Literature and Low Life
SIR: Peter France’s thoughtful review of Robert Darnton’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (LRB, 2 December 1982) focuses on a number of significant issues, the most important of which is Darnton’s scepticism on the causes, nature and effect of the Enlightenment. Many readers will be puzzled by an excessive caution here. Some of Darnton’s other positions, such as the influence of pornographic tracts on revolutionary politics, will be questioned for being too broad. The difficulties raised on both scores deserve attention, since they relate to the genre in which Darnton has cast his work – namely, the history of the Book.
Darnton’s most provocative, if perplexed argument concerns the influence of Grub Street on its writer and readers. Of the writers, he believes that it was their situation more than their ideas that mattered. The ‘Low-Lifers’ and yellow journalists of the Enlightenment repeated the message of the great philosophes (indeed, they had no ideas which were specifically their own – Grub Street had ‘no coherent political programme nor even any distinctive ideas of its own’). The ‘emotional thrust’ of Grub Street literature displaced political or social argument as the message, and it was from the Low-Lifers’ ‘visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented élite, that the extreme Jacobinism found its voice’. In this phase of his analysis Darnton empties Grub Street culture of its ideological substance: what they said did not really matter to them.
The second half of Darnton’s argument deals with the effect on the reader of this filtered-down Enlightenment. There, he thinks, ideas did matter. The police understood this. They took popular journalism seriously because the libelles ‘had a serious effect on public opinion’. Paradoxically, though the Grub Street writers were moved by their own misery, the Grub Street reader was genuinely moved by their ideas. Cynics seduce. Reading Rousseau’s Social Contract may not have motivated the libellistes, but something did happen to their audience when abstract concepts of popular sovereignty were translated into pornographic stories about the Queen:
When philosophy went under, it lost its self-restraint and its commitment to the culture of those on top. When it turned against courtiers, churchmen and kings, it committed itself to turning the world upside down. In their own language, the livres philosophiques called for undermining and overthrowing. They counterculture called for a cultural revolution – and was ready to answer the call of 1789.
It was only when complex notions filtered down to the masses below that they became lethal. Only then did the attack on tradition, the praise of individualism, the utopian yearnings for equality, the desire that man and society, private virtue and public good, nature and the supernatural should be one, only then did these ideas matter.
Darnton’s assertion of the corrosive effect of Grub Street is highly suggestive. There remain problems of definition and gaps in the argument to be explored by future scholars. It is hard to know where Grub Street began and where it ended. A less archival perspective might lead to a somewhat more nuanced view of the broad spectrum of authorship during the Enlightenment. If the myth of Socrates had such impact in 18th-century France, it was after all because all intellectuals, including the very great, had at one time or another cause to feel vulnerable. In any instance, what we already know about Grub Street clearly indicates that it did not condition its inhabitants to any particular political point of view. A description of the milieu, striking as Darnton’s is, cannot ipso facto indicate what was thought there and why, just as the life of an author cannot explain his work. Grub Streets have existed at other times and in other places, no less humiliating to their inhabitants, but without much political effect. Indeed, Richard Popkin has shown in his extremely valuable The Right-Wing Press in France, 1792-1800, that ‘the majority of these [Reactionary] gens de letters … had been participants in what Robert Darnton has called the “low life of literature” rather than the pre-Revolutionary establishment.’ If Grub Street was a fount for the left, so was it one for the right.
The argument that the Enlightenment became effective when translated into pornography has problems also. It is difficult to find reliable measures of the causes of popular opinion. We do not know if reading prurient stories about Marie Antoinette really made much difference, even to the way that people thought about Marie Antoinette, not to speak of the monarchy, of liberty, equality and fraternity. The police may well have harried the libellistes but this may just have been one more case of a sterile ‘round-up the usual suspects’. Policemen have to justify their existence, as Richard Cobb has shown. That libellistes were arrested may tell us more about the mentality of the police than about that of their readers. Furthermore, as France points out, scurrilous pamphlets were nothing new.
Another difficult question for Rezeptionsgeschichte is the comparative significance of particular texts or types of text. Darnton does think that some mattered more than others. He claims that the message of the libelles was ‘more dangerous propaganda than the Contrat Social’. This is problematic for a number of reasons, of which the first is the contradictory evidence at hand. The publication which had the greatest succès de scandale in the 1780s was Necker’s Compte-rendu au Roi, hardly a pornographic text voicing ‘baser sentiments’ in the language of the people, which sold more than fifty thousand copies in under two months. It is no more true to say that the Revolution was intimately connected to pornographic writing than to argue as Taine did that Revolutionaries were woolly-headed social deviants. Without a doubt, Grub Street did have some effect; Darnton’s hero, Brissot, is certainly grist to his mill, as might be Mirabeau, Collot, Fabre and Billaud-Varennes. But it surely is a striking and obvious fact that nearly all important Revolutionary leaders had had nothing to do with Grub Street, and despised its ways and means, whether they stood in politics on the right, the left, the extreme left, the centre or the sides. What Necker and Lafayette, Robespierre and Condorcet, Sieyes and Carnot probably shared most was an intensity of seriousness and a relentless righteousness; Saint-Just, the only ex-pornographer among the first-stringers, being perhaps the most unbending. The bourgeois Revolutionaries were overwhelmingly moral and sincere men, so were the extreme revolutionaries, the Enragés, the Babouvians, and even the terrorists like Carrier, Lebon and Fouché. And well they might be: their concerns were vast, their sense of history was overwhelming, and the French Revolution is still today the central world-historical event of modern times. What Grub Street had to do with the essential message, social alignments and trajectory of the French Revolution needs further examination.
