Grammars of Deconstruction

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:25 AM

George Steiner's opening line in Grammars of Creation asserts an interesting dilemma. “We have no more beginnings.” But, did we ever have more than one? While considering the loss of new “grammars” brought about by the dissolution of belief in God, Steiner essentially approaches the issue with an assumption that is only valid based on his final conclusion. If there is a true beginning, there cannot be more than one beginning in a univocal sense.

Steiner acknowledges this to some extent when he tips his hat towards mimesis, stating that “[a] rigorous understanding of mimesis (as in Plato's Republic), a strict reading of imitatio (as in certain Neo-classicists) and extreme realists knows of only 're-creation'” (23). Mimetic criticism recognizes that the artist's role is ultimately, as Prince Hamlet said, to hold a “mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” We might question precisely which nature the artist imitates, but the artist is always, by necessity, one whose expertise is seeing what is real better than others and telling of it. He or she is a Tiresias who tells the fate of the world by that which he knows.

Steiner adeptly picks up on this with his critique of the modern tendency toward exhibitionism (319). The “fish-bowl” that modern popular culture revels in offers no greater insight into reality, for, at best, it simply shows us reality as we already see it, or, at worst, corrupts our understanding of reality further. On the contrary, the artist goes beyond our perception of reality, yet brings something back to tell of it. “If I believed that my reply were made / to one who could ever climb to the world again, / this flame would shake no more,” Guido Da Montefeltro remarks in Canto XXVII of Dante's Inferno. Dante, and later Eliot, who invokes those verses in “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” both serve that purpose in bringing to the reader that which otherwise is beyond our reach. The poet is to reality what the explorer is to the frontier: one who goes beyond the known world and yet returns to report. The exhibitionistic impulse is a cheap imitator, an imitation not based on the necessity of relaying truth previously undiscovered, but of creating a new middleman for that which we already knew. It is a tautology and thus is unable to create new beginnings or grammars.

The commonality of poets' reports surely point to the singular creation from which we come. The “archetypes” of Jung are a part of Natural Revelation, the aftershocks of God's creative speech act. Having acknowledged Freud and Jung, Steiner admits that the “imaginary” is bequeathed a “controlling source and inventory” in reality (167). Yet, he wishes to claim that in the artistic process, there is a big-G God-like creative capacity (for little-g gods were never creative in the sense that Steiner wishes to discuss). The artist, however, is within the creation and never creates ex nihilo. As Steiner observes, the “divine precedent empowers him or her to make fruitful a process whose innermost springs remain impenetrable” (174). The “divine precedent” is key. Creation is a sui generis event in the divine sense. While human beings, formed as we are in the imago dei, are creative, we are creative in a subordinate sense. When the artist creates a character, she is reenacting at a microcosmic level to the divine creative act, but unlike the first day, the first day of Hamlet's Denmark was made of preexistent stuff, stuff ultimately created on the first day.

If it were otherwise, the human's creation would be unintelligible. I started this quarter's reflections by citing T.S. Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and I think it is fitting to end there as well. Eliot recognized that art created purely as new, as a novelty that spurned tradition, would be completely unintelligible. Instead, the great artist is, to use his metaphor, a catalyst to tradition, transforming that which was into that which will be. In some sense, we might say that the artist is gifted not to follow God's acts of Genesis 1, but rather his continued historical acting, in which he has continued to providentially care for his creation through that creation and not by further ex nihilo acts.

Nevertheless, while the artist cannot create a “grammar” all his own, living in a world that has the Grammar Writer as its creator, the creative human can at least follow the Creator in defining a framework within his meta-framework. Our “grammars” are, to use the phrase Steiner cites from Duchamp, “a ready-made” (331). We can construct something that is different, but just as any physical object is built with atomic particles that we ultimately can only form, not materialize, we can only form, not materialize the substances of cultural grammars. “Only God is deemed capable of making out of non-being,” Steiner adds.

With this in mind, in a god-less universe such as the one posited by Steiner, creation “in its classic sense” must be seen as a “fruitful invention” (334). Hence the possibility for multiple beginnings in Steiner's worldview - his concept of “beginning” is an equivocation from the sense we normally think of. If we are both unable to bring being out of non-being and lacking one by whom we can even mime such an act, grammars would necessarily always be a mere process of forming frameworks of purposeless being. Perhaps the greatest “creation” in such a world - using creation in the sense the modern employs the word “magic” - is the very concept that creation is even possible. It is the mere building of a facade that infuses some element of meaningless existence with an evanescent flash of purpose.

Cut adrift from any properly creative act, human creativity can become degenerate from the perspective of one who judges it from a framework of belief in God. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” can no longer be uttered with an intrinsic meaning when nothing is intrinsic but only a facade over an atheistic universe. Just as truth can be defined by whomever has enough power to do so, so too can beauty with regards to creative activity. Thus, the Michelangelos of the past are replaced with the Duchamp urinals of today.

Steiner, for his part, believes this problem is serious but surmountable. He shows an excitement for the new grammars that may be formed in the creative fiction of the world no longer backed by a Divine imprimatur. The natural world void of room for questions concerning the supernatural still deserves to be questioned and creatively explored, he asserts (338). Though he seems to be less than certain that a “Michelangelo fresco or King Lear” can be produced in a world that no longer believes in the transcendent, he is engrossed by the possibility. He does not seem to believe a world without an Absolute foundation is on the verge of skepticism, but is potentially a new frontier worthy to be explored.

Yet, we must ask if this can truly be so or whether he takes up this quest enthusiastically only because to deny its possibility is ultimately to crush an intrinsic part of the human soul. If Steiner does not wish to acknowledge the nihilistic result of the picture he paints, could it be because the essence of humanity is archetypally aware of the necessity of a Creator?

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