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Literature and Low Life

SIR: If I may be permitted to reply to Patrice Higonnet’s criticism of my book (Letters, 10 January), I find myself joining the chorus of authors who repeat the same, sad refrain: you read me wrong; I never meant that. It is melancholy company, and the fault may lie with us rather than with our readers. So let me clarify what I was attempting to do in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. As my title indicates, I wanted to explore a particular milieu: the world of Grub Street writers, pirate publishers and under-the-cloak booksellers. It is a vast, unknown territory. I attempted only a few forays into it, directing my research where the archives seemed richest and casting my writing in the form of essays – that is, essaying lines of interpretation rather than pretending to produce a systematic treatise.

Patrice Higonnet presents my book as an argument about the Enlightenment, which stumbles through three non-sequiturs. 1. Ideas did not matter in 18th-century France, so one need not ponder texts like the Social Contract. 2. Those texts were translated into pornographic tracts by hack writers, who used them as a vehicle to vent their social frustrations. 3. In this vulgar form, the ideas did matter, for they displaced the work of the philosophes as the key intellectual influence on the Revolution. I disavow those arguments and never advanced them, as one can see from several passages in my text, notably those on pp.37-40, 145-147 and 202-208.

The diffusion of Enlightenment ideas was the subject of my two previous books. In this one, I studied a different phenomenon: the spread of scurrilous pamphlets, chroniques, scandaleuses and libelles. They expressed a Grub Street view of the world, and they sold widely in pre-Revolutionary France. Yet because of their crude character, they have been completely forgotten. I think they deserve a place among the ideological origins of the French Revolution along with the work of the philosophes. I think it important to recognise that Les Fastes de Louis XV headed the best-seller list, as I have reconstructed it from publishers’ account books, in a sleepy provincial town like Troyes. But I do not mean to disparage the significance of Diderot and Rousseau, and I never dreamed of arguing that ‘the Enlightenment became effective when translated into pornography,’ as Higonnet would have it. Finally, I think it even more important to study texts, that of the Social Contract as well as that of Venus in the Cloister, and to understand how they were read at the time.

The history of reading, however, is difficult terrain, terribly barren in documentation. Instead of venturing into it, I worked in an area where the evidence is thick and the question manageable: what did Frenchmen read in the 18th century? What did they really read as distinct from the canon of classics that was subsequently selected to represent 18th-century French literature? I will give a fuller account of this littérature vécue in a later work, and I intend to move from there to a systematic investigation of public opinion and the ideological origins of the Revolution. The Literary Underground represents only the first steps in what has already become a long trek through the archives. If it has stirred up some debate, so much the better. And if, like other authors, I wince when my readers get me wrong, that may serve as a healthy reminder of the complexities of communication through the printed word, which is what I ultimately hope to understand.

Robert Darnton

SIR: I was very interested to read Patrice Higonnet’s thoughtful comments on the issues raised by Robert Darnton’s book. However, both Higonnet’s letter and his recently published work on the nobility of the Revolution, which likewise deals with the impact of Enlightenment ideas on the French Revolution, seem to me to be pitched at too high a level of abstraction, if the relationship of ideas to politics is to be meaningfully explored. For example, in criticising the ‘vulgar Marxism’ of the late Professor Soboul, according to which, in the Enlightenment, the middle classes ‘had elaborated a philosophy which was in keeping with its history, its role and its interests’, Higonnet – besides not giving credit to the more subtle aspects of Soboul’s actual analysis – seems to neglect the fact that the middle classes themselves, not just more or less déclassé pornographers, were producers and disseminators of ideas. It may be true, as Higonnet says, that ‘the Revolution is no longer seen as the work of a bourgeoisie whose ideas mechanically fitted its interest’: nor is a united bourgeoisie seen, mechanically, to have had one interest. Nevertheless, important sections of the bourgeoisie, who were morally respectable and who were not themselves men of letters or explicit ideologists, were perfectly capable of putting pen to paper and expressing their interests in a very forceful and sometimes eloquent way. Neither Darnton nor Higonnet gives much attention to this fact, the former because he looks too low, the latter because he looks too high.

Possibly some consideration of this ‘literature’ might reveal a degree of Enlightenment influence, pressed more or less happily into service for the defence of specific interests and the advancement of very definite claims. This would certainly seem to be the case at Marseille, where, for example, merchant members of the Academy were conscious proselytisers for ‘philosophic’ values, even to the extent of wishing to spread the more utilitarian of these to the local artisan and peasant classes. Figures such as Dominique Audibert (correspondent of Voltaire, Necker, Clavière etc, friend of Raynal) and Jacques Seimandy (whose pamphlets on the interests of the commercial classes were adopted by the Chamber of Commerce) prided themselves (with justification, I think) on their participation in the triumph of enlightened ideas in 1789. These were ideas which, as Soboul says, they saw as the vindication of the historical role, present position and aspirations of their milieu. Moreover, also at Marseille, Mirabeau was not acclaimed in 1789 because of his mildly risqué novels, which, if known, would have put off many of Higonnet’s ‘overwhelmingly moral and sincere’ bourgeois revolutionaries. He was elected to the States General because of his hatred for the reactionary nobility of Provence, and won the admiration of many bourgeois for his speeches on economic matters in the National Assembly, speeches seen as defending the very material interests of the commerce of Marseille.