A broader problem raised by the history of the Book concerns the relationship between its methodology and the complex, subtle issues on which it touches. The potentially radical insights must be of interest to us. Derrida has challenged the ‘phallogocentrism’ of Western culture, in a critique of the patriarchal institutions and mystery cults that are founded on the printed word. Darnton hopes that work like his own may ultimately provide us with ‘a larger understanding of how printing has shaped man’s attempts to make sense of the human condition’. As yet, however, the bolder insights advanced even by fine historians like Darnton may fail to convince because of limitations in the methods on which they rely. To speak abruptly, their fundamental idea has often been to count rather than to read. ‘Books are economic commodities as well as cultural artifacts … As vehicles of ideas, they have to be peddled on a market.’ What Darnton turns to in consequence, in his later essays, are watermarks, bills of lading, shipments, gains and losses. At its best, as it is this collection of essays, this concern for who published what, where, and in how many copies, can lead to some striking observations. Darnton’s essays are justly celebrated for their ‘thick’ descriptions of the varied and entertaining worlds of ‘Low-Lifers’ and of publishers and customs men. Fundamentally, however the reification of culture underlies such an argument. To consider ideas as commodities is to assume that writers, functioning in a discrete context (like Grub Street), produce concrete objects (libelles) whose statistical distribution tells us something about their effect on an otherwise virgin field (the mind of the reader).
It must be emphatically repeated that books are not just commodities. They speak to reason or the imagination; to the moment and the ages; or not at all. Events unpredictably give them brief or lasting actuality. There is no monovalent relationship between book and belief. It is chastening in this respect to remember that Montesquieu was an important source not just for Marat but for Saint-Just, the arch-enemy of bureaucratic tyranny and foe of arbitrary rule.
A more flexible model along lines being developed by Rezeptionsgeschichte would present culture and socio-economic life, writer and reader, as protean, interacting forms. Brissot’s life on Grub Street may have honed his polemical interests, but interest in pornography as a medium is also an aspect of a more general revival of interest in sexuality, where sexuality was (inter alia) an expression of individual liberation. Libels on Marie-Antoinette and Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses, or prurient prints and Fragonard, are not opposites whose origins and ‘impact’ can be mechanically isolated. They are different aspects of the seamless web of culture and society, and they could productively be reread from a semiotic and structural perspective, as feminists have done for Classical literary texts. Régine Robin’s and Jacques Guilhaumou’s essays on revolutionary slogans are suggestive in this respect.
Darnton’s method and emphasis on the indirect effect of Enlightened thought may seem unsurprising today, and it may be useful to note why they have become so since the date of his first publication. The historical climate at the time of their conception in the 1960s was that of a fading but still dominant and aggressively materialist Marxist perspective, derided in 1964 by Cobban in his Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. In that ‘vulgar Marxist’ view, the Enlightenment was a ‘superstructure’. The French middle classes, wrote the late Professor Soboul, ‘had elaborated a philosophy which was in keeping with its history, its role and its interests’. Darnton’s argument, in that context, was truly novel: it rescued culture from oblivion, albeit only in its connection to Grub Street. Twenty years later, however, the historiographic climate has changed dramatically. It is now more catholic to argue that the Revolution was a machine that ran out of control (dérapage) in large part because of its ambiguous ideological content. The ideology of the Enlightenment is now thought to have been critical for two reasons. First, the integrative power of culture, as well as common links to nascent capitalism, helped unite before 1789 the liberal aristocracy and the reformist bourgeoisie. Second, it was the contradictions – or, in Furet’s view, the disintegrative implications – of Enlightenment thought which explain the genesis and failure of Revolutionary extremism. The Revolution is no longer seen as the work of a bourgeoisie whose ideas mechanically fitted its interest. It is now increasingly understood to have been the uncontrollable creation of a composite élite of liberal nobles and reformist bourgeoisie, steeped in the message of the Enlightenment, but unaware of its destructive power. To have argued for even the indirect effect of Enlightened thought in 1971 was a great step forward. To insist exclusively on Grub Street in 1982 would trivialise the culture of an epoch when it was ‘bliss to be alive’.
Indeed, Darnton’s later essays are concerned with another, more ‘respectable’ milieu, that of contraband books rather than of illicit libelles. These essays rely, however, even more strictly on the classical statistical methods of the history of the Book. The problem lies in the way this genre has been conceived. The danger is that it may become a way out rather than a way forward, a method which finds its explanation in the collapse both of the classical Marxist schema and of ‘bourgeois’ modernization theory.
