George Steiner’s Night Words, 50 Years On

I wrote this essay almost two years ago, tried meekly to get it published, failed and moved it to a large dropbox folder called “abandoned”. It turns out the world wasn’t ready for/doesn’t want/definitely doesn’t need a Marxist reappraisal of a George Steiner essay about literary pornography from the mid-60s. Who’d have thought? I should say that it’s an unfortunate product of its time – in my life – in that it reflects an overly narrow, random range of reading. Since then, I’ve come embarrassingly late to writers like Rebecca Sullivan, Andrea Dworkin, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Griffin, Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak who have changed and enriched my thinking on sex, the body, and its representation. I’m not an academic, or even particularly rigorous-minded person, so my thoughts are still narrow, limited and all-too-rubbish. But a lot of these undigested ideas have kept coming back to me and, in often horrible ways, seemed relevant.

Last year, during the burkini ban in Nice and elsewhere, France’s then-PM Manuel Valls claimed that “Marianne [the leading figure in this Delacroix painting] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!” I couldn’t believe, grimly believable though it is, that the old equation of nakedness and freedom had empowered police officers to strip a woman, effectively at gun-point, in a public place. And that so many politicians and members of the public had openly supported it. Then, of course, there’s the lunatic fringe (or toupee) that has steadily moved to the centre of power in Washington, its depraved actions and utterances at every turn defended by the so-called “alt-right” under the strange banner of free speech. Now that so many of us have the equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press in our back-pockets (and, which is more revolutionary, the means to disseminate our words/ideas/emojis at a touch), it seems more important than ever to interrogate what free speech means. The freedom to say what exactly? And what responsibilities might that entail?

When I came across George Steiner’s ‘Night Words’ two years ago, I thought its attitude to pornography was absurd, prudish and reactionary (and, yeah, it pretty much is). I was going to write a short, jokey piece riffing on it. But then, the more I thought about it the more struck I was by its weird sincerity, its guileless commitment to the act of writing and to the moral responsibility inherent in the use of words. The other night I read through what I ended up writing and thought maybe it was worth sharing on this blog. It makes a lot of shallow digressions – the point about the real violence that often lies behind the epistemic violence of pornographic writing/imagery (the Marquis de Sade didn’t just write kinky literature – he was a rapist and murderer) needs further development. The tone can also get a bit… wayward – I was experimenting with a looser and more associative style. But I hope that it might encourage some of the innumerable people better informed than me on this and related subjects to get in touch and better inform me about stuff. It is 6,500 words, though. So I won’t take it personally if I don’t hear from you.

Reading George Steiner on sex it’s impossible not to imagine the words ‘he opined’ or ‘he harrumphed’ after every sentence. As in,

“The notion that one can double one’s ecstasy by engaging in coitus while being at the same time deftly sodomized is sheer nonsense,” he opined.

“There just aren’t that many orifices,” he harrumphed.

These pearls of wisdom are offered up in Steiner’s famous essay, ‘Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy’, published in the October 1965 issue of Encounter.

Given its timing, the reaction to Steiner’s purse-lipped screed against permissiveness was unsurprisingly hostile. Not content with dismissing pulp-fiction, Steiner takes aim at the whole ‘world of erotica’, from the trashiest mass-produced porno to Swinburne’s ballades and the ‘high pornography’ of Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy:

What distinguishes the ‘forbidden classic’ from under-the-counter delights on Frith Street, is, essentially a matter of semantics, of the level of vocabulary and rhetorical device used to provoke erection. It is not fundamental.

Steiner opines thus because, as always with him, there are fundamental distinctions to be made. Getting one’s rocks off to a ‘forbidden classic’ is no better than enjoying the titillations of Sweet Lash or The Silken Thighs because they differ only in degree: neither ‘adds anything new to the potential of human emotion; both add to the waste.’ Ending the paragraph on this note Steiner allows the reader to appreciate—in all its onanism—the waste implied.

Being curious, I looked up the two Mills and Boon-esque ‘delights’ Steiner refers to—Sweet Lash and The Silken Thighs—assuming they’d been singled out for a reason, but could only find links to websites specialising in eyelash extension and tights. Perhaps, though he claims that all erotic fantasies have an ‘unutterable monotony’, he wants to keep his own private. In Steiner’s fantasy world, a work of art should carry itself with dignity. When it stoops to the cupidinous—’hardening nipples’ and ‘softly opening thighs’—the result is masturbatory for author and reader alike. In such fiction, nothing new or ennobling is being passed on.