Thus, if one is interested in exploring the relationship of ideas to politics, it is necessary to examine (as best one can) all the written – and other – productions of the time, in the relevant political and social context, broadly defined. Mirabeau’s speeches in the National Assembly, including those directly defending economic interests (such as the free return of Indies ships to any French port, not just Lorient), do not always succeed in reconciling the enunciation of philosophic principles with the expression of specific, materially-orientated points of view. But in assessing the play between interests and principles, it is useful to know that Mirabeau was sometimes plied with statistics and arguments by real merchants, just before he mounted the tribune. Only then can both vulgar materialism and a disembodied idealism be avoided.

One might add, in conclusion, that when pronouncing the death-knell of the view which gives prominence to the material interests of the bourgeoisie in producing the revolutionary situation of 1789, and the ideas then expressed, it might be prudent to give some attention both to what those interests were and to how the bourgeoisie saw them and gave expression to them. It may, as Higonnet claims, be more ‘catholic’ to adopt a vague perspective which ignores this point, but can it be said to be more accurate?

William Scott
University of Aberdeen

Concern for Israel

SIR: Ruth Nevo (Letters, 17 February) accuses me of ignoring the ‘historic and unceasing conflict’ between Labour Zionism and Revisionism and of using the single term ‘Zionism’ without any qualifying distinctions except at the beginning of my article. Had she read the piece more carefully, she would have noted the reference to Jabotinsky as Begin’s mentor, along with references to extremist versions of Zionism. Unfortunately, the distinction between Labour Zionism and Revisionism has not always been as clear as Ruth Nevo would have it. Far from being consistent advocates of territorial compromise and Palestinian national rights, Labour governments have cashed in their bargaining counters almost as recklessly as Likud. It was a Labour government that annexed East Jerusalem; it was a Labour government which, between 1967 and 1977, permitted or assisted in the planting of more than thirty settlements in the Occupied Territories, including several by Revisionist-inspired or other right-wing groups. Nor have Zionist bodies outside Israel made a habit (until very recently) of distinguishing between Labour Zionism and Revisionism. For them, what is good for Israel – Greater or Lesser – is good for the Jewish people who must therefore be manipulated, blackmailed or bullied into supporting all of its policies.

The use of Holocaust rhetoric by Zionist officials and Israeli politicians to this end has been the subject of an important article by Boaz Evron in the Hebrew journal Yiton 77 (May-June 1980). Evron argues that ‘Jewish monopolisation’ of the Holocaust (in which three million Poles and Gypsies also died) has tended to prevent rational discussion of the Arab-Israel conflict. By constantly warning of the danger of a ‘Second Holocaust’ Israelis and their foreign supporters have been induced to equate Arabs with Nazis, making Arab hostility seem irrational and efforts at peace-making consequently futile. An instance of this vilifying propaganda may be found in Begin’s famous letter to Reagan last summer, comparing Arafat in Beirut to Hitler in his bunker. As Evron points out, Holocaust rhetoric has continually been used to sustain the feeling of a threat to Israel’s existence, although objectively speaking any such danger ceased after ‘the first cease-fire during the War of Independence of 1948’.

The recently published report of the Kahan Commission bears out many of the points I made in my article, although, as was to be expected, it minimises Israel’s responsibility for the massacres as far as can be done without departing from the fact, known from the first, that Christian militias entered the Sabra and Chatila camps on the orders, and with the assistance, of Sharon and his military commanders. The Commission has made the best of a difficult job in trying to vindicate Israel’s international reputation. However, like the Franks Report on the Falklands War, not all of its conclusions follow from the evidence. While accusing Sharon, Eitan and other senior commanders of culpable negligence in not foreseeing that the dispatch of Phalangist militias into the camps would almost inevitably lead to massacre, it nevertheless exonerates the Israeli military and political leadership of ‘any intention to harm the noncombatant population’. This is, to put it mildly, an unjustifiably lenient conclusion to draw from the catalogue of ‘misunderstandings’, failed communications, ‘lapses of memory’ and unheeded warnings which the report details. Without any additions, the facts admitted in the report can be adduced to allow the much harsher verdict that the senior IDF commanders, acting under Sharon’s orders, deliberately engineered the slaughter in the camps, and resisted all efforts by junior officers to have it stopped.

