Real Presences
by George Steiner
University of Chicago Press, 236 pages, $19.95

Of the major literary critics of our period there is, apart from Northrop Frye, but one other whose work requires us to reach toward such a term as “greatness,” and this is George Steiner. The shocking massiveness of his learning that extends across the entire gamut of humanistic studies, the prodigiousness of his competence in the major Western languages, the speculative power of his hermeneutical reflections, the brilliance of his textual commentary, the piercing eloquence of his prose”all this helps to make Language and Silence, In Bluebeard’s Castle, Extra-Territorial, After Babel, Antigones, and his various other books form a kind of oeuvre that, in its puissant majesty, is virtually without parallel. And yet there is an enormous amount of ill-will toward him that is harbored within the university community on both sides of the Atlantic. As one of his friendlier critics remarked not long ago, “he can seem too vehement, hortatory, overbearing; he raises his voice in public.” Moreover, beyond the special kind of intensity and earnestness that belong to his public persona, conventional academicians cannot forgive his polymathic virtuosity, and thus they ask dismissively, “But what is his field?”

So, expectably, his new book, Real Presences, has been savaged in TLS and The London Review of Books and numerous other journals. Yet it presents a fine example of Steiner at full stretch. It must be said that it is a book whose rhetoric is flawed, and one finds it more than a little strange that the beautiful precision and economy that generally mark his prose in his work for The New Yorker and in his major books at so many points in his latest work give way to a profusion of jargon and a bloatedness of syntax that disfigure the whole. But it is equally strange that, for all the blemishes of this sort that one regretfully remarks, the book does nevertheless manage to sing in a quite powerful way, and its sunny musicality is in large part an affair of the substance of its argument.

The reigning savants of the present time insist that literary texts can tell us nothing at all about anything outside the world of textuality itself. Indeed, as they would have it, the signifiers of which all discourse is comprised only bear upon themselves the traces of still other signifiers, so that the very distinction between the signifier and the signified proves in the end to be an utter delusion. To seek the meaning of any given signifier is only to be confronted with an alternative signifier, and thus any kind of terminal meaning is forever scattered and “not yet,” so much so that even the reality of one’s own selfhood must be found to be something thoroughly insubstantial and vaporous: in short, our condemnation is to “the prison-house of language.” “It is,” says Steiner, “this break of the covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.”

In this late time of “the ‘after-Word,’” when logos and cosmos are no longer considered to meet and when “the very concept and realizability of reference, nomination, predication . . . are put in question,” Steiner refuses any simple optimism about the possibility of subverting deconstructionist ideology. As he says, “On its own terms and planes of argument . . . the challenge of deconstruction does seem to me irrefutable.” And since what Paul Ricoeur calls “the dismantled fortress of consciousness” is not to be “restored or made stormproof by replacing this or that fallen brick,” Steiner wants instead to register a passionate plea that we risk “a wager on transcendence.” He sees with absolute clarity that the most essential repudiation lying at the heart of the whole deconstructive enterprise is a theological repudiation, and thus, as he feels, the one kind of faith (in unfaith) may be countered only by another kind of faith. Indeed, that he for the title of this book should have borrowed from the lexicon of eucharistic theology the term that speaks of the habitancy of the body and blood of Christ within the two species of the Christian sacrament was on his part a carefully considered tactic, for what he wants most principally to suggest is that, ultimately, the predicative power that hermeneutics has traditionally attributed to human discourse is underwritten by a theological guarantee, by a radical faith in the immanence of God, this immanence itself in turn making possible significant junctures between word and world. Since the dawn of modernity we have borrowed “vital currency . . . from the bank or treasure-house of theology,” and, having “traded upon, made small change of the reserves of transcendent authority,” Steiner wants now to invite us to consider whether the time may not have come for us to make some return deposit by way of partial repayment of “these massive loans.”

True, his argument dances round the whole question of transcendence in ever so gingerly a way. But the affidavit offered by the book is, I think, intended to be a profoundly personal testimony”in some ways perhaps more so than anything else he has ever written”and thus he does not hesitate finally to assert that it is the immanence of the divine that must stand for any radical hermeneutics as the ultimate guarantor of meaning. It is not a proposition likely to endear him to conventional secular wisdom, but Steiner is one with sufficient courage to say, “No matter . . . ” And it is this courage and the fierceness of the candor it prompts that have yielded a book that, if patiently read, may lighten a bit the darkness that lowers today in the world of literary theory.

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of English at the University of Virginia.