thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #6

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Last time we introduced George Steiner’s imaginary ‘society of the primary’, a pristine utopia of creativity. It is a world where artists, writers and musicians do art, writing and music; and where performers interpret texts like plays and musical scores which need or lay themselves open to enactment.  The rest of us meanwhile take these artworks to heart but do not verbalise what we think about them for fear of being branded agents of journalism or academia.

Sixth in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence1 and Real presences2

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2#3; #4; and #5.

Steiner’s next move in Real Presences is almost dialectical. He has propounded his thesis – that this primary creativity innocent of ‘paraphrase, commentary [and] adjudication’ is at least conceivable and, if it were to exist, it would be a good thing. But an antithesis immediately rears its head:

All serious art, music and literature is a critical act. …[T]he construct of the artist is a counter-statement to the world. …It says that things might be (have been, shall be) otherwise.

But literature and the arts…also…embody an expository reflection on, a value judgement of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.

Bust of Virgil

Bust of Virgil

‘[T]he inheritance and context to which they pertain’ is Steinerspeak for ‘previous works of art and literature’. So although journalists and academics will be forbidden from plying their trade of ‘high gossip’, Steiner has to let the writers and artists themselves do what comes naturally:

The intelligence of a major artist can be that of sovereign intellectuality. …How could this intelligence not also be critical of its own products and of its precedent? The readings, the interpretations and critical judgements of art, literature and music are of a penetrative authority rarely equalled by those offered from outside, by those propounded by the non-creator, …the reviewer, the critic, the academic.

He gives some examples:

Virgil reads, guides our reading of, Homer as no external critic can. The Divine Comedy is a reading of the Aeneid, technically and spiritually ‘at home’, ‘authorized’ …as no extrinsic commentary by one who is himself not a poet can be. The presence, visibly solicited or exorcised, of Homer, Virgil and Dante in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in the epic satire of Pope and in the pilgrimage upstream of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, is a ‘real presence’, a critique in action. Successively, each poet sets into the urgent light of his own purposes, of his own linguistic and compositional resources, the formal and substantive achievement of his predecessor(s)…

Joyce’s Ulysses is a critical experiencing of the Odyssey at the level of general structure, of narrative instruments and rhetorical particularity. Joyce… reads Homer… through the rival refractions not only of Virgil or of Dante, but through the sheer critical intelligence of his own inventions of echo, of his own over-reaching design of derivation. Unlike that of the critic or academic expositor, Joyce’s reading is answerable to the original precisely because it puts at eminent risk the stature, the fortunes of his own work.

Anna Karenina: 1935 film poster

Anna Karenina: 1935 film poster

He traces equivalent, if shorter, chains of re-creative reading from Middlemarch to Portrait of a Lady; from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina; from Marlowe’s Edward II to Brecht’s; from Strindberg’s Miss Julie to Genet’s The Maids.

He turns to translation, which is ‘interpretive in its very etymology’. (How could he ignore such a golden opportunity to scatter monikers left right and centre?)

Valéry’s transposition of Virgil’s Eclogues is critical creation. No critical study of the surge and limits of the baroque quite matches Roy Campbell’s translations from the Spanish of St John of the Cross. No literary criticism will educate our inner ear to the changing music of meaning in the English language as will a reading of successive versions of Homer in the translations by Chapman, Hobbes, Cowper, Pope, Shelley, T. E. Lawrence and Christopher Logue

We then have painters writing about painting:

[T]he letters of Van Gogh or Cézanne… reveal what words can of the translation of matter into sense;…

We have painters painting about painting:

We have no more persuasive guidance to Ingres than in certain drawings and paintings by Dali. Our finest critic of Velàzquez is Picasso. …Similarly, Dürer’s rethinking of the Flemish masters, the patient meditation on the planes and volumes of Piero della Francesca in Cézanne, Manet’s performative investigations of Goya, Monet’s Turner, are art criticism and assessment enacted…

Paul Cézanne: The Card Players

Paul Cézanne: The Card Players

And as for music, well:

The question as to whether anything meaningful can be said (or written) about the nature and sense of music lies at the heart of this essay. …[N]o epistemology, no philosophy of art can lay claim to inclusiveness if it has nothing to teach us about the nature and meanings of music. Claude Lévi-Strausss affirmation that “the invention of melody is the supreme mystery of man” seems to me of sober evidence. …It may well be that man is man, and that man ‘borders on’ limitations of a peculiar and open ‘otherness’, because he can produce and be possessed by music.

When it talks of music, language is lame…

…Asked to explain a difficult étude, Schumann sat down and played it a second time…

Reading page after page of this makes me think of the Verification Principle. This was a criterion of meaning, propounded by AJ Ayer and the Vienna Circle of logical positivist philosophers. According to the Verification Principle, a proposition is only meaningful if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable. Most if not all statements of metaphysics, for example, could be declared literally meaningless by applying this test.

The Verification Principle has had a chequered history, which I have no intention of repeating here. However one ‘killer argument’ has often been made against it. As the Verification Principle itself is neither analytically true nor empirically verifiable, it must declare itself meaningless. By its own token it is metaphysical nonsense. It therefore refutes itself.

I am not claiming this first section of Real Presences is nonsense, or that it refutes itself. But at the very least it disparages itself – indeed it seems to hate itself.

Real Presences is not a work of art. So it is not Virgil to Homer nor Dante to Virgil nor Milton to Dante nor James Joyce to Homer nor Portrait of a Lady to Middlemarch nor Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary nor Dali to Ingres nor Picasso to Velàzquez. But it is a work of criticism – very broad and very academic criticism to boot. It is also a very broad and academic criticism of criticism. It therefore hovers between meta-text and meta-meta-text. By its own admission it is not ‘answerable’ to what it is about. It does not put its own ‘stature… [and] fortunes…at eminent risk’.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Real Presences would be among the first books the triumphant new regime of the ‘primary’ would toss on the fire.

Read on…


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

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

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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