George Eliot in the Abbey
SIR: Gordon Haight’s speech at the service in Westminster Abbey dedicating a memorial stone to George Eliot (LRB, 17 July) reasonably said nothing but good about her, but unreasonably added some bunkum to justify the occasion. Describing the campaign to have her buried there a century ago, Haight alleged that ‘opposition came, strangely’, from T. H. Huxley, and added that Huxley ‘was not without cant in opposing’ it. But Huxley didn’t oppose the campaign; he merely refused to support it, and his argument for this refusal, which was quoted by Haight – and which was later applied to Huxley himself, so that, like George Eliot, he was buried in unconsecrated ground in Highgate Cemetery – was convincing then and is still convincing today. If there was any cant, it was when Huxley approved and attended the burial of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey two years later. Huxley was, after all, quite right to say that George Eliot’s ‘life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma’. The evidence is fortunately presented by Haight himself in his biography of her and in his edition of her letters, and it is incontrovertible.
For 24 years she lived in sexual union with a man who was married to someone else. Her action was then argued and is now agreed to be entirely admirable, but it was certainly in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage. Indeed, this would have been the case even if Lewes had obtained a divorce, since one of the few Christian doctrines taught both by Jesus in the Gospels and by Paul in the Epistles is that marriage to someone with a divorced spouse still living is adultery.
For 39 years she lived with no belief in Jesus or God or incarnation or atonement or immortality or judgment or salvation or damnation. Again, her position was then argued and is now agreed to be entirely admirable, but it was certainly in notorious antagonism to Christian theory in regard to dogma. No doubt she retained a strong sense of duty partly derived from her Christian upbringing, and no doubt she maintained a strong sense of reverence particularly directed towards the Christian religion: but she remained as far from Christianity as one could publicly be a century ago.
The only proper conclusion is that it is still as incongruous to have a Christian service and memorial for George Eliot as it was for Charles Darwin and Thomas Hardy or as it would be for T. H. Huxley or Virginia Woolf. In fact, it is insulting, since the implication is that the firmly and clearly held views of great writers are somehow irrelevant to their greatness. The very fact emphasised by Haight that ‘the novels of George Eliot provide the most varied and truthful picture we have of English religious life in the 19th century’ is further emphasised when we consider that they were written by a woman who abandoned religious life at the age of 22. To pretend that she was somehow a Christian all the time is not to bestow laurel and rose on her memorial but to betray her memory, and to give her the wrong part in the choir invisible.
SIR: I have seen Tony Mason’s letter (Letters, 7 August), but I do not respond to an assault which refers to me as ‘Herr Keller’ and ‘Kulturgauleiter Keller’: my unfavourable review, which was factual and remains verifiable, has elicited a personal attack rooted in ignorance of, and delusions about, my life and my life’s work. I am happy for the reader to reach his own conclusions without any further assistance.
Marxism and the Truth
SIR: Tom Nairn’s review of works on Gramsci (LRB, 3 July) contains a very small but disturbing confusion of terms. Early in the review he writes of the authors under consideration: all are ‘on broadly the same track. They are in search of a new revolutionary ideology for the European Left as a whole.’ In the very next column we read: accessibility ‘has become impossibly aggravated for the Left by the consolidation of academic Marxism since the later 1960s’. And concluding the same paragraph: ‘Rigour in the new tribal sense is counterposed for its justification against what one might call numbskull populism, an item never in short supply on the Left. Rigorists believe that Marxism is a science …’ The problem is that Nairn, like many others, conflates the Left with Marxism, implying, if not directly stating, that the entire Left is Marxist or that the only serious portion of the Left, the non-numbskull portion, is Marxist. Why does a new revolutionary ideology have to be Marxist? It is about time that the Left be freed from the Marxist albatross.
The Left, if the term is not so vague as to be totally meaningless, is informed by a collection of philosophies which stand for the liberation of the individual within a liberated society; it stands for liberation from economic oppression and from ideological suppression; it stands for undistorted perception. The fundamental value of the Left, in shorthand, is human emancipation in its multifarious manifestations. The philosophies of the Left vary as their understandings of emancipation differ and as their emphases on the form of emancipation differ. Marxism is only one philosophy of the Left. Marxists, as is well-known, argue for economic liberation, the destruction of the bourgeois’s class domination over the proletariat through destruction of the capitalist system, as the basis of emancipation in all other aspects of life.
This is hardly the only conception of emancipation possible, nor does it seem very accurate. Marxist theory has not made one correct prediction in the past hundred years about the prognosis of capitalism, and not for want of trying. Erroneous predictions, such as freedom under the dictatorship of the proletariat, have led to reforms, modifications and rejection of large portions of Marxism by Marxists. Even self-declared Marxists – Habermas, for instance – have gone so far as to reject fundamental Marxist concepts: that the economic base determines the character of political, cultural and intellectual superstructure, and that man creates himself through his physical labours. It is about time people accepted that Marxism has no monopoly on the truth; it is wrong, and no modification will make it true. There are many illuminating and meaningful ideas in Marxism which must be retained. But to be salvaged they must be incorporated into a new theory which avoids the mistakes of Marxism.
Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
SIR: John Goldblatt (Letters, 3 July) should blame me rather than the magazine. Reviewing Princess Daisy was my own idea, since the book promised, as it duly proved, to be an instructive example of best-selling schlock. Dissecting the latest trash is not just an honourable critical tradition but an indispensable adjunct to appraising real worth. There is also the consideration that it doesn’t matter so much when good writing transmits distorted values, but when bad writing does then it is time to be on guard. In this respect, I was glad to find that Mrs Krantz had retained, under her fascination with Princess Daisy’s high-born glamour, a firm sense of what constitutes a nice girl.
William Margolis (Letters, 7 August) could have specified the ‘certain, well-defined’ circumstances in which a man, without impoliteness, might place a hat on a woman’s head. The best example I can think of is the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, although the Miss World competition should not be ruled out. I mentioned the fact that Mrs Krantz is Jewish for the same reason that any other reviewer would, especially if that reviewer were himself Jewish. Mrs Krantz is a Jewish Momma. If I were her son – an idea which fills me with more affection than alarm – she would be my mother the novelist.
SIR: Mr Poole (Letters, 3 July), with whom I incline to agree, may also protest too much. The analysis of Sakharov’s argument has nothing to do with his maltreatment: i.e. there is an interpretative perspective which can eliminate the personal and social context of a text. If, for example, there were discovered to be flaws in a particular argument, these are internal to the text. Another question is, of course, possible: why did the author make the mistake? This is to move from text to one of the possible contexts. The author is eliminated only if that context is shown to have nothing at all to do with the text. Deconstructive criticism has been uninterested in this context; some deconstructionists have attempted to go beyond disinterest to prove the theoretical point; they have not been, to my mind, successful. Finally, there is a distinction between the ‘author’ and the ‘authorial subject’: the latter is a character within the text, and as such not necessarily any more coherent than any other character; the former is not a character in the text, even in an autobiographical text. It is possible for both readers and writers to confuse the two. Barthes’s work on ‘himself’ is a deliberate attempt to write ‘autobiographically’ without succumbing to that confusion.
University College, Cork
War and Peace
SIR: I am grateful to Claire Bruyère (Letters, 7 August) for quoting me accurately and for reminding me of a correspondence which helped to clarify my thinking. The issues which she raises are discussed to some extent in Chapter 13 of my book. I have never claimed that these questions are easy or that I know the answers, but I am still an active member of the JASON group, and I still believe that our work is on the whole helpful rather than harmful to the cause of peace.
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton