Real Presences Analysis
by George Steiner

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Real Presences Analysis

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

To many people, the term “literary critic” immediately suggests a figure like the apocryphal J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., in the film DEAD POETS SOCIETY--he whose grotesquely pedantic pages on the evaluation of poetry are torn from the students’ textbooks at the command of their poetry-loving teacher, the unconventional Mr. Keating. George Steiner is a literary critic--indeed, one who is legendary for his erudition--yet his message is not unlike Mr. Keating’s. Deploring the extent to which academic criticism has occluded the literature, the painting, the music that is its ostensible subject, he urges his readers to engage great works of art at firsthand, wrestling with their mysteries and their imperious demands.

In speaking of literature (and art in general) in this way, Steiner is challenging some of the most deeply entrenched assumptions of contemporary thought. Most emphatically, he is challenging the rejection of transcendence that pervades our culture, from the mandarin texts of deconstruction to the casual nihilism of films and popular fiction. Part sermon, part argument, part celebration, REAL PRESENCES is an inspired and inspiring book.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, June 1, 1989, p.824.

Listener. CXXI, June 1, 1989, p.26.

London Review of Books. XI, June 1, 1989, p.10.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, June 9, 1989, p.11.

The Observer. May 21, 1989, p.53.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 9, 1989, p.49.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 19, 1989, p.533.

Real Presences

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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,...

(The entire section is 2,155 words.)