rilke in ruins

George Steiner makes a good and disturbing point in “To Civilize Our Gentlemen”; it’s a point we (the “we” evolving over the years – artists together interrogating the ways art may work towards peace, work to create social change) have pushed since the first Arts in the One World gathering, and continue to stress through Soulographie rehearsals. Art isn’t a good in itself; it can be as dangerous as it is healing… He’s talking about literature but the same applies across the arts?


“The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse – a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to persona and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility; and let us not take the easy way out and say ‘the man who did these things in a concentration camp just said he was reading Rilke. He was not reading him well.’ That is an evasion. He may have been reading him very well indeed.”

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