It’s too easy, in a sense, to mock this kind of self-seriousness, its way of addressing itself so completely—without any qualms—to other like-minded, serious men of culture. As time passes, Steiner seems less a monolithic figure from another age than a swotty character from a Mills and Boon novel. Just read up on his early years: educated at the universities of Chicago and Harvard, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, on the editorial staff of the Economist, member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton—and all by the age of 26! What would you expect him to think of pornography (or to say he thought of pornography)?

Maybe treating Steiner as a fictional character is the way forward. Imagine him not as the august figure he is, but as the protagonist of a racy new work of erotic fiction: as George “Danger” Steiner, the bespectacled young ‘Square’ whose conference paper goes awry when he finds himself drawn to a silken-thighed young academic in the back row; seeking her out over coffee and biscuits, he thrills her with his long publication record and, naturally, asks if she wants to see the galleys of his new book; they retire to an unused basement room where, uninhibited at last, he shows her Sweet Lash, a lacerating study of high-brow porno through the ages, and, removing his tweeds, turns to the chapter on sodomy; “There just aren’t that many orifices,” he begins…

Now I can return to ‘Night Words’, mind refreshed. All harrumphing aside, Steiner’s pronouncements make a sudden sense. When he talks about the vivid ‘motif of female onanism’ or the ‘fairly repetitive joys’ of fellatio and buggery (italicizing fellatio, of course, to emphasise its Latinity), how ‘sexual heat compresses and erodes our uses of language’, it’s clear what he’s doing, what he’s using language for: to seduce the reader.


This year is the 50th anniversary of ‘Night Words’. Obscured by Steiner’s variable reputation and often lost in a sea of polemics—before and since—about pornography and censorship, its historical importance needs to be made clear. Written after the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP, ‘Night Words’ attests to a shift in the study of the humanities. Following World War II, literature had struggled to regain what Steiner calls its civilizing purpose. There was a feeling—brought vividly to life in Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man—that though books may not have caused the Holocaust, if they were to be of value they’d need to mitigate against its recurrence.

In 1965, though, big discussions about the nature of man (mostly by men) were going out of fashion. Rather than turning toward old-style humanism—which many thought had been the problem in the first place—a raft of new social movements (anti-war, pro-civil rights, women’s lib and LGBT rights) looked instead to undermine the supposedly humanising basis of art and “high” culture. In 1964, Richard Hoggart, key player in the “Chatterley” trial, opened the first Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham and began a debate about whether mass culture might not be deserving of serious study. This would rumble on into the so-called ‘canon wars’ of the 1980s, waged over the opening up of literature syllabi to include non-western writers. In France, the Tel Quel group—made up of Derrida, Foucault and others—were developing a more theoretical approach to the arts, treating books less as instruments of moral virtue—with intentional meanings—than as ‘texts’ whose coded, contradictory signals had to be deconstructed.

In choosing ‘Night Words’ as his title, Steiner is suggesting not just that the words under discussion are meant for the night but that he himself is addressing us as from the dark of night, speaking by oil lamp perhaps, his audience peeling off one by one to listen to the new Grateful Dead LP or to flick through La Pensée Sauvage. In spite of that, I want to argue that it’s still worth casting a light on Steiner—now more than ever—to see what light he casts on us.


As is probably obvious, Steiner is no faddish Yoloer; he’s of the old (old) guard, a European intellectual for whom opining comes naturally. And art, for him, is not just important in the way it usually is for those who love it, but for the very survival of the species. Even in the case of porn, there’s nothing less at stake than the ‘private life of feeling.’ Reading him from the cynical perspective of late capitalism, this ability to take erotic writing so seriously is difficult to grasp. Nowadays, I imagine, most parents would be happy to see their kid pick up a copy of The Silken Thighs if just for the fact it meant they were reading rather than scrolling through unsupervisable reams of graphic online material. Steiner must be choking on his mousepad.

