Steiner: The Web of Allusion

Alright, quick diversion from Locke. I’ve been reading George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, a series of four lectures originally delivered in March 1971 as the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures. We’re not going to get into the weeds of the argument today – instead, I want to look exclusively at the fourth lecture, where Steiner makes a series of predictions about what the future might be like. We’re on the cusp of fifty years after these lectures were delivered – let’s see how things look.

So Steiner has gone through and made all his arguments about the state of Western culture, and in this fourth chapter he offers some suggestions about how it might proceed. “At best, therefore, I can offer conjectures as to what may be synapses worth watching … not with a view to prophetic aptness, but in the hope that they might be erroneous in a way that will retain a documentary interest.” Let’s have a look, then.

The first thing that Steiner discusses is how the fabric of allusion and reference in the bulk of English literature is “fading rapidly from the reach of natural reading.” For example, he quotes part of Milton’s Lycidas, and pulls out some of the relevant associations that just aren’t evident to normal readers any more:

“Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.”

Amongst a litany of citations, Steiner points out that laurel, myrtle and ivy are all plants with a specific set of meanings and associations in the broader context of English literature:

“The ivy stands for poetry when it is particularly allied to learning: Horace’s Odes 1.1.29 and Spenser’s Shepheards Calendar for September tell us that, as they told it to Milton. Odes 1 is at work also in ‘myrtles brown’ (pulla myrtus).”

Most people today wouldn’t know about that association for ivy- which, to be clear, is not a criticism. Steiner is simply making the point that there’s a whole set of meanings here that have become dormant. “A central pulse in awareness, in the language, is becoming archival.” There are a whole body of allusions that aren’t part of our common everyday language any more, and so their meaning goes over our heads. And, fifty years after he wrote that – I mean, I can only agree. It’s especially interesting as someone who has a postgraduate degree in English – you would think that I should be up with the play, that I should’ve been trained in this stuff. But – let’s have a look – in his full discussion of the passage, Steiner cites Horace’s Odes and Spenser’s Shepheard’s Calendar, neither of which I’ve read, Tennyson’s Ode to Memory, Keats’s Ode to Psyche, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Henry V, Theocritus’s Idylls, Pope’s Windsor Forest, Shelley’s Adonis – fuck, I don’t know any of this stuff11. I’ve read two of the three Shakespeare plays, and literally nothing else. I couldn’t even place the Shakespeare references – ‘sere’ apparently comes up in Macbeth, somewhere, and ‘my dearest foe in heaven’ is from Hamlet. Our literary heritage carries with it a vibrant and complex web of allusions and interconnections, and it’s fair to say that we’ve lost touch with the bulk of what that looks like. It’s not even a major part of the scholarship any more – the fact that I can go through five years of studying literature and come away grasping none of Steiner’s allusions points to the increasingly marginal state of that web even in our highest educational forms. Or maybe I’m just a shit student – jury’s still out.

The other place where I think this gap is increasingly obvious is in the Biblical references, which are so much a part of this historical web. Most people today have very limited familiarity with the stories from the Bible. They’re not part of our everyday language. This divide is really obvious to Christians, who have that ongoing exposure – at least in my own experience, I sometimes find myself having to explain who a Bible character is. Because I remain steeped in that tradition, the miniscule knowledge base of the rest of society stands out.

So Steiner identifies this transition, this forgetting. “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.” To his credit, he does pause to ask whether he’s overstating the historical spread of these literary texts. “Was it ever different?” Did everyone in the olden days really go round understanding all these references to Horace, or has literature always been the domain of a bunch of stuffy rich wankers? Has it just moved from castles and palaces into the ivory tower? The answer, Steiner suggests, is complicated. It’s probably fair to say, for instance, that people used to have “a personal, unforced intimacy with the names and shapes of the natural world, with flower and tree, with the measure of the seasons and the rising and setting of the stars.” He describes our “housed, metallic sensibilities” as disconnecting us from this knowledge, and quips “Do not, today, inquire of the reader next to you whether he can identify, from personal encounter, even a part of the flora, of the astronomy, which served Ovid and Shakespeare, Spenser and Goethe, as a current alphabet.”

However, at the same time, Steiner suggests that new literacies are appearing. He talks about the rise of popular music:

“Popular music(s) have their semantics, their theory of genres, their intricate play-offs of esoteric against canonic types. Folks and pop, ‘trad music’ and rock, count their several histories and corpus of legend. They show their relics. They number their old masters and rebels, their betrayers and high priests … in short, the vocabularies, the contextual behaviour-patterns of pop and rock, constitute a genuine lingua franca, a ‘universal dialect’ of youth.”

