Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 71, Volume 16 Number 3, January - February 1990.

Earlier this year George Steiner published Real Presences. This book-length essay is at once profoundly vulnerable - a kind of confession - and remorselessly challenging. We invited three critics to consider the book: it touches on themes central to the concerns of PN Review. The texture of Steiner's argument and the pressure of his rhetoric themselves challenge our modes of discourse. Here is a book that makes claims not for one text or another, but for the centrality of the arts themselves, and which acknowledges reading, listening, viewing, as crucial creative acts. It insists that the encounter between the individual and the work matters, and not for merely aesthetic reasons. Real Presences stands at a theological threshold.

In an insistently secular world of literary discourse, the book can be read as a throw-back to the world of nineteenth-century critics hungry for transcendence but unable to reach up to their god, or it can be read as radical, a step back from the void. Into the most contradictory world of contemporary criticism, with discontinuity between different discourses, orientations and traditions, Steiner sides with readers. He is with symbolists rather than deconstructionists in his sense of language and its ontologies, and stands (superbly arrogant) for the humanities against the strategies of post-structuralists. A friend of high modernism, then, rather than post-modernism. His vision of integrative art, an art which when achieved acquires purpose in acquiring 'presence' - 'real presence' - is difficult, timely and anachronistic. Anachronistic because, in a curious sense (curious in the context of Steiner's earlier critical writings), it does not at first sight seem to allow for the pressing moral weight of recent history. In order to attempt the leap of Real Presences, Steiner has deliberately to lighten the grim load he has carried so eloquently in the past. But this is his most ambitious and perilous project.

Legitimately he casts himself in the role, not of critic but of scholar/reader, the uncommon 'common reader' at a time of crisis, on a darkling plain. His mission is to dismiss false gods and seek a true one. Real Presences is preliminary: its sequel will be fascinating, since here he defines a position in which he cannot linger: he has proposed the 'wager with transcendence' - accepted it not in an academic spirit, but as something spiritually crucial. The game is in progress. How does he, how do we, get from authorial authority to transcendent authority? Why should narrative authority require legitimizing by transcendent authority? Why should a sense of an ending (pace Kermode) in a modern novel require a metaphysical sense of an ending, a teleology?

For Steiner the achieved work does not seem to raise but to answer those questions by example, a proof the attentive receptor senses but cannot define. Yet a critic who reaches this position must somehow demonstrate the process and evaluate its effect. More than that, he will have to identify and name the transcendence with which the wager has been conducted. Yet he deals with what is unparaphrasable. The language of psychology will not help him; the languages of theology will not answer. Works which transcend reason (or resist paraphrase and structural analysis) may point to a common transcendence (or merely a common resistance). Which is it? Or are we being teased out of thought, but to no end?

One can object that the wager is unnecessary: we have outlived its necessity, indeed emancipated ourselves from it. Yet Steiner properly suggests that the arts are born out of the wager: if it is not made again and again, art becomes a mere exercise.

Real Presences gives the impression of having been written at speed. The sentences, charged with recondite allusions, gather like thunder-clouds. Rage and awe vie with one another. Rage at the trahison des clercs, awe at those works of literature, music and art of the past and (miraculously) of the present, which evade reductive criticism and flout the relativisms of the day by granting not the promise, but the actuality of transcendence. At the heart of the essay is awe, and an attempt to understand its implications. This book works by induction, religious induction.

Art as sacrament? Trans-substantiation as the underlying metaphor? In a way, but not in the way of the last fin de siècle. Steiner uses critical argument in an attempt to demonstrate what contemporary criticism has singly failed to demonstrate, what only the kinds of art he admires can demonstrate. And if Steiner in the end can only point, accusingly at those who relativise art, raptly to the ineffable yet for him (as for those who distrust the secularism of current critical discourse) real presence in the works he adduces, he has drawn into the heart of critical debate the very radical concerns which have pressed for admission for two decades. This book is, on a smaller scale, in an even more beleaguered time than Newman's, a Grammar of Assent. It is not a vehicle of grace, but it witnesses to the inherence of grace in certain works. This is Rilke's project: 'I do not want to sunder art from life; I want them, somehow or somewhere, to be one meaning.' It is not surprising that the Duino Elegies feature in Steiner's essay, or that the 'somehow or somewhere' - vague though they are - are also of the utmost urgency.

It is not surprising that in a century such as ours we should experience again a sacramental hunger. I take Steiner's hunger to be sacramental because of the word Presence in his title and the meanings it gathers as the essay develops. Steiner puts these issues back on the critical agenda. Some of his English critics distrust his allusive argument, his flights and sleights of rhetoric, the fact that he expects us to bring a little cultural luggage with us on our reading. Their reductive hubris will retard the development of a debate central to the humanities. It is a question of real, not abstract value, going beyond questions of discourse and terminology. We have no common language - and nor, yet, does Steiner - for the critical task that follows from his wager. But we now have a place to start from.

This item is taken from PN Review 71, Volume 16 Number 3, January - February 1990.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image