In the last pages of his splendid work on the printing and commercialisation of the Enlightenment, Darnton modestly concluded that the Encyclopédie was so vast that no study of it can ‘provide easy answers to questions about the ideological nature of the Revolution’. This could be take to mean that questions of the relationship of ideas to politics ‘are incapable of meaningful answer’, as Peter France has pessimistically concluded. But optimism must prevail, even if the problems are at the moment very baffling: as regards the period before 1789, the Marxist argument on ideology as superstructure still has considerable force. Conversely, the revolutionary ideology of 1793-94 can very rightly be perceived as a set of self-sustaining symbols, with their own inner logic divorced from social or political circumstance. There are no easy answers, but it would be a fatal step for historians simply to give up on trying to make consistent sense of the relationship of ideas to politics in this period of human history. Restated, this would be to set aside the central aspect of the central historical problem of modern times. The whole endeavour may be Sisyphean, but that in itself is cause to go on; and one of the best reasons for optimism that we have today is the work that is symbolised by this collection of insightful essays.
SIR: When one attacks one should get one’s facts correct. This Mr Cabrera (LRB, 18 November 1982) has failed to do. I last visited Cuba in 1966 (the only time I encountered Castro) and I met Torrijos for the first time in 1976. I never visited Castro on my way to Panama. Nor in my article published in 1966 did I speculate on what would have happened if Haydée Santamaria had been killed in the assault on Moncada Barracks.
SIR: As a mid-life newcomer to the study of English Literature who has completed a course or two at a local university, who has surveyed a few volumes of literary theory and read a few dozen papers on the giants in the language, and who has read LRB, NYRB and TLS for a year or so, I suppose I am not really qualified to comment on your contributors. I’m still asking: What is Literature? And that is the point. After a busy day which included a chapter or so of For Whom the Bell Tolls, I sat down with a pint of beer and experienced ‘Infante’s Inferno’. This isn’t litchacha, I thought, this is a terrific conversation over jug of wine with a friend who has also just discovered the wonders of language, the fun of it, and its pain. Infante plays with words, tells anecdotes, gossips, argues politics, uses lines from other writers, and also does what he is probably supposed to do, reviews the book in question. How different form the arid writing I’ve encountered so often in my quest for literary erudition! At this point a wise teacher would probably suggest more concentration on primary sources, and I would have to agree. It has to be asked: Is what Infante writes ‘critical literature’? It seems more like a hot and cool discussion. I can feel the writer’s conspiratorial whispers, his angry thumping of the table, his sitting back and drawing conclusions. Do such human gestures have a place in an academic, or at least intellectual, publication? The beer was my usual brand, so I can’t blame my reaction on that. In any case, thank you for printing the piece. I am certain that whether that jug is drained or not, we would have to conclude, to use my newly-acquired Hemingway Spanish, that Infante has cojones..
Concern for Israel
SIR: I suppose this is a somewhat intemperate letter, but I am getting fed up. Malise Ruthven’s essay on ‘the Beirut massacre’ (LRB, 4 November 1982) is only the latest piece of mendacious anti-Israel propaganda to appear recently in your pages. There have been a whole series of such attacks over the last few years, and they have a curiously similar ring. Since the authors are unwilling to admit to their hatred of Israel and their contempt for Israel’s interest, but wish to pose as reasonable friends of peace and of humane values, they all fall back on a characteristic blend of hypocrisy, distortion and intellectual gymnastics. In particular, they are obliged to ignore or conceal the central reality of Arab-Israeli conflict, which is the refusal of the Arab states with the sole exception of Egypt, to accept Israel’s right to exist. If the Arabs were willing to make serious peace with Israel, the plight of the Palestinians would be soluble, and historical experience makes it plausible that most Israelis would be willing to make sacrifices and take risks to solve it. Given the present situation, the Palestinians simply play the role of the Sudeten Germans in the propaganda of the Arab states – who have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not give a damn about the Palestinians’ welfare – and of their Western sycophants, such Mr Ruthven. This is an important part of the context in which Begin’s demagogy and militarism can command the level of support that they do.
Mr Ruthven’s essay ignores or dismisses all of this, but focuses minutely on the alleged paranoia, deceitfulness and reactionary immorality of Zionist policies. Like most pieces of skilful propaganda, this account is not entirely devoid of facts, but it is curious that the Jews seem to be the only ones in the Middle East who are oppressive, militaristic or xenophobic. Furthermore, it always turns out that any tendencies in the Islamic world of which Mr Ruthven or the other authors might disapprove – such as the narrowness and instability of the regimes, the shakiness of the concept of the secular territorial state, or the pull toward religious or national loyalties rather than purely political ones – are all the fault of (guess who?) Israel. The sheer preposterousness of this notion makes it difficult to know how to respond. Next Mr Ruthven will want us to believe that Theodore Herzl founded Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that the Ayatollah Khomeini got the concept of jihad from Moshe Dayan, and that Mossad was behind the pan-Arab nationalism of Nasser and the Ba’ath party. (The Palestinian National Covenant, by the way, states very clearly that Palestine will be a ‘secular, democratic’ Arab state.) When the wildly one-sided bias of these authors is pointed out to them, they deflect the question by attacking a straw man, and deny that criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-semitic. Fine. I think it is true that such arguments often proceed merely from an obsessive antagonism to Israel and an irresponsible indifference to the Israelis’ very rational concern about their national existence and security, so that they are anti-semitic in effect but not in intention. But his sort of anti-Zionism is morally despicable enough to deserve condemnation on its own terms, even if some of the authors’ best friends are Jews – or even if they are Jews themselves.
