Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Era of Theory

George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). 256 pp. $19.95.

Originally published in Commentary (February 1990): 68–70.

We live in an era of theory, George Steiner declares in his new book. Our current philosophies ridicule the search for fundamental truths, call into question language’s capacity to communicate meaning, deny the existence of God. And the worst of these is deconstruction. A French theory first imported into the U.S. seventeen years ago, deconstruction has it that any attempt to discover and speak the truth is predestined to undermine (or “deconstruct”) itself. In the literature departments of American universities especially, the influence of deconstruction has been unsettling. At one time literature may have been considered, in James Joyce's phrase, “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man.” But no more. Now it is taught as the compulsive traitor of its own affirmations, the spiritless undoer of man.

But if this were all there was to it, why would anyone waste his time with literature? Such is the question Steiner poses in his new book. Almost any serious-minded attempt to answer the question, to take seriously the challenge of deconstruction, would have its appeal. The fact that Real Presences is by George Steiner, though, makes this book doubly interesting. Steiner, a longtime fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a professor of literature at the University of Geneva, is one of the best-known and widest-ranging critics writing today, the author of books on Russian novelists, ancient and modern tragedy, the study of language, and the art of translation. He was an early commentator on Holocaust literature and remains a shamelessly highbrow critic of popular culture. Real Presences—his tenth book of criticism—has the intrinsic attractiveness of an important writer’s treatment of an important theme.

It is a theme that Steiner has been contemplating for several years. In the introduction to the 1984 Reader of his work, he wrote that more and more he finds himself trying “to discover whether and in what rational framework it is possible to have a theory and practice of understanding (hermeneutics) and a theory and practice of value judgments (aesthetics) without a theological reinsurance or underwriting.” In Real Presences, he concludes that it is not possible to have one without the other. The new book is an attempt to counter deconstruction with a kind of religious faith. Its title refers to Steiner’s belief that God’s presence is the basis and guarantee of meaning.

Since the 1870’s, Steiner says, when the French surrealist poet Stéphane Mallarmé challenged language's reference to external reality, we have lived in a crisis of meaning of which “the ‘death of God’ is a seminal but only partial articulation.” Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Freud all played their part in the deepening crisis. But it was left to deconstruction to finish the job.

According to Steiner, the new French theory is a menace in essentially three ways. It is a challenge to the consensus which has developed over time as to the greatest examples of human achievement. It is a threat to the notion of a cultural elite, upon which art and education depend. And it stands back of the current assault in American universities on the core curriculum, the “minimal requirements for literacy,” the “syllabus of the indispensable.”

But Steiner forswears any interest in expounding deconstructionist theory or engaging in anti-deconstructionist polemics. Real Presences is neither a primer nor a critical inquiry. Its intention is to clarify “the theological and metaphysical repudiations which lie at the heart of the deconstructive enterprise.” Steiner tries to show how the repudiation of meaning leads inevitably to the rejection of another person’s claims to freedom, or even to disbelief in the existence of other persons altogether. Literature, music, and art “relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours,” Steiner observes. We can find meaning in a work of art if and only if we postulate a conscious agent who has put meanings there for us to find.

On a larger scale, the repudiation of God’s presence in the world rules out all possibility of artistic creation. Man makes art, according to Steiner, in order to compete with God. Artistic creation is counter-creation. “The human maker rages at his coming after,” he writes, “at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form.” In his fury, the artist begets a rival world. Deny the existence of God, however, and you cannot explain the source of the artist’s fury. (Indeed, deconstruction is silent about the motives behind art.) Just as there can be no criticism without a work of art to criticize, so there can be no art without a Creation to contend with.

Steiner's argument is beguiling. Unfortunately, it is not likely to convince many readers, if only because in the end Steiner is less the antagonist of deconstruction than he is an unwitting spokesman for it. For one thing, he is not in the least interested in developing a coherent case against the theory. Although he insists that deconstruction ought not to be credited—it is “manifestly false to human experience,” he says, “to that of the artist as well as to that of the receiver”—he nevertheless unaccountably concludes that on its own terms “the challenge of deconstruction does seem to me irrefutable.” On what basis, then, is he to be believed? His position amounts to saying deconstruction is simultaneously true and false—a self-contradiction that can only fail to trouble someone who is uninterested in serious argument.

Sadly, Steiner is such a critic. “Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street?” he asks. Returning to the point fifty pages later, he observes that “We have seen how the sensory weight of the dream or the terrors of the fictive can blank out the cry in the street.” But asking whether is not seeing how. And Steiner seems unconcerned that he has not shown how. His book is full of speculation but devoid of sustained argument. Instead of developing a coherent case, he is fond of the enigmatic hint, the elusive implication. Deconstructionists write badly, and that, he says, is “symptomatic.” But of what? That he does not say. “Each of these areas of definition and connotation is pertinent,” he mysteriously remarks. Pertinent to what? It is not clear. “Plato’s Symposium, St. Augustine on discourse and dreams, Dante’s Vita Nuova, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Joyce on the epiphanies of desire are of the essence.” Of what, you would be hard-pressed to say. To attribute a propositional assertion to Steiner would be as indecorous as ascribing a fault to Jane Austen.

Steiner declines to press the case against deconstruction, oddly enough, because he himself appears to subscribe to a central doctrine of all postmodern theories of meaning, including deconstruction. “Talk,” he says, “can neither be verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense.” In other words, there are no fundamental truths to which one can appeal. Nor is there logic. There is only rhetoric, the effort to win adherence through sheer persuasion.

What becomes then of the appeal to religious faith? It turns out to be little more than a rhetorical ploy, by means of which the writer tries to conceal the fact that he cannot prove his case. God, for Steiner, is simply another way of talking, and a theology of “real presences” is no more true or false than deconstruction itself—merely another attempt to reconcile oneself to the era of theory.