Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

The Problem with Steiner

La Dolce Vita, the deepest film ever made about shallowness

I go to see the man who calls himself Arcangelo Riffis and, again, we discuss the problem of Steiner, Steiner who of late has made himself something of a presence in our lives. A great fictional character can seem to be, at times, more real than actual people. If one really is foolish enough to say what comprises great literature, and my friend both is and does, then surely one of its aspects is that its characters are endlessly discussable. And the more discussable, the greater their presence. As for Steiner, our Steiner, it’s as if he has wandered from the set of La Dolce Vita into the darkened room where, every Sunday afternoon, from precisely one to three-thirty, Arcangelo Riffis and I shift in our unease. My friend was in Rome in 1959 when the film was being made and is possessive of it to the degree there are things in it that apparently only he sees. The poet Iris Tree, for example, is meant to be the poet H.D., whereas, I inform him, Iris Tree is most formidably Iris Tree. This is the man, I remind myself, who on occasion hears a nightingale outside his window, in London, where there have been none for decades, not even in Berkeley Square. We fight over that bird until we go blue in the face. I am at a disadvantage, though, as I’m never there at the hour when “it” comes. Steiner sits in the corner, says nothing at all, every hair on his head neatly in place. What he would do, of course, is listen to a recording of that bird, anything other than to have to hear it in the world outside. So hungry is he for perfection that even the part of him that disavows Nature is full of thistles. Small wonder, then, he tucks himself away, safely inside the company of ingénues. Also, there is something in the dark that frightens him. “Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs upon me,” he says in the film. “Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a façade hiding the face of hell. I think, ‘What is in store for my children tomorrow?’ ‘The world will be wonderful,’ they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one phone call can announce the end of everything? We need to be in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.” I am pulled towards something else, the chapter where, in Crime and Punishment, Svidrigaïlov says, “We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?” One of the most terrible passages in film coils together, in my brain, with one of the most terrible in literature, as would two snakes in a ghastly act of love. At least Svidrigaïlov takes only his own life; Steiner takes those of his children as well.

There are things in this, the deepest film ever made about shallowness, that only I see, so there are the inevitable clashes. I say Steiner is evil because of what he does. Arcangelo Riffis disagrees. Again, as I have done so many times before, I accuse him of confining his idea of evil to literature. So now he argues from his side, while I take notes. “The case of Steiner,” he says, “has resolved for me a theological question about despair being a mortal sin. I thought to myself, ‘How can that be, despair?’ The murder of his children is an act of ultimate despair, which therefore makes it a mortal sin. When Steiner takes Marcello into the children’s room, where they are sleeping, and says, ‘Sometimes at night . . .’ you notice a flicker of horror in his eyes. Steiner, though, is a good and kindly man, the most thoroughly sympathetic character in the film. When one first sees him in the church, playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, you immediately warm to him, to that quality he has that Italians call gentilezza. You know Marcello only for the first time in Steiner’s company, as a basically good and decent man. It is only when Steiner is about that you get a completely different picture of Marcello. With Steiner’s suicide, Marcello is ruined. When the paparazzi follow Steiner’s wife, who has not yet heard the terrible news, Marcello looks on in a state of automatic pilot. Steiner was his one hold to decency; the world of the paparazzi and Steiner are total opposites. So he kills not only himself and his own children, he destroys Marcello too. An evil man committing such a deed, there would be nothing like the horror as compared to when a man like Steiner does it. Steiner is detached from Nature, he knows this, but at the same time he warns Marcello against following a similar path. What destroys him is his blind love for his children, the horror he feels when he sees the world they will grow up into. This is how he loses his reverence for life. Once that goes, anything can happen. You do not kill what you revere. He does not revere sufficiently—rather, he lets his horror and his panic cloud and overcome his natural reverence.”

The nightingale does, I decide, sing outside his window at times.

Steiner has been doing the rounds of late, which, I suppose, is a testament to his ability not to decompose. He figures, if just a touch inaccurately, in Norm Sibum’s new book, Girls and Handsome Dogs. In the poems that comprise the section “Aginthorpe on the Divan,” whose poetic construction would seem to owe something to Fellini, particularly in the author’s ability to orchestrate and move about whole groups of people from scene to scene, Steiner is a brief but troubling presence.

