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.

Steiner’s presentation of mystery, however, is not so much visionary as confused. After advocating a world without commentary, he criticises deconstruction for its failure to interpret texts or champion a canon. On both these grounds, he is mistaken, for we have only to recall Derrida’s elaborate readings of Kafka, Geoffrey Hartman’s of Christopher Smart, or Barbara Johnson’s of Zora Neale Hurston, to see how much analysis of text and modification of the canon have gone into deconstructive theorising. But why should Steiner, who wants to replace commentary with ‘performance answering performance’, suddenly insist on the value of interpretation and canon-formation? What he wants, apparently, is not to eliminate all commentary but to permit only the best, and hence to limit the licence to explicate. For ‘commentary breeds commentary: not new poems ... There have in Byzantine courts been all-powerful eunuchs, as there have been critics or deconstructionists magisterial over creation. But the basic distinction remains.’ Only the inspired response of Aristotle to Euripides, Samuel Johnson to Shakespeare or Sainte-Beuve to Racine belong in Steiner’s republic. Does this mean that he sees Real Presences itself as a critical classic? Or is it yet another all-powerful act of impotence? The book certainly does not read like self-effacement, and when Steiner goes on to extol the bravery of the critic who risks muddle and embarrassment in reacting to aesthetic presence, one glimpses a forehead poised for laurels.

What should this rare, heroic critic profess? The answer seems to be: everything. Since language, form, style and meaning are all grounded in historical time, eclecticism is the only proper critical stance. Even those modes of thought that promote endless commentary – psychoanalysis and deconstruction – or inflexible orthodoxies such as Marxism should enter the critic’s ken. The radical doubts of deconstruction are particularly salutary in denying semantic stability, for rather than opting for this or that critical position, the critic should occupy a middle ground: ‘between this illusory absolute [of determinacy] ... and the gratuitous play of interpretative nonsense, lies the rich, legitimate ground of the philological.’ We need only take our stand between determinacy and indeterminacy: in this mystical loam, like Bernstein’s Candide, we can watch our critical gardens grow.

This is just one of many places in Real Presences where Steiner’s rhapsodic reasoning leaves us in doubt as to what he can mean. His very title is ambiguous, its plural ‘presences’ suggesting phantasms as much as Godhead. He seems to believe that passionate unburdenings and rhetorical pyrotechnics will carry the day, his vaunted ‘philology’ eventuating in a gratuitous etymologising that mimics the deconstructivists he is at such pains to unseat. But unlike the Derridians, Steiner often falls into verbal incompetence: ‘speech is edged in reach of materiality, this is to say, in educative reach of that which must, finally, be left unsaid in the notations made by artists and craftsmen.’ I suppose this could be taken as an advocacy of Steinerian Silence: that which one cannot say clearly one should not say at all.

Steiner intrepidly ties his ideas to religion. Jewishness, he claims, leads to unending commentary – cabalistic, Freudian; the need to survive in exile forces the Torah to be continually glossed in order to be connected to the here and now. Though this need proliferates commentary, he presents its constantly renewed deictic pertinence as a good thing. But Catholic hermeneutics has its virtues, too. Because Christ, the Apostles and their teachings are anchored in historical time, their meanings must be stabilised. ‘The Torah is indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life. The Gospels, Epistles and Acts are not.’ Thus, Jews spawn a commentary that is attached to ongoing life but never-ending, whereas Catholic interpretation is properly finite but outside individual contingency. If truth be told, however, Steiner seems closest to Protestant fundamentalism. Down with the priestly caste of expositors who stand between the populace and art: only direct communion with aesthetic presence will do. Religious hermeneutics is a fascinating subject, but Steiner’s random observations make it impossible for us to know how his argument relates to any of these interpretative ideologies.

Real Presences is equally eclectic in its political affiliations. Steiner traces the modern ‘fall into journalism’ to the bourgeoisie’s take-over of art in the 19th century; their lack of connection to culture made publicity and reviewing necessary. Moreover, he argues, after the bourgeois revolutions of the first half of the 19th century, art became a surrogate for political action. Real Presences is not, however, a leftist critique of the bourgeoisie, for Steiner goes on to denigrate Marxism for a rigidity that makes it completely incapable of dealing with art. Soon he adds élitism and authoritarianism to this political potpourri, claiming that the canon must be ‘forged and perpetuated by the few’. We have travelled far from the egalitarian utopia of the opening vision.

If I had to bet on the ideological basis of this argument – and a wager is all the surety it allows – I would opt for a reactionary reading. After all, we must judge a utopia, not by the ardency of its urging not by its professed humanism, but by its results. The resemblance between Steiner’s proposals and those of William Bennett, Alan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch should therefore give us pause. For all these figures, the proper response to deconstructive criticism, the opening of the literary canon and the proliferation of aesthetic commentary is to draw back into a dream of an earlier time in which readings of texts were allegedly stable, the university curriculum was standardised, and criticism was the province of the few.

Though Steiner is too subtle – and too much a part of the academic establishment – to play this tune in a vulgarian’s key, Real Presences nevertheless plays it. It argues against commentary, but then finds that some commentators are more equal than others. And if we ask how these unique voices are to be discerned in a society innocent of criticism we discover no answer. Presumably there will be an academy or some other body who will decide what is great interpretation, but their existence would imply a pool of lesser interpreters and all the Alexandrian institutions that enable training in explication and its publication. One cannot legislate a situation in which mediocrity disappears and critics produce only classics unless one does away with ongoing criticism altogether and turns backward to the past. In that case, Steiner’s utopia becomes a museum. He suggests as much in insisting on the bankruptcy of modern music and in concluding that ‘the humanist, in crucial contrast to the scientist, tends to feel that both dawn and noon are at his back.’

