thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #8

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It’s like dreaming you’re walking in the half-light next to a high but apparently loosely textured hedge. The hedge looks as if you could get right inside it – not so dense you’d only press in an inch or two. Surely you could walk right through it without much difficulty? Perhaps in your dream you think there’s something or somewhere on the other side of the hedge which you are trying to get to. So you take a short cut.

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

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2#3; #4; #5; #6; and #7.

Alas, the half-light has halved to quarter-light, and now you are inside it the hedge is a lot thicker than it seemed in the half-light. Partly because of your surprise you begin to lose direction: you try to come out the way you came but the way isn’t there any more. The quarter-light has halved again to almost darkness and the hedge is far more tangled and dense than you ever imagined, and you wonder what on earth made you think it would be a short cut. And then you can’t remember where it was supposed to be a short cut to…

This is what reading George Steiner’s Real Presences is like.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

We inhabit a world, says Steiner, where the secondary is primary to the primary, and the primary is secondary to the secondary. It’s actually even worse than that:

We have texts about the possibility and epistemological status of preceding secondary texts. There was, for example, Wordsworth. Thereafter came the flood of comment on Wordsworth. Today, the ardour burns in the paper on the semantic possibilities or impossibilities of writing about Wordsworth…

He asks:

How can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’? Does such an image of the primal have any legitimacy?

Well, to an extent I think he’s invented a problem which he now wants to find a clever solution to. There is a world outside academia, and that outside world isn’t just music and book reviews in half-baked tabloids.

To give a cheesy example – but not so cheesy that its cheesiness invalidates it – a parent’s first sight of their first or latest baby must at least sometimes count as an encounter with ‘first being’? The world could have 100 times the academic meta-meta-texts on Romantic poets, and people would still hate their bosses or fall in love.

Or perhaps I misunderstand the point. Perhaps the point is not to do with authentic reality per se, but to do with navigating like a super-learned Speke against the current of (meta-)ntext to whatever there might be at its source.

So we shall sail, wade or trudge on, to see what further enlightenment his quest may bring us.

His question (Does such an image of the primal have any legitimacy?) arises, he says,

fundamentally, at three moments in the Western tradition.

The three are rabbinic exegesis in Judaism; mediaeval Christian scholasticism; and psychoanalysis. He then gives a characteristically laboured account of each of these.

I need to take a breath. So I think his point is to present three historic examples not just of digging through ‘material’ to get to ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, but of digging through layers of text to get to original meaning. The meaning may not necessarily be intended meaning – as the example of psychoanalysis illustrates. But the digging seems to be from secondary (tertiary, quaternary etc) layers of text (meaning) through (down?) to (or towards?) the primal text (meaning). Maybe ‘text’ is a bit misleading in the primal context, as it may not pre-exist: it may be the task of the ‘digger’ to reveal it – and therefore effectively to construct it?

Another question is whether ‘primal’ here means ‘original’ as in first in sequence (as in cause followed by effect?); or ‘logically prior’ (in the sense of something from which the secondary can be deduced); or something else? I am still not 100% clear. I wonder if George is 100% clear what he means by all these words he has stitched together?

Enough preamble. Let’s do Judaism, where

unending commentary and commentary upon commentary are elemental. Talmudic exegesis exfoliates into uninterrupted study of and commentary on the Talmud. The lamps of explication must burn unquenched before the tabernacle. Hermeneutic unendingness and survival in exile are, I believe, kindred.

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

Siege and destruction of Jerusalem

Again that feeling of suffocation. So Judaism will live forever because it is always possible to reinterpret the reinterpretation of the nth reinterpretation of holy text? (Of course it isn’t just Steiner who says this.) The text and meta-text and endless exegetic study replace the Temple the Romans destroyed in 70 CE.

There are two key terms in ‘survival in exile’. Firstly:

all commentary is itself an act of exile. All exegesis and gloss transports [sic] the text into some measure of distance and banishment.

But it is also an act of survival:

the commentary underwrites… the continued authority and survival of the primary discourse. It liberates the life of meaning from that of historical-geographical contingency…

This reading without end represents the foremost guarantee of Jewish identity. …It has proved to be the instrument of improbable survival.