At the end of the article there comes the characteristic never-never-land touch. The solution, Mr Ruthven asserts, is ‘a settlement for the region which guarantees the existing national states behind secure and recognised frontiers … ’ I agree, and this is precisely what the Israelis have been saying for some thirty years. Why doesn’t he mention this excellent idea to the Arabs? ‘The Arab governments have already indicated they will recognise Israel’s existence on these terms …’ This is, of course, an outright lie. Why do you publish such pernicious rubbish?
The London Review of Books has run for three years and has published few pieces of any length on this subject: so Jeff Weintraub’s alleged long-running torrent of mendacity is a mirage. He is one of those who take themselves to be contributing to the defence of Israel – a cause with which this journal fully sympathises – when they search their vocabularies for words of abuse to direct at writers with whom they disagree. He is against both Begin and the ‘anti-Zionists’. But he appears to have something in common with publicists and polemicists who suggest that Begin’s policies are necessary for the survival of Israel and that it is ‘objectively’ anti-semitic to deny it, and who are unable to understand, or admit, that it may precisely be a concern for Israel which dictates a rejection of Begin. There can now be defences of Israel which defend – very often, by omitting to mention the matter – the organised killing of women and children. Malise Ruthven will reply to this letter in the next issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I was greatly distressed to read in Professor Taylor’s ‘Diary’ (LRB, 4 November 1982) that he will never more express an opinion pro or con Israel or the Jews. This is hardly an example of British pluck for Anglophiles like myself to admire. We jews have grown so great, particularly in the United States, that we are in danger of being overcome by hubris. In my own state of New Jersey, the Attorney-General is a Jew, the Chief Justice is a Jew, the Administrator of the Courts is a Jew. The newly-elected Senator is a Jewish millionaire. I feel that we could use some legitimate criticism to remind the great among us, who live beyond the wildest dreams of the Tsars, where they came from and who they are. If the British academicians are frightened off, who will dare to speak the truth?
Summit, New Jersey
Jesus and Cain
SIR: Edmund Leach (LRB, 2 December 1982), reviewing my book The Sacred Executioner, complains about my ‘phoney scholarship’, and that I do not include reference to his own work on the Bible which he says has ‘received favourable comment from both Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars of high repute’. I passed over his work because he lacks the basic requisite for Biblical study an acquaintance with the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. This ignorance leads to gross errors. He is evidently unaware even of the Hebrew alphabet, since he equates names which are similar in English transliteration but quite dissimilar in Hebrew (e.g. Rahab and Rechab, Jeroboam and Rehoboam). On fancied equations of this kind, he builds up complicated theories about an endogamy/exogamy dichotomy. Despite his protestations to the contrary, his elementary errors have been detailed by ‘both Jewish and Christian scholars of high repute’: for example, by Professor J.A. Emerton, in his devastating article in Vetus Testamentum, XXVI, 1. Leach further reveals his ignorance even of secondary works of Biblical scholarship in his absurd insinuation that I have taken the idea of the Cain and Abel story as a human sacrifice from him without acknowledgment. This theory, so far from being original to Leach, has long been familiar to Biblical scholars (e.g. S.H. Hooke, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, to whose work I refer repeatedly).
Leach contrasts my allegedly unscientific method with his own structuralist procedure, which consists of regarding the Bible as a seamless, timeless whole, ignoring all questions of dating, redaction, source-criticism, genre, literary style – indeed everything that might reveal the Bible as a developing cultural entity. In the structuralist method, Leach informs us, ‘the introduction of hypothetical “missing” texts is absolutely forbidden.’ This may be a required arbitrary rule for the structuralist game, but it has very little to do with the Bible as a historical phenomenon. It is quite certain that there are missing texts in the background of the Bible (some of them are even mentioned by title in the Bible itself), so for someone not hooked on structuralism it may well be fruitful to attempt the recovery of one of these texts, using the evidence found in the Bible. The text which I attempt to recover in part is that which lies behind the stories of Cain and his descendants (‘the Kenite saga’): an inquiry which demands philological knowledge, literary insight and depth of exegesis. Such methods are what Leach calls ‘hunches’, since they are not required at all in his own method, which is perfectly applicable to any religious masterpiece, whether in Hebrew, Chinese or Swahili, by an investigator innocent of these languages, and, as Leach himself has remarked, would best be applied by a computer.