Far from proposing a utopia of eager consumer-creators, Steiner wants to limit the control of culture to a tiny portion of the populace. Critical tact, he claims, cannot be taught; the few must therefore legislate for the many, and what they legislate is the canon. The result is social cohesion: ‘a cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past.’ Unfortunately, Steiner regrets, the diversity of American society has misled the university into all sorts of uncanonic paths, such as the inclusion of courses on black women novelists of the Eighties in the core curricula of important colleges. In such misguidedly democratic moves ‘the axioms of the transcendent in the arts of understanding and of judgment ... are invested in the overnight.’ After all, who would set Toni Morrison next to Paul Celan?

And lest this reference to black women writers of the Eighties appear a random example, we might look at Steiner’s musings on the relation between gender and art. He considers the act of aesthetic creativity an imitation of God’s fiat. ‘In stating this hypothesis, I am wholly conscious of its possible bias towards maleness. I fully sense its more than metaphoric inference both of a masculine primacy in the creation of great fictive forms ... and of a patriarchal, militant image or metaphor of God.’ Though women have written great novels, Steiner continues, is it not strange that they have produced almost no major drama? Could it be that the creativity involved in childbearing is so overwhelming that the begetting of fictive characters pales beside it? Of course, ‘the vengeful impatience of the feminist indictment of traditional aesthetic and philosophic theory’ makes further inquiry on this point difficult, but Steiner is convinced of its centrality. In his utopia, the core curriculum is unencumbered with contemporary black women’s writing, and the agonistic competition with God the Creator does not appeal to those big with child.

In the name of aesthetic and critical quality, cultural solidarity, and the return of presence into art and life, Steiner advocates a race-and gender-restricted canon, the legislation of taste by ‘the few’, an explanation of creativity that perpetuates female marginality, and a state of affairs that is undisguisedly self-promoting. What his readers must ask is whether there is an entailment between his goals and his solutions – that is, whether the price one pays for the flexibility and inclusiveness of contemporary aesthetics is necessarily the ashen alienation that Steiner depicts. And here we might examine the actual state of commentary both inside and outside the university. It is true, as Steiner points out, that the number of dissertations, scholarly publications and journalistic reviews is astronomically large now compared to a century ago. But unless the world is mad, this proliferation of commenttary serves some purpose. Today many more artworks are in circulation than before, emanating from a more diversified body of artists. This quantity and heterogeneity takes processing. The attribution of value in as complex and fluid a culture as ours requires a large corps of reader-viewers, for the pulls of various ethnic, sociological, political and stylistic ideologies cannot be handled by any single authority or establishment.

Criticism is the process of cultural integration. A work of art does not exist historically until it enters the critical-interpretative system. Artists know this, and therefore seek out contacts among journalists and academics. Their need is both practical in that they cannot support themselves without recognition, and personal in that their art is a form of communication. To elicit no response is worse than to elicit a negative one. The situation is similar for the audience of art. Upon experiencing a book, play, concert, exhibition or film we naturally go to friends or reviews to compare notes, for the reception of art is a social activity. We constitute both the work and ourselves in the process of talking and writing about it. Commentary has existed as long as there has been art because the two are symbiotic and equally important. I take the current proliferation of critical activity – which Steiner terms ‘the imperialism of the second-and third-hand’ – as a sign of resurgent cultural vitality (though, of course, the political dangers to art, particularly those created by reactionary arguments of Steiner’s ilk, should not be minimised).

Steiner derides commentary because of its non-accountability. Nothing ‘happens’ if a review is wrong; the reviewer has no personal stake in his comments. ‘To what, save pride of intellect or professional peerage, is the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?’ Perhaps to him – or herself? What critic has not discovered – sometimes with dismay – that he or she is writing disguised autobiography in interpreting works of art? There is no form of scholarship so susceptible to ideological analysis as aesthetic criticism, and none where the investment of personal conviction seems more risky.

In fact, the value of commentary lies precisely in its connection to the personal, the ephemeral, or, as one might prefer to say, the timely – which Steiner links to journalism and the triumph of the short view. The personal and ephemeral are the glories of criticism, for they tie the artwork to the historical moment of reading: this person living at this time interprets the work as follows. Criticism adapts art to ever new contexts, performing a delicate and important assessment of the texts and the world of the critic. To see how Leonardo or Beethoven or Marilynne Robinson is received in 1989 in England is to find out a great deal about England today. Criticism is both a crucial historical record and a contemporary mirror, and the critic is surely more consciously and generously immersed in the present – and in presence – than any of Steiner’s utopian dancers, singers, reciters, indeed his whole busy hive of actors disdaining discursiveness.

If, as Steiner concedes, canons are not invariant, the only way they can vary is through the continuous adaptation of text to context that goes on in critical commentary. The ‘Byzantine’, ‘Alexandrine’, ‘secondary city’ of contemporary culture is the engine that drives change, that projects art into the future rather than backwards to the retrogressive dystopia of Steiner’s musings. At the moment, this delicate process is distinctly liberal in its effect, integrating the achievements of women and ethnic and social minorities with those of white, male creativity. This is an exceedingly complex task, requiring the vast expenditure of journalistic and academic energy that fills Steiner with such despair. But insofar as his presences are to be real for all people, the discursiveness, the labour, the mediacy of criticism will be of the essence.