Sacred Wagers: The Argument Against Deconstructionism

April 1991By Ronald Austin

Ronald Austin is a Hollywood producer, writer, and social worker, and Chairman of the New Oxford Review Forum of Los Angeles.

Real Presences.  By George Steiner. University of Chicago Press. 236. $19.95.



George Steiner’s Real Presences is a brilliant, even essential, book. It is “significant” in that it “signs” God.

Steiner defends Western culture and tradition, in art and religion, against that tradition’s most potent adversaries: its own intellectual apostates. Most importantly, Real Presences is a liberating book in that it reveals the hidden reefs of contemporary criticism. Few, outside of academia, are prepared to navigate the linguistic shoals of semiotics and deconstruction. Yet, as Steiner’s analysis shows, the impact of these “post-modern” concepts is ultimately withering to both criticism and creativity. Real Presences is a highly civilized counter-attack on those reigning high priests of nothingness who have rejected the Western tradition. Like the character in Moliere who discovers he is “speaking prose,” we may be startled into recognizing how deeply implanted in contemporary thought is the idiom of nihilism and despair. Steiner’s critique might help free us from this tutored malaise.

First, a word about the terrain Steiner explores. The term “post-modernism” is as provocative and poorly defined as “modernism” itself. It can mean “after modernism” or “anti-modern.” To define it is to take a stance. My own view is this: If modernism was the attempt to sustain and rekindle the Western tradition in the arts during the rise of the “post-Christian” techno-industrial society — an attempt, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to “make it new” — then post-modernism is what comes after the exhaustion of this historic effort. It is the resentful, floundering search that follows when the “it” that Pound bids us to recover has shattered. Some post-modernists are nihilists; others see themselves as political combatants. The common adversary for most is the Western tradition in art and religion.

To attempt to interpret semiology and deconstructionism is also provocative. Their practitioners insist that they are more methodologies than ideologies, but they are, quite often, intensely ideological and strongly influenced by Marxism, philosophical materialism, and strident positivism. Deconstructionism, in that it questions the delimiting use of language, rejects even a strict definition of itself.

Semiology, derived from linguistics in the early part of the century, is the self-proclaimed “science of signs” which aspires to analyze language and culture with a critical objectivity untainted by associations with metaphysics. In recent times it has been closely related to structuralism, a school of thought often associated with the anthropologist Levi-Strauss. Both methodologies assume that a sign (a “signifier,” which could be literally a stop sign or a complex work of art) derives its meaning not from an intrinsic relationship between the sign and the concept which it signifies but from its place within a system or a structure with its own internal logic. (This is easily demonstrable with stop signs, less so with art.) The goal of both semiology and structuralism is to “demystify” art and aesthetics by finding a “scientific” and nontraditional way of grounding criticism and evaluation. They seek not to discover a higher or deeper “reality” but an internal and systematic coherence within a world of symbols.

Deconstructionism goes further and questions any system of “meaning,” including the concept of an “author,” human or divine, or even a coherent “self.” With semiology and structuralism, it repudiates any premise or claim to knowledge implying a transcendent or sacred presence.

These are the post-modern movements which would raze (de-construct) tradition in the name of liberation. George Steiner is their eloquent adversary.

Steiner has authored works on Heidegger, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. His studies of language and culture — After Babel, The Death of Tragedy, In Bluebeard’s Castle — have been internationally recognized. A professor and a contributor to The New Yorker and other magazines, he has been demeaned by other academics as a “popularizer,” a status he would undoubtedly share with the likes of Toynbee, Mumford, and, probably, Moses.

Antipathy in academia must be mushrooming as a result of this book. Steiner begins with a scathing analysis of what he calls “mandarin madness,” the dilution and trivialization of art and literature by the specialists who “secularize the mystery and summons of creation.” In opposing this stifling “dominance of the secondary and the parasitic,” he asserts that the “best readings of art are art” — and that art itself is a “critical act,” or, as Arnold said, “a criticism of life.” Authentic criticism, which sustains our tradition, comes from a “critique in action,” which links Homer to Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare to Joyce and to the living reader of the moment. This tradition allows us nothing less than “to discover being anew.”

Further, Steiner deplores the current “mendacious notion of research” in the humanities, which apes the exact sciences. “In truth,” he argues, “the bulk of doctoral and postdoctoral ‘research’ into literature [is] nothing more than a grey morass.” Hardly terms of endearment in the faculty lounge!