Leach’s method might be called ‘positivism-cum-structuralism’. While positivism tells us that we should stick to the facts, positivism-cum-structuralism tells us that the facts we happen to have in hand are all the facts there are, and, also, that they form a perfect structure or pattern. If this seems implausible, we are reassured by the further dogma that this perfect pattern arises from the endless repetition of one theme (the more trivial or reductionist this is the better) in various inversions and dislocations. (Once the pattern has developed, even the rule about sticking to the available facts may be flouted. ‘Facts’ may be created to perfect the pattern, and inconvenient data destructive of the pattern ignored. I could fill several pages with examples of this.)
The basic theme which Leach has decided to impose on the Hebrew Bible is that of an obsessive concern for racial purity. This assumption, on which the ‘scientific’ structure is built, is nowhere argued on the basis of textual analysis, and is in fact disproved by many aspects which Leach ignores: for example, the approval given throughout the Hebrew Bible to the concept of conversion to Judaism. The concerns of the Hebrew Bible are actually quite different. One of them is featured in my book: the polemic against human sacrifice.
My book, however, is primarily concerned with the origin of anti-semitism, which I trace to the Christian myth of the Crucifixion. Leach says that there is no special problem about anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In a curious outburst, he equates Begin with Hitler, the PLO (not the Palestinians) with Hitler’s Jewish victims, and the Beirut massacre with Holocaust, the conclusion being that anti-semitism and the Holocausts are occurrences of a common type and are unconnected with the Christian myth. How far the Begin Government must share responsibility for the vendetta-massacre of fellow Arabs by Lebanese Christians in Beirut is at present the subject of an exemplary public inquiry in Israel, but whatever the results, there can be no comparison with the crimes of the Nazi regime, which comprised an explicit programme of genocide resulting in millions of deaths, compounded with prolonged torture and degradation. If anti-semitism is a common type of phenomenon, Leach has failed to give another example of it. His other attempted example is the Biblical massacre of the Amalekites. But these were bitter, powerful external enemies of the Israelites, not defenceless, unarmed and loyal citizens, as the German Jews were. Again, the allegedly similar event is entirely dissimilar. Moreover, anti-semitism is not an isolated event, but a phenomenon that spans two thousand years.
Though an anthropologist, Leach is quite incurious about the pariah-status of the Jews in Christendom and the special myth that has sustained and perpetuated this. My book, on the other hand, tries to face the facts of the long persecution of the Jews in Christendom, and seeks an explanation in the role given to the Jews as alleged performers of the god-sacrifice at the heart of Christianity. I also trace parallels to this role in earlier human-sacrificial religions, though in these it was always an individual, not a people, that was given the role of the Sacred Executioner. At the same time, the book deals with the irony that the Jewish Bible has been engaged in continual combat against just this type of sacrificial mythological complex.
Leach is so far from comprehending the argument of my book that he asks: ‘If the crucified Jesus equates with Abel, where do we find the Sacred Executioner who equates with Cain?’ The answer, as the whole book argues, is the role assigned to the Jewish (Judas) people, an equation which is found explicitly (as I point out) in the writings of most of the Early Fathers of the Church. Further crass misunderstanding is shown in Leach’s attribution to me of the view that Cain is redeemed by his guilt, an idea that I never express and which makes no sense.
As for Leach’s preposterous accusation that I have used no theories later than 1885, the attentive reader will see that I have used, on the definition of the purpose of sacrifice, the work of Hubert and Mauss, Westermarck, Loisy, Freud and Money-Kyrle, as well as that of Frazer. Leach’s demand that I should offer a single definition of sacrifice is misconceived: no such definition of this complex and over-determined phenomenon is possible. As for the much-debated and continuing issue of matriarchy, I do not feel bound, as Leach does, to accept the latest fashionable English trend as eternal truth.
I am sorry that I did not exercise sufficient supervision over the binding of my book to prevent Leach’s review copy from lacking pages 112-129. It was very clever of him, nevertheless, to discover that Chapters Nine and Ten, which are almost entirely contained in those pages, were ‘messy’. Since I cannot praise Leach either as an anthropologist or as a Biblical scholar, it is pleasant to be able to congratulate him on having second sight.
Leo Baeck College, London N3
By San Carlos Water
SIR: In his discussion of Iron Britannia, my book about the causes of the Falklands war on the British side, Neal Ascherson attacks my description of Thatcher’s role (LRB, 18 November 1982). He sees me as ‘anxious to deny her the dignity of consciously determining events’, and says that I present her ‘in the left-wing manner as something of a puppet in the hands of greater collective and vaster historical forces. Barnett blames Parliament for insisting, in the fateful debate of 3 April, that she perform the full Churchillist rite.’ There are at least three odd things about this assessment. First, the standard left-wing view is to blame Thatcher for the war, almost personally: an attitude I think I have demonstrated to be inadequate.
Second, Ascherson himself seems to take up in his review precisely the approach that he accuses me of having. He refers to ‘the fact that guilt [sic] lay on the entire political establishment’, and he endorses Peter Jenkins’s view that ‘it was Parliament’s War’ (their emphasis): the phrase itself signals precisely the point that it was not just ‘Thatcher’s War’. Ironically, and this is the third oddity, I caution the reader specifically against taking this attitude too far – the attitude Ascherson himself seems to hold while criticising me for it. I wrote: ‘It can be argued that Thatcher was the prisoner of events … Certainly she could not have grabbed the mantle of Churchill single-handed, such a deed would have been fiercely contested by his other inheritors. But that said she did not need time “to think things out”; it was the kind of issue she wanted all along.’ This is not the description of a mere puppet.
