Whispers of the gods #10
I desperately wanted this to be my last post on Real presences1 in particular and George Steiner in general. Reading Real presences has been driving me mad and has put me off wanting to read anything by George Steiner ever again.
I’ve covered the first section (A SECONDARY CITY) in far too much detail, and it only just lays a few foundations for his argument. The next section (THE BROKEN CONTRACT) starts by focusing on something akin to philosophy of language. Every page has at least two or three assertions which either don’t make any sense to me or, if I think I do understand them, I don’t agree with.
But the last thing I want to do is start a point-by-point counter-argument, as that really could be the last thing I do. I don’t know if it was deliberate or just ironic that A SECONDARY CITY devoted so many words to three examples of endless chains of interpretation but endlessness is what I have begun to associate with Real presences and I have to engineer a controlled stop.
I must try to pass over the pages of idiosyncratic if not dubious assertion. But I can’t resist one little quote. Double negatives tend to obscure rather than clarify, so not infrequently I have to remind myself to avoid them. Behold, from Real presences:
Writing, also, offers what comes very near to being a disproof of the impossibility of the unending:…
Isn’t that a triple negative? As it happens the rest of the sentence is no clearer:
…in the libido scribendi of Sade’s prose, punctuation marks are nothing more than a pause for breath, scornfully conceded, in a language act which aims to exhaust, to exploit devouringly, the entirety of the sensory sets, series and combinations latent in imagining.
While we’re on the subject of negativity:
[T]he unboundedness of discursive potentiality has its negative side. The unarrested infinity of conceivable propositions and statements entails the logic of nullity and of nihilism. In so far as they are language, this is to say intelligibly spoken or written, all affirmations, all ‘proofs’ of the existence or non-existence of God are unbarred to negation. In the city of words, equal legitimacy attaches to the conviction that the predication of God’s existentiality lies at the source of human speech and constitutes its final dignitas; and to the view of the logical positivists that such predication has the same status as nonsense rhymes.
Steiner seems to have moved from the uncharacteristically plain English of ‘Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything’ (which could well be true) to the quite false conclusion that anything that is said is equally true – for what else can ‘legitimate’ mean in this context?
He does something similar when he talks about aesthetic language:
Because semantic means are unconstrained, anything can be said or written about any other semantic act, about any other construct or form of expressive signification. There is unbounded licence of possible statement about each and every text, painting, statue, piece of music and, in natural consequence, on each and every secondary or tertiary comment or explication arising from them. Even as nothing in our physiological equipment or in the lexicon and rules of speech prevents us from uttering the irreparable and the untrue, so there is no conceivable arrest, no internal or external prohibition – except in the wholly contingent sense of censorship or taboo – on the enunciation of any aesthetic proposition.
That Balzac could pronounce the novels of Ann Radcliffe to be superior to those of Stendhal…, that Tolstoy could proclaim King Lear to be “beneath serious criticism”, that Nietzsche could judge Bizet to be a finer musician than Wagner, …are wholly legitimate products of the uncircumscribed nature of the semantic field and of the unmapped variousness of the human psyche.
…[I]nasmuch as the generation and communicative verbalization of all interpretations and value-judgements are of the order of language, all elucidation and criticism of literature, music and the arts must operate within the undecidability of unbounded sign-systems. Aesthetic perception knows no Archimedean point outside discourse. The root of all talk is talk.
Talk can neither be verified or falsified in any rigorous sense. This is the open secret which hermeneutics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Croce, have laboured to exorcize or to conceal from themselves and their clients…
Please forgive the long quotation. But I wanted to illustrate how this avalanche of polysyllabic erudition still doesn’t hide what seems a very simple blunder.
Yes it is possible to say anything about anything. ‘The chain of signs is infinite’: happy to agree. It may also be that aesthetic statements cannot be verified or falsified, cannot be true or false. But if aesthetic statements cannot be verified or falsified, it is not because they are texts about texts, part of that infinite chain of signs.
(i) This sentence is six words long.
(ii) This sentence is five words long.
(iii) Sentence (i) is six words long.
(iv) Sentence (i) is five words long.
(v) Sentence (iii) is true.
(vi) Sentence (iii) is false.
Sentences (i) and (ii) are both ‘texts’ and ‘meta-texts’ as they are about themselves. Sentence (i) is true and sentence (ii) is false.
Sentence (iii) is a meta-text as it is about sentence (i). It is true. Sentence (iv) is also a meta-text about sentence (i), but it is false.
Sentence (v) is a ‘meta-meta-text’ – as it is about sentence (iii) which is itself a meta-text – and it is true. Sentence (vi) is also a meta-meta-text about meta-text (iii), and it is false.
We know sentences (i), (iii) and (v) are true because they can be verified – by counting the words in sentence (i). The same counting is what falsifies sentences (ii), (iv) and (vi).
I have deliberately chosen apparently ‘frivolous’ examples to highlight the flaw in Steiner’s assertion. Aesthetic judgments and literary interpretations may be impossible to verify or falsify but, if so, it is not because they are texts about texts. If there is a reason, the reason is something else.
It is not as if this is a minor thread in Real presences. The fallacy is going from ‘x is true of A’ and ‘y is true of A’ to ‘x is true of A because y is true of A’.
Here is another trick:
One word can cripple a human relation, can do dirt on hope. The knives of saying cut deepest. Yet the identical instrument, lexical, syntactic, semantic, is that of revelation, of ecstasy, of the wonder of understanding that is communion. Reciprocally, speech that can articulate the ethics of Socrates, the parables of Christ, the master-building of being in Shakespeare or Hölderlin, can, by exactly the same virtue of unconstrained potentiality, blueprint and legislate the death camps and chronicle the torture chamber. The mountebank’s virtuosity with words of a Hitler is anti-matter, it realizes a counter-Logos which conceptualizes and then enacts the deconstruction of the humane.
Or as the King James Bible says far more concisely and poetically:
… for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust3
Steiner is trying to make out that is something unique about the ‘unconstrained potentiality’ of language which can feed his thesis about language and meaning. But it won’t wash. Socrates, Jesus and Hitler breathed the same air, they all ate bread. They used the same human faculty of will-power. The heat energy which stops generations of humans from freezing to death every winter is the same heat energy which incinerated the victims of Auschwitz. Steiner seems to get so carried away by the unconstrained potentiality of all the thousands of words he knows that he ends up saying far less than he thinks he says.
I’m now going to make a big jump. To get to the point where I can say goodbye to Steiner I need to ignore another twenty-odd pages of Steinerspeak. It will have to be next time. And I really hope next time is the last time.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.
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