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Do the Humanities Humanize?

Do the Humanities Humanize?

¿Las humanidades, humanizan?

George Steiner

• George Steiner ́s conference took place at the Nexus Intituut. Special thanks to Rob Riemen, its director.


The exponential–there is no other word–explosion of science and technology has transformed not only our universities but, after Descartes and Leibniz, the very status of knowledge and of truth. The exact and applied sciences with an inbuilt axiomal progress, isn’t it fantastic? We will know something tomorrow which we did not know today. Even a mediocre science team will know something next Monday they did not know today. The escalator of science is always moving upward. They have created new universities within the university. Their budget is a hundred-fold that of the humanities.

In a ranking of American Ivy League universities, the cost of controlling the temperature of the high-energy laboratory is now greater than the cost of the entire university budget ten years ago. In ten short years. In science faculties, salaries –and prestige– are far in excess of those current in non-scientific departments.

Biogenetics seeks access to the mechanism of life itself. Advances in medicine are virtually inconmesurable and yet (that little French word, “mais”, or the German word, “aber”) our wars are as barbaric as ever, famine and enslavement, forced migration abound, forty million children are now near the hunger line: forty million children. Economics neither forsaw nor is helping us in the present crisis of late capitalism. The mental stress, the sadness in the psyche, the criminality which characterize so much of our urban and familial existence. The hysterical flight into narcotics and hypnosis of the mass media have proved resistant to scientific triumphs and their credo of enlightened rationality. In the greatest age science has ever known, there is more misery on our streets, there is more mental collapse than ever before.

There is a stubborn enigma here. A partial answer may lie in the gap of understanding which now separates scientific knowledge and methods from the general and public grasp. Not only, as Galileo proclaimed, does Nature speak mathematics, but the evolution of that language has excluded common-sense comprehension. You and I still speak of sunset and sunrise in a Ptolemaic use of language centuries after Copernicus and Newton –it’s of course total nonsense, but we still use it continually. We dwell amid archaic fictions of solid objects. This table, we are told, is a vortex of electrons in quantum motion. But the causes may lie deeper. Science has, since Euclid, prided itself on its ideological and political abstentions, on its neutrality in respect of social and political conflicts. It has cultivated what Kant calls, wonderfully, “dis-interestedness”. Noli me tangere, I’m doing science. Don’t interfere with social and political concerns. Noli me tangere.

Its involvement in warfare or Stalinist madness have been contentious and self-destructive. Heidegger, God help us, put it with majestic insolence. I quote: “Science does not think.” Die Wissenschaft denk nicht. You had to be Heidegger to be able to say that. It is a very deep piece of idiocy. It’s a piece of idiocy, but it is very deep. This is one of the hardest things to handle: deep idiocies.

Do the humanities think? The proud phrase literae humaniores: the humane letters. Menschlichkeit. L’Humanité. Humanitas. Their condition (forgive me, and I don’t want to cause any offense), but their condition is not resplendent. A fair number of undergraduates in self-entitled universities, which are actually vocational or trade schools promoted to a fake rank, verge on sub-literacy.

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 pro-literary and philosophic production.” In short, when we invoke the ideals and practices of the humanities there is 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 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 Cornelia and the cry of Lear: “Never, never, never, never, never.” And somebody is 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 infinitely elastic. Talent, let alone genius in the arts, is enigmatically rare and unpredictable. 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.” 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 are not going to lose their time with bluffing. The sciences rapidly weed out the inept; those two 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 are 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 theoological 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 –Auctoritas, that beautiful word–of textual precedent and reference 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 reinsure–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.

What then, shall we do? Some reforms are not difficult to envisage. We must purge our vocabulary, we must clean up our language to say what we mean. What is a true university? Why, it is libraries; it is a custodian and engagement with the living past. It strives to advance knowledge and clarify critically the processes of sort. A true university serves neither political purpose nor social programs, necessarily partisan and transitory. Above all, it rebukes censorship and correctness of any kind. What have we done through political correctness? The lies we are teaching or having to accept, the questions we are not allowed to ask. Political correctness makes impossible great fields of comparative study. A university should house and it should honor anarchic provocation and the passion of uselessness. What is the most wonderful passion in the world? Uselessness. If someone comes to me and says, “I am going to give my life to the study of Tang Dynasty Bronzers,” I say, “You are a very lucky person. You are going to be a very happy and hungry person, but you lead a blessed life.” The notion that the useless is the highest form of human activity.

First and foremost, we must insist on recapturing some of the ground the humanities have yielded to the sciences. Is a twenty-first century educated man or woman literate when, in total ignorance of elementary mathematics or the concept of numeracy, which organize and determine the world around us, she or he cannot grasp such a notion as a mean average, an irrational number? Notions instrumental to our socioeconomic existence, indispensible to current debates on genetic modification, euthanasia and law. The frequent assignment to the least gifted, to the most disillusioned of the teaching of mathematics in our schools is a suicidal scandal. How does it go in the university of Newton? If you get a first in mathematics, you can go on to research. If you get a good second, you will end up in hedge funds and banking, which are very sophisticated in their mathematics. If you are a third, the worst, you will go teach mathematics!

It is never too late. A core curriculum should, I am persuaded, contain–and now I hope you will bear with me, this is my one very practical reform–at the center of our curriculum should be architecture. Why? It draws on Mathematics (very richly, of course), Geology (what I call in English the material sciences: steel, iron, wood, it draws on environmental politics at every level). It embodies ancestry and futurity. In architecture, the notorious gap between the two cultures is wholly abolished. Archimedes joins Michelangelo. Together they teach us, and the technical phrase is so beautiful, “how to read a building.” There is no aspect of law, sociology, environmental economics, but also urban politics, which architecture does not involve in our daily lives.

How to read a building, how to read? Which is the center of my remarks this morning. We are learning to read together. No secondary texts, please. No criticism. No comments on comments on comments. Complete loss of truth. You learn to read together. And what do you do at the end? And this is the end of my too-long remarks this morning. The closing or, rather, opening motion is that of memorization. We learn by heart, par cœur. Not by brain. We learn by heart. The poem or piece of relevant prose, to memorize is to thank for what the text has given us. It is the only effective way of saying merci, thank you, danke. For the inexhaustible liberality of meaning, for the miracle of sense, what we know by heart cannot be taken from us.

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