In the 19th century, indecent books were catalogued under the euphemistic heading of Facetiae, which is where we get the word facetious from. According to Steiner, it’s our facetious attitude to Facetiae, our inability to get serious about porn, that is a big part of the problem. Erotica leads to ‘diminishing reserves of feeling and imaginative response in our society’ and no euphemistic gloss can conceal this. Look at William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, he says, ‘illiterate and self-centred to its heart of pulp.’ A novel can have a heart, can be self-centred—this kind of unveiled moral criticism is alien to our age. Now look at Tolstoy, whose work ‘is not a primer for children or the retarded’:

Tolstoy is infinitely freer, infinitely more exciting than the new eroticists, when he arrests his narrative at the door of the Karenins’ bedroom, when he merely initiates, through the simile of a dying flame, of ash cooling in the grate, a perception of sexual defeat which each of us can re-live or detail for himself.

That’s right: more exciting. It is a mark of Steiner’s higher responsiveness that, like a orthodox monk trained on a daily regimen of abstinence and Russian literature, he can be turned on by Tolstoy and not concede Naked Lunch to be more exciting in any respect than Anna Karenina.

Steiner’s measure of freedom is humanity, and Tolstoy is ‘infinitely freer’ because he is more humane. William Burroughs, on the other hand, is governed by the totalitarian dictates of cliché, by the ‘hollow brutality’ of ‘four-letter words’. Steiner refrains from specificity here, leaving his full meaning, like Tolstoy, to our imagination. When he says ‘four-letter words’—sorry to be crude, George—is he referring to fuck, cunt, cock, dick, shit, suck, ball[s]? What about that most hollow and brutal of four-letter words, love?

This much is clear: Steiner doesn’t watch a lot of TV. If he were to glance at any period drama of the last fifty years, he might have to revise his views on the sublimity of cutting from a closing bedroom door to a ‘dying flame’ or ‘ash cooling in a grate’. This is the go-to transition in an art form he’d probably regard as shlockily ‘middle-brow’: the period drama. It’s these, however, that have come to shape our reading of the Greats, as filtered through the buttoned-up, brooding lens of Colin Firth bestriding his estate, venting his eros in clipped RP. I can’t imagine Steiner thinks this is doing much to extend our ‘reserves of feeling and imagination’, to open us up to great literature and to ourselves.

Despite his pouring scorn on people like Richard Hoggart and the ‘semi-literate mass audience which consumer democracy has summoned into the marketplace’, Steiner’s views are most apparent in the scores of sanitized TV and film adaptations that crowd the marketplace. Burroughs, on the other hand, a writer supposedly called into existence by the egalitarian spirit of ‘consumer democracy’, remains largely unknown to the ‘semi-literate’ masses.


Steiner takes an already ballsy argument to a new level when he discusses how some of the Greats dealt with their characters, how Tolstoy and Henry James would ‘tread warily around their creations’, treating them as real, autonomous beings, in contrast to

The novels being produced under the new code of total statement [which] shout at their personages: strip, fornicate, perform this or that act of sexual perversion. So did the S.S. guards at rows of living men and women.

‘The total attitudes are not,’ Steiner opines, ‘entirely distinct.’ To clarify: his argument is that the ‘total freedom’ afforded to writers of erotic fiction and the ‘total freedom’ of sadistic SS guards are ‘not… entirely distinct’; or, as he warily rephrases it, ‘their historical proximity may not be coincidence’. Why? Because both exercise their freedom ‘at the expense of someone else’s humanity, of someone else’s most precious right—the right to a private life of feeling.’

Steiner has worked himself to such a pitch of rhetorical frenzy he can attribute—without qualms or qualifications—a ‘private life’ to a fictional character and hold it to be as precious as that of a living human; he can have no trouble maintaining that the perversions inflicted on made-up characters are not ‘entirely distinct’ from those inflicted on the men, women and children who were tortured and killed in concentration camps during the war. As I said, this is ballsy stuff.

Friend reader, putting Steiner aside for a moment, it’s worth recalling what happened one winter’s night during the reign of Louis XIV, when, after months of depravity, a particular libertine gave himself—while being sodomised—to fuck a turkey whose head had been placed between the legs of a woman so that it would appear from a distance as though he were fucking her, and how, at the moment of ejaculation, this girl took out a knife and slit the turkey’s throat. Nothing, as Steiner says, is ‘entirely distinct’ or coincidental, so should the Marquis de Sade’s four libertines be forced to admit the role of their turkey-fucking antics in the Holocaust as well?

The underlying issue with Steiner’s form of old-style humanism is, and has always been, a failure to establish which humans are being talked about. The great literary scholar P.N. Furbank once observed that the most common fault of humanism is to lapse into a Comtist ‘religion of yourself’, using the plural (‘we’, ‘us’) when the singular would be more appropriate. In the case of Steiner, it means founding a religion on the cult of the Western, Schoenberg-loving, academically well-endowed belle-lettrist himself.