It seems to me that a matter of very great significance is implicit in Ascherson’s approach and should be clarified. The tension in his assessment of Thatcher’s role allows him to assert, as his emphatic conclusion, the pointlessness of the war. This he can only do by dismissing the real significance of Thatcher. For example, he notes that I take as my ‘text’ a speech of Thatcher’s given at Cheltenham after the victory (and after I had finished the first draft of my essay, but never mind). I reproduce the speech in full in an Appendix because it expresses Thatcher’s own bellicose programme here at home, using the Task Force as a symbol. Ascherson dismisses it: ‘On the whole, this was a silly, conventional speech already peeling from memory after a few months: what war leader has not proclaimed that the charge with the bayonet will now become the charge with the spanner … ’ For me Ascherson’s complacency is alarming, because disarming. For a start, I never trust the word ‘silly’ when used in political discourse like this. (I do not think that Thatcher is a Fascist, but how many times was Hitler described as ‘a silly little man’?) At the beginning of my discussion of Thatcherism, after introducing the reader to the themes of the Cheltenham address, I suggest: ‘Thatcher’s South Atlantic programme may appear implausible. But the less such aspirations are taken seriously, the more likely they are to succeed.’ The victory speech was no more ‘silly’ than the Parliamentary debate of 3 April. That is why we have to lake the war seriously, because this is what it was about: it was a war for Britain, not the Falklands. Hence it is fundamentally misleading to conclude, as Ascherson seems to do, that the whole exercise was ‘pointless’. Of course, that was so in terms of the Falklands themselves: the islands were only the excuse for the occasion. (Although, once raised as a central issue, we have to treat them, too, as other than silly.) But the whole point of the war on the British side was to salvage an archaic United Kingdom and its world role, for which most of the population here will continue to suffer. Which is one overriding reason why Britain should not have sent men to their deaths in the South Atlantic.
SIR: In relation to Christopher Ricks’s review of my T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage (LRB, 2 December 1982), a few comments come to mind. Ricks is at pains to establish who is to blame for the misprints in the texts, and who should ‘take the rap’, the editor, the printer, or some other (unnamed, unnameable) figure or figures. However, despite Ricks’s assertions to the contrary, if in one area ‘responsibility’ can’t be ascribed with certainty, neither can it be elsewhere. We are dealing in this context with too many lacks, as of language. To deny this is to create an effect of disavowal, of present absence, such as that discernible in the automatism of Ricks’s punning. Or in his discussion of the misquotation ‘Where there is no secure foothold’. In Ricks’s correction, the deleted ‘there’ is returned by nothing less than the reading of its absence as the mark of Eliot’s ‘genius’ in its presence. And so it goes on, throughout the review. When Ricks says there is no secure foothold, he is speaking other than he knows. Nonetheless, even the Ricksian paradise would be a lesser place without ‘fing expression’: it is a veritable thing-presentation. For Ricks to construe this as my attempt to evade the ‘rap’ would be merely to compound the joke of his mistaking, the specifications of which are sufficiently obvious.
The question of ‘ear’: does Ricks consider ‘rhythm’ to be in some way inherent in the words on the page? Can this ‘ear’ ‘see’? A pearl indeed. Beyond price, and before what a swine. May not the ‘ear’ differ from the ‘eye’? However that may be, in the lines ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many,’ the repetition/hesitation of ‘so many’ is the signifier of difference (death) across whose ‘undoing’ the crowd flows by an effect of retroaction. The play of (synchronic) difference constructs the (diachronic) text in a register that is not to be grasped by the regressive empiricism of ‘the words on the page’. ‘Rhythm’ is taken up and returned in the alienated form of a difficulty ‘literary’ preconception elides in the authorised banality of its apprehension. These, and related matters, are discussed in the Introduction, though there is, curiously, given the shrillness of the denunciation, no evidence that Ricks has read either that or the book more generally.
By the end of the review, the hallucinated object, ‘Mr Grant’, has been constructed, of which it is possible to know (disingenuously? sic?) what is ‘characteristic’. On the basis of this triumph, a final gift is now unveiled, a review of ‘Marina’ by Empson, thus annihilating ‘Mr Grant’ and ensuring an ultimate identification. In Empson’s review it is argued that the ‘humanist’ meaning of the poem can be taken as the symbol of its otherworldly meaning. Regrettably, for this position, the effect of the poem is to split reading, qua reading, away from the closures of analogy and symbol. The poem measures the space of its own construction across its distance from the notion of meaning such closures imply. In effect, the poem subverts the position of the father, the very thing Ricks, in his guise as Empson, wishes to keep in place. As usual, the misreading is total. I, too, regret that I could not include the item.