As my addition, fifty years down the line, I’d similarly suggest that we’ve developed common languages for movies and TV, and for video games. In Forager, which is a game I wrote about the other week, the item description for sand reads “It’s coarse and rough, and it gets everywhere.” That’s exactly what Steiner is talking about. That item description relies on a commonly understood web of allusion and reference. It requires its audience to know about Attack of the Clones, and to understand the cultural legacy of that line in particular. If you don’t have those connections, you won’t recognise that the item description is making a joke. It’ll go right over your head. I don’t know if we want to label this allusive web as pop culture, or nerd culture, or if we want to use some other term, but clearly there remains a thriving, meaningful way in which texts refer across and between each other in the modern day. It’s fair to argue that we’ve lost or significantly forgotten a web that had been maintained, in some form, throughout the last two thousand years. Shelley and Spenser and Shakespeare all shared a common language that I do think we’ve largely lost touch with. But something has grown up in its place.

One final thing, and then I’d better stop. There are still another twenty pages of this chapter that I haven’t even touched on – it’s worth a read, it’s a really interesting set of predictions. Anyway, at one point in his argument Steiner refers to the “catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education,” and on balance I’m still not sure what to make of that claim. I remember when I was an undergrad, one of our assignments was to memorize a Victorian poem and recite it in front of the class. I botched mine pretty badly. That said, I know for a fact that I can recite Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’, zero prep time required. So is memorization really in the toilet? Surely the answer has to depend on what we’re memorizing and why. It’s true that we don’t memorize huge swathes of poetry. That’s not something they teach us to do in school. But I’m curious about why people were memorizing that stuff in the first place. If you’re living in a time where this literary heritage is a vital part of the cultural fabric, it makes sense that you’d want to memorize it. That’s just part of becoming literate in your society. But as the common language of society has moved away from this web of classical allusion, is it possible that some teachers are trying to maintain the practice without a proper grasp of how it’s changed? That is, are they trying to force us to memorize Victorian poetry without realizing that a) it’s not a part of our web of allusions any more and b) that we’re instead memorizing a bunch of other, more relevant stuff on our own? Are they missing both the original reason for memorization and the ways in which it’s mutated and carried on?

Let’s put a pin in that question, and think further about the relationship between educators and the educated. Can you imagine a teacher trying to get their kids to memorize Smash Mouth for a class assignment? It seems redundant – the kids will have already seen Shrek. They’ll know it. The teacher doesn’t need to induct them into a culture they’re already familiar with. Part of what we’re touching on here is whether the ubiquitous nature of pop culture changes the dynamics of access and authority between teachers and their pupils. Maybe, historically, students needed a formal, governed introduction into the web of allusion. But maybe that’s not as necessary any more – or maybe it’s not necessary in the same way. We’re living in a time where students are on the cutting edge of the developing web of allusions. There’s a sense that teachers and parents are always late to the game, whether it’s Minecraft or Among Us (sus) or whatever other damn thing has become popular. Video games are really where I’m putting the weight of this argument – I can see a future in another fifty years where games have developed enough of a heritage that teachers might be able to reclaim that sense of authority. They’ll play a game and be like oh this is obviously referencing Halo, and all the kids will be like what the fuck is that. As the web of video game allusions becomes longer and more convoluted, it will require educated, experienced hands to trace it all back through its composite parts.

Ultimately, I wonder if the newness of the video game form, and more broadly the newness of our contemporary web of allusions, is what’s causing this hiccup in the teaching of literature. Steiner argues that we’re seeing a break with the past, a distinct severance from what we can now call the web of classical allusions. My experience in teaching and being taught literature is that the discipline is having a rough time. If Steiner’s analysis is correct, maybe that difficulty is in part due to the fact that literature professors are teaching texts that do not have the same cultural purchase that they once held. Maybe, over time, as we tease out our new media forms, we’ll re-establish steady centers of cultural purchase. And maybe then literature departments and their offspring will find a new, vital, powerful presence in society, not dissimilar to that which they have historically held. Or maybe they won’t. I’m not a prophet. At best I can hope to be wrong in a way that holds documentary interest. That’s a George Steiner reference, by the way. He’s pretty cool. Check him out.

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