Furbank thought there was another, better kind of humanism, though, which was encapsulated by D.H. Lawrence and his belief that ‘the ultimate passion of every man is to be within himself the whole of mankind’. This is what drives Lawrence’s fiction—a desire not simply to project his own passions onto another D.H. but to fully inhabit the other within himself. The transmission of bodily fluids, as for many other ‘new eroticists’, is only one part of the erotic equation.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, finally published unexpurgated by Penguin in 1960, Lawrence describes Hilda and Constance’s precocious attitude toward sex: well aware of its endless glorification by poets, ‘mostly men’, they think that if they can maintain their ‘inner freedom’, why not get from it what they can? For them, sex is not some holy sacrament—sorry again, George—but the denouement to a conversation: ‘a final spasm of self-assertion, like the last word, exciting, and very like the row of asterisks that can be put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme.’

* * *

In the first part of The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels tear into capitalism for stripping the ‘halo’ from formerly sanctified professions, turning physicians, poets and priests into ‘paid wage labourers’:

The bourgeoisie has torn apart the many feudal ties that bound men to their “natural superiors,” and left no other bond between man and man than naked interest, than callous cash payment… The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and turned the family relation into a pure money relation… In place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has put open, shameless, direct, naked exploitation.

Ripping the clothing off of our relationships, our jobs, our sense of self, the bourgeoisie have left us naked to one another and to ourselves, to be nakedly exploited and to nakedly exploit others.

The political philosopher Marshall Berman puts this in the context of earlier ‘metaphors of nakedness as truth and stripping as self-discovery’. Baron de Montesquieu, two hundred and fifty years before his time, attacked the veils worn by Persian women in Paris as being contrary to the principle of ‘liberty and equality’. For him, everything should be visible, audible, that the heart might show itself as clearly as the face. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, likewise, had no time for the ‘uniform and deceptive veil of politeness’, harbouring fantasies of naked, wrestling Athenians. This was the attitude that Sade took to its logical extreme—or to multiple logical extremes—in his erotic fiction. A reverse-image of Steiner’s argument, Montesquieu and Rousseau believed that the real measure of humanity was freedom and that freedom in itself made people better. Liberty, as in Eugène Delacroix’s topless vision, was best expressed by the naked body.

But Steiner had an early defender in Edmund Burke, who, after the French Revolution, set himself against the tyranny of ‘compulsory freedom’ (similar in kind to Steiner’s ‘total freedom’):

All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle… are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

This passage should be ringing Marxist bells. Ignoring their obvious differences, both share a visceral feeling for the horrors of the ‘new conquering empire of light and reason’, an empire that wants to tear off the ‘decent drapery of life’, burning the ‘wardrobe of a moral imagination’. Burke draws out the illiberality, the tyranny, of the stripped body. His metaphor of dissolving would also be echoed in Marx’s image of “all that is solid melt[ing] into air”; both are processes whereby social bonds not resting on ‘naked interest’ are broken down, made to seem ‘ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated’. But as much as Burke and Marx attacked the present, they refused to turn back—as Rousseau did—to an idyllic past, to a time when nakedness was pure. If such a state existed, it was now irreversibly dissolved or melted. To idealize the past would be to ignore its terrible inequalities, especially for women, to carry them over to the present, and Marx, it should be remembered, wanted to ‘put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic conditions’. The naked body, in Marx’s time, was degraded by the social and economic conditions it inhabited, with nakedness an indicator of oppression, not freedom.

Those French philosophes, though, would shape much of the pseudo-religious, emancipatory writing on sex that so piqued Steiner two hundred years later. It might be useful to bring in another, more recent figure at this point: the Rousseauian belief in embracing the body in order to reject tyranny slots neatly into Michel Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis’. Far from being ‘rigorously subjugated’, Foucault argued that sex and sexuality were widely discussed from the 17th century onwards. The narrative of subjugation and repression was a way of shaping the past so as to suit the needs of the present. We should be suspicious, he says, of a society that loudly castigates its hypocrisy, that ‘speaks verbosely of its own silence’. After all, a ‘sermon’ about repression—attacking those who fall out of line—can just as easily become another orthodoxy, legitimating new forms of repression. Aldous Huxley brings this brutally to life in Brave New World: at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, we visit a classroom of eighty cots; its young students have just spent forty minutes having ‘Elementary Sex’ before switching over to ‘Elementary Class Consciousness’, where they will learn why it’s only right that Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gammas wear different clothes, vary in intelligence and occupy different rungs in the social ladder. In Huxley’s vision, as in Foucault’s, freedom quickly turns into just another, more pernicious form of oppression.

