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Real Presences

Real Presences

by George Steiner, Steiner

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Can there be major dimensions of a poem, a painting, a musical composition created in the absence of God? Or, is God always a real presence in the arts? Steiner passionately argues that a transcendent reality grounds all genuine art and human communication.

"A real tour de force. . . . All the virtues of the author's astounding intelligence and compelling


Can there be major dimensions of a poem, a painting, a musical composition created in the absence of God? Or, is God always a real presence in the arts? Steiner passionately argues that a transcendent reality grounds all genuine art and human communication.

"A real tour de force. . . . All the virtues of the author's astounding intelligence and compelling rhetoric are evident from the first sentence onward."—Anthony C. Yu, Journal of Religion

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Steiner asserts moral and metaphysical issues are the basis of all art and that our experience of meaning in music, painting and literature presupposes the existence of God as a ``necessary possibility.'' ``Dense, difficult, rewarding, this passionately argued essay ranges fluently over aesthetics, linguistics, philosophy, post-structuralism, the range of Western culture,'' said PW. (Apr.)
Library Journal
In this dense, prolix book, critic, linguist, novelist, polymath Steiner holds that in the creation of art (especially music), and in its experiencing, there is a fundamental encounter with a ``real presence'' and that, in fact, it is this transcendent reality that grounds all genuine art and human communication. He does not so much argue this in the traditional manner as give a ``transcendental argument'' a la Kant: since so much literature and so many literary figures attest to the thesis, it must be true. Because of its lack of discursive argument, this difficult book will be dissatisfying to philosophers and largely impenetrable to the general reader. But sophisticated readers looking for highly learned literary criticism will find much here to ponder.-- Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Management Lib., Washington, D.C.
A brief philosophical excursis by a highly regarded writer/thinker. Steiner confronts the powerful arguments for analysis of language and form with an allusively dense investigation of literary, artistic and musical creation. He argues, with impressive conviction, that both creation and experience of artistic forms, in a time of a sense of on theological overtones. No bibliography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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University of Chicago Press
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Read an Excerpt

Real Presences

Is there anything in what we say?

By George Steiner


Copyright © 1989 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1184-5




We speak still of 'sunrise' and 'sunset'. We do so as if the Copernican model of the solar system had not replaced, ineradicably, the Ptolemaic. Vacant metaphors, eroded figures of speech, inhabit our vocabulary and grammar. They are caught, tenaciously, in the scaffolding and recesses of our common parlance. There they rattle about like old rags or ghosts in the attic.

This is the reason why rational men and women, particularly in the scientific and technological realities of the West, still refer to 'God'. This is why the postulate of the existence of God persists in so many unconsidered turns of phrase and allusion. No plausible reflection or belief underwrites His presence. Nor does any intelligible evidence. Where God clings to our culture, to our routines of discourse, He is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech. So Nietzsche (and many after him).

This essay argues the reverse.

It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence. I will put forward the argument that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical form, infers the necessary possibility of this 'real presence'. The seeming paradox of a 'necessary possibility' is, very precisely, that which the poem, the painting, the musical composition are at liberty to explore and to enact.

This study will contend that the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.

This wager—it is that of Descartes, of Kant and of every poet, artist, composer of whom we have explicit record—predicates the presence of a realness, of a 'substantiation' (the theological reach of this word is obvious) within language and form. It supposes a passage, beyond the fictive or the purely pragmatic, from meaning to meaningfulness. The conjecture is that 'God' is, not because our grammar is outworn; but that grammar lives and generates worlds because there is the wager on God.

Such a conjecture may, wherever it has been or is put forward, be wholly erroneous. If it is embarrassed, it will most certainly be so.


One of the radical spirits in current thought has defined the task of this sombre age as "learning anew to be human". On a more restricted scale, we must, I think, learn anew what is comprised within a full experience of created sense, of the enigma of creation as it is made sensible in the poem, in the painting, in the musical statement.

To do so, I want to start with a parable or rational fiction.

Imagine a society in which all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited. In this society all discourse, oral or written, about serious books or paintings or pieces of music is held to be illicit verbiage.

The sole book reviews in this imaginary community would be those which we find in the philosophical gazettes of the eighteenth and the quarterlies of the nineteenth century: dispassionate summaries of the new publication together with representative extracts and quotations. There would be no journals of literary criticism; no academic seminars, lectures or colloquies on this or that poet, playwright, novelist; no 'James Joyce quarterlies' or 'Faulkner newsletters'; no interpretations of, no essays of opinion on, sensibility in Keats or robustness in Fielding.

Texts would, where necessary, continue to be established and edited in the most rigorous, lucid form. This form is philological, a crucial term and concept which I want to articulate in this essay. What would be banned is the thousandth article or book on the true meanings of Hamlet and the article immediately following in rebuttal, qualification or augment. I am imagining a counter-Platonic republic from which the reviewer and the critic have been banished; a republic for writers and readers.