Here I may imagine the Bach-playing 
   Saying, even as a grisly afterthought,
      Rome is a dank hole,
   Marcello disagreeing . . . Saying, well, what did that roué say? something about
Where it is that one is safe.

My friend Sibum is a surly bastard. I first met him in 1987 in a hammam in Tajikistan, where he had an arm’s length of Indonesian watches for sale, all of which rusted within minutes. Actually, no, I met him in London and he was to become, for a while, the most dangerous of all my friends, the reason for this being all his other friends put him on the defensive. Sibum kept his Winchester cocked at all times. As he has finally learned, I mean no harm. Also, he knows that when I accuse him of having produced, in Girls and Handsome Dogs, one of the most vital poetry collections of the 21st century I am not just being polite; I am making him anxious about being put so close to the beginning of the centennial calendar. On the other hand he is, so close to where the sun rises, in a position to throw the longest of shadows. I asked him what his take on Steiner was.

“The more I saw of him in the movie, the less I liked him, he and his soirée cronies ... There is in me, most uncharacteristically, because I’m not terribly moralistic, some irruption of the Tolstoyan into a Dostoyevskian universe. It is a mode Steiner puts me in, which happens in my gut before I can even begin to think about it. Steiner is a man in love with perfection or else he’s in love with his appreciation of it. He’s a kind of narcissist and out of selfishness he withholds his children from the world, it being unable to appreciate them. Marcello, by comparison, is deeply flawed, is driven by his unmanageable doubts and lusts but must, even so, have something like love in him ... To compare Steiner and Marcello is partly to ask what has each man done with his self-loathing. Marcello, at least, looks for grace even in casual sex whereas Steiner’s universe is cold. Were he not a father he’d be a Proustian character, performing cold sex in sex salons ... My favourite character is the clown in the cabaret scene. Another way, perhaps, of looking at Steiner is just to say he’s weak, pure and simple, art and domestic felicity his refuge, although I think in most cases art and domestic felicity are mutually exclusive. At any rate, Steiner doesn’t love God; he thinks he is God.” And later, as an afterthought that might express something other than reluctance, a kind of diffidence perhaps, Sibum writes, “Well, I think the syllables of my name defeat the flow of your prose.”

I stand somewhere between my difficult friends, not on the proverbial fence but on something more like a knife-edge. The problem with Steiner is that he is mine. I recognise him from somewhere terrible in my own silences. What happens in this white space, now, is a meeting of voices, between real and imagined, between strangers and friends. The combination makes for a kind of perspective. The best of Fellini is in what he commits to silence. The loudest silence of all is that Steiner is Jewish, a Jew who might feel some affection for the Catholic faith, but a Jew all the same, a Jew who would probably feel himself Italian first, but also, perhaps, a Jew who can’t help but feel on the outside of what he loves. The burdens he would have carried in 1959 were the Shoah, the horror of it still fresh in his mind, and, against this, the uncertainty of what is yet to come. The Cuban Missile Crisis is just down the road a piece. The world has cracks all over its surface. Another silence is in how much younger his wife is. Why does she fail to heal him? Where is she when the party’s on and, later, when he commits suicide? One begins to understand, if not accept, the world Steiner flees into, the perfection he so desperately craves while, ironically, surrounding himself with things that are in themselves mostly second-rate—the poetry, the painting, the music, all of it the most flimsy of defences. My wife would argue for the Morandi, though. And here, amid all this, is the only man whom Marcello reveres.

Fellini makes hypocrites of us all, who, mustering our moral forces, declare yes, indeed, what a shallow world he depicts, whereas, really, we had better start admitting to ourselves that it is, all in all, a rather attractive one. I, for one, would follow Nico down any dark avenue. I would join Marcello at any table. I would hope to be able to do so without losing my scruples. Such, then, is Fellini’s brilliant snare. After all, why show us a world we’d immediately despise? There are certain scenes, of course, I would avoid like the plague, Steiner’s salon, for example, but that’s only because I have been around too many literary circles. I would not, however, vouch for other people. As I finish this, say goodbye to my friend brooding in the shadows, waiting for his nightingale to come, I think I hear the quiet closing of a door as Steiner leaves.