I’m tracing an odd family tree for ‘Night Words’—Burke, Marx, Huxley, Foucault—but when Steiner lampoons the high pornographer Maurice Girodias the resemblances are clear. Girodias, inheriting his father’s press and renaming it the Olympia, specialized in publishing erotic fiction after the Second World War—stuff he could just about get away with in Paris (provided he didn’t publish anything in French) but not at all in London. Some of those who wrote for Girodias included Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, and Henry Miller. Girodias uses the prestige of these names to play up the historical significance of the press and to deliver a sermon on the virtues of permissiveness:

Moral censorship was an inheritance from the past, deriving from centuries of domination by the Christian clergy. Now that it is practically over, we may expect literature to be transformed by the advent of freedom. Not freedom in its negative aspects, but as the means of exploring all the positive aspects of the human mind, which are all more or less related to, or generated by, sex.

This is just what Foucault would later criticise and what Steiner finds ‘almost unbelievably silly.’ The idea of ‘domination by the Christian clergy’ is manipulated to give Girodias’s press a sense of pre-ordained purpose. But can erotica really hope to overturn centuries of moral censorship? Are all the positive aspects of the human mind related to, or generated by, sex? Sex is great, sure, but so are burritos, and I wouldn’t reduce everything that’s positive about the human mind to burritos (Girodias may never even have tried a burrito).

During the 1960s, despite Huxley’s warnings, it became fashionable to see the abolition of censorship as heralding a new era of pleasure, an open attitude to sex offering a ready-made solution to all manner of social ills. But it’s clear the sexual revolution failed in key respects to redress gender inequalities at home and in the workplace, often normalising new forms of oppression; mass-produced pornography brought the scantily clad female body triumphantly into the sphere of commodified exchange. What’s flawed in this debate, though—what should be dissolved—is the tired opposition between repression and permissiveness. Understanding pleasure, understanding others, should always be something other than decrying repression.

* * *

Steiner makes clear he isn’t a fan of censorship. He thinks it’s ‘stupid and repugnant’ for two reasons: first, there’s no objective criteria for judging what is and isn’t suitable for consumption—is your judgment sounder than mine?—and, second, history shows that censorship is rarely effective at preventing access to banned material in the long run. But this isn’t the debate he wants to have. Steiner is trying move away from the dialectic of repression and permissiveness, toward a greater understanding of the effects of ‘depravity’ on the mind and on language—it should be obvious by now that, in his Whorfian thinking, how we interact with the world and how we talk about it are much the same.

Steiner connects the commodification of sex to the ‘conditions of an urban mass-technocracy’ that makes our ‘economic and political choices’ ever more uniform, ever more susceptible to ‘the new electronic media of communication and persuasion’. This reads as the usual elitism of the Kulturkritik, averse to anything that smacks of mass culture or modernity, but lurking beneath it is also the more recent, radical influence of Marshall McLuhan, whose essay-cum-cautionary tale ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ was published in 1964. McLuhan thought that if modern man was unable, like Narcissus, to tell apart his true self from his reflection, he would become enraptured by an ‘extension of himself’; in more jargon-heavy terms, he would become the ‘servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image’. McLuhan, like Pliny, mistakenly sees the name Narcissus as deriving from narcosis and suggests technology is a kind of narcotic that numbs us to the world, causing us to ‘self-amputate’, offshoring parts of ourselves to foreign gadgets. This fearful techno-determinism is still apparent when we talk about being unable to tear ourselves from our phones, a metaphor which implicitly treat gadgets as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, which make who we are and how we interact with the world one and the same.

Steiner is clearly drawing from McLuhan when he argues that, just as limbs atrophy through lack of use, the power to feel might, through lack of exercise, ‘wither in society’. Hovering behind this image is McLuhan’s prosthetic dystopia and contemporary fears over the effects of IVF and ET (in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer) on “natural” procreation and conjugal relationships. Sex, by this view, is the last, embattled outpost of the ‘private life of feeling’ and if we cede it to the ‘total frankness’ of erotic writing then ‘totalitarian politics’ is all but inevitable. To reiterate, Steiner’s argument is that if our literature becomes more monotonous, recasting our private lives in fifty shades of grey, so our language will too, and eventually our public institutions; soon, there will arise the ‘need for nervous stimuli of an unprecedented brutality and technical authority’. The monotony, the numbness, of our inner and outer lives will have both brought about and stopped us from responding to the brutality of fascism.

