My eye recently caught George Steiner’s On Difficulty and other essays on the shelf recently, and I have had it out to remind myself of some of his ideas. He is a wonderfully stimulating essayist and speaker but I have not picked up the Steiner at all readily, mainly because he is – in an irony he would both have appreciated and protested about – very “difficult”.
We often say that modern music, modern poetry, modern painting is “difficult”, and it’s not always easy to grasp what we mean. Often, we may mean no more than that they make us think, rather than taking us on an automatic, semi-anaesthetised journey. Nick Jenkins’ father famously objected to books which made him think, a precept from which his son, and his son’s creator, can have taken little comfort. Sometimes, we mean that they touch on complex questions which have no clear answers, and are ambiguous or incomplete – or that we do not like facing certain morally or judicially ambiguous challenges. Sometimes, we mean that we do not have the intellectual equipment to understand – that we are not clever enough, or more likely, that we do not speak the language well enough, or cannot understand all the author’s references – a common concern for the young reader, or for any modern reader, of books which demand a working knowledge of a certain (admittedly restricted) canon of western thought and literature, including most obviously the Bible, Shakespeare and the classical authors.
But some difficulty is temperamental: we find it difficult to accept that a poem or a painting operates abstractly, merely because we are used to them acting literally and descriptively. We do not complain that music or architecture or textile design or a piece of ceramic is abstract, that there is no narrative or no representation of the world. So why cannot a painting or a poem be like that too?
Steiner distinguishes several types of difficulty, some flowing from the world, some from the author, and some from the reader. I was particularly interested in his suggestion that difficulty may arise because the writer is forging a new language, or forcing words to mean things they have not meant before. I think this is frequent in modern authors, but if they are successful, it may become easier to later audiences. Contrariwise, some concepts which are easy to one generation may be hard for another: can we really understand the chivalric code of love, for example, or the exaggerated sense of personal honour of the insult and the duel?
Eliot says somewhere that in the modern age, all poetry must be difficult. This is clearly not true at one level - easy poetry can still be written – but I think he meant that poetry ought to be tackling the hardest, most difficult questions, and that (as he thought) language and culture were being debased and near collapse: so the challenge is to capture ever more demanding ideas with language the writer finds increasingly inadequate. He captured this, in his own writing, about his own writing, in East Coker:
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
This is a long way from Steiner. But I do recommend the essays, especially On Difficulty itself, The Distribution of Discourse, and After the Book? This last is particularly fascinating: written in 1972, it is worried not about the rise of digital media, as we would expect the same title to be now, but about a decline in the social and intellectual status of the book. But he is always realistic:
... it is worth stressing that the book has been a significant phenomenon only in certain areas and cultures, and during a relatively short span of history. Being bookmen, we tend to forget the extremely special locale and circumstances of our addiction.
Read Steiner: enjoy, be amazed, and wonder at his expertise and his insight. But don’t expect it to be easy!