There is a poignant moment in the recent New Left Books volume of interviews with Raymond Williams[*] when he is congratulated on the ‘combativity’ of his writings. Poignant because the neologism, however barbarous, answers to a real scarcity: the scarcity, in our cultural repertoire, of sustained polemical address: Not that our literary pages don’t witness occasional outbreaks of revenger’s tragedy. Indeed, most literary editors seem to keep at least one professional malcontent on the payroll, in case the general air of despondent calm becomes too oppressive (or perhaps just to make sure of getting their retaliation in first). But the ‘combativity’ of such stalwarts rarely extends beyond sporadic local skirmishing, and their bloodletting often seems hugely gratuitous. For our intellectual habits include attentiveness, scruple and a kind of anorexic wit: but not polemic.
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[*] Politics and Letters is discussed by John Dunn on page 8.