Steiner’s central arguments go beyond aesthetics. His commitment is to the sacred covenant between man and God, which makes meaning and art possible. As he states, “this essay is a wager on transcendence.” He argues that art may begin in immanence, in the flesh of the human body, “in stone, pigment, reeds,” but does not stop there. “Art lights the continuum between temporality and eternity, between matter and spirit, between Man and the Other.” His goal is to persuade us that serious evaluations of poetry, music, and art will inescapably lead to theological questions.

With the severing of art from the sacred, we find ourselves at the end of the 20th century, “unhoused,” perhaps evicted, from the domain of comprehension and too willing to accept instead the “numbing drone” of fashion and the mass media. Indeed, it is the “break of the covenant between the Word and the world,” Steiner claims, “which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.”

In Real Presences Steiner offers us a precise and provocative history of how the tenets of modernity have degenerated into the nihilism of the postmodern. In the attempt to avoid the immediacy and commitment of art, in settling for the second-rate, for the derivative in an institutional “avant-garde” and the formulaic in mass culture, we moderns are, Steiner maintains, attempting to avoid the “real presence” at the core of life and art.

Steiner confronts the post-modern schools by defining the strict limits of their critical lexicon. After damnation by faint praise in which he acknowledges some stimulation derived from the analytical “acrobatics” of deconstruction, he then begins his own impressive dismantling. First, he exposes the “scientific” claims of semiotics and linguistics, demonstrating that there can be no litmus testing of literature, and that the idea of human speech as merely a game is “radically inadequate.” He concludes that, for all of the post-modern efforts at reduction by means of structural analysis and symbolic coding, art and literature, indeed language itself, remain beyond complete or final analysis. A sign-system of “language” may be subject to internal laws, but what humans experience as “meaning” cannot be reduced to components or created from “below” by phonetics or grammar.

Much of Steiner’s most convincing argumentation is derived from the nature of music. He questions whether “anything meaningful,” in a precise definitional sense, can be written about music. Our experience of music is, at its most profound, “irreducible to reason,” and yet the “truth” of music is at the heart of what defines our humanity. While music is, in one respect, the most “carnal” of the arts, in that its forms and structures are the most inseparable from our senses and nervous system, it is simultaneously the most transcendent, given its power to address duration and closure. Music, at its heights, is “the only free time allowed us prior to death”; it illuminates and modulates the nature of our mortality. His quote from Levi-Strauss gives the gist: “The invention of melody is the supreme mystery of man.”

With an extraordinary fusing of passion and erudition, Steiner renders his final verdict on the semiotic and deconstructionist schools: “portentous banality,” irrefutable within the confines of their own circularity, but “manifestly false to human experience.” Like human consciousness, the concept of “art” itself can be dismissed as an animistic remnant, but the transforming experience art offers testifies against those who would offer an autopsy to prove the absence of a soul.

If post-modernism is the pointless self-advertising of the emptied “self,” then, similarly, the modern inheritance of materialism and positivism has also failed to provide lasting grounds for criticism and interpretation. Earlier assumptions that “meaning” could eventually be rendered into psychological impulses or neurophysiological stimulae also flounder in face of the simplest poem or melody. Nor is criticism susceptible to historical formulae. This is not to deny the importance of historical study which can revitalize and renew tradition, but no set of aesthetic criteria is replaced by another. Stravinsky may draw upon Pergolesi; he does not replace him.

Art always involves, Steiner argues, something “beyond the signifier,” a “surplus value” that cannot be rescinded by any theory of meaning or game. The modern “meaning” of art, and hence its value, has been lost in a futile maze of theorizing. What is left is a kind of “embarrassment,” and, finally, importantly, the gradual recognition of “the mystery of otherness in art.”

It is the frustration of the late 20th-century intellectual, deprived of a religious tradition which would acknowledge the legitimacy of “intuition” or even “vision,” which produces these aesthetic pathologies. Steiner’s historical analysis leaves no doubt as to their anti-theological core. Derrida and Althusser are as overt as was Rimbaud. Deconstruction is a frontal assault on “the logocentric order” of Western metaphysics. The disputed “postulate” is God, particularly the God of Abraham and Isaac, the transcendent “l Am” who is the ground between the sign and the signified, between language and meaning. In deconstruction’s final manifestations, the aesthetic is separated from the ethical, and, predictably, the last “deconstruction” is of the human self.

Steiner then asks: Given this resultant “misere,” this “crisis of feeling,” how can we “go upstream to the living springs” which nourish life and art?

In his exploration of these primal springs, he examines three historic attempts in the Western tradition to systematize the experience of “first being,” the awe-ful encounter with the sacred: Judaism, medieval Scholasticism, and, problematically, psychoanalysis.

In Judaism, as the Torah and the Talmud replaced the lost Temple, an “Ur-text” was created, and the subsequent dialogue with that “unfathomable text” is “the breath of Jewish history and being.” Similarly, the Catholic Church is built on Scripture and patristic canon. The “texts” of both Judaism and Catholicism resist the relativizing of the absolute; they are commonly grounded in nonreductive encounters with the transcendental through revelation, through “root experiences” interpreted yet preserved by tradition and canon. They are our sources of the Word, of Logos, of the Real Presence.

In contrast, psychoanalysis, the secular attempt to delve into the primal, was by its very nature “interminable.” Steiner quotes Wittgenstein: “Freud never shows us how we know where to stop.” Freud’s legacy is, at heart, a “constant decoding without intrinsic or verifiable end.” As with the ideology of Marx, another pseudo-scientific “decoding,” the critical methodology of psychoanalysis ultimately led Western thought further from its primal springs. But the decline of orthodox Freudianism and the collapse of Marxism have, at least, revealed our present Edenic wardrobe.

Steiner’s conclusion, after generous and exhaustive argumentation, is crystalline in logic and yet, somehow, in these “post-Christian” times, astonishing. His central thesis is clearly stated: “The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable meaning of meaning.” And, as to the essential mystery of art: “There is creation because there is a creator.” What can one add, but “Amen”?

This is a very Jewish book, and Steiner’s argument is a deeply Jewish one to which Christians should listen carefully and respectfully. The trunk of our sacred linguistic tree may be the Logos of the Greeks, but our roots are Hebraic. Steiner’s arguments are brilliant and complex, and his historical analysis of the “broken contract” between the human and the sacred is convincing. But, finally, I believe it is a witnessing to art that emerges. His open-hearted receptivity to all that art and poetry offer, the sublimity of both horror and beauty, induces a statement of ancient faith. The Shema, the core prayer of Judaism, is not an argument; it is a reciprocal proclamation of love.

The historic “mutation” which separated modern man from a reassuring filiality with a rational world and led to the radical “un-saying” of the Word, the post-Wittgensteinian silence, has produced tragic consequences for the Jews. The Holocaust, also beyond words, filters every page of this book. Yet, it is, Steiner contends, out of Judaism that much of the challenge to transcendent meaning arose. “Out of Judaism,” he writes, “grown impatient at the everlasting delay of the messianic came strange fruit.” First, Marx, then Freud, now Derrida.

Steiner, in all his work, probes the nexus between art and goodness. He knows that “despotic reductionism” affects more than art. If mankind’s most sublime achievements can be rendered into the illusory, the arbitrary, mere sophisticated caprice, then what is the residual worth of man? Steiner knows that endemic despair is the daimonic font that gave us the Nazi’s concept of the Muselmann, the creature whom they hoped to fashion in the camps: the degraded nonperson to whom death was as meaningless as life. In probing the broken covenant, Steiner’s text could well be Job.

For Steiner, the modern writer whose genius articulates the “break” is Kafka. The dark vision of this Jewish author of prescient tales of horror and totalitarianism excludes even the possibility of the “coming of the messianic.” The balance of the century, from a Jewish perspective, seems to confirm his apocalyptic pessimism. To many Jews, the Holocaust constituted a caesura, a definitive break with previous Jewish ideas of either historical progress or a protective covenant. It is not just the Holocaust that buries Jewish hopes. The emergence of barbarism in Germany questions the very premises of the Enlightenment. To that, add the disappointments of utopian Zionism in the kibbutzim of the 1920s and 1930s, and, finally, the moral collapse of the Russian Revolution.