In view of the aggressivity of the positions marked out by the text of the review, it is proper to conclude that there is here the trace of a conflictual tension. The desire of the subject is always the desire of the Other; if any object comes to bear the brunt of that desire, particularly an object that is the (imaginary) object of desire of some (equally imaginary) other, aggression is the inevitable precipitate. Beyond this, to identify the signifier with the real is to effect an aggrandisement of the ego by way of a radical foreclosure of the lack of the psyche. It is significant that Eliot’s most important writing is a writing of alienation which renders problematic (to pin it mildly) the subject’s representation of itself as the Christ-bearing phallus. To begin to read Eliot it is necessary to begin to engage with what the Christian tradition has designated by way of ‘repentance’. Certain positions are defined from the outset as misrecognitions, misrecognitions of what, in Eliot’s art, is of genuine mystery. These ‘Critical Heritage’ volumes already have their vindication: they have effected the mapping of what determines at least one such position.
University of Kent
SIR: My initial response to reading John Sturrock’s review of Blanchot (LRB, 19 August 1982) was to want to produce a point-by-point rebuttal of its rather distressing inaccuracies. Let me note one: the passage Sturrock quotes about Virginia Woolf is horrifying, not because of what Blanchot wrote, but because of the inadequacies of a translation which Sturrock finds to be ‘excellently’ done. Where Blanchot wrote, ‘Les lecteurs sans indulgence risquent d’être irrités en voyant cette Virginia qu’ils aiment si éprise du succès, si heureuse des louanges, si vaine d’être un instant reconnue, si blessée de ne l’être pas,’ Sturrock accepts: ‘The uncompromising reader cannot fail to be irritated … ’ Blanchot’s ventriloquism of an aesthete-ic narrow-mindedness becomes for the narrow-minded Sturrock his own position. But it is precisely this kind of aestheticism that Blanchot always writes against, as any reader of Blanchot in French can verify. Sturrock accuses Blanchot of a rather facile essentialism – words like ‘essential’, ‘pure’, ‘total’ are used to characterise his position – but Blanchot’s incessant concern has been to go beyond (not ‘transcend’) such a conception of the work as a ‘space magnificently free from chance’ to the apprehension of what always exceeds the essential, an apprehension of what he calls ‘the other night’, which is not a literary space that excludes the alien but the place of the alien itself – not as a kind of ‘home’ or resting-place, but as the proximity of what is always homeless, has no essence or ground. It seems right to see in this an anti-fascist political element, but it is important precisely to see it as a political position and not the repression of such a position. If Sturrock could bring himself to read Blanchot’s quasi-autobiographical political novel Le Très-Haut (does Sturrock read French?), he’d find Blanchot well aware of the political elements in his thought; for Blanchot, as for Benjamin, fascism is a violent reaction against a heterogeneous non-essentialism that always exceeds totalisation. The same thought that leads the young narrator of Le Très-Haut to fascism eventually leads him beyond it, and it seems safe to regard this as Blanchot’s itinerary also. Sturrock’s Blanchot is a narrow-minded construction founded upon a bad translation; I hope his sloppiness doesn’t turn readers away from the work of probably the most astonishing critic and writer of our times. Blanchot articulates ‘the absolute proximity of non presence’, as Joseph Libertson calls it, a proximity uncanny in its intimacy, which once felt can never be forgotten. His writing deserves better translators and less complacent reviewers.
Ithaca, New York
John Sturrock writes: I have much to learn, I can see, when it comes to turning readers away from the books of Maurice Blanchot. My own mildly apotropaic words are happily redundant now that William Flesch has trundled from its Ithacan silo his ultimate deterrent: to wit, his warning to approaching readers that ‘Blanchot articulates “the absolute proximity of non-presence”.’ Perhaps there are lonely persons to hand who pine for such proximity: I do not. Perhaps there are Blanchomanes about besides Mr Flesch and his friend Joseph Libertson who know what the phrase means: I do not. The fact that Flesch offers it by way of a straight-faced inducement to potential readers of Blanchot leads me to ask in my turn: does Flesch know English? But happy in my ignorance I shall, file the phrase away as an apt and sufficient vaccination against the many similarly dismal vapidities to be found in Blanchot’s own writings. Turning now to Virginia Woolf: I hear no ‘ventriloquism’ but rather Blanchot saying, in indicative mood, that it is possible to be irritated by Virginia Woolf’s crippling sensitivity concerning the reception of her books, and that indulgence is required if this is not to weaken our respect for her. I cannot imagine anyone’s respect for Virginia Woolf being weakened by learning from her Diaries the degree to which she suffered each time she published a book: one’s respect is much strengthened, by sympathy. Blanchot, it would seem, can imagine it weakening. His formulation is at best condescending and at worst priggish. Finally, Flesch manages to discern ‘an anti-fascist political element’ in Blanchot’s concern with ‘the other night’, or else ‘the place of the alien itself etc. It is not in such insultingly depopulated regions that I would look myself for anti-fascist political elements. If Blanchot wishes us to know that he has become an anti-fascist then he should tell us so openly, just as he told us of his distinctly fascist views in the 1930s. If political allegiances are to be buried as deep as, in Flesch’s reading, Blanchot buries them, they are meaningless. An arcane anti-fascism will not serve to exorcise the ugly and extremist views Blanchot held and publicised before the war.
