thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #9

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Last time in our discussion of George Steiner’s Real presences1 we got up to his two historic examples of endless interpretation of holy texts (rabbinic exegesis in Judaism and mediaeval scholasticism) and his one secular historic example of endless proliferation of associated connotations (Freudian psychoanalysis).

Ninth 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; #6; #7; and #8.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

What do these three have in common? All three are series of sentences, phrases, language fragments, texts, which are related in specific ways, and where the driving force is a search for an ‘answer’. In the case of rabbinic exegesis and mediaeval Christian scholasticism it is the answer to what the holy texts ‘mean’ – in the sense of ‘what are they about?’ as well as ‘what do they mean for us?’

In the case of psychoanalysis the answer is therapeutic: Why are you disturbed? Why are you suffering? Why do you behave the way you do? (Eg compulsively, neurotically, obsessively.) What does your behaviour mean?

In all three cases there is no ultimately satisfactory criterion for when the ‘answer’ has been reached, or whether the answer really is an answer. In all three cases the ‘answer’ arguably comes from outside.

In rabbinic exegesis the rule of thumb is that the holy text must mean something ethically good – if an interpretation suggests something ethically negative, the exegete must keep on searching for possible meanings until an ethically positive one results. Who is the judge of what is ethically positive? Surely the exegete himself, or his colleagues?

In mediaeval scholasticism the arbiter is whoever has the political power to arbitrate. So the answer comes from the power structure, not the text.

In psychoanalysis the answer comes from the therapist or patient. The therapist’s alarm clock goes off because the next appointment is due. Or he or she decides the patient is sufficiently cured. Or the patient does. By extension, says Steiner, any Freudian interpretation of works of art or literature is similarly endless, and any termination similarly arbitrary.

Steiner gives us a taste of another endlessness – his apparently endless disgust with the age he lives in and the culture he observes around him:

The imbalance between the secondary and its object, between the ‘text’… and the explicative-evaluative commentary [it] occasion[s], is very nearly grotesque. Parasitic discourse feeds upon living utterance; as in microbiological food-chains the parasitic in turn feeds upon itself. Criticism, meta-criticism, dia-criticism, the criticism of criticism, pullulate.

Lions hunting buffalo

The non-parasitic (lions) feeding on itself (buffalo)

The parasitic feeds on itself? Yes some parasites feed on other parasites, but they do not generally feed on themselves, even in the murky world of the microbiological. Some non-parasitic heterotrophs (eg lions) feed on other non-parasitic heterotrophs (eg buffalo). So what? Not sure the image has the edge he thinks it has. Maybe it was an attempt to distract attention from the fact that what he is doing is criticism of criticism of criticism.

The mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon, the disputations between structuralists, post-structuralists, meta-structuralists and deconstructionists, the attention accorded both in the academy and the media to theoreticians and publicists of the aesthetic – all these carry within their bustling pretence the germs of more or less rapid decay. …It can be argued that the sepulchre, heaped around the primary text by exegesis and criticism, is made of ephemeral plaster. The inflation of the parasitic is halted when the constructs of spuriousness collapse under their own weight, when the zero-point of trust and felt meaning is reached…

We flinch from the immediate pressures of mystery in poetic, in aesthetic acts of creation as we do from the realisation of our diminished humanity, of all that is literally bestial in the murderousness and gadgetry of this age…

This is real ‘Golden Age’ stuff, and there are pages of it. When was civilisation so much more wonderful than now? And I don’t mean just the bits in stately homes and art galleries.

His answer is that we must

redefine… the life of meaning in the text, in music, in art. We must come to recognise… a meaningfulness which is that of a freedom of giving and of reception beyond the constraints of immanence…

…The pertinent categories of inference and felt intelligibility are theological and metaphysical. [My emphasis.]

Ahah. Quite a claim. More next time…


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

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

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

19 December 2009 at 3:02 pm

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