For an agonized silence to fall between Adonai and his People means painful consequences for all of us. Jews and Christians are bound, like it or not, by mutual bonds and complicity. (I do not think either Heidegger’s well-known, or Wittgenstein’s lesser-known, anti-Semitism is circumstantial or coincidental. If you are “anti-Logos,” Jews will obstruct your way.) But, however painful the lapse, the Jewish art is ultimately dialogue. Steiner reflects that it was “the Hebraic intuition that God is capable of all speech-acts except monologue.” In fact, he asks, following Jewish folklore, didn’t God create man “so that He might hear him tell tales?” In telling this history of thought, Steiner heroically resumes the long story.

We must not, dare not, ascribe the brokenness of the times to anyone but ourselves. The cultural strands of the Christian covenants are also frayed, if not broken. If Kafka’s visions evoked an “abyss of meaning,” it was a Christian writer whose genius enabled him to articulate our own sense of loss and abandonment, and who became the very embodiment of modernism: T.S. Eliot. It was Eliot who brought the radical discontinuity of the French Symbolists into English letters, and only then found his own path through the Waste Land to God, and to the Christian knowledge that “the fire and the rose are one.”

The seeds of modernism are Christian. The blossoming was in the autonomous, liberating development of the arts and sciences. The blight was the pride of autonomy. But the seeds were planted, as Steiner sees it, during the intellectual heights of the medieval Church. The very scale of the Scholastic effort produced “unending commentary” and this, Steiner argues, would prove to offer a destructive “temptation” of a theological magnitude. By the end of the late (post-St. Thomas) Middle Ages, Logos, the Word, was subject to “interpretation without end.”

Similarly, the eminent Catholic historian of medieval thought, Etienne Gilson, noted that “real theologians,” aware that divine reality is far beyond them, never leave a finished interpretation of it, whereas their disciples tend to cling to their formulae rather than to that reality. The followers then try to systematize, bending revelation into human logic and sacrificing “certain essential doctrinal aspects in order to force their doctrine into consistency with itself…. Thus the object is lost from sight, drowned in its own explanation.”

Steiner offers sympathetic insight into Catholic thought. The general Catholic fear that “un-ending re-reading” would lead to metaphorical interpretations and end in agnosticism and de facto schism was, he notes, accurate. In fact, Steiner defines dogma as “hermeneutic punctuation.”

Yet Steiner has a perceptive understanding of Jewish-Christian differences. He notes that the Torah holds the faithful Jewish people in an embrace, a sacred marriage, which is unfolding and historical, but Adonai is still ultimately beyond time and space. Consistent with his Jewish vision, Steiner therefore sees in Christ an “utterly mysterious temporality.” This is, of course, the “scandal” of the Incarnation. But Steiner recognizes that art itself, the struggle to create, is a similar mystery, an attempt, with or without creed, to give lasting but specific form to “the joyous libertarian scandal of resurrection.”

In passages that virtually celebrate art as annunciation, Steiner, again with Hebraic vigor, poses a moral vision against the trivial and opportunistic. “Any thesis that would…put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious.” His comments on “censorship” are sensible and forthright (and reminiscent of Eliot). Art does bear on good and evil, and in ways “so far reaching, that the questions of constraint, of censorship” are “far more challenging than liberal instinct would allow.”

Finally, I would like to comment on a striking parallel between Steiner’s thoughts on the nature of our receptivity to art and Fr. Henri Nouwen’s on the nature of our receptivity to people. Both Steiner and Nouwen employ terms that can be rendered in English as “welcome.” Steiner uses cortesia, from the romantic tradition, to suggest how good art must be received. It is a kind of communion, an exercise in freedom, in fact, “the nearest we can know of the existential realization of freedom.” It is fundamentally a “courtesy” in which we welcome the other (in this case, the artist) as impenetrable yet capable of touching us so profoundly that, miraculously, we recognize ourselves.

Steiner insists that in authentic works of art there is, somehow, the demand that “we change our lives.” They are, in that sense, “annunciatory,” like Rilke’s angels. But we must be free and brave enough to “welcome” them. How pleasantly striking it is that Nouwen, in his Wounded Healer, speaks of offering “hospitality” by a kind of withdrawal of self, the creation of a “free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.” It is a permission given for the “other” to suffer in our presence, which requires an acceptance of our own “woundedness,” and the recognition of our dependency upon God as the source of good, love, and freedom.

Be free and faithful in welcoming art and life. So say the Jewish scholar and the Catholic priest. It is not the first instance when the good and the beautiful were found to be the same.



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