In 'Grammars of Creation,' George Steiner will speculate on whether truly atheistic art is possible (he will suspect that it is) and on what poetry, music, painting done in a sense of radical spritual solitude might consist of. Here, he is more interested in the act of reading (he might say the act of 'living' the work of art), and whether we can respond in any meaningful way to serious art in the absence of any sense of transcendance.
The backdrop to 'Real Presences' is this: between 1870 and 1940, what the author calls the 'covenent' between word and world is broken for the first time, in any thorough and consequent sense, in European, Central European and Russian culture and speculative consciousness (from Mallarmé's 'l'absence de toute rose' and Rimbaud's 'Je est un autre' to Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and others). For Steiner, steeped not just in aesthetic philosophy but in Sprachkritik, linguistics and the hermeneutic tradition, this constitutes one of the few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history. Modernity itself is defined by it.
Steiner defines the arts as 'the maximalisation of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression.' The arts 'mean,' and they do so in overabundance. However, he asks, can we grasp the meaning of those multifarious meanings a-theistically, which is to say, without resorting to the intuition, however undefined or focused, of 'Real Presences'?
'Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture,' he writes, 'make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition. We are, at key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche. We knock blindly at the doors of turbulence, of creativity, of inhibition within the terra incognita of our own selves. What is more unsettling: we can be, in ways almost unendurable to reason, strangers to those whom we would know best, by whom we would be best known and unmasked.' A long series of disturbing, thrilling perceptions of this type bring us to the threshold Steiner wishes us to see beyond: 'The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable meaning of meaning.'
His words are often not arguments, but sharp slivers of intelligence, ungraspable and unsettling. He uses metaphor, including religious metaphor, not to bully, certainly not to convince (what of? I know of nowhere where Steiner is not rigorously agnostic in his expressed opinions), but to explore a turning point in human history with the full range of requisite skills: an erudition that is remarkable, an intelligence that is acute, a feeling for historical significance, but also a rare and wonderful sense of intellectual daring and mischief.