic agree­ment with trans­fi­nite num­bers, believe me.

Today the human­i­ties flinch from any rig­or in recruit­ment, from any acknowl­edg­ment that the enroll­ments in many spheres of social and lit­er­ary stud­ies are bloat­ed and vul­gar­ized to a destruc­tive mea­sure. It has become almost impos­si­ble to get rid of stu­dents total­ly unqual­i­fied to take your class. It has become almost impossible—administratively, polit­i­cal­ly, ide­o­log­i­cal­ly. Our sci­ence col­leagues have no such prob­lems. They know what they’re doing, and they say, Sorry.” This is becom­ing truer and truer as the sci­ences become more and more com­plex­ly mathematical.

There may in a final analy­sis be a struc­tur­al ele­ment in our cri­sis. We not­ed the the­o­log­i­cal ori­gins of our Western uni­ver­si­ties and that the eman­ci­pa­tion from the­ol­o­gy has left a kind of empti­ness, a dis­abling void. Cardinal moves in aca­d­e­m­ic teach­ing and research were ground­ed in the­o­log­i­cal assump­tions of an author­i­ty—author­i­tas, that beau­ti­ful word—of tex­tu­al prece­dent and rev­er­ence of tra­di­tion. Inevitably the sec­u­lar dis­ci­plines trans­ferred, devel­oped tech­niques of under­stand­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and for­mal pre­sent­ment inher­it­ed from what are under­stand­ably still schools of divin­i­ty. But a sub­stan­tive legit­i­ma­tion, the under­writ­ing— That’s a very pow­er­ful word. To under-write some­thing. To re-insure. The under­writ­ing on which these axiomat­ic reflex­es were found­ed, are now like reproach­ful ghosts. They can no longer pro­vide reas­sur­ance. In the begin­ning was the word, the logos. From it, evolved human­is­tic lit­er­a­cy. When that word is no longer audi­ble, the onto­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of philo­soph­ic, lit­er­ary, and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies are broken.

[The third and final por­tion of this lec­ture can be found here.]


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