George Steiner, Real Presences

Chris Agee

The argument of this remarkable book is seldom put forward in the modern world. The view that art and the divine, language and transcendence are bound up with one another cuts across the grain of our age. It is, of course, still acknowledged that many great poets, such as Dante and Eliot, have explicitly held this conviction. It is clear, too, that faith in the reach of language is far from vestigial even now, and continues to animate the work of numerous poets. In Ireland, for instance, Nuala Nf Dhomhnaill often roots her poetry in a folkloric otherworld which cannot be written off as a mere conceit, while Eoghan 6 Tuairisc (probably the only Irish poet to bear an authentic spiritual debt to Eliot) gave a very pure expression to the bond between language and 'otherness' in both his poetry and criticism. Nonetheless, despite its extreme antiquity and its all-pervasiveness in the West until the 19th century, the belief that language and the Unknown are interwoven has largely vanished from the conceptual repertoire of our poets and critics. Even many of those most alert to the shot-silk of "the hither and the farther shore" would find it difficult to echo Yeats' adamantine credo: "No man can create as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe with all his blood and nerve that man's soul is immortal." Why, one wonders, this loss of "nerve"? What great revolution of spirit uprooted belief in the immemorial tree of poiesis 1, of divinely-inspired meaning made intelligible by form?
The special merit of Real Presences is that it illustrates, with the utmost clarity, the final consequences of abandoning a transcendent image of language. It is impossible, declares Steiner, to uphold meaning in any art without a wager on essence, on "real presence", on a cosmos of intelligible being. We are all, it seems, made believers by our use of language. God may have "died" (as the sixties vulgarism had it), we may be indifferent to chapel or church, we may loathe the politics of religion or the hokum of 'heaven', but the supposition of 'His' presence underwrites, inescapably, our grammar, our daily belief in meaning, our faith in truth. The cynicism, agnosticism, anomie and so on, so
characteristic of this century, are, in other words, phenomena of the upper strata of consciousness. Conversely, the extension of nihilism into the realm of language - which is the malignant 'essence' of deconstruction - touches the bedrock of belief, overturns the very possibility of meaning, and casts us into an exit-less cell of silence and absurdity (where Beckett laughed, and so redeemed the promise of language). Without God, we cannot speak with conviction. The 'language-animal' (as both the Greeks and Hebrews called man) is, truly, stamped with the image of YHWH. Steiner outlines the argument in the opening pages:
 
(This essay) proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence. I will put forward the argument that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical form, infers the necessary possibility of this 'real presence'. The seeming paradox of a 'necessary possibility' is, very precisely, that which the poem, the painting, the musical composition are at liberty to explore and to enact.
This study will contend that the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addressed another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.
This wager - it is that of Descartes, of Kant and of every poet, artist, composer of whom we have explicit record - predicates the presence of a realness, of a substantiation (the theological reach of this word is obvious) within language and form. It supposes a passage, beyond the fictive or the purely pragmatic, from meaning to meaningfulness. The conjecture is that God is, not because our grammar is outworn; but that grammar lives and generates worlds because there is the wager on God.
The study which follows, a tour de force of prose style and conceptual suppleness, is very much in the humanist tradition of philology, by which Steiner understands, in a blend of ancient and modern etymology, both 'the love of learning and literature', and 'the investigation of language'.
Few scholars, as readers of Steiner will appreciate, can match his polymath acumen and wealth of allusion, both or which are marshalled here to maximum advantage. In his earlier work (he has published four volumes of critical prose, plus two novels), he has made plain his view that we live in an age of 'after-Word', cut off (in an 'epilogue' of spiritual exile) from the Hebraic-Hellenic, classical-Christian anima of inherited antiquity. The parallel with Eliot, already intimated, is strong. Not only does Steiner strike me
s one of the finest essayists since Eliot (though of a wholly different mould), but he enunciates a metaphysical tradition close to the poet's (perhaps partly derived from his o.euvre~). Re~l Presences, insofar as it is a defence of Logos and Its relatIOns wIth the world and the word ("The Word without a word, the Word within/The world and for the world"), might be termed a prose analogue to the elusive religio poetae which Eliot gives form in AshWednesday, Four Quartets and Choruses From The Rock'.2 It is an attempt to re-state and re-argue, in a modern idiom, the ~=~c2 of meaning ('real presence' incarnated in language) for a sCIentIfic age which has largely lost this understanding and which threaten~, either instantly or by degrees, to annihilate the spiritual and PSYChIC heritage of humankind. Consequently, poetry - the most ngorous form of language and, therefore, of thought (if executed with genius) - stands at the centre of this essay's effort to recoup for both "our individual lives and the politics of our social being" the enigma of 'presence' which leavens all acts of poiesis.
What, then, is the exact genre of Real Presences? I hav~ alluded to philology; but though this term comprehends the book s central focus on the nature and scope of language, it does not exhaust Steiner's breadth of purview. Indeed, integral to his achievement here is the indisciplinary elan of his survey of the threats to the ancient authority of language. Hermeneutics (classical, medieval and modern), quantum physics, aesthetics, ~he philosophy of language, linguistics and semiotic~, psycho~nalY~Is, Sprachkritik, deconstruction - all are mustered m a considera~IOn of some of the great problems language sets in our era. Pn~e amongst these is the enduring riddle of the origin of.spe~ch, wh.Ich is inseparable from both our consciousness of commg mto bemg (Why is there something and not nothing? ,is the first .impuI,se of philosophy) and our awareness of death, neIther of whIch sCIe~ce can 'explain'. It is this question of orig~ns - .of ~he the~logIc.al grounding of philology - which underhes SteI~er s gleamngs m various fields pertinent to language. Thus, If pressed for a scholarly blurb, I would venture in part 'philosophic anthropology' (the phrase, used in a different c,ontext, is Steiner'S!, m~aning an inquiry into 'the language animal and the metaphysIcal Import of his distinguishing tool. But communication, broadly understood, reaches its apogee in the arts; and for this reason, Real Presences does not only explore the meaning of the ascent of Babel (philosophic anthropology), but is also very much a portrait of 'the
34
 