Whenever I read about this (not just in Real Presences) I ask myself why, why? I think of cultures which did not morph into museums of themselves, but passed away instead: Vikings, Etruscans, Carthaginians; or blended and then passed away as independent currents: Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Romans, Ancient Greeks.

The rabbinic answer to the dilemma of the unending commentary is one of moral action and enlightened conduct. The hermeneutic exposition is not an end in itself. It aims to translate into normative instruction meanings indwelling in the manifold previsions of the sacred message. …Via ever-renewed interpretations, this very same biblical verse, this very same parable, shall, in times and places of need as yet unknown, deploy illuminations and practical, existential applications as yet unperceived.

Again: why, why? If the point is to come up with ethical guidance why must it be twisted and wrung out of old words? Was there – or is there still – an even higher purpose to prove the illuminations come from those old words and nowhere else?

Mediaeval scholastic scene

Mediaeval scholastic scene

Then it’s mediaeval Christian scholasticism and we get even more tangled up:

Self-replicating and variant, the helix of scholastic commentary winds around the stem of the scriptural and patristic canon. …The fine-nerved severities of formal analysis, the branching nuances of grammatical-semantic probing in the arts of reading of medieval schoolmen, no longer are a part of general or, indeed, privileged literacy. If they were, much on recent semiotics and grammatology would seem derivative from that earlier phenomenology and methodology of extreme scruple…

This appetite, together with the postulate of a fourfold and ascending scale of understanding, from the literal and the moralizing, to the allegorical and the anagogical or purely spiritual… begets unending commentary. Scholastic and clerical authorities were acutely aware of the dilemma.

Indeed: same dilemma as the ones the rabbis identified. But mediaeval Christianity had a characteristically political solution:

The primary had to be protected from the choking growth of the secondary. Papal and councillary efforts were made to determine the true and everlasting meanings of the revealed…

[E]xplicative and legislative decrees promulgated by Rome and by the custodians of orthodoxy in medieval Paris… proclaim that the primary text can mean this and this, but not that.

The third ‘trial of methodological and applied insight into the relations between primary and secondary orders of enunciation’ is psychoanalysis. This is another

infinite series. Each unit in the associative chain does not only connect horizontally and in linear sequence with the next; it can itself become the starting point for an unbounded set of new linked connotations, associations and recall.

In this ‘resolutely secular’ context the sequence ends not with perceived ethical enlightenment or by doctrinal decree, but when the hour’s consultation is up or with some equally ‘arbitrary’ closure.

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1947

Ludwig Wittgenstein 1947

Steiner mentions Wittgenstein’s discomfort with this familiar dilemma of ‘semantic unendingness’ in psychoanalysis:

[Freud] wants to say that whatever happens in a dream will be found to be connected with some wish which analysis can bring to light. But this procedure of free association and so on is queer, because Freud never shows how we know where to stop—where is the right solution. Sometimes he says that the right solution, or the right analysis, is the one that satisfies the patient. Sometimes he says that the doctor knows what the right solution or analysis of the dream is whereas the patient doesn’t: the doctor can say that the patient is wrong.

The reason why he calls one sort of analysis the right one, does not seem to be a matter of evidence. Neither is the proposition that hallucinations, and so dreams, are wish fulfilments…3

Back to Steiner (alas). As with therapy, so with Freudian commentary on art and literature:

Knowing no dogmatic terminality, psychoanalytic commentary on literature and the arts, its reinterpretation of precedent psychoanalytic readings – witness the tertiary literature on Freud’s explications of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo, of Leonardo, of Dostoevsky or of Poe – are without end.

Steiner sees this interminability in

psychoanalytic pursuits of meaning… [as] …illustrative of all interpretive and critical treatment of the aesthetic. … [T]he very methodologies and techniques which would restore to us the presence of the source, of the primary, surround, suffocate that presence with their own autonomous mass. The tree dies under the hungry weight of the vines.

Which is kind of where we came in. But more to come.


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

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

3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief, Edited by Cyril Barrett, Blackwell, Oxford, 1978.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

15 December 2009 at 9:41 pm

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