The line between culpable negligence and active complicity (between omission and commission) is not always easy to draw. But the tendentious character of the Kahan report’s conclusions ought to be readily apparent to anyone who examines the complete text in conjunction with other, more widely-known facts. The report’s most glaring contradiction is its acceptance of the argument that Israel’s attack on West Beirut after Bashir Gemayal’s murder was necessary in order to prevent the very atrocities it engendered: at no point does the report draw the obvious conclusion that the massacres were only made possible by the prior decision of the whole Israeli Government to take over West Beirut, in flagrant violation of the Habib agreement. This fact alone places a much fuller responsibility on the Israeli Government than any admitted in the report.

Having absolved Israel of its major part in setting up the massacres, the report makes a magnanimous admission, in line, as it says, with the highest democratic and Talmudic traditions, of the Government’s ‘indirect responsibility’. However commendable, the moral sensitivity displayed in this area (which certainly contrasts very favourably with the attitudes of any Arab government) is really a red herring: the learned references to the case of the ‘beheaded heifer’ have little to do with the question, for while the motes are meticulously examined, the beam is left virtually untouched. Perhaps this is not entirely the Commission’s fault, since Begin framed its terms of reference as narrowly as possible. But it does leave the impression that the report is a clever exercise in public relations rather than an effort to attribute blame where it truly belongs.

Malise Ruthven
London SW9


SIR: I will ignore the personal insults Brigid Brophy feels compelled to include in her review of my book Bernard Shaw: The Darker Side (LRB, 2 December 1982). I will respond instead to some of the insults she directs at Shaw while supposedly defending him. For example, Shaw’s identification with Man and Superman’s Tanner was so pronounced that Shaw ordered the actor who first played the role to look as much like him as possible. Ms Brophy, however, accuses me of missing ‘the simple reversal of genders in the play. Ann Whitefield, driven to unscrupulous lengths by the Life Force in order to secure the best father for her future children, is Shaw driven by the same Force to the unscrupulous and unsocialist length of marrying a “millionairess” in order to secure the future of his works of literature.’ This traduces Shaw. That he took what he called ‘a reasonable interest’ in Charlotte’s wealth is undeniable, but at the time he married her he was finally beginning to make money as a dramatist. (The American production of The Devil’s Disciple earned him over £2000.) Why should not Ms Brophy take at face value Shaw’s assertion that ‘not until I was past 40 did I earn enough money to marry without seeming to marry for money’? In my book I explore Shaw’s reasons for marrying Charlotte and must insist that they were more complex and honourable than Ms Brophy allows. Ms Brophy also denies Shaw the right to have been sexually frustrated by an unconsummated marriage. She apparently believes that emasculating a man will not affect his outlook. I believe quite the opposite and try to trace the effects in my analysis of Man and Superman.

Having turned Shaw into an unscrupulous fortune-hunter without sexual desires, Ms Brophy next implies that he was a prudish dramatist who did not know what he was doing. I remark that Shaw wittily hints that Higgins engages in masturbation by having him nervously play with his hands in his trouser pockets, fingering his keys and his cash. Ms Brophy thinks this ‘as obtuse as it is perceptive’. For ‘it was historically and personally impossible that Shaw was consciously hinting any such witty thing for exhibition on the stage.’ The credit should be directed ‘to the wit of his unconscious’. I fear that Ms Brophy here betrays a disabling ignorance of Shaw and his age.

Why was it historically impossible? By 1912 frank discussion of sexual matters was routine among the English intelligentsia. Krafft-Ebing’s famous book was over a quarter of a century old. Freud had published major works on dreams and on the psychopathology of everyday life. Havelock Ellis’s study of erotic symbolism had been out for several years, and his ‘Auto-Eroticism’ had been available in a journal for 14 years and as part of a book for 12 years. (Though officially banned in England, these books by Ellis were nevertheless circulated there.) Shaw not only knew Ellis but had rallied to his defence during the Bedborough Trial of 1898 when the first volume of Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex was confiscated by the police. Shaw had read that volume carefully and had declared ‘that its publication was more urgently needed in England than any other recent treatise.’ Thus knowledge of revealing sexual gestures was readily available to Shaw in 1912.

Was it nonetheless ‘personally impossible’ that he should have used it? Not at all. Shaw’s pioneering treatment of erotic subjects on the stage had prompted even his friend Beatrice Webb to complain in her diary that his plays portrayed the morals of a rabbit warren. His very first play (1892) exhibits a woman’s lust; his second (1893) begins with lovemaking on a sofa and deals throughout with what he termed ‘clandestine sensuality’; his third (1893) centres on a rich whore and also touches on incest. Why, then, by the time he wrote his 21st play, in which a father thinks he has sold a daughter for sexual purposes, could Shaw not also hint at masturbation – the hint being quiet enough to have gone unnoticed for seventy years!