Let’s give this argument its due: though we’re more likely these days to think before we buy, eat or wear something, we’re less prone to reflect on what we consume culturally. To express a strong opinion about culture—to think ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is better than Tintin—is to court elitism; to think that culture might affect how we engage with the world—to say that watching Jersey Shore makes you a worse person—is to risk sounding like a weirdo. Now, though we might ‘argue’ and occasionally ‘disagree’, we would never want to be seen as opining and harrumphing in the style of Steiner—not in public at least. The West likes to see itself as inclusive, pluralist, but as Theodor Adorno warned, the bourgeoisie is ‘tolerant’ for a reason: ‘His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be.’ Steiner, who cares deeply about what people might be, is given to wildly intolerant pronouncements. When we masturbate, he says, the actions of the mind ‘are not a dance; they are a treadmill.’ When our literature reflects this—becoming masturbatory—it stops dancing and starts circling the gyre; our humanity follows soon after.

Is this a mad line of thinking? Well, at the same time as Steiner was writing, thousands of Indonesian ‘communists’ were being herded into the backs of trucks and executed en masse, their bodies dumped in open graves or tossed into rivers. This received minimal coverage in mainstream Western media, being either downplayed or distorted to suit an anti-communist agenda—made, in other words, into a good thing. I mean, it must have been a good thing since General Suharto, who led the coup, was supported by the United States. Noam Chomsky quotes George Orwell’s observation, from an unpublished introduction to Animal Farm, that ‘in free societies, unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban.’ You wouldn’t usually associate Chomsky with Steiner, but both are alive to the ways in which ‘free’ societies look to manufacture consent, either by ‘spinning’ news or blocking out alternative narratives. In such a way, massacres are justified. In his film The Act of Killing, documentary-maker Joshua Oppenheimer shows how those involved in the 1965 coup—torturers and mass murderers—used Hollywood films (mainly Westerns and gangster movies) to assuage their guilt, to distance themselves from the atrocities they committed.

More recently, in ‘A Bunch of Nobodies’, Mark Greif unequivocally links the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the nakedly exploitative culture of twenty-first century America:

Because of the way we live, the American mind fills up with the sexual use of other people. Even on the subway and in the street, porn-i-color daydreams issue through our mental viewfinder… You can escape our bombing maybe, but you can’t escape our fun.

Would those soldiers in Abu Ghraib have been as likely to sexually degrade their prisoners if our culture wasn’t the way it is—by which I mean, awash with degraded images of naked bodies, not just on our top shelves but on every other TV channel and billboard? How we have fun, which includes what we read, watch or otherwise consume, affects who we are. We might be appalled at a photograph of a hooded man forced to masturbate for the camera, or of a soldier smiling as he poses next to a dead body, while in another tab, minutes later, think nothing of indulging our ‘porn-i-color daydreams’. Perhaps Steiner’s prophecy has come true and those lurid on-screen titillations are diminishing our ‘reserves of feeling’ or, worse than that, desensitizing us to new forms of brutality. As the editors of n+1 put it: ‘We have freed masturbation from the stigma of the centuries. But who will free us from masturbation?’


I want you to imagine an evening with George. First, he’ll turn off the main lights, making sure to leave on a tasteful bedside lamp. Then he’ll let you know, in passing, that sex is never just sex—not with him—but a form of total communication which is also communion. It’s a spiritual transaction, existing outside of the marketplace. In this bedroom, at least, your halo is still intact. Then, offering you a glass of Chateau Latour—a holy sacrament—he’ll run his hazel-coloured eyes up and down your body before laying one big, slender hand on yours and intoning (repeat after me):

This physical communion, this nightplace, represents one of the last citadels of privacy. In our imperfect striving and repeated failure, the words, the gestures, the mental images which set the blood to racing, we find ourselves. In this dark and wonder ever-renewed, both the rumblings and the light must be our own.

