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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #5

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Last time I said I would try to explain what I meant by the ‘thread of self-loathing’ which seems to me to run through George Steiner’s Real presences.1 Alas, although this post does a few practice runs, it doesn’t quite get there in one jump.

Fifth in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence2 and Real presences

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2#3 and #4.

George Steiner

George Steiner

And perhaps I should also qualify the claim. It seems a thread of self-loathing runs through the first part of Real presences, the section entitled A SECONDARY CITY. This is not because it cannot be said of the remaining sections. I need to qualify the statement because Real presences is a sequence of such indigestible blocks that I have to get this first bit out of the way so I can stop thinking about it.

It feels as if a chef from hell has served up my least favourite hors d’oeuvres, and he says he’s going to follow it with my least favourite main course and then my least favourite dessert.

The central theme of A SECONDARY CITY is a parable about a theoretically possible society of the ‘primary’, one where art and literature themselves are flourishing, but where all literary and artistic criticism, reviews and discursive interpretation have been banned. There would be no academic or journalistic writing about the meaning or value of particular works of art or literature. It would be a society

devoid, to the greatest possible extent, of ‘meta-texts’: this is to say [sic], of texts about texts (or paintings or music), of academic, journalistic and academic-journalistic – today, the dominant format – talk about the aesthetic. A city for painters, poets, composers, choreographers, rather than one for art, literary, musical or ballet critics and reviewers, either in the market-place or in academe.

But in such a society, literature, music and the arts would not ‘exist and evolve unexamined [or] unevaluated’. In a particularly opaque passage on ‘interpretation and hermeneutics’, Steiner separates (I think!) three related strands of meaning. Interpretation and/or hermeneutics can mean (i) deciphering and communicating meaning; (ii) translating ‘between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions’; or (iii) executing or acting out material ‘so as to give it intelligible life’.

It is this third sense which (I think!) Steiner isolates as ‘good’ interpretation/hermeneutics, which would still survive in his society of the primary, and which he also labels as

the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.

John Everett Millais: Ophelia

John Everett Millais: Ophelia

But let’s bring this down to earth. Here are some examples of this type-(iii) interpretation:

An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia. A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography. A violinist a Bach partita. In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation.

…Each performance of a dramatic text or musical score is a critique in the most vital sense of the term: it is an act of penetrative response which makes sense sensible.

When I referred to this type-(iii) interpretation as ‘good’ interpretation I wasn’t going over the top:

Observe the moral aspect… Unlike the reviewer, the literary critic, the academic vivisector and judge, the executant invests his own being in the process of interpretation. His readings, his enactments of chosen meanings and values… are a commitment at risk, a response which is, in the root sense, responsible. To what, save pride of intellect or professional peerage, is the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?

Interpretive response under pressure of enactment I shall… call answerability. … We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological. [My emphases]

In the context of music, drama and ballet,

in respect of meaning and of valuation…, our master intelligencers are the performers.

[This] is less evidently the case in regard to non-dramatic literature…

Well of course. Steiner waxes lyrical about the value and significance of reciting poetry and prose, and learning poetry in particular by heart. I’ll come to this in a moment. But surely there is a much simpler point to be made about acting and performing in general. It seems a bit arbitrary to draw a boundary round the written text of Hamlet and say ‘that is a work of art’, and then point to a particular actress’s performance of the character of Ophelia as an ‘act of penetrative response’ and therefore something different. It is not false exactly, but it is an odd way of looking at it.

It seems to be based on the assumption that a ‘work of art’ is by definition something produced by one and only one human being. Whereas it is just as valid to see the whole group performance of Hamlet as a ‘work of art’ with contributions by a set of people, including the now-deceased William Shakespeare.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Maybe this is exactly what Steiner is saying, but his language is so dense it is difficult to know. The thing is that in an actual performance there could be all shades of ‘penetrative response’ and ‘answerability’ and ‘responding responsibility’, depending on what is being performed and how it is being performed. An actor learning and then performing the lines from a pre-existing script is one kind. That same actor responding to a fellow actor’s performance is another kind – in theory, although it might be hard to separate the two. John Coltrane playing alongside Thelonious Monk, where both are playing a composition by Thelonious Monk himself or someone else; two jazz performers improvising together on a harmonic sequence borrowed from a song from the Great American Songbook; a cellist’s ‘penetrative response’ to both the score of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and what the particular conductor is getting out of this particular orchestra on this particular day; that conductor’s own ‘interpretive response’ to the cellist’s own performance; …

And so on. What I think I’m resisting is the idea that on the one hand we have the ‘work of art’ – which could be a painting or a sculpture or a poem or a novel or the text of a play – and on the other hand we have the ‘interpretive response’ to that work of art, which at its most direct could be a performance, but could also be private recitation or learning by heart. This idea seems to take it for granted that there is some general primary notion of a ‘work of art’, which can then secondarily be a painting, or a piece of music, or a poem and so on. And then one can have either an authentic ‘penetrative response’ of ‘answerability’ to this work of art, or the inferior ‘academic-journalistic paraphrase, commentary, adjudication’ or ‘meta-text’.

There may not even be a finite set of features which all ‘works of art’ have in common, and which things which are not works of art do not possess. There may rather be a set of overlapping ‘family resemblances’ in Wittgenstein’s sense.

So to pick up Steiner’s thread about learning by heart:

The private reader or listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force… What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a ‘pace-maker’ in the growth and vital complication of our identity…

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

He then gets political:

The issues here are political and social in the strongest sense. A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us…

Under censorship and persecution, much of the finest in modern Russian poetry was passed from mouth to mouth and recited inwardly. The indispensable reserves of protest, of authentic record, of irony, in Akhmatova, in Mandelstam and in Pasternak, have been preserved and mutely published in the editions of personal memory.

In our own licensed social systems, learning by heart has been largely erased from secondary schooling and the habits of literacy. The electronic volume and fidelity of the computerized data bank and of processes of automatic retrieval will further weaken the sinews of individual memory… etc etc.

I am not convinced. The facts about memorised Russian poetry are interesting and significant in themselves, but I cannot see how they support the case he is trying to make. Was the poetry not memorised because that was the only way to preserve it? In what way is preservation by memory more authentic than preservation in print – had that been possible?

Horst Wessel and friends in 1929

Horst Wessel and friends in 1929

And as for the lament on the passing of learning by heart in modern schooling – this seems as much a lament for lost innocence. To learn by heart means you do not have to analyse or understand for the text or melody to stick. This may or may not be a good thing depending on what it is that has been committed to memory. In some German hearts of the 1930s the most deeply engrained text and melody would have been those of the Horst-Wessel-Lied. I doubt George Steiner had this particular Kunststück in mind when he described the citizens of his imaginary city in these words:

The great majority, who are themselves neither writers, nor painters, nor composers, will, so far as it lies in their capabilities and freedom, be respondents, answerers in action. They will learn by heart, perceiving the elemental pulse of love implicit in that idiom; knowing that the ‘amateur’ is the lover (amatore) of that which [sic] he knows and performs…

I’ll try and get to the thread of self-loathing next time.


1 George Steiner, Real presences, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

2 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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