The Age of Sneers and Shrugs

George Steiner concludes his coruscating (if sometimes also dazzling, in both senses of the word) Lessons of the Masters with this lapidary and disturbing description of our time. Does it seem accurate to you? And what about the last question?


I would entitle our present age as that of irreverence. The causes of this fundamental transformation are those of political revolution, of social upheaval (Ortega’s notorious “revolt of the masses”), of the scepticism obligatory in the sciences. Admiration, let alone reverence, have grown outmoded. We are addicts of envy, of denigration, of downward levelling. Our idols must exhibit clay heads. Where incense rises, it does so towards athletes, pop stars, the money-mad, or the kings of crime. Celebrity, as it saturates our media existence, is the contrary to fama. The wearing, millionfold, of the football god’s jersey number or of the crooner’s hairdo is the contrary to discipleship. Correspondingly, the notion of the sage verges on the risible. Consciousness is populist and egalitarian, or pretends to be. Any manifest turning towards an elite, towards that aristocracy of the intellect self-evident to Max Weber, is close to being proscribed by the democratization of a mass-consumption system…. The exercise of reverence is reverting to its far origins in the religious and ritual sphere. Throughout mundane, secular relations the prevailing note, often bracingly American, is that of challenging impertinence. “Monuments of unchanging intellect,” perhaps even our brains, are covered with graffiti. At whose entrance do students rise?

**** Well, at U2’s and Stephen Colbert’s and perhaps Barack Obama’s, I suppose. But who else’s?