It’s almost a matter of pride among today’s journalists to show contempt for theology. When The Times’s Thomas Friedman wants to ridicule some proposal as ideological, captious or absurd, he refers to it as driven by “theology.” In contrast, cultural critics like Louis Menand, Roger Kimball and Andrew Delbanco know better. Then there’s the polymath George Steiner, whose familiarity with the Western tradition, including developments in science and mathematics, is truly staggering. His new book Grammars of Creation (Yale Univ. Press), which started off as the Gifford Lectures of 1990, offers a counterpoint to the “core-tiredness,” the images of sundown, twilight or closing time that seem to pervade the end-of-millennium spirit. Have our creative artists, Steiner asks, lost the theological virtue of hope? It’s as if they—or we—have misplaced the rationale of the future tense, the sense that our world is still pregnant with ifs and shall and will.
True, says Steiner, this loss of faith in the future—and in the humanizing influence of the arts—has been in serious decline ever since the start of the 20th century, and particularly since 1916 when Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist revolt confronted the hecatombs of the Western Front. How could the classical canon of dead-white-European-males respond adequately to the organized horror of the past century? Answer: It couldn’t and didn’t. “The classic and Judaic ideal of man as ‘language animal,’ as uniquely defined by the dignity of speech,” says Steiner, “came to an end in the antilanguage of the death-camps.”
Still, the basic crisis of our time, Steiner insists, remains theological. Creativity in the arts, music and literature has always been underwritten in the West by theological premises. “At every significant point, Western philosophies of art and Western poetics draw their secular idiom from the substratum of Christological debate. Like no other event in our mental history, the postulate of God’s kenosis [self-emptying] through Jesus...that of our understanding and reception of the truth of art—a truth antithetical to the condemnation of the fictive in Plato.”
Plato, you will remember, wanted to ban poets. But after Christ and the “substantiation” of the supreme mystery in outward form, in the Eucharist, “the Western perception of flesh and of the metamorphic spirituality of matter alter. The human face and body are seen less as created in God’s image...than in that of the radiant or tortured Son. It is the cohabitation of radiance with torture, of resplendence with and within abjection, which distinguishes Western perception and representation after the life and Passion of Christ from that of antiquity.”
Thereafter artists had the duty to “make sense” of the sensory, to let an epiphany shine forth through the physical—as in the light that a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh give to a human body or a cornfield. “The poem, the statue, the portrait, the nave, tell of, provide lodging for a real presence. The sentence or pigment or carved stone are shone through. The image is an icon, a true fiction.” It is the materiality of the immaterial argued for in the wafer and the wine that endows the particulars of experience and of aesthetic representation with their truth functions.
Steiner reflects on Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism that the bare “facts” of the world are not and will never be the end of the matter. “This persuasion...is the begetter of our culture. It animates, literally, the fragile fabric of our identity which, in other respects and, again quite literally, is bestial. The intuition, the conjecture, so strangely resistant to falsification, that there is ‘otherness’ out of reach give to our elemental existence its pulse of unfulfilment. We are the creatures of a great thirst. Bent on coming home to a place we have never known.... More than homo sapiens, we are homo quarens, the animal that asks and asks.”