Flowers of grace : a philosophical study of Real presences by George Steiner / by Jennifer Eileen Harris.
George Steiner is a contemporary literary critic and scholar whose work touches substantively upon philosophical and theological themes. Haunted by the Shoah, much of his writing explores the possible correlation between language and the inhuman, unravelling the connections between the experienced ‘absence’ of God during and after the Shoah and the cultural and semantic implications of living in a time of “epilogue.” The original “covenant” between word and world which secured the truth-claims of language has been broken, such that the meaning of meaning itself is in doubt. The theoretical structure of Steiner's work supports its ideological tenor. The ontological proximity of the reader and the epistemological distance of the critic are matched by his distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ criticism. The former, which Steiner favours, argues for the organic contextuality of literature as a “central humanity,” and encourages a hermeneutic of mysterious textual ‘presence.’ The latter, especially in the deconstruction theory of Jacques Derrida, proposes a theory of absolute, self-referential textuality which is radically free to dissolve and re-determine meaning. Steiner perceives the ethical implications of such ideas in the relation between Nazi-speak and genocide and in the need to preserve the meaningfulness of victims' suffering cries. To minimize the dangers of the ‘new’ criticism, Steiner makes a “wager on God” as the one who continues to underwrite the grammar of the world. These themes are made explicit and coincide in Steiner's book Real Presences which is the focus of this thesis. My aims are to assess Steiner's wager and to discriminate between hermeneutic practice and deconstruction theory. After initially accepting and exploring Steiner's either-or approach, making particular note of the influence of Martin Heidegger, I critique his dichotomous thinking with reference to the mediating phenomenology of Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur's “ethic of the word” translates into a criterion with which to assess the claims of hermeneutics and deconstruction theory. I include an insight into the Greek influences upon Steiner's thought, mediated by the Hebrew God as their paradoxical ‘other.’ Deconstruction theory falls short of the ethical criterion and Steiner's wager is weakened by ambiguity and equivocation.
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