Correspondingly, there would be catalogues, reasoned and scrupulous, of an artist's œuvre, of art exhibitions, museums, public and private collections. Reproductions of the best quality would be readily available. But there would be an interdict on art criticism, on journalistic reviews of painters, sculptors and architects. There would be no further tomes on symbolism in Giorgione; no essays on the psyche of Goya or essays on these essays. Again, the order of comment allowed would be 'philological', which is to say of an explicative and historically contextual kind. The problem arising from the fact that all explication is, in some measure, evaluative and critical is, to be sure, a challenge.

At the heart of these prohibitions would be that on reviews, critiques, discursive interpretations (as opposed to analyses) of musical compositions. I believe the matter of music to be central to that of the meanings of man, of man's access to or abstention from metaphysical experience. Our capacities to compose and to respond to musical form and sense directly implicate the mystery of the human condition. To ask 'what is music?' may well be one way of asking 'what is man?' One must not flinch from such terms and from the fundamental semantic improprieties which they may entail. These elusive but also immediate categories of speech, of questioning, have their own imperative and clarity. The point is that these categories need to be lived before they can be stated.

Thus there would, in our fiction, be a prodigality of musical scores, of guides to performance and audition. There would be no overnight or weekly verdicts on new works, no verbal descriptions of the daemonic in Beethoven or of death wishes in Schubert. Where analysis is required, it would be of a pragmatic, anonymous sort. Once more, the enabling format would be that which I will seek to define and characterize as 'philological'.

In short, I am construing a society, a politics of the primary; of immediacies in respect of texts, works of art and musical compositions. The aim is a mode of education, a definition of values devoid, to the greatest possible extent, of 'meta-texts': this is to say, of texts about texts (or paintings or music), of academic, journalistic and academic-journalistic—today, the dominant format—talk about the aesthetic. A city for painters, poets, composers, choreographers, rather than one for art, literary, musical or ballet critics and reviewers, either in the market-place or in academe.

Would literature, music and the arts in this imaginary community exist and evolve unexamined, unevaluated, disbarred from the energies of interpretation and the disciplines of understanding? Does the ostracism of high gossip (the German word Gerede conveys the exact tenor of busy vacancy) cause a blank and passive silence—silence can also be of the most active, answering quality—around the life of the creative imagination?

By no means.


The very question reflects our current misère. It tells of the dominance of the secondary and the parasitic. It betrays a radical misconception of the functions of interpretation and of hermeneun'cs. This latter word is inhabited by the god Hermes, patron of reading and, by virtue of his role as messenger between the gods and the living, between the living and the dead, patron also of the resistance of meaning to mortality. Hermeneutics is normally defined as signifying the systematic methods and practices of explication, of the interpretative exposition of texts, particularly scriptural and classical. By extension, such methods and practices apply to the readings of a painting, sculpture or sonata. Throughout this essay, I shall try to elucidate hermeneutics as defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.

The three principal senses of 'interpretation' give us vital guidance.

An interpreter is a decipherer and communicator of meanings. He is a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions. He is, in essence', an executant, one who 'acts out' the material before him so as to give it intelligible life. Hence the third major sense of 'interpretation'. An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia. A dancer interprets Balanchine's choreography. A violinist a Bach partita. In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation.

Such understanding is simultaneously analytical and critical. Each performance of a dramatic text or musical score is a critique in the most vital sense of the term: it is an act of penetrative response which makes sense sensible. The 'dramatic critic' par excellence is the actor and the producer who, with and through the actor, tests and carries out the potentialities of meaning in the play. The true hermeneutic of drama is staging (even the reading out loud of a play will, usually, cut far deeper than any theatrical review). In turn, no musicology, no music criticism, can tell us as much as the action of meaning which is performance. It is when we experience and compare different interpretations, this is to say performances, of the same ballet, symphony or quartet, that we enter the life of comprehension.

Observe the moral aspect (it will be fundamental to my case). Unlike the reviewer, the literary critic, the academic vivisector and judge, the executant invests his own being in the process of interpretation. His readings, his enactments of chosen meanings and values, are not those of external survey. They are a commitment at risk, a response which is, in the root sense, responsible. To what, save pride of intellect or professional peerage, is the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?

Interpretative response under pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability. The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibility. We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological. It is the task of this study to spell out the implications of this threefold accountability. The immediate point is this: in respect of meaning and of valuation in the arts, our master intelligencers are the performers.