langua~e-anim~l' as .artist (poetics, in a wide sense). It is a study of aesthetIc cr~atIOn m .general,. its gravely weakened position in modern SOCIety a.nd ItS rel~tlo~ t? God - with the founding etymology of p'0etlcs (stretchmg; m Its narrow sense, from Aristotle to C.race) alertmg us to the speCIal role poetry plays in the progress of hIS argument.
So the common thread and presiding genius of form in Real Presences is not a theory of man, literature or the arts ( (Steiner demonstrates, quite convincingly, the essential duplicity of this term when applied in "the ~umani!ies), but "a fable o~ understanding", "a story of thought or narratIve of formal expenence" instinct with th~ .imaginative life of metaphor. This being his definition of the c?tIcal ~n~eavour - a definition which echoes the etymology of hIStOry (wIsdom through story-telling') even as it intimates that the non-fictiv~, at its .b~st, can share the dignity of poiesis, of high verb~l artIstry - It IS. clear why Steiner in his writing strives for t~e fmesse.of the creatlve. The continuous precision and fine-tuned s~new of hIS prose, inseparable for the ?verall 'in wit' and power of hIS argument, m~es thIS essay a genume act of re-cognition. To ~ndow the pattermng of complex ideas with verbal grace is a rare mtellectual feat: more unusual and 'sweated', it seems to me than the writing of good poetry, whose genesis in 'the drea~ of composition' requires a kind of swift ease and open-ended freedom alien to the architecture of prose. Equally exceptional is his skill in summarizing the mo~ement of ideas in Western art and history _ see, for example, hIS comments on the relation of the Joycean 'epipha~y' to the. felt insufficiency of language - and then assembhng them mto the book's larger elucidation of the rise of ~odernity. But su~h sch~larship, evident on every page, is borne lIghtly, a~d the vOlC~ WhICh ~peaks to us - passionate, daring, ~uent, WIth a dr~atic touch m the unfolding of paragraphs and ~deas - has ?othmg of the academic about it, though it digs deep mto the Latmate hoard of the OED. There is throughout a rever~nce f?r speech (including etymology and the craft of rhet??c) whIch. recalls Steiner's spiritual ancestry in the ancient tradItIOn of JeWIsh scholarship, with its 'dance of the spirit in front of the partially closed but radiant Ark of the letter". He is also a fine classicist, and it is perhaps best to see him as a modern successor to the Renaissance editor of literary canon, winnowing the perm~nent f~~m the ~p.h~me~al, a 'classic-maker' upholding the practIce of hIgher cnticism. Indeed, his splendid aper~us on
literature, arts and society (e.g.: "Kafka's parables and the nocturnes in Finnegans Wake": "Beckett's grieving satires on the messianic": "the leviathan rhetoric of the public media"), coupled with his protean definitions of artistic form, operate as a sort of groundbass of epigram to the book's theological theme. Like Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, Real Presences is the work of poiesis, "a living form of the speculative", whose deft verve of metaphor (the prime mover of meaning, in Steiner's view) and defence of the arts earn it the accolade of 'literature'.
Steiner's case for 'real presence', which unfolds in three parts, is impressive in its intricacy: so much so, in fact, that one comes to view the book as a distillation, a putting-into-context, of scores of lesser works. Part I, "A Secondary City". outlines the contemporary situation vis-a-vis the primary perception of the arts. Or more precisely, the diminished standing of that reception: for it is evident that the immediate apprehension of aesthetic creation (viewed from the standpoint of the whole of society) exists nowadays in inverse proportion to the incessant, secondary hubbub of gloss, commentary, high gossip in the ivory tower. We live in a period in which the critical has churlish, indeed parasitic, pretensions to near-equality with the creative. As the academiccritical mass-assembly pours off the conveyor belt (and the power house is literary studies), "a mandarin madness of secondary discourse infects thought and sensibility". Steiner elaborates:
Periods, climates of culture, in which the exegetic and the critical dominate, are called "Alexandrine" or "Byzantine". These epithets refer to the prevalence of grammatological, editorial, didactic, glossarial and judiciary techniques and ideals over any actual poetic-aesthetic creativity in Hellenistic Alexandria and in the Byzantium of the later Empire and Middle Ages. They tell of the imperialism of the second- and thirdhand. The name of no single metropolis can designate what is analagous to Alexandria, to Byzantium, in our present situation. Perhaps our age will come to be known as that of the marginalists, of the clerics in the market.
The preponderance of the secondary - which reflects, in part,"the annexation of the living arts and literature by the scholastics" - has the consequence of curbing, in the mental life of society, what is
unique to the arts:
I shall be arguing that we crave remission from direct encounter with the 'real presence' or the 'real absence of that presence', the two phenomenologies being rigorously inseparable, which an answerable experience of the aesthetic must enforce on us. We seek the immunities
36
 
of indirection. In the agency of the critic, reviewer or mandarin commentator, we .welcome those who can secularize the mystery and summons of creatlon ...
. Each day, via journ~lism, via the journalist-academic, the mherent value, the productlve powers, the savings embodied in a creative curre~cy, this is to say the vitality of the aesthetic, are devalued. The p~per leVIathan of secondary talk not only swallows the prophetic (there IS prophecy and the prophecy of remembrance in all serious poetic and artistic invention): it spews it out diminished and fragmented. In the.absence

Page 32, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28