Is your blood racing yet? Now let’s compare George’s ideal of sex with that explored in Nicholson Baker’s Vox (1992), a recent classic of ‘high pornography’ and a favourite of Bill Clinton’s. In Vox, a man called ‘Jim’ rings up a sex chat line and has a conversation with a woman called ‘Abby’ that lasts for the entire duration of the book. The novel features sex aplenty, then, but it’s all mediated, as per the conceit, through Jim and Abby’s telling of it. Sex is not so much an act of communion or transformation as of simultaneous masturbation. Jim recounts his greatest sexual experience as being the time he sat alongside a work colleague beneath a plaid blanket and she masturbated to Pleasure So Deep, a badly dubbed European X-vid. The fact it’s dubbed is a part of the erotic experience, the distance between real pleasure and its consumption being the new site of desire. Abby says she can’t have sex because of a yeast infection so makes use of a technological substitute—her showerhead—while fantasising about public exposure. Her ‘private citadel’, to use Steiner’s term, has been so infiltrated she can no longer imagine herself getting aroused in the bedroom. Her only option is to break down the barriers between public and private space, to bare herself in broad daylight.

Not to Steiner’s taste, you might think, but Baker is one of the finest and most humane purveyors of erotica. ‘Night Words’ begins with a question: ‘Is there any science-fiction pornography?’ Steiner briefly mentions a (brilliant-sounding) novel where ‘the terrestrial hero and explorer indulges in mutual masturbation with a bizarre, interplanetary creature.’ There’s ‘no real novelty’ in this, he says, flicking the ash from his mental cigarette, because it wouldn’t matter if the sea-monster were replaced with sea-weed, accordions, meteorites or lunar pumice; none extends ‘the range of our sexual being.’ In short, ‘there just aren’t that many orifices.’

The crucial distinction, for Steiner, isn’t between different ways of having sex—though he’s oddly bored by this line of enquiry—but with how it’s conceived. In this, Baker is a master. Though erotic in subject matter, Vox isn’t about people engaging with each other’s bodies but talking on the phone—or sat side by side—and ‘topping’ themselves off. This, we could say, is science-fiction pornography. It accords with Susan Sontag’s definition of science-fiction and porn, at least, as those two branches of literature that aim ‘at disorientation, at psychic dislocation.’ It’s also Steiner’s worst nightmare come true. Having stolen our intimacy and sold it back to us ‘prepackaged’—in the form of X-vids like Pleasure So Deep or Vox itself—the ‘new pornographers’ have reduced us to monads, made our intercourse into the mutual (but separate) consumption of mass-produced images of dead-eyed strangers performing sexual acts on one another in a draughty, ill-lit studio somewhere in… —it’s not exactly clear where, but in sci-fi as in porn the specifics aren’t so important.


Friend reader, it might still be unclear why I’ve dusted off this old essay, on its 50th anniversary, only to subject it to such perverse and occasionally brutal treatment. To a generation of channel surfers and cultural omnivores, Steiner might seem—for all his “polymathic” status—an irrelevance. And, let’s state the obvious, his views on pornography are irrelevant. So too is his desire to ring-fence a staid form of nineteenth-century realism from the incursions of “minor” genres like sci-fi, fantasy and erotica. Rather than protecting our humanity, such exclusions would only diminish our reserves of feeling, our moral imagination.

But as I recoil at Steiner, another part of me is drawn to him—this must be how desire works and nothing less than George (seductress that he is) would expect. ‘Night Words’ is best read not as a reaction against permissiveness or pornography per se but as a powerful critique of the nihilism corroding the study of humanities in the 1960s, at a time when postmodern artists and academics were arguing that our freedom was illusory, our morals self-serving and our culture a hall of mirrors. The ‘new pornographers’ are a sexy smokescreen for an altogether different argument.

The differences between Foucault and Steiner demonstrate this. Though both pointed out flaws in the ‘repressive hypothesis’, they couldn’t have disagreed more on its significance. In 1965, Foucault was putting the finishing touches to Les Mots et Les Choses (published in French in 1966; translated in 1970 as The Order of Things), in which he famously announced the ‘death of man’. His stated aim was to dethrone ‘the subject as pseudo-sovereign’, to expose and de-subjectify the ‘desire for power’. In some ways this follows on from the work of early modernists like Baudelaire who wanted to épouser la foule: to ‘become one with the crowd’—épouser can also mean ‘to embrace’, ‘to marry’ and, appropriately, ‘to fuck’. Steiner, unlike Baudelaire and Foucault, wants the artist-intellectual to stand apart from the crowd, not to immerse himself in society but to maintain a constant vigil over it. So Steiner observes, from a distance, the ‘splintered, harried elements of our consciousness’, which, he might have added, reflect a society ‘splintered’ by war and ‘harried’ by the dislocations of capital. He wants us to take those ‘splintered’ pieces and, if not to put them back together, at least give them a renewed sense of dignity.

