Westminster in the very early 1990’s was a surprisingly hopeful place. However, the IRA was still waging war on UK mainland and London’s Underground was particularly vulnerable. Journeys were frequently a nightmare as just when you thought you were making progress and would get to your meeting in good time, the tube would stop in the middle of nowhere for three, five or fifteen minutes. Having a book to read, not just office papers, was essential. Novels obviously were a lifeline, but so too were non-fictional works such as George Steiner’s Real Presences.
Many have testified to the complexity of Steiner’s thought and this certainly isn’t a quick or easy read. However, with a little patience and generosity, the essay very soon pays dividends.
According to Steiner, “any coherent account of the capacity of human to communicate meaning or feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence”. For our communicative acts to have meaning, we must at least “wager” or “assume” that there is a ‘transcendental guarantee’ to ground them in reality. In the arts we encounter real meaning, real presences, and this means that encounters with art are fundamentally religious, calling forth a response of hospitality.
In part one, A Secondary City, Steiner mourns, almost elegiacally, at the almost inexorable triumph of criticism over creativity. From journalism to literary studies, the focus is now on secondary rather than primary experience. Instead of encountering the meaning of art in its visceral immediacy, we prefer to discuss its meaning more obliquely, and indeed more safely, by invoking and emphasising the multiplicity of its possible interpretations.
In part two Steiner expounds The Broken Contract. The contract here is between the word and the world. We have lost the “semantic trust” that vouches for the truth that our words actually describe the world. Steiner’s unwelcome spectre here is deconstructionism which has eroded our confidence in any ontological grounding of human communication; instead, words are merely signs which refer to other signs, and it is signs “all the way down”. He writes, “where there is no ‘face of God’ for the semantic marker to turn, there can be no transcendent or decidable intelligibility”.
In part three, Presences, Steiner argues that something in art meets us, giving us an intense experience of presence. This experience of presence reciprocally calls for an ethics of reception: we must learn to receive the presence of the other with hospitality. Art, indeed, tests us in our capacity for this reception. To respect the otherness of the presence we find in art requires the development of courtesy, hospitality, and tact: “in which we allow ourselves to touch or not to touch, to be touched or not be touched by the presence of the other... The issue is that of civility...towards the inward savour of things”.
Steiner concludes his essay by arguing that our ‘immanent frame’ is in danger of suffocating our artistic ability. He writes, “where God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer felt...certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable”.
For some people, not least those who haven’t got to grips with their anti-Semitism, Steiner can be dismissed as an honorary DWEM. However, Steiner’s thought is as generous as it is profound. ‘Wokefulness’ can take many forms. Certainly Real Presences, along with In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture and After Babel, should be welcome on any bookshelf.