Common Readers: A Streetcar Too Far?

The Sunday Times Culture section for January 6 ran several reviews which, taken together, expose, or raise, certain questions about the way in which exceptional talent is presented, and received, in contemporary Western society. The review of award-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer relates the bizarre spectacle of a nine-year-old genius turning to his cousin and saying "ask me a question in Latin and I'll answer you in Greek", yet later in life refusing Einstein's advice, and subjecting himself to a ruinous grilling at the hands of the McCarthyite AEC inquiry. Oppie, Sanskrit-reading, was bullied terribly as a child, because he was exceptional, and most people, by definition, cannot be; exceptions are often picked on.

John Carey's review is laudatory, as he ends by saying "no more absorbing biography will, I predict, come out this year". Oppenheimer is fascinating - I had never realised he was quite so wealthy, or quite so cold. Now we turn to the review of the new, odd-sounding paradoxically-titled George Steiner book, My Unwritten Books, with its chapter, "The Tongues of Eros" that details many (imagined?) sexual encounters with women. Steiner employs schoolboyish euphemisms like "taking the streetcar to Grinzing" to signify "respectful anal access".

Steiner, like the atomic scientist, is fascinated by language(s), but less so by science, and here we see what that gets him - short shrift, from reviewer Christopher Hart, who seems to have no time for high culture qua high culture (he approves of the sex). He writes: "although scornful of the obscurities of post-structuralism and deconstruction, Steiner's own writing is little better, suggesting all too vividly a world of comfortably tenured academics, talking among themselves, in a language which deliberately excludes the rest of us, and effectively saying nothing anyway." He also suggests that such "mandarin" language reveals that "Steiner may not actually want common readers". No doubt, not Hart, anyway.

What is a common reader? Who does Hart mean by "us"? Why would someone think another writer, by using complex ideas and the rich heritage of Europe, was being exclusive, or worse, "saying nothing". Behind this rather gross, even lazy series of claims lies an example of a common British response to Europe, politically and culturally, especially the French. British empiricism, and common sense, rubs up against foreign depths that, rather than offering new possibilities or legitimate claims on our attention, are merely "a congress of bats squeaking" - whereof we can't speak, as it were. Occam's razor, or Wittgenstein's saw aside, Steiner is clearly reaching for uncommon readers, ones who might be seduced by, or enter into the erotic, Barthesian play of, textuality.

I think about the idea of common readers often because poets are often accused of having neglected them, when, as I counter, it is the reader who has neglected the poets. Just as churches go more and more empty in England, so too does much good poetry hardly get visited, let alone revisited. Writing down to an "us" that is common will not bring readers back. This coarsened view of the arts is not the one endorsed for science, of course - we can excuse a physicist of genius for being arrogant and polyglot; but expect our bookmen and women to speak and write in Plain English.

But you don't get exceptional work by being ordinary, very often. Steiner's provocations, of taboo, and high style, explore that very border, between genius and brilliance, between what can, and cannot be approved, in a society that more and more has emptied itself of all but what is easy to consume.
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