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Whispers of the gods #7

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I have finally finished reading George Steiner’s Real presences1 for the second time and I feel I have got my life back.

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

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2#3; #4; #5; and #6.

I read Real presences the second time because I didn’t think I understood enough of it properly enough the first time.

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

I read it the first time because of a challenge John Cornwell makes in his book Darwin’s angel3, to a remark Richard Dawkins had made in The God delusion.4 (See Touched by an angel #7 for more context.)

Dawkins had said:

If there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents5

Cornwell replied:

You don’t seem to have looked very far. You might not agree with it, but here is one example among many of just such an argument – spelled out at length by George Steiner in… Real Presences.6

Real presences has made me consider my own mortality. I must be more careful in future not to waste too much of what little time I have left digging for meaning in prose which does not want to give it up.

It is one of the most unpleasant books I have read for a long time, and I am quite angry with John Cornwell for sending me on what turned out to be a wild goose chase. I am not sure Real presences counts as an ‘argument’. Nor would I say it was ‘spelled out’, as that could imply analytical clarity. But ‘at length’ I would agree with.

So far, from Whispers of the gods #3 to Whispers of the gods #6, I have covered much of the first section (A SECONDARY CITY) where Steiner describes a fictional ‘society of the primary’, where artists, writers and musicians practise their trades but critics do not – in either the academic world or the demi-monde of journalism.

The parable labours its point, which is that in the ‘consumer societies of the West today’ the reality is the opposite – we are drowning under an avalanche of critical comment on art, literature and music, out of all proportion to the objects the avalanche is about.

As far as journalism is concerned he scoffs:

The mass media employ marriage counsellors and astrologers. Why should they not employ art critics and music reviewers?

That quote was uncharacteristically lucid. Steiner is more at home with polysyllabic disparagement:

Manifold accommodations between aesthetic consumption and political-social power, between leisure and industrialization, are relevant. The assumption of parliamentary and bureaucratic control by the educated bourgeoisie in the 1830s and 1840s dissociates the greater part of literary, artistic and musical patronage from the aristocratic and ecclesiastical élite of an ancien regime. Art, letters, music must now compete for response in the emporia of middle-class taste….

The consequence is a peculiar dialectic of false immediacy. Every day, in the urban centres, the new consumer – the middle-class reader, spectator, concert-goer, visitor of art galleries – is directed towards possible objects of perception and valuation. At the same time he is ‘distanced’ from the goods displayed. His personal involvement in the text or painting or symphony, his potential investment in risks of consciousness, are mundanely gauged…

Francis Bacon: Head VI (1949)

Francis Bacon: Head VI (1949)

Don’t you yearn for that Golden Age of authenticity before the French Revolution ruined it for everyone? It gets more insidious:

For Plato, a true adult is one whose discourse bears on the laws and politics of his city… But… [w]ith the exponential anonymity and technicality of public functions, personal commitment to the political has become a more or less stale manoeuvre of delegation. Talk about culture, cultured talk, talk about such talk – ‘have you read this morning’s book review?’, ‘have you seen what the pundits say of the world genius of Bacon and the decline of Henry Moore?’ – fills a certain political vacuum…

Because ‘people’ (ie eligible citizens, but not slaves) lack the direct political access a Greek city-state would have given them, they are happy to make do with journalistic criticism? Are these the only two possibilities? Maybe they read novels, watch films, read newspapers, watch television, drink beer, fall in love, tell jokes, go to work, play sport, look after their children… etc etc etc?

I’m being unfair. But there is so much elitist assertion in this book and so little actual cogent argument. And I must find ways to condense my anger.

Anyway, that’s journalism. Next the academic turns on academia.

The thing is I’d probably agree with much of what he says if his language wasn’t so pompous and Blümpisch.

He complains that most of the clever stuff in modern lit-crit was already being done hundreds if not thousands of years ago:

[T]here is scarcely one among our interpretive-critical methods – the gloss, the footnote, the emendation, the recension of various readings, the critical paraphrase – which was not practised by the ancient Academy and Alexandria. Cicero’s heuristic, mimetic and critical treatments of the Greek legacy constitute the binding model for the scholastic-academic enterprise of the humanities in the West…

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

When lit-crit knew its place, that place was old books. Which was before

…its territorial extension from the canonic to the contemporary.

With rare exceptions, textual commentary of an academic cast is, during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and most of the nineteenth century, brought to bear on the presiding genius of the Greco-Roman source.

The ‘vital distinction’ between the ‘canonic’ (worthy of academic attention) and the ‘contemporary’ (unworthy) has suffered ‘erosion’. And it is all the fault of the Americans. The turn of the 20th century saw American universities importing pedagogic programmes and traditions from their German counterparts but – horror of horrors – applying them to contemporary art and literature:

Democracy is, fundamentally, at odds with the canonic…

…The American genius would democratize eternity…

…Poets, novelists, choreographers, painters of the most derivative or passing interest, are made the object of seminars and dissertations, of undergraduate lectures and post-doctoral research.

One would like to ask: of passing interest to whom? But the floodgates have opened and we are all drowning:

The entire notion of research in modern letters is vitiated by the evidently false postulate that tens of thousands of young men and women will have anything new and just to say about Shakespeare or Keats or Flaubert.

He probably has a point, but it’s a bit rich coming from a Fellow of the British Academy, winner of the Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford, Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard and Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. Perhaps he was never young. Or he always stood head and shoulders above those other tens of thousands.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

Less clear is the inference he draws from this. If he was just berating the opportunism, the careerism, the vicious circularity of modern professional life in the humanities, it would be understandable. But he has a more enticing quarry in his sights:

The Byzantine dominion of secondary and parasitic discourse over immediacy, of the critical over the creative, is itself a symptom. An anxious desire for interposition, for explicative-evaluative mediation between ourselves and the primary, permeates our condition…

…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 of indirection. In the agency of the critic, reviewer or mandarin commentator, we welcome those who can domesticate, who can secularize the mystery and summons of creation.

These are two very different claims. The first is that there is an army of academics lucky enough to be carving careers of doubtful value, in a self-referential South Sea Bubble of secondary, tertiary, quaternary etc discourse, busy dissecting and interpreting non-canonic artefacts that weren’t worth much in the first place. A bit harsh, but George knows this world better than I do. A world with an apparent surfeit of emperors and deficit of new clothes.

The second claim is that it’s a world ‘we’ want, not just because it keeps ‘us’ in food, sex and fame, but because ‘we’ want to be insulated from the real primary presence of art and literature. The implication is that there was an earlier time when there was more direct and authentic aesthetic appreciation going on, but now ‘we’ have wilfully interposed an ‘explicative-evaluative’ barrier between ourselves and this ‘immediacy’.

This second claim does not follow from the first. In all the slabs, joists, beams and architraves of Steinerspeak so far I cannot find any clear foundation for it. Yet I think this is the one that matters for his case. Perhaps he assumes it’s true because he has said it?

More next time…


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

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

3 John CornwellDarwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

4 Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam, 2006.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006: see 4 above.

6 John Cornwell, 2007: see 3 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

2 December 2009 at 11:50 pm

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