In another essay, ‘To Civilize our Gentlemen’, Steiner says that teaching literature is an ‘extraordinarily complex and dangerous business’ (luckily, George’s middle-name is Danger): scientists may have the capacity to develop machines or chemicals of mass destruction, but science is ultimately a ‘neutral’ activity, even ‘trivial’, because it can’t explain what it creates—that’s the job of the humanities. It should be clear why Steiner thinks a ‘neutral humanism is either a pedantic artifice or prologue to the inhuman’; to take up a ‘neutral’ stance is to abnegate responsibility. Foucault’s anti-humanism is thus unthinkably irresponsible for him. Steiner’s argument no doubt confers an unhealthy degree of importance on the humanities, but what we consume—the art we watch, listen to, read—and the relationships we form are always, to some extent, mutually constitutive. Art reflects the society from which it emerges. To know a people, look at its art.

Steiner ends ‘Night Words’ with this call to arms:

My true quarrel with the Olympia Reader and the genre it embodies is not that so much of the stuff should be boring and abjectly written. It is that these books leave a man less free, less himself, than they found him; that they leave language poorer, less endowed with a capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement. It is not a new freedom that they bring, but a new servitude. In the name of human privacy, enough.

We might—and obviously should—dispute Steiner’s claim that all erotic fiction is ‘boring and abjectly written’, and that any explicit description of sex leaves us and the language ‘poorer’, but we’d be unwise to dismiss George out of hand.

As he argues elsewhere, literature has always acted as ‘a school to the imagination, an exercise in making one’s awareness more exact, more humane’; it demands ‘not obeisance but live echo’. Art doesn’t hold a mirror up to nature; it holds a mirror up to our nature. Lest we become enraptured, like Narcissus, by the image we find there, we should remember that we are its ‘live echo’ and, as such, still shape the image we see in the mirror. Steiner’s fears, hysterically laid out, come down to this: that we’ll more than buy into our reflection; we’ll become the worst possible image of ourselves—less free, less human and less able to communicate, our language shorn of its ‘capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement’. So numbed to the world, we won’t achieve that ‘final spasm of self-assertion’ that is the mark of good conversation, good sex and good writing. When inhumanity rears its hooded head, we won’t know how to respond.

This is a threat that can’t be whisked away by the magic of democracy or whatever increasingly sophisticated gadgetry Silicon Valley is dreaming up. On August 14, 1860, Marx wrote in a letter: ‘in modern times almost the first act in a people’s struggle for freedom or independence seems, by some monstrous fatality, to consist in contracting a new servitude.’ Marx, marooned in London, was becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of revolutionary action across the continent. Attempts at agitation on the part of the workers’ movement were being waylaid by small concessions to which they were forced to accede for fear of losing their jobs. As Steiner suggests, obtaining new freedoms can often stop us from challenging—even seeing—our real servitude. Or, as he warns earlier in ‘Night Words’, sounding a lot like Marx, we must guard against giving our consent, without realising, to a culture in which ‘our dreams are marketed wholesale.’ In a culture that lives and dies by the market—where capital sets the terms of what’s possible—even our dreams have an exchange-value.

George Steiner, the bespectacled Square, the arch-elitist, thinks there is a kind of escape that won’t lead to further enslavement—something Foucault could never have dreamt of. It consists in being more sincere, honest and open (albeit behind closed doors). If we can, let’s separate Steiner’s ideals from the faulty machinery of his argument, the narrow-mindedness of his opinions. Let’s put his best self forward: he wants literature to be a momentary stay against confusion—we can all appreciate that—and to do more than just reflect what it sees, or what sells; to make us more humane, more exact, more ourselves. For all that that may sound vague and utopian, it’s surely something to aspire to. Sex or no sex—but avoid nothing for its own sake—he wants us to love truly, which means travelling beyond oneself, returning changed. In our imperfect striving and repeated failure, the words, the gestures, the mental images which set the blood to racing, we find ourselves.

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