Grammars of Nihilism

George Steiner is one of those cultural critics I have heard more about than actually read. This recent profile cum interview in the Globe and Mail reminds me to investigate his work in more depth. Mostly he criticizes the decline of contemporary culture and the rejection of history,

To wit, millions can read computer manuals, but very, very few people today have either the wish or the will to read The Iliad.

Every generation loses a little bit of the past, as new poems and novels jostle for attention. But Steiner (like Baudrillard, Sontag and Paglia) believes that the catastrophic forgetfulness that has overtaken the West since the Second World War is a sign that the print culture that sustained us for six centuries is actually dying.

These criticisms are nothing new. But what I did find interesting was the next move Steiner made from an end to high culture to the disappearence of transcendent motivations for creativity.

He has convinced himself that nihilism is not inevitable, if only because it would be tedious in a way we are not wired to tolerate. Something will take the place of the culture that is passing away. “I won’t live to see what it will be, but it might be splendid.”

What it will not be, he is certain, is transcendent. Many thinkers have observed that literal belief in God, or any reality behind the reality we see, is rapidly disappearing wherever modern values and technology penetrate. Steiner is one of the first seriously to ask what that may do to the human imagination.

He casts the net wide. It’s not only that almost everything of beauty in our culture was made by people who believed in and hoped for life after death. It’s also that our great political and social thinkers believed likewise. For Steiner, in his tongue-in-cheek mode, idealistic Marxism is nothing more than a “heresy” of Judaism.

“Certain kinds of Western creation are underwritten by the possible existence of God,” he says. “When that question becomes embarrassing exhibitionism among educated people, as it has, then there are orders of [artistic] work that we will not be getting again in the West.”

I wrote about money being an extrinsic motivation for creativity a few days ago and argued that intrinsic motivation is a necessary part of creativity. But is this conclusion an artifact of our historical perspective, living in a secular age after the so-called death of God. I think our contemporary relation to religion is neither a simple nihilism or a return to fundamentalism, but the discourse about creativity in the contemporary world is certainly secular. Few, if any, people are exhorting us to create for the glory of God or for a reward in heaven. I’m sure many people do create for these reasons. What I’m saying is that the transcendent reason is rarely described or analyzed in contemporary studies of how creativity works.

I personally believe creativity can be secular. What is interesting is to question why we, like Steiner, admire the divinely inspired work of the past so much? What quality gives these works so much power? Can this quality be replaced by a secular motive? Finally what does the success of an extrinsic motive of the past - glory for god - have to say about extrinsic motives in general today?