Exploring the Structure of the Artistic
If repetion and variation are fundamental to the human condition then they must also be fundamental to artistic expression. As we continue to explore repetition and variation in their relation to the creation and experience of meaning, we will look at George Steiner's definition of literature. The most interesting aspect of this definition is that it is constructed in relationship to meaning (semantics). More specifically, the definition is constructed in terms of measuring the variations that can arise in the interpretation of literature. Steiner defines literature on page 83 of Real Presences,
"I would define literature as the maximization of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression."
I have seen this definition used by critics of Steiner to make fun of his writing. Real Presences is known to be a bit difficult to read. In my own reading of Steiner, I had to use what I have called Steiner algebra. My ignorance of the history of literature, art, history, religion, and science is so great compared to Steiner that I have had to just let many of his many references to people and created works become place keeping variables in my mind in order to gain clearer access to the principles being discussed.
I seems this is not an entirely unique experience. I recall sitting in a bar one night reading Plato and having a beer. The woman next to me asked what I was doing and, in response to hearing about my reading of Steiner's book via Steiner algebra, told me a similar story of reading Real Presences. She said that she blacked out the names of unknown artists and works to get a clearer take on what was being said. In order to read Steiner, I had to be comfortable in my own capacity to embrace my own ignorance with liberal hospitality and courteous grace. One of the lessons that lead me to move away from Steiner's transcendental focus on meaning to an embrace of the immanence of my own mind through the idea of hospitality to the stranger within was the act of reading Real Presences through an abiding Socratic recognition of my own ignorance. Given some of the detailed nitpicking of Real Presences I have seen by some literary critics and other readers of Real Presences who are very informed about all the referenced artists and works in Steiner's text, it seems to me there is more value to remaining open to studying the underlying principles regardless of the validity or cogency of Steiner's illustrations. As a Socratic philosopher, this value is founded upon the necessity of responding to my own ignorance.
Conducting Socratic studies in a bar helped to teach me about the practical value of extending the hospitality that is worthy of our debt to great art to another human being. Being open to the underlying principles of a text allows one to take the best of the text into their living. This is the heart of "participatory philology" (this essay Part I-p. 11). One night I was working on the manuscript to this essay. Next to me was a man who was very drunk and decided that he needed to articulate something to me about my essay. There were two things that would have made some people want to dismiss his contribution. The first was that he was so drunk, and slurred so badly, that I could barely understand him. The second was that the first understandable words out of his mouth was, "What you are doing is trash and you should throw it out." Part of the art of interpreting art and life is to allow a very different point of view to have its place and its say.
It took a bit of courage to enter into dialogue with him. This was because, for everything he said, I had to keep asking him to repeat himself two or three times. Every time I asked him to repeat himself, he looked at me as if the thing he wanted most out of life was to back hand me across the face. After about ten minutes of interacting with him, he suddenly came out with a gem of wisdom that pertained to how I could better balance my work energies. I had been extremely taxed by the energy I needed to give to my various projects and this was a wonderful piece of luck. If I had offered this man only my knee jerk reaction to the stereotype that drunk men are not worth talking to instead of opening myself up to his real presence, I would have missed the opportunity. Human beings do not always walk around in life with all that is gold and gemstone within them being worn on their sleeves. The gems of mind and heart, which are most valuable within us, are often buried beneath the odd particularities of our defects, obsessions of focus, and habits. Whether the obstacle is the inebriating effect of booze or that of religion, the debilitating addiction of drugs or that of political philosophy, the epistemological peculiarities of bigotry or science, we must extend the effort and hospitality to bring forth the beauty and value that is buried within us and within those next to us.
To allow this man to bring forth the gem of wisdom that was within him, it was necessary for me to have a temperance of character worthy of his real presence. I needed to manifest something akin to " 'Courtesy of mind', 'scruple of perception', 'mannerliness of understanding' (Steiner, p. 149)". In this case, it required that I ignore my culture's preconceptions about drunks. Like a literary critic who embraces his favorite theory of reading a text, I could have embraced my culture's preexisting understanding about the value of drunks. I needed to ignore theory and let the conversation flow, even if it flew in the face of everything I knew. I needed to be a real presence to this man so he could be a real presence to me. The second thing required in order to manifest any scruple of perception at all was to overcome my instinct to avoid tedious repetition. Although I found it unseemly to my preconceptions of discourse and possibly personally dangerous, I had to ask this man again and again to repeat himself over and over.
In order to benefit from his wisdom, I needed to open myself up to this man and pay the same attention to him as I would a great work of art. The assumption in hospitable attentiveness is that there is something of value to attend to. My openness to this miraculous work of art sitting next to me in the bar demanded an attentiveness tempered by "an ethic of common sense, a courtesy of the most robust and refined kind." (See page 4 of this essay for context of the Steiner quotes). It took a bit of work, but the result was worth the effort. When you read Real Presences, it is easy to imagine that all of Steiner's talk about courtesy and hospitality to the other in art rings true because of the great worthiness of great artists and the fine works they create. We believe that we should keep an open mind and heart to the real presence of the great gems of culture because of their worth, whether they be the paintings of Rembrandt or Tibetan sand paintings, the music of Mozart or an Islamic hamd, the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Tupac Shakur, a performance of the Balshoi Ballet or an instance of Sean-nós dance.
This thinking is a misrepresentation of the fundamental principle underlying Steiner's emphasis on the quality of attentiveness that walks with courtesy and hospitality in our reception of art. The drunk, as a real presence, is no less worthy of our attentiveness than is Leonardo Da Vinci or Beethoven (who was not a stranger to abusive drinking by the way). The only thing more repeated in the human mind than questions and answers is the persistent, continuous reality of our human attentiveness. It is the quality of our attentiveness in life that makes up the quality of our being. This is why the unexamined life is not worth living. The key is not to seek to only honor real presences we deem to be worthy of our attention, but to honor any real presence that is actually in our presence with our best attentiveness.
As the poet says, "Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you. And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream." (Kahlil Gibran, On Giving - from The Prophet)
We should not reserve our best attentiveness only for those who meet our preconceived standards of worth. Doing so tends to honor only our own preconceptions and this most often functions more like bigotry than wisdom. We should offer our best attentiveness to all the others who come our way. It is in our attentiveness to one another, especially when there are differences between us that challenge our understanding and sense of values, that the depth of human beauty, the height of human virtue, and the consummation of all meaning in human living comes into its most fertile communion. The gifts of beauty and meaning that come when we open ourselves to embrace the real presence of the other is not limited to our experience of works of art.
My experience of reading Steiner was very similar to giving my hospitable attention to receiving the wisdom of a drunk man. Steiner's long term addiction to literature and the arts has had its way with his ability to express himself. I often found myself having to ask Steiner to repeat himself again and again (through my rereading) in order to get at his meaning. Here again, overcoming my instinct to avoid tedious repetition resulted in a richer experience of beauty and meaning. My very first reaction many years ago to Steiner's definition of literature, which we will soon explore, was to wonder if he was high when we wrote it. Given his deep love of and extraordinary long term immersion in literature, I suspect that this is close to the truth. All those decades of immersing himself in literature, music and art had seriously affected him. Frankly, it is clear to me that he had become quite stoned on the stuff. Whether the particular effects of our addictions and habits work to debilitate our capacity to be well, as in the case of the drunk, or result in superior development, as in the case of Steiner, is merely incidental. Both kinds of addiction provide obstacles to understanding and both require the hospitable labors of our own courteous attentiveness to uncover the hidden gems.
The use of Steiner's definition of literature by some as part of a criticism of Real Presences seems to me less like an interpretation of the book and more like a blunt refusal to read. I have found this definition to be a gem of understanding for further explorations. The examination and interpretation of definitions was a favorite habit of Socrates. I will not attempt to refute Steiner's definition of literature like Socrates in the early dialogues of Plato. The Socratic habit of refuting definitions, which first found vivid expression prior to Socrates in ancient Greek forensics, are beyond the purpose of this essay. I will instead exercise what I find to be the primary purpose of refuting or otherwise exploring a definition, which is so that I may learn something. Steiner's definition of literature, even if it is not correct or complete, gave me a key for thinking that was extremely useful. The following exploration of Steiner's definition is not just about our experiences and interpretations of literature. It is also relevant to our experiences and interpretations of one another. Our experiences and interpretations of one another demand the same courtesy of rapt attentiveness and hospitality of respect and welcome, which we offer to the real presence of great art.
From Socrates, I developed the habit of trying to see and understand the essential structures of things. The fundamental structure underlying all expressions of the artistic came into new light as I thought about Steiner's definition of literature. The structure of the artistic is a structure that creates variations through repetition in a manner that affirms our increase in complexity. It arises both from the artist and the receiver of art. It expresses itself in our experience of art and also has expressive life in our experience of men drunk on alcohol and literature. Through Steiner's definition of literature, I will illustrate the structure of the artistic that exists in the creation and interpretation of art as well as in the creation of a life worth living. Now, let's examine a definition.
Summary of the rest of Part III (to be published soon):
Steiner's definition of literature as "the maximization of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression", will be examined within the framework of repetition and variation in order to look at the structure of what is artistic in both art and life. I will demonstrate through a simple exercise in interprative poetics that a Socratic philosophy of living an examined life allows us to experience greater depth and meaning in our experiences of art and life. The use of Socratic dialogue will be defined as an expression of the art of creating artists.