This is manifest of music, drama, ballet. It is less evidently the case in regard to non-dramatic literature. Yet here, as well, understanding can be made action and immediacy. Much great poetry, not only that of Pindar's Odes or the Homeric epics, but that of Milton, of Tennyson, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, calls for recitation. The meanings of poetry and the music of those meanings, which we call metrics, are also of the human body. The echoes of sensibility which they elicit are visceral and tactile. There is major prose no less focused on oral articulation. The diverse musicalities, the pitch and cadence in Gibbon, in Dickens, in Ruskin, are most resonant to active comprehension when read aloud. The erosion of such reading from most adult practices has muted primary traditions in both poetry and prose.

In reference to language and the musical score, enacted interpretation can also be inward. The private reader or listener can become an executant of felt meaning when he learns the poem or the musical passage by heart. To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Jonson's term, "ingestion", is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a 'pace-maker' in the growth and vital complication of our identity. No exegesis or criticism from without can so directly incorporate within us the formal means, the principles of executive organization of a semantic fact, be it verbal or musical. Accurate recollection and resort in remembrance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poemorsonata. Intum, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew). The archaic Greek belief that memory is the mother of the Muses expresses a fundamental insight into the nature of the arts and of the mind.

The issues here are political and social in the strongest sense. A cultivation of trained, shared remembrance sets a society in natural touch with its own past. What matters even more, it safeguards the core of individuality. What is committed to memory and susceptible of recall constitutes the ballast of the self. The pressures of political exaction, the detergent tide of social conformity, cannot tear it from us. In solitude, public or private, the poem remembered, the score played inside us, are the custodians and remembrancers (another somewhat archaic designation on which my argument will draw) of what is resistant, of what must be kept inviolate in our psyche.

Under censorship and persecution, much of the finest in modern Russian poetry was passed from mouth to mouth and recited inwardly. The indispensable reserves of protest, of authentic record, of irony, in Akhmatova, in Mandelstam and in Pasternak, have been preserved and mutely published in the editions of personal memory.

In our own licensed social systems, learning by heart has been largely erased from secondary schooling and the habits of literacy. The electronic volume and fidelity of the computerized data bank and of processes of automatic retrieval will further weaken the sinews of individual memory. Stimulus and suggestion are of an increasingly mechanical and collective quality. Encountered in easy resort to electronic media of representation, much of music and of literature remains purely external. The distinction is that between 'consumption' and 'ingestion'. The danger is that the text or music will lose what physics calls its 'critical mass', its implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self.

Thus our imaginary city is one in which men and women practise the arts of reading, of music, of painting or sculpture, in the most direct ways possible. The great majority, who are themselves neither writers, nor painters, nor composers, will, so far as it lies in their capabilities and freedom, be respondents, answerers in action. They will learn by heart, perceiving the elemental pulse of love implicit in that idiom; knowing that the 'amateur' is the lover (amatore) of that which he knows and performs. The interpositions of academic-journalistic paraphrase, commentary, adjudication, have been removed. Interpretation is, to the largest possible degree, lived.

But does this mean, nevertheless, that criticism in the stricter sense, that considered arguments on aesthetic phenomena, on form and worth, are missing?

Again, a misconception is operative.


All serious art, music and literature is a critical act. It is so, firstly, in the sense of Matthew Arnold's phrase: "a criticism of life". Be it realistic, fantastic, Utopian or satiric, the construct of the artist is a counter-statement to the world. Aesthetic means embody concentrated, selective interactions between the constraints of the observed and the boundless possibilities of the imagined. Such formed intensity of sight and of speculative ordering is, always, a critique. It says that things might be (have been, shall be) otherwise.

But literature and the arts are also criticism in a more particular and practical sense. They embody an expository reflection on, a value judgement of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.

No stupid literature, art or music lasts. Aesthetic creation is intelligent in the highest degree. The intelligence of a major artist can be that of sovereign intellectuality. The minds of Dante or of Proust are among the most analytic, systematically informed, of which we have record. The political acumen of a Dostoevsky or a Conrad is difficult to match. Witness the theoretical rigour of a Dürer, of a Schoenberg. But intellectuality is only one facet of creative intelligence; it need not be dominant. More than ordinary men or women, the significant painter, sculptor, musician or poet relates the raw material, the anarchic prodigalities of consciousness and sub-consciousness to the latencies, often unperceived, untapped before him, of articulation. This translation out of the inarticulate and the private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallization and investment of introspection and control. We lack the right word for the extreme energizing and governance of instinct, for the ordered enlistment of intuition, which mark the artist. That intelligence of the highest strength, be it lodged in the sculptor's hands drumming on a table or in Coleridge's dreams, is at work, is obvious. 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 from within art, literature and music are of a penetrative authority rarely equalled by those offered from outside, by those propounded by the non-creator, this is to say the reviewer, the critic, the academic.


Excerpted from Real Presences by George Steiner. Copyright © 1989 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

George Steiner has written a great many books during his long and distinguished career as a literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, translator, and educator. He was professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, Lord Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature and Fellow of St Anne's College at Oxford University, and Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University.

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