In an earlier letter (Letters, 2 December 1982) Jeffrey Mehlman faulted me for not understanding just what he was getting at in his essay on Blanchot. I’m sorry if the mistranslations in the Tel Quel version of this misled me, but I’m nol convinced that they did. The ‘something of a centrepiece’ which Mehlman refers to in Blanchot’s collection, Fauxpas, is a chapter called ‘Comment la littérature estelle possible?’. It is by way of an extended review of Jean Paulhan’s luminously perverse little book Les Fleurs de Tarbes ou (subtitle) La Terreur dans les Lettres. The ‘terror’ for Paulhan is that ultra-Romantic attitude which asks that the true writer start from scratch, abjuring all literary precedent and re-creating his language as he goes. Against this Paulhan argues for the virtues of clichés, rules, conventions, as a way, precisely, of avoiding mere ‘verbalism’ and directing the reader’s mind to the underlying thoughts. The ‘terror’ functions in Les Fleurs de Tarbes, as Mehlman says it does, as a ‘metaphor for a will to implement an ordinary language’, but the metaphor is Paulhan’s, not Blanchot’s, as one might conclude from Mehlman’s letter. (Was it Paulhan’s even, or part of the critical parlance of the day, i.e. a cliché?) Nor, so far as I can see, is the ‘terror’ Blanchot’s ‘target’, which is what Mehlman should have been made to say in Tel Quel. In his commentary on Paulhan’s book, Blanchot parts company with its author by claiming that in a sense the terrorists are in the right, since it is the ambition of all literature to achieve an utter originality, that this is the illusion which sustains the writer, even if it can never be realised. Which leaves me more unclear still as to the logic of Mehlman’s account of Blanchot’s transition from pamphleteer to literary high priest.
Wild, Fierce Yale
SIR: Geoffrey Hartman’s review (LRB, 21 October 1982) of Christopher Norris’s fine book Deconstruction: Theory and Practice is even more instructive than the book he reviews. Its history of the filiations between the old and the new Yale is not one I am inclined to deconstruct, any more than I am to honour the title. If the ‘Yale School’ is wild or fierce, that is the problem either of its denizens or of its enemies. My own, surely not idiosyncratic, opinion is that we would all be very much the poorer without Yale, whose intellectual range is not the worse for ranging beyond deconstruction.
Certain shadings and omissions in Hartman’s review do excite my wonder. He shows great poise, in responding to Norris’s depiction of him as an almost exclusively ludic critic. Hartman’s work belies the charge, and the forbearance is remarkable. I cannot understand, however, his omission of Norris’s casting Jonathan Culler as a villain, a kind of traitor within the walls. Is there any reason for a partisan of deconstruction like Norris to exhibit such a puritanical high tone?
Not that I have a love affair with deconstruction. It seems to me to have certain distinct limits. A local friend claims that another woman is the best Chinese cook in Princeton, and that she is the fourth best: ‘There is no second or third.’ Practically speaking, the nouvelle critique has a number of first-class cooks in New Haven (and a few elsewhere). The problem is that, unlike the old New Criticism, it produces no second or third, or perhaps fifth or sixth best, whereas ‘Formalism’ produced no end of seconds and thirds as well as firsts. In other terms, unlike a structuralist such as Harold Bloom, the deconstructionists have yet to show that the chief concerns of humankind can be dealt with by them. Good and evil, or joy and suffering, are not on their agenda. Neither is non-Western literature, or even much in the way of pre-Romantic literature. History, except the history of studies at Yale, seems not to exist. And what kind of principle is it that privileges the critic from the instability, the non-meaning attributed to writers who (many of us think) are greater than these brilliant individuals? Literary study has many margins, as well as centres, and I worry that Hartman and his gifted colleagues may have mistaken the former for the latter. Much can be forgiven for intellectual power, but the questions are how much is to be forgiven in context, and whether power is to be identified with intellect alone.
Pasternak and the Russians
SIR: Elizabeth Roberts’s letter about the Pasternak-Freidenberg correspondence (Letters, 2 December 1982) puzzles me: I think we are at cross-purposes rather than in disagreement. Olga Freidenberg’s (not Olga Pasternak’s) Poetics of Plot and Genre did very well in the bookshops (‘sales began to mount,’ she writes) before it was withdrawn by the Soviet authorities. Hard to imagine a work with that title selling so well in the West? I apologise for the inverted commas in my phrase ‘free’ society. They were not intended ironically. We have perfect freedom to buy, and the publisher to publish, which is why a book like hers would only appear in limited numbers here.
Elizabeth Roberts also appears to query my point that books like the Pasternak-Freidenberg correspondence are serialised in the Sunday papers, not because of what is in them, but because anything of that kind has anti-Soviet publicity value. Well, I do not think some interesting letters between a French, English or American poet and his cousin would be likely to get serialised in this way. I have nothing against the Sunday paper, and I am very glad it did extracts from the correspondence. It would be even more gratifying if the paper serialised extracts from Poetics of Plot and Genre: then we might see why the Soviet censors banned Olga’s dissertation.