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Sexuality and Solitude

SIR: Theorising has its place in every sphere of human life, and sexuality is not exempt: but there are certain points on matters of form and content with which one would not concur with Michel Foucault and Richard Sennett (LRB, 21 May). One is a simple philosophical hypostasis. It is surely plain ingenuousness on Michel Foucault’s part suddenly to exclaim that he has discovered a link between Hellenistic and Christian sexual doctrine. Their similarity has been self-evident for some considerable time. In The City of God St Augustine is more concerned with chastity than with erection. In Bertrand Russell’s interpretation: ‘Chastity is a virtue of the mind, and is not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed.’ For Augustine, erection would only be one facet of a many-sided crystal representing unredeemed sin. He in fact quotes II Thessalonians: ‘God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.’ Sexual fantasy is therefore not self-willed, but an external percept imposed by God. It is a temptation strongly to be denied. The delusion may be caused by solitude, but God himself is no less than the omnipotent recluse: ‘Being condemned, they are seduced, and, being seduced, condemned. But their seducement is by the secret judgement of God, justly secret; even His that hath judged continually, ever since the world began.’ Whether elect or reprobate, whether you masturbated or not, Augustine states that all alike deserve damnation: which may, or may not, tell us a lot about St Augustine. The medieval doctor already provides the prescription for any strong delusions that a reader of his work may be under (such as that human motive is entirely due to auto-eroticism). He tells us to forget the self, and think upon God.

Richard Sennett mentions Epictetus. He does not mention that the ancient philosopher was averse to Epicurus. He addresses the latter in the following terms: ‘This is the life of which you pronounce yourself worthy: eating, drinking, copulation, evacuation and snoring’ (Discourses). What kind of scorn would he have heaped upon a theory of copulation? Onanism was no more important to him than it was to Augustine – or, indeed, than it is to any of us. He was more interested in the idea of the body as an imprisoner of soul: ‘Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.’ He was much too hard-pressed to worry about the problem of sexual identity. He was much more concerned with stressing the central importance of human freedom:

I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one then hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace? ‘Tell the secret.’ I refuse to tell, for this is in my power. ‘But I will chain you,’ What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain – yes, but my will – no, not even Zeus can conquer that.

This is the real drama of solitude, of that imprisonment and exile that Richard Sennett mentions; and this drama is no less urgent today than it was in the first century AD. Libidinous vacuity is not a pressing philosophical concern, but the violation of fundamental political rights is. Freedom is a larger concept than either Foucault or Sennett seems to realise. And it surely will just not suffice to pick at important philosophers in order to sustain an eclectic thesis.

Lastly, Michel Foucault sternly claims that he is not a structuralist. If this is the case, can he please explain to a layman what he means exactly by ‘technologies of the self’? And why no citations from women themselves? And why no analysis of sado-masochism? Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘Thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip,’ tells us more about recent history surely than the theories of Tissot and Boerhaave, or, come to that, the obsessively self-centred memoirs of Casanova, ever can.

William Milne
School of English Language and Literature, University of Newcastle upon Tyne


Verbatim

SIR: In his review of Lucy by Don Johanson and Maitland Edey (LRB, 21 May), Professor J.Z. Young asks: ‘how can we be sure of the authenticity of the many verbatim accounts of discussions between Johanson and White as to the naming of fossils?’ I fear that his worries are indeed justified.

The Granada edition is, with minor exceptions, a photographic reproduction of the original Simon and Schuster edition published in the United States. The exceptions, aside from the end papers and so on, are six pages of text that mention two people – Lord Zuckerman and an American named Jon Kalb – in a less than flattering light. The US edition is more forthright on these matters than the British edition, for which references to these two people have been altered. This is not, in itself, an unusual event even in non-fiction publishing, given the benevolence of our laws to those who imagine they have been libelled. Some of the changes, however, give cause for concern, as J.Z. Young suspected.

For example, the entire book is replete with verbatim conversations, but nowhere is it suggested that these might be ‘dramatised accounts’, although at least one of the changes made for the British edition concerns words reported in direct speech. I do not mean to imply that all of the many conversations in the book have been tampered with or recalled inaccurately, but it is worrying to discover that the mere threat of a possible libel could have been sufficient to provoke Dr Johanson, or perhaps Mr Edey, into altering the words spoken by somebody who is, supposedly, a character in a real-life story rather than a novel.

Jeremy Cherfas
Department of Zoology, Oxford


Burke and History

SIR: In my opinion, Michael Freeman is entitled to protest (Letters, 19 February) at the off-beam Irish-nationalist-in-full-cry mauling of his book, Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, received at the hands of your reviewer Owen Dudley Edwards; he is entitled to protest also at your allowing Edwards a second bite of the cherry by way of a sneering footnote to this letter. Within the limits Freeman set himself his work cannot be faulted: Burke a radical? I have never heard of a radical getting a £5,000-a-year pension from the Civil List, as Burke did. Perhaps Edwards will now address himself to that? He’ll have a job convincing people that the Keeper of the Privy Purse dished out money like that to anyone other than Establishment hirelings and landlords’ toadies. Unless, of course, there is evidence the Privy Purse of the day was also in the keeping of a radical! As for the ‘single sentence on defenderism’, penned by Burke near the end of his life, there is a strong rumour in Irish literary and historical circles that Burke secretly married a Roman Catholic in France: a search of the mairies of Paris and the Department du Nord may yet reveal the reason for this uncharacteristic action. And if indeed, as Edwards writes, ‘Edmund Burke probably understood Ireland better than most other Irishmen of his time or since,’ I think Burke would be inclined to side with Dean Inge when he wrote in the London Evening Standard: ‘The greatest blot on the British escutcheon was the day we left Southern Ireland, allowing it to relapse into barbarism under the tutelage of a crafty and tyrannical priesthood.’ And the tutelage also of barbaric Irishmen in exile.

Dermot McEvoy
Foxrock, Co. Dublin


Sisters

SIR: I doubt whether female novelists would be pleased to know that their work had been reduced to fit ‘a law of three stages’ – a law ‘discerned’ by Elaine Showalter and endorsed (presumably) by John Sutherland (LRB, 4 June), who sees Verity Bargate’s latest novel as ‘interestingly poised at the threshold of the last stage’. Why, one asks wearily, must there be a distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘women’s fiction’ – that category of writing which can, apparently, be simplistically classified into three convenient sub-categories. One way to contradict this ‘law’ would be to supply its supporters with a list of titles which defy such definition, but to do so would be to heed, for a moment, the notion that ‘the woman novelist simply mimics the dominant male practitioner.’ Never.

Hilary Clark
Great Missenden

SIR: Graham Hough’s pronouncement (LRB, 21 May) that ‘the protagonists in the novels of women novelists have a tendency to be women novelists’ caused me to reflect on the far more annoying tendency of men reviewers to make silly generalisations about women novelists.

Lisa Tuttle
Okehampton, Devon


Better late

SIR: Reviewing Passmore’s The Philosophy of Teaching (LRB, 21 May), your reviewer says that ‘it is sad that the book costs so much more than most teachers can afford.’ To us it is sad that the London Review of Books is so incredibly slow and consequently so out of date. The book was published in July 1980 and is now available in paperback (at £8.50). If you need to take so long with your reviews of our books, could you possibly check with us before printing them?

Colin Haycraft
Duckworth, London NW1

To us it is sad that discussion of a book on the philosophy of teaching should appear to its publisher to be out of date nine months after publication. Mr Haycraft is wrong to suggest that such an interval is usual here, but we do not flinch from it. We were not informed of the paperback issue.

Editor, ‘London Review’