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Open Book: Views & Reviews

No. 9

May, 1992

Copyright (c) 1992 Biblical Horizons


George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 236 pp., index. Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

On the back cover of Real Presences, George Steiner is described as an "Extraordinary Fellow" at Churchill College, Cambridge. A more fitting description of Steiner would be difficult to find. His books range across philosophy, literary criticism, history, the "social sciences," aesthetic theory, and even theology, and are marked everywhere by an energetic, if opaque, style and an intimidatingly thorough grasp of European history and literature.

In his most recent book, Steiner formulates what might be called a "transcendental argument" in the field of aesthetic theory. As he summarizes the point,

Or, more pointedly, a wager on the meaning of meaning is a wager on transcendence (p. 4). In short, the human experience of art and literature cannot be explained without recourse to theology. A coherent account of language and art is "underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence" (p. 3).

To prove this thesis, Steiner begins with a thought experiment. He imagines a community in which "all talk about the arts, music and literature is prohibited." The artistic output of this community would consist entirely of primary texts of literature, paintings and statues, music written and performed, but would not include any critical, scholarly reflection on that output. Steiner posits this hypothetical community to make several points.

First, he suggests that, despite a prohibition on criticism as such, the art and literature of such a community would interpreted and evaluated. But the interpretation and evaluation would take the form of additional works of art, music, and literature, rather than the form of scholarly critical studies. And, Steiner points out, this kind of "criticism" already exists within Western art, music, and literature. Virgil’s Aeneid is a critical reading of Homer; the Divine Comedy, in turn, is Dante’s Christianized response to Virgil; Milton reflects on Dante, Pope on Milton, and Pound and Joyce interact with the whole tradition. Similar chains of interaction exist in other arts; the best "interpretation" of music is performance. More generally, Steiner concludes that "The best readings of art are art" (p. 17).

Second, Steiner presents this hypothetical community in order to stress the absence of direct contact with art and literature in modern culture. The ephemeral dominates; brief reviews of books, movies, plays, and art exhibitions substitute for actual experience. Little "ingestion" takes place: "it is the `digest’ that prevails" (p. 24). The volume of substantial critical output overwhelms; about 25,000 books, articles, dissertations, and essays have been written on Hamlet alone since the late 18th century! As the artistic creations are buried beneath layer after layer of criticism and commentary, direct encounter with art fades. The secondary ends up suffocating the primary whose presence it is intended to restore: "The tree dies under the hungry weight of the vines" (p. 47). This "inflation of the parasitic" is, Steiner argues, a purposeful defense against the mysteries and terror of a real encounter with artistic creation.

In his second chapter, Steiner takes up the deconstructionist challenge to "logo-centric" Western civilization. Deconstruction culminates an important movement in the history of the West, which began in the late 19th century with the breaking of the "covenant between the word and the world" (p. 93). Prior to that time, even philosophical skeptics of earlier generations retained their trust in the intelligibility of language. With Mallarme and Rimbaud, the West entered the era of the "After-Word." The distrust in the intelligibility of language is reflected in modern analytic philosophy, linguistic theory, psychoanalysis and several trends in literary criticism, deconstruction being the chief of these.

One of the chief claims of deconstructionism’s proponents is that "meaning" is a theological concept. The notion that words signify non-linguistic reality is a theological delusion. Texts refer not to extra-textual reality, but to other texts. Texts do not have a determinable meaning. Truth claims in texts dissolve into "intertextuality." The job of the critics is therefore not to clarify the meaning of a text by linguistic, historical, or other methods, but simply to play, interminably, with the text.

Steiner agrees with several of the claims of deconstructionism and attempts to carve out a role for the critic (what he calls "philology") that avoids both arbitrary play and premature closure of interpretation. More generally, he concludes that, on their assumptions, the deconstructionists are entirely correct. In fact, he says, meaning is a theological concept, and denying the existence of God does undermine the possibility of coherent discourse. Yet, Steiner goes on to argue that deconstructionism, however logically consistent, cannot account for the reality of human experience of art and literature. Therefore, their assumptions must be wrong.

That experience of art Steiner characterizes as a "wobble" in our consciousness of time, an experience of deja vu, a sense of homecoming. He claims that this experience is rooted in the fact that artistic creation is mimetic of the original act of creation. The mystery of art is the mystery of creation: Why is there something and not nothing? The free encounter with art mimics the freedom of the original Creator: the artist is free to create or not, the viewer or listener is free to welcome the work of art or to resist it. Even when the artist sets himself up as a rival to the Creator, and his work as a counter-creation, art remains mimetic: "Even a Van Gogh cannot, altogether, `make it new’" (p. 204). The sense of the presence of "otherness" in art is "background radiation" of the original act of creation (p. 210). In short, it is "poetry, art and music which relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours" (p. 226).

This is, I trust, a fair summary of Steiner’s main argument. What are we to make of it? The reader is left wondering about the significance of the problem Steiner is addressing. Why does it matter whether people go to the symphony or listen to the radio, whether they examine reproductions of Rodin and Picasso or go to the museum to see the real thing? In answer to that, Steiner suggests that "the eclipse of the humanities, in their primary sense and presentness, in today’s culture and society, implicates that of the humane" (p. 49). But Steiner knows as well as anyone, having argued the point at some length in his Eliot lectures (published as In Bluebeard’s Castle), that a cultivated aesthetic sense has, in every century including our own, coexisted with the most horrible brutality. Art provides little protection against barbarism.

This leads to the more serious set of problems with Steiner’s analysis. Though Steiner wishes to reintroduce theological language into aesthetic theory, his "God" is a cipher, what Van Til called a "limiting concept." This "God" is a necessary assumption of aesthetic theory, but for Steiner this "God" is not necessarily the God of the Scriptures. As Calvin insisted, such a God is a creation of the human mind, and therefore an idol.

Thus, Steiner ultimately falls back on the stale idolatries of Matthew Arnold, who sought redemption in liberal education, exposure to the "best that had been thought and said." Steiner echoes Arnold in his claim that "we shall not come home to the facts of our unhousedness, of our eviction from a central humanity in the face of the tidal provocations of political barbarism and technocratic servitude, if we do not redefine, if we do not re-experience, the life of meaning in the text, in music, in art" (pp. 49-50). In the light of such statements, the full meaning of Steiner’s sacramental understanding of art (art as the chief medium of God’s presence) becomes clear. In this scheme, human symbols replace God’s symbols as the signs and seals of His presence.

Steiner’s argument can, in part, be coopted by the Christian. The Bible does indeed indicate that artistic creation (and other forms of human creativity) are part of being God’s image. Steiner’s claim that artistic creation mimics the original creation is a sound insight, and basic to any Christian aesthetic theory.

If Steiner goes to far in claiming virtual sacramental status for art, what, from a Biblical perspective, accounts for the intensity of our response to art, literature, and music? Several considerations seem to be paramount. It is not obvious, first of all, that an encounter with art is different in kind from an encounter with the creation. Isn’t the experience we have listening to a Mozart Violin Concerto similar to the experience of looking across a valley from a mountaintop? Once we recognize the continuity in our experience, we can account for the intensity and apparently "religious" quality of that experience by recalling that the whole of the creation reveals the Creator. The reason we feel awe when we look at the starlit sky is because the Awesome Creator is revealed there. Art, literature, and music have a particular power to awaken awe because the artist or musician has distilled and concentrated God’s revelation in creation and history.

Having said that, the Christian is free to admit that there is a mysterious quality to art, as there is to the whole creation. The artist’s creation as well as the artist himself reveals God. To comprehend fully the attraction of art would be to transcend our creaturely status.





E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.

This volume, part of the University of Pennsylvania Press’s superb Middle Ages Series, traces the history of Christian reflection on the Song of Songs — "the most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianity" (p. 6) — from Origen’s 3rd-century commentary and homilies through the 12th-century blossoming of the genre. Along the way, Prof. Matter, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, gives us some stimulating glimpses of medieval hermeneutical method, and of the way that biblical texts were transformed, through the medium of commentary, into art and poetry.

Matter’s historical study touches on literary critical concerns, specifically the theory of genre. She argues "that medieval biblical commentary in general should be understood as a broad genre because the treatises display a clear consciousness of belonging to a type, a method, a mode of literature" (p. 7). Within this large genre, Matter contends, commentary on the Song of Songs is a special "sub-genre" of their own.

In the beginning, there was Origen: This holds as true for commentary on the Song of Songs as for so many areas of early Christian theology and exegesis. Origen’s commentary and homilies, translated by Rufinus and Jerome, had a powerful impact on Western interpreters, including Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Several of the prominent themes of Origen’s work reappear over and over again in later commentaries. Origen’s allegorical style of was so dominant that, Matter says, there was no such thing as a non-allegorical medieval commentary on Canticles. Many later commentators, moreover, adopted Origen’s fluid interpretation of the character of the Bride; here the Bride is a type of the Church, there the type of the individual soul. On many more specific issues, Origen’s interpretations enjoyed a long life.

A study of commentaries on the Song of Songs necessarily leads into a consideration of the Western Latin hermeneutic, which was given classical expression by the 5th-century monk, John Cassian. "Jerusalem," he wrote, "may be understood in four ways:

Though apparently arbitrary, this style of exegesis was controlled by the assumptions that exegesis would confirm theology and that the various senses were ultimately reconcilable. "Medieval allegory operates on two narrative levels, passing from one to the other by means of a commonly recognized code" (p. 55), and is "far more complicated than a simple substitution of the heavenly for the earthly" (p. 56). Medieval exegesis was of a piece with the medieval worldview, which posited a complex of correspondences between past and future, heaven and earth, God and creation, etc.

The most elaborate medieval commentary on Canticles was undoubtedly the Expositio in Cantica Canticorum of Honorius Augustodunensis, an obscure English Benedictine who spent much of his life in Germany. Honorius made conscious use of the four levels of interpretation, each of which was further subdivided into carnal and spiritual. As Matter illustrates,

Honorius suggests that the Song of Songs divides into four parts, since "the bride of Christ of whom the poem sings, is gathered together from the four corners of the world, by the four Evangelists, into the wedding bed of the Bridegroom" (p. 63). Each part of the Son highlights one of the four ages of redemptive history (patriarchs and prophets, restoration from Babylon, Christian Church, after the death of Antichrist). These ages are characterized in the Song of Songs by four Brides coming from four different directions using four different modes of transportation (daughter of Pharaoh from the east in a chariot, daughter of King of Babylon from the south on a camel, Sunamita from the West in a four-wheeled cart, and Mandrake from the North, who is picked by the hand).

Using this framework, Honorius examines each section of the Song from the four perspectives of medieval exegesis, though "the interpretation of Honorius is overwhelmingly in the allegorical mode, having to do with the love between Christ and the Church" (p. 75). The ten parts of the Groom’s body described in 5:11-16 are related to the ten orders of the Church. The Bride asleep on a bed is a picture of an unfaithful Church, ill-prepared for the coming Incarnation.

Several developments in the commentary tradition are worth highlighting. First, commentators on the Song frequently used the ideal set forth in the text as a criterion by which to judge and condemn the corruption of the Church. Gregory the Great’s influential commentary draws a monastic ideal out of the text, with which he criticizes the worldliness of the Church of his day, and the Venerable Bede uses his commentary to launch an attack on the Pelagian Julian. Second, beginning in the 11th century, there is a marked shift from an ecclesiological to a mystical orientation. Under the influence of monastic interpreters, the Bride of the Song came to be interpreted less and less as the Church, and more and more as the individual soul in its ascetic and mystical quest for union with God. The ecclesiological dimension is rarely lost, but it is definitely submerged. The "allegorical" sense tends to be swallowed by the "topological."

Finally, beginning in the 12th century, there is a pronounced emphasis on the connection between the Bride of the Song and the Virgin Mary. This association has a liturgical origin; selections from the Song were prominent in the feast of the Assumption of Mary, and gradually the liturgical connection found its way into commentaries. Mary appeared as a New Eve, as a type of the Church, as an embodiment of the monastic virtues.

Matter’s book concludes with a chapter describing how the commentary tradition was diffused into medieval culture. There were essentially three modes of transmission: vernacular commentaries, vernacular devotional books that drew on the Song commentaries, and poetry. She suggests also several areas that require further study: the connection of the Song of Songs commentary genre with "exegesis of the Apocalypse, its relation to Latin liturgy, its further development in vernacular literature, its influence on Protestant piety" (p. 202).

Matter’s book is superb. Her method is chiefly to summarize carefully the contents of the books she is examining, with a minimum of commentary, a method that not only introduces the non-specialist to a range of difficult-to-find material, but also one that permits the medieval commentators to speak for themselves. She is aware of current historiographical trends, but doesn’t permit theory to overwhelm her presentation.

Despite, or perhaps because of the narrow confines of her chosen topic, the book opens a window on the whole medieval world. From her precise and manageable vantage point, she raises and sheds light on many large questions about medieval intellectual history and culture: the relationship between Western art and the biblical commentary tradition, the transmission of the Christian Latinity of the monasteries into the various languages and cultures of Christendom, attitudes toward sexuality and the body.

This is medieval intellectual/cultural history as it should be written.






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