Wendy Steiner

  • Real Presences by George Steiner
    Faber, 236 pp, £12.99, May 1989, ISBN 0 571 14071 8

Imagine a republic that bans commentary, ‘a society, a politics of the primary’ peopled with ‘citizens of the immediate’. In this aesthetic utopia, writer and reader share the same ‘philo-logy’ and the interpretative impulse gives rise not to criticism but to ‘an enactment of answerable understanding’. The citizenry dance dances, recite poems by heart, produce paintings to register their experience of paintings and novels to answer novels. Their response is as complete an individual expression as the artwork they respond to; text and counter-text live equally through each other. The parasitism of academic criticism and journalistic reviewing ceases, the unmanageable flood of unreadable dissertations subsides, and the interposition of professional opinion between work and audience is eliminated. The cultural establishment expands to a cultured populace, and consumption gives way to creativity.

This is the vision with which George Steiner opens his new meditation, Real Presences. His subtitle – ‘Is there anything in what we say?’ – indicates the motivation for this dream of immanence: the desire to reinstate the belief that meaning resides in the artwork and the need to recover from deconstructive relativism and indeterminacy. For Steiner, God is the premise upon which speech is based, and the wager on meaning and understanding – which we all undertake in experiencing art – is in fact a wager on transcendence. ‘Everything we recognise as being of compelling stature in literature, art, music, is of a religious inspiration or reference,’ Steiner claims, and though he concedes that deconstruction is unassailable within its own terms, he insists that it is as dependent on the premise of communication as the most logocentric view. To state meaningfully that all meaning is elusive is to engage in a paradox of the sort: ‘I, a Cretan, assert that all Cretans are liars.’ Deconstructive propositions are self-falsifying because they are presented in natural language; they are, moreover, not a stimulating mental game but a soul-destroying heresy.

Real Presences traces this subversion of language and faith to the period between 1870 and 1930. Before that was Logos, the ‘saying of being’; since then, we have the death of God, ontological nihilism, the time ‘after the Word’. ‘It is this break of the covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.’ In this Eliotian conception, the dissociation of sensibility is not an Enlightenment splitting of science and art, reason and imagination, but a Saussurian detachment of signifier from signified that leaves language impotent and art devoid of mystery.

Steiner wishes us to cast off this Modernist error, for art can provide an intense experience of presence. The audience is ‘met’ by art, and that is why ‘great poetry is animate with the rites of recognition’ – annunciations, Odysseus detected in Ithaca, Titania ‘ill-met by moonlight’. In art’s unveiling of its otherness we are tested; ‘our capacities for welcome or refusal, for response or imperception’ are revealed. Enumerating the skills required by the audience of art, Steiner isolates attentiveness – to lexicon, syntax and semantics – as the basis of what he terms philology, the love of the word. Real Presences attempts to reinvest us with faith in aesthetic immediacy.

In making this argument, Steiner is falling in with a broad array of contemporary artists and thinkers. He enlists the Modernists Braque and Wittgenstein in his epigraphs, but his criticism of art for art’s sake, aesthetic narcissism, and the sterility of Modernist formalism, links him more closely to Post-Modernists who turn away from Existentialism and the absurd to admit the possibility of miracle. ‘There is a straight ladder from the atom to the grain of sand,’ says Tom Stoppard’s physicist in Hapgood, ‘and the only real mystery in physics is the missing rung. Below it, particle physics; above it, classical physics; but in between, metaphysics.’ Contemporary thought charts the known in order to fathom the mystery of the unknowable.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in