The real Shaw, darker side and all, is thus a more impressive figure than the waxwork St George that Ms Brophy carries in her head; and when someone introduces her to the real Shaw, she flinches, grows angry, and lashes out in every direction. I doubt that the real Shaw, who was unafraid of the truth, would respect her behaviour.

Arnold Silver
University of Hawaii, Manoa, Honolulu

Brigid Brophy writes: Mr Silver misses the distinction between what was known and, perhaps, privately discussable and what Shaw would have wanted to represent (or, with uncharacteristic slyness, to hint) in the theatre or on the page printed under his name, just as he misses the distinction between a regular and secure ‘private income’ and the chancy earnings of a freelance writer.

E.H. Carr

SIR: Whatever may be said of E.H. Carr as a historian of Soviet Russia (and on this subject I leave it to the specialists to judge), I wish it to go on record that in this department, which he headed from 1936 to 1947, and no less, I believe, in the field of International Relations studies generally, his is an honoured name. The Twenty Years’ Crisis is assuredly a classic, even the classic work in the subject, and generations of students have profited from this and other books characterised by his brilliant, analytical mind. If they do not always have the impact that they did, it is because many of Carr’s ideas have won universal acceptance, and one needs to go back to the thought-world of the mid-Thirties fully to understand the magnitude of Carr’s achievement. To commemorate this achievement, largely realised while he held the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics here at Aberystwyth, it is the intention of this department to establish an annual E.H. Carr Memorial Lecture, which, it is hoped, will each year be given by a distinguished scholar drawn chiefly, but perhaps not exclusively, from the field of international politics.

On a more personal note, I met E.H. Carr only once, when he attended a five-day conference I convened in 1969 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this department and chair, but on that occasion we were all impressed by a great scholar of gracious and modest bearing, which made the brutal attack on his memory doubly painful to read.

Brian Porter
Department of International Politics, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth

Tales of the Soviet Empire

SIR: The spectacle of left-wing academics visiting parts of the Soviet empire and returning to tell us that all is well is a familiar one, but not less disreputable for that. So A.J.P. Taylor (LRB, 17 February) assures us that Hungary is really just like England. Doubtless it is today one of the pleasantest parts of Eastern Europe in which to live, particularly for those of Mr Taylor’s class, partly as a result of its abandonment of Marxist economic practices. We may choose to forget that Mr Kadar was put where he is by Soviet arms, and that in the last resort these provide the only legitimacy his power possesses. Cum domino pax ista venit. We may choose to forget the thousands of Hungarians (many of them workers) who were eliminated after the Uprising – with some help from Mr Andropov. Mr Taylor of course never saw any Soviet soldiers (there are four divisions stationed in Hungary), and he claims that American troops are far more evident in this country. (He does not point out that Hungary strictly supports Soviet foreign policy, whereas the Falklands war, whatever he may think of it, does at least illustrate the point that Britain can act contrary to the wishes and interests of the US Administration.) Above all, Mr Taylor makes play with the happy and privileged position enjoyed by Hungarian academics; indeed this section of society has on the whole fared quite well, and the unfriendly might even say that they have to some extent been bought off: those workers who sought real freedom and equality were among those who chiefly suffered.

It so happens that I visited Greece under the Colonels, where I saw little army presence and no acts of repression, and even heard the virtues of the regime extolled by a friendly and well-fed peasant. None of this of course had the remotest relevance to the true situation of the country, and if I had reported back that all was well because I had seen nothing amiss, I would have been rightly excoriated. In an earlier Diary Mr Taylor praised Dr Johnson for his freedom from cant. I doubt whether the great Tory would have repaid the compliment, and can imagine his comment: ‘The fellow’s a vile Whig, sir, and there’s an end on’t.’

It so happens that in a letter in the same issue two academics remind us of the ‘positive’ qualities of Stalin’s rule. Certainly Russia did not disintegrate under Stalin, and Hitter was repelled (as Napoleon had been by the Tsar). But it remains odd to concede credit to a man responsible for the death of some fifteen million of his subjects, the peasant-slayer who instituted a bureaucracy that continues to repress the majority with matchless efficiency in a notable continuation of the class struggle. The point may be wearyingly familiar, but that does not make the facts go away. One can imagine how, had Hitler succeeded in establishing a lasting Reich, historians, often great worshippers of success, would compete in finding the ‘positive’ side of his achievements. When the Left finally and unequivocally condemns evil, its prescription for good will acquire more validity.

Charles Martindale
University of Sussex