The Demand for Theory

Early in George Steiner’s Real Presences, a book I would someday like to consider in a more systematic way, the author takes a look at the activity of literary critics by explaining modes of interpretation:

An interpreter is a decipherer and communicator of meanings. He is a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions. He is, in essence, an extant, one who ‘acts out’ the material before him so as to give it intelligible life. Hence the third major sense of ‘interpretation’. An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia. A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography. A violinist a Bach partita. In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation….The ‘dramatic critic’ par excellence is the actor and the producer who , with and through the actor, tests and carries out the potentialities of meaning in the play. The true hermeneutic of drama is staging…

So many artists have temptations to become critics, and Steiner’s book has helped me to understand why. The type of critic Steiner discusses above, the true explainer of art, is the artist that executes it, that brings it to life by lending it his life, that “invests his own being in the process of interpretation,” as Steiner puts it.

But the distant critic—the critic of the type we typically mean when we use that word—that critic needs only his words. In essence, he risks little in his explanation. He need not ‘get inside the art’ and attempt to animate it. He need only design a linguistic system (or borrow someone else’s, more likely) whereby he can reduce the artistic event he is ‘critiquing’ to mere examples of the terms of that system. In this sense, one might say all traditional critics are deconstructionists.

And this sort of thing, one could argue, takes less blood, less risk than the primary artistic endeavor, and thus it poses a temptation to one with artistic leaning.

(One important caveat to this line of thinking: while it is true, I think, that most if not all artists have a temptation to becoming ‘critic’ in this sense, I do not think it fair to reduce all critics to lazy artists—there are certainly some who have suggested that the critic himself, even while he takes as his raw materials the artistic work of another, can cultivate that material into another, new artistic expression. And certainly, I think there is much to be said for this and about this.)

Practically, Steiner’s distinction was of much help in an matter that proved for many years a deep annoyance—that bit of advice artists often get saying “just do it,” “just write it,” or “just get started.” These admonitions always rang a little sloppy to me, but I couldn’t say why. I always wondered why “just starting” should be a more effective way to artistic success than long slow agonizing over an idea, the approach I’d frankly prefer. Even though experience itself always taught me that “just doing it” was more productive, more fruitful, I still wondered why it should be so (if there is something I mistrust especially, for better or for worse, it is experience).

But Steiner’s distinction helped me understand why “just do it” makes not only practical sense, experiential sense, but theoretical sense. It satisfied that nagging critic inside that always demands a schema, a defined hermeneutic, a theory. That bureaucratic little goblin inside that accuses the artist of frivolity unless what is being proposed fits a predetermined or totalizing schema.

But the action is the schema. Living is primary. Systematizing is only a tool to that end. And while sometimes systems are very great tools and aid better living, better art, they are tools.

In a sense, I always knew my paper airplanes flew, but I begrudged throwing them until I had some account of the physics behind it all. I wanted that system, that schema, that construct to undergird my decision to act. It was as if I expected the physics textbook to support the wings of the plane.

I wish I could remember where I read it—I’ll look for it later, I suppose—but Pope Benedict, I seem to remember, once said the best interpretation of the Gospel were the lives of the saints.

Living is primary.

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