Real Presences is a humanistic affirmation of the power of literature, art, and music as well as an attack on those modern critical systems that would deny both its completeness and its significant place in our lives. George Steiner believes that we are at a turning point in history—a point at which earlier certainties and values have for the first time been called into question. He does not deny the force of the arguments of deconstructive or psychoanalytic critics, but he does seek a way out of the void which, he contends, they have created for those who love literature, music, and art. His argument is divided into three parts: a parable about the creation of a Utopia that bars criticism and secondary literature of all kinds pertaining to the arts; a direct attack on deconstruction; and an affirmation of the power of the arts.
In the first section of the book, “A Secondary City,” Steiner begins with a parable rather than a direct argument. He imagines a community in which “all discourse, oral or written, about serious books or painting or pieces of music is held to be illicit verbiage.” Why is such a radical step necessary? According to Steiner, criticism has increasingly interfered with the direct experience of works of art. The immediate response of the reader (or listener or viewer) is replaced by a distinctly secondary experience, that of interpretation. The best criticism, for Steiner, is not that found in academic journals or high-toned quarterlies but in art itself The response of one work of art to another, of James Joyce to Homer for example, constitutes the most significant form of criticism: “All serious art, music, and literature is a critical act.” Steiner does acknowledge that there is a place for criticism as usually defined; the problem is that art has been buried by criticism, and criticism of criticism. The secondary has usurped the place of the primary.
Steiner traces this reversal of values both to the egalitarian revolutions that have shaped Western societies since the late eighteenth century and to the dominance of the American university system, which follows German research models. “Research” is done on every imaginable topic in the humanities, and a false scientific model is substituted for the immediate response to a work of art. “The customary ways in which we experience the aesthetic in our twentieth-century culture are opposite to the ideals of immediacy, of personal engagement.” To recover that immediacy, Steiner contends, we must return to the root, the Logos or word. Such a return would involve restoring the sacredness of artistic creation; for Steiner, the issue is essentially a theological one.
Most readers will sympathize with Steiner’s opening argument. Yet he does not, perhaps, do justice to criticism. While criticism can—and often does—take the place of firsthand experience of the arts, it can also serve to articulate and refine one’s immediate response. Moreover, as critics such as Northrop Frye have suggested, a society that tries to do without criticism is a barbaric one.
In the second essay, “The Broken Covenant,” Steiner deals directly with the claims of modern critical theory. Steiner attempts to call into question the validity of any “theory” in the humanities. Theories, according to Steiner, deal with the verifiable; the humanities, in contrast, are marked by “indeterminacy”: “Here the concept of theory and the theoretical, in any responsible sense, is either a self-flattering delusion or a misappropriation from the domain of the sciences.” This section seems to be both an unconvincing and excessively protracted argument that eliminates the problem by redefining “theory” in an extremely narrow fashion. In fact, later in the book Steiner makes a number of references to “literary theories.” Steiner does feel that “analysis” of a specific work of art can be worthwhile, indeed necessary, but he disputes any claim to a “theory” in the humanities.
Some readers may feel that Steiner dispenses with the claims to literary theory too quickly here, but he does confront deconstructive criticism more directly in the next portion of this essay. He claims that the “covenant” between work and object has been broken in the last hundred years. He views modern criticism, especially deconstruction, as similar to the “satyr play” that comes after a tragedy. The self-consciously belated mood of deconstructive criticism is evident in its focus, not on texts as meaningful wholes, but on isolated passages—breaks, ruptures, fissures that reveal the text’s subversion of the ideology that it ostensibly proclaims. Steiner does not attempt to refute the arguments or theories of these critics;...