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Objections to Chomsky

SIR: Professor Dummett (LRB, 3 September) demonstrates in some detail that Chomsky’s position on ‘linguistic knowledge’ is either vacuous or incoherent. But that is hardly news. What Professor Dummett’s brief as a philosopher perhaps inhibited him from adding is that even if Chomsky’s concept of ‘linguistic knowledge’ made more sense than it does, although that might make his position philosophically respectable, it would be an irrelevance to linguistics.

It in no way secures our grasp of the role of language in human affairs to engage in sterile debate about what ought or ought not, in the abstract, to be counted as ‘linguistic knowledge’. Language does not exist outside of an integrated complex of human activities and experiences which resists any simple compartmentalisation between ‘linguistic’ and ‘non-linguistic’.

An approach to language studies which tries to stand this truth on its head, and start off by isolating in advance something called ‘linguistic knowledge’, risks falling into the kind of intellectual mumbo-jumbo that the late J.L. Austin called ivresse des grandes profondeurs. Understanding language needs less of that (either of a Chomskian or any other variety), but more attention paid to analysis of the many different practical ways in which words serve day-to-day human communicational purposes and help us to make sense of the business of living.

Roy Harris
Worcester College, Oxford

Mea Culpa

SIR: What a shame that Donald Davie should ruin any chance of his article ‘My Americas’ (LRB, 3 September) being taken seriously by this ignorant sentence: ‘Any one who has tried to read the Colombian novel A Hundred Days of Solitude – popular as that mysteriously was in its English translation – must surely endorse Hough’s account of the difficulties that confront us, not much less with South American poems than with South or Central American novels.’ It’s a double shame that the London Review of Books, after such an intelligent and enlightening review last June of Garcia Marquez’s In Evil Hour (‘Two Visits to the Dentist’ by Michael Mason, LRB, 5 June 1980), should let slip such a bastardisation of the title of One Hundred Years of Solitude, giving the impression of a novel about torture in a dictator’s prison.

Why should it be ‘mysterious’ that the novel was popular in translation? Garcia Marquez has said that he prefers Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his Spanish original. That is mysterious. There are difficulties in reading the novel – the political and literary references are not just continental but parochial. Much of the end section of the novel concerns the group of friends Garcia Marquez discussed literature with when he worked on the newspaper El Heraldo in Barranquilla, such as Alfonso Fuenmayor, who still lives there. There is room for the kind of background guidebook that Ulysses spawned, to sort out the fantasy and reality, for when you start digging you find that much of what was assumed to be fantasy was reality for Garcia Marquez. But that does not stop the average reader enjoying the novel. I suggest that Donald Davie should read it for himself.

John Archer
BBC Television Centre, London W12

What is at issue here is a slip of the pen, comparable to one that occurred in the typescript of Mr Archer’s interesting letter. Slips of the pen are not caused by ignorance.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Joseph Banks

SIR: Allow me to respond to Averil Lysaght’s recent criticisms (Letters, 3 September) of the review in which I treat Charles Lyte’s Sir Joseph Banks: 18th-Century Explorer, Botanist and Entrepreneur.

Dr Lysaght’s first criticism is that I have not read the title of Warren Dawson’s calendar (The Banks Letters …, 1958), because it lists the BM and the BM (Natural History) as archival centres for the Banks collections, and I refer in my review to the holdings at Kew. Thus, she concludes, I am unacquainted with the contents of Mr Dawson’s compilation. On page xiii of that work, she will find the following statement: ‘By far the greatest portion of the [Banks] correspondence now in this country is in the British Museum, Dept of MSS, the British Museum (Natural History) and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.’ I have reviewed portions of the Kew collection myself, and it is strong in botanical subjects, with which Mr Lyte’s volume deals little.

Dr Lysaght’s second charge concerns my attitude towards Joseph Banks, which she finds insufficiently similar to her own. She is angered by my suggestion that Joseph Banks remained an amateur because his science did not, for lack of intellectual rigour and industry, take the professional direction of publication. Let me remind her that professional publication in Sir Joseph’s fields of interest was an established scientific activity and that he could not have suffered from lack of models. Linnaeus published more in any year of his lifetime than Banks did in his entire career; moreover, Linnaeus was a great teacher, whose students carried his ideas over all of Europe, including into Sir Joseph’s drawing-room and herbarium. Who can doubt that Joseph Banks would have been but a poor figure without the trusty Solander and a dozen other assistants whose activities he financed?

The problem of Bank’s scientific reputation is an interesting one that has puzzled commentators for better than a hundred and fifty years. Joseph Hooker made the standard, obvious observation in his introduction to the Endeavour journal (1896): ‘Considering the eminence of Bank’s position in the scientific world, it is surprising to find how little he wrote.’ Bank’s best-known paper, ‘Short Account of the Cause … of Blight …’ (1805), was ridiculed for its ‘hasty, dangerous inference’ that because the shrivelled kernels of blighted corn could be made to germinate in a hothouse, they should thus suffice the agriculturist for seed corn. Modern ‘enhancements’ of Sir Joseph’s MSS made possible by profuse scholarly annotation, although fascinating in themselves, have yet to demonstrate the originality or influence of his intellect, or, indeed, to overturn Humphrey Davy’s pronouncement that Banks had ‘not much reading, and no profound information’. One of the most penetrating Banks scholars thus far, J.C. Beaglehole, agrees with Davy: ‘With all his collecting journeys and all his collections, all his patronage of men of science, and all his final vast prestige, [Joseph Banks] remained (in the 18th-century sense) a dilettante.’ At a time when specialisation marked a shift in the direction of science, Banks was an amateur, who only partly understood the intellectual character of the enterprise of which, as an autocratic and politically well-connected PRS, he had become undisputed lord. Whether this was a net benefit or liability for British science, we shall not know until the topic of Banks years at the Royal Society receives the full treatment it deserves.

James Paradis
MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts

It’s a riot

SIR: Michael Ignatieff says ‘What can’t be said about riots’ (LRB, 20 August). In a free country, individuals can express other opinions, so I shall quote someone else who attempted likewise to say what cannot be said about riots. For refutation, not suppression.

In the long American and comparatively short British experience, there is available to anyone a wealth of data on what causes blacks to riot. In every part of the world where the negro is brought into close contact with white society, and where he attempts to compete with the European for jobs, in schooling and for social and career advancement, he comes off second best. Only in the very limited field of sport can he sometimes win.

History is abundant with evidence of this fact – so much so that every person holding public office should be aware of it. History does not provide one single example which contradicts it. This means very simply that when the negro is led to hold expectations of a place in white society, which he cannot possibly fulfil, because of inherent differences in aptitude between himself and the European, he becomes angry and resentful when brought face-to-face with this non-fulfilment.

There are then two consequences. 1. He is often disposed to turn to crime, justifying that to himself by the belief that society has been unfair to him. 2. He is fair game for political agitators who seek to exploit his discontent in their own particular war on society – a war in which the negro is just seen as a source of revolutionary fodder to be used quite cynically.

That is the origin of every major riot in Britain, the US, and elsewhere, in modern times where blacks have been at the centre of the rioting.

Now that is an abridgment of part of an article in the monthly magazine Spearhead, edited by John Tyndall, the present leader of the ‘New’ National Front. Yet quite frankly I believe that it gets closer to the ‘underlying causes’ than mountains of alternative waffle being scrutinised by Lord Scarman. Can what people are saying along these lines all over Britain be printed in a respected literary review or repeated on television? Does that concern Mr Ignatieff?

Gerald Lynn

Michael Ignatieff is away, and may want to comment when he returns on this letter, which invokes a right of free speech while pressing the false claim that Britain’s riots have been the work of blacks, not whites, and that this is because blacks are inferior. We print the letter because we do in fact believe in freedom of speech, though not of all speech, and because it is important to know about groups that would be happy to deny it to enemies and supposed inferiors as soon as they got the chance.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Unfair to Craig Raine

SIR: I have no wish to be made to seem curmudgeonly about the talent of a poet who has given me as much pleasure as Craig Raine has; I felt it essential to approach his new book in the way I did, and Mr Hirsh (Letters, 17 September) acknowledges the justice of this. On the other hand, I did not say that Raine is an Imagist, and I considered it too obvious to mention that his imagery is interlocking and contributes to a moral statement: indeed I criticise the habit of the too-easily-won memento mori. Mr Hirsh seems finally to suggest that ‘theme’ has value in itself, regardless of the quality of technique, an opinion from which I demur. If Raine’s ‘theme’ has not yet been assessed, it is hard to see how it could, or could not, have been overvalued. As a matter of accuracy I should add that I do not consider Raine (or his work) to be deformed.

Alan Hollinghurst

Dictionary of Jargon

SIR: I have been commissioned by Routledge to compile a Dictionary of Jargon, scheduled for publication some time in 1983. I am trying to include as wide as possible a selection of jargon and would be most grateful for any suggestions of words or phrases which readers might be willing and able to forward to me. My definition of jargon is essentially ‘professional slang’. That is, the specific vocabulary that is neither simply technical nor merely slang, but those special words used by fellow members of a trade, profession, club, team or any mutually interested group for communication among themselves and, deliberately or not, the exclusion of the rest of society.

Jonathon Green
117 Ashmore Road, London W9