George Steiner on hermeneutics and classics

George Steiner on …

1. Hermeneutics

A master-reader (or viewer or listener) equipped, in the case of literature, with linguist-historical knowledge, ideally sensitive to the polysemic, metamorphic lives of language, inspiredly intuitive in his or her empathy – a Coleridge reading Wordsworth, a Karl Barth glossing Romans, a Mandelstam responding to Dante – will come only ‘so near.’ The ultimate life-force of the poem or prose being elucidated, its power against time, will remain integral. No hermeneutic is equivalent to its object. No restatement, via analytic ‘dissection,’ paraphrase or emotive description, can replace the original (in the ephemeral, in the functional, such substitution lies to hand).

The proof is with music. The sum of understanding resides in further performance. Thus interpretation and criticism are, at their most honest, more or less suggestive, enriching narrations of personal, always provisional encounters. It is this provisional subjectivity, this persistent need for reconsideration and amendment, which does give a certain legitimacy to the deconstructionalist project. […]

I repeat: all understanding falls short. It is as if the poem, the painting, the sonata drew around itself a last circle, a space for inviolate autonomy. I define the classic as that around which this space is perennially fruitful. It questions us. It demands that we try again. It makes of our misprisions, of our partialities and disagreements not a relativistic chaos, an ‘anything goes,’ but a deepening. Worthwhile interpretations, criticism to be taken seriously, are those which make their limitations, their defeats visible. In turn, this visibility helps make manifest the inexhaustibility of the object. The Bush burned brighter because its interpreter was not allowed too near.

from Errata: An Examined Life, (Phoenix, 1998),21-22.

2. Classics

I define a ‘classic,’ in literature, in music, in the arts, in philosophic argument, as a signifying form which ‘reads’ us. It reads us more than we read (listen to, perceive) it. There is nothing paradoxical, let alone mystical, in this definition. Each time we engage with it, the classic will question us. It will challenge our resources of consciousness and intellect, of mind and body (so much of primary aesthetic and even intellectual response is bodily). The classic will ask of us: ‘have you understood?’; ‘have you re-imagined responsibly?’; ‘are you prepared to act upon the questions, upon the potentialities of transformed, enriched being which I have posed?’ […]

The major text, work of art, musical composition, the ‘news that stays new’ (Ezra Pound), asks not only for understanding reception. It demands reaction. We are meant to act ‘anew,’ to translate echoing response and interpretation into conduct. Hermeneutics share a common border with ethics. To read Plato or Pascal or Tolstoy ‘classically’ is to attempt a new and different life. It is, as Dante postulates explicitly, to enter on a vita nuova. In most art and literature, this summons is non-systematic. […] The play, the fiction, the Cezanne still-life so complicates, so dislocates from banality, so quickens our movements inwards […] and our turn to the world, that we differ from before.

Such dislocation can be unsettling, even painful. Hence the exasperated resistance to much of modern art, music, poetry; to the atonal and the non-representational. Or it can prove exultant […]. Normally, the process is gradual. […]

The bidding of the archaic torso of Apollo in Rilke’s famous poem, ‘Change your life,’ has been for me at the heart of meaning.

from Errata: An Examined Life, (Phoenix, 1998), 18, 24-25.

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