Review: Disenchantment

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: DisenchantmentDisenchantment: George Steiner & the Meaning of Western Culture After Auschwitz by Catherine D. Chatterley
Published by Syracuse University Press on March 15, 2011
Genres: History
Pages: 200
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

George Steiner has enjoyed international acclaim as a distinguished cultural critic for many years. The son of central European Jews, he was born in France, fled from the Nazis to New York in 1940, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944. Through his many books, voluminous literary criticism, and book review articles published in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian, Steiner has played a major role in introducing the works of prominent continental writers and thinkers to readers in North America and Great Britain.

Having escaped the Nazis as a child, Steiner vowed that his work as an intellectual would attempt to understand the tragedy of the Shoah. In Disenchantment, Chatterley focuses on Steiner’s neglected writings on the Holocaust and antisemitism and places this work at the center of her analysis of his criticism. She clearly demonstrates how Steiner’s family history and education, as well as the historical and cultural developments that surrounded him, are central to the evolution of his dominant intellectual concerns. It is during the 1950s and 1960s, in relation to unfolding discoveries about the Nazi murder of European Jewry, that Steiner begins to study the effects of the Holocaust on language and culture and then questions the very purpose and meaning of the humanities.

The first intellectual biography of George Steiner, Disenchantment provides an invaluable contribution to literary and cultural studies, confirming his critical and intellectual legacy.

Disenchantment is Catherine Chatterley’s dissertation, which has evidently been deemed worthy of publication. I did not decide to pursue a history degree, but I did attend an undergraduate institution which required me to write an I.S. (sort of a master’s thesis for undergrads). Chatterley’s dissertation definitely took me back to the time I spent composing my own insanely long historical paper.

Her essay resembles mine also in scope and organization. She analyzes the history of one historian’s (George Steiner’s) opinions through the lens of his works, as I did with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The layout is remarkably similar too: starting with an introduction, then a biography, then through the works by time period. Although, she only explicitly goes through work by work in the second chapter. After that, she still analyzes publication by publication, but does not really organize it that same way, which I found to be weak and clunky.

I read this hoping for more of an analysis on the Holocaust, putting a stresser on Auschwitz in the subtitle rather than Steiner, but this is really more about Steiner’s own personal opinions than that. Not knowing anything about Steiner, this was a bit boring for me. Plus, it reads like a dissertation, which is to be expected, but still is not particularly attractive.

Chatterley definitely seems to have done her research; she knows Steiner backward and forward. If I were studying Steiner, this would be an invaluable source. So, for historical research, Disenchantment would be quite useful, but, as a pleasure read, not so much.

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