Introduction to an Artistic Commentary on
George Steiner's Real Presences
The purpose of what you have read so far is to introduce the philosophical context in which the theme of art in Part I will be connected to the goal of articulating the first principle of all possible Socratic philosophies of education. Our previous talk of the importance of high quality attentiveness and of doing our own original thinking in our quest for meaning will now join Max's own experimentation with those ideas in the pages that follow.
On the next page, we will begin to look at the relationship between secondary talk and living the examined life through our unusual reading of George Steiner's book Real Presences. George Steiner, who is a polymath and one of the great literary minds of our time, taught various subjects including English, comparative literature and poetry at the universities of Geneva, Oxford and Harvard. We found it difficult to read Steiner like an academic. Our ignorance, when compared to Steiner's extraordinary knowledge on the subjects of human creativity, limited our efforts. Our own recognition of ignorance was met by the Socratic call to persist in seeking understanding and do our own original thinking. Max's response to this call was to attempt to live out the ideas in Real Presences for over twenty years. The Socratic imperative to intimately visit and revisit important questions such as "What is justice?" or "What is virtue?" is not limited to such questions. It applies to a broader scope of the expression of our attentiveness in living an examined life. Max has read and reread the text of Steiner's book over the course of many years, but the vast bulk of his energy in interpreting Steiner was expressed by attempting to personally live out the ideas he found in Steiner's text in his quest to understand them. The examinination and testing of ideas is the heart of living an examined life.
When Max first opened his paperback copy of Real Presences, he was working on a master's degree and was immersed in philosophical and textual studies. During the first years of reading Real Presences, his days were filled with many activities such as contemplating the nature of the multi-verse, juggling an vast array of theoretical understandings regarding the interpretation of literature, and embracing the philological love of wading through the manuscript histories and languages of ancient texts. In this setting, he first heard Steiner's message that some of his academic habits may not only fail to bring him to an optimal understanding of art (literature, music, painting, etc.), but that those habits may actually be severely damaging to his capacity for depth in relating to art. Max found that the heart of this message is not limited to art, but has fundamental relevance to the human capacity for depth in understanding one another and ourselves.
Real Presences is about giving our best attentiveness to art. Steiner addresses the deficiencies of attentiveness in the academic study of the arts through a focus on the living posture of our human character in our relatedness to art. Max's journey of trying to live out the ideas of Real Presences led to the construction of a critical reading of Real Presences based on artistic experience. Although his experiences of composing orchestral music, playing in orchestras, writing poetry, drawing and creating graphic art also influenced his perspective on the ideas in Steiner's book, the art experiences that are discussed in this essay's reading of Real Presences are the years of his own experimental involvements with playing the piano. This essay will respond to George Steiner's text through two such experiments.
The first is Max's interpretation of a Rachmaninoff composition on the piano. The Rachmaninoff experience led Max to a different way of thinking about what it means to open ourselves to the Real Presence of art, helped him assess the relationship between Steiner's imaginary secondary city of academic studies and his counter-Platonic republic of artists, and illuminated the fundamental importance of the human instinct to embrace beauty as it relates to living an examined life.
The second experiment was conducted daily for four years prior to writing this essay and is still ongoing. It is based on Max's experience of learning to play the 2nd movement from Beethoven's Piano Sonata no.8 (the Sonata Pathétique). The experience of solving his initial difficulty with voicing the extraordinarily beautiful cantabile theme of the 2nd movement led him to a different understanding of Steiner's position that a transcendent reality is the ground of all meaning in human creativity. Our assessment of the relationship between transcendence and immanence in creative behavior serves to set up the articulation of the first Socratic principle of all education.
As this essay presents ideas on the secondary structures found in academic discourse, reflects on experiences of playing Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, ponders metaphors of philological practice, peers into the relationship between the human experience of beauty and horror, contemplates the relationship of transcendence and immanence to the human experience of meaning, and walks with a touch of Buddhist philosophy, it may seem like we have forgotten that we are writing an essay on a Socratic philosophy of education. This strange brew of experiences and thoughts was a labor of distilling vitally essential principles that must be a part of all expressions of the Socratic method and philosophy. Thinking about the Socratic method and philosophy by our reflecting on Max's own artistic experience may be a road less traveled when compared to traditional studies of Plato. The theme of the human relationship to art is relevant to the topics of the Socratic method and Socratic philosophy because the character with which human beings handle their instincts to seek beauty and meaning is at the very heart of living an examined life.
This kind of experienced based study of a text is what Max calls "the participatory philology of ideas". Participatory philology provides a useful balance between a purely theoretical focus and the actual living of an examined life. The purpose of this type of material in Part I of this essay is to illustrate Max's personal process in the examination of ideas. Experimenting first hand and digging into a subject, principle, practice or idea with Max's own living, is his deepest connection to all he calls Socratic. His experience of interpreting Steiner through both theory and an actual participation in his ideas are a segment of the road he traveled in his journey of thinking about and living out a balance between a Platonic focus on theoretical abstraction and a Socratic practice of actually living an examined life. To use the idea of justice for an example: It is not defining justice as an idealized Platonic form, but becoming just in daily life that holds the greatest value of any Socratic focus. It is not enough to know the Platonic form of justice. Socratic education is about learning how to give the fullness of our attentiveness to life so that, what ever justice is, it may flow through us with abundant fertility. The shift from the Platonic search for the abstract definition of justice to the Socratic will to become just in our daily living is an example of an important dynamic for deepening our experience of art. This dynamic is also part of the foundation of the Socratic philosophy of education presented in this essay. An over emphasis on tidy theoretical abstraction allows for damaging oversimplifications in our handling of the tactile messiness of real living. When form is used to express human meaning, it must touch upon extraordinary complexity in the human process of interpretation and living. An overly theoretical interpretation of art and life glosses over the human depth of the experience. As we said on page seven regarding Steiner's notice that the academic study of the arts desires to imitate science in its operations, "Our scientific habits may help us keep tempo with the rhythm of the music, but they cannot hear the rapture of the melody."
Pages 4-6 will introduce Steiner's book Real Presences and the issues we address through Max's Rachmaninoff experience on page 7. Although page 7 is the only section actually titled as an artistic commentary, the rest of Part I is an artistic commentary on Real Presences.