LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Unfair to Food

SIR: It is better to think while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb than not to think at all, and Angela Carter (LRB, 24 January) might have been wise to heed Alice Waters’s advice. I thought I had been unlucky when motherhood got in the way of her perpetually forthcoming LRB notice of my The British at Table 1940-1980 a year or so ago, but now I am not so sure. A woman capable of splashing blame for the Ethiopian famine on Elizabeth David is scarcely to be trusted with a baby’s pusher, let alone a stabbing knife, and it would not have needed a very long session with the tomato to realise that victims of ecological disaster in Africa have more to fear from worshippers of power or money or both, in Downing Street and Addis Ababa, than from simpler souls like Paul Levy, whose god is their belly.

However, all these authors can look after themselves, and my own claim to a crumb of the action is as editor and for that matter initiator of the Guardian’s food and drink page, to which Angela Carter also alludes – forgetting perhaps that the paper has published weekly pieces on wine as well as on cookery and restaurants for many years past, and that her own debut as a contributor to it arose from an experience of waiting at table, circa 1967. (If I may skip for a moment to Karl Miller’s Diary in the same LRB issue, it is not unknown for daily newspapers to publish young writers before weeklies and fortnightlies find space for them. There is a story, which at least ought to be true, that an early piece by D.H. Lawrence lingered undiscovered in the Guardian’s files for many years because the printer had transposed the initials underneath it to ‘H.D.L.’.)

Anyway, just to set the record straight, food and drink does not occupy as much space in the paper as either movies or books, if you count related feature articles and interviews as well as straight criticism, and if you remember that the food page reviews Elizabeth David, for instance, leaving the book page to get on with Angela Carter. Not that I would think a reverse ratio between these different cultural topics disproportionate, whether in terms of pleasure or of public concern. And I know which of those two authors I would take to a desert island, too.

Christopher Driver
London N6


SIR: A lapse is a lapse: which does not mean one has to accept what Mr Tanner (Letters, 4 April) makes of it in his intolerant attitude toward my work and the essay on Leavis in particular. I wonder about his intent if he can so misread an essay which does not set up the false dichotomy of literary theory and practical criticism, and certainly does not disparag the latter. I tried to clarify Leavis’s practice and to place it in a context broader than English studies. To dignify my slip as a ‘gross misattribution’, and so to displace emphasis from – indeed, distort – the tenor of my appreciation of Leavis, constitutes a lapse of quite a different order.

Geoffrey Hartman
Yale University

Plain English

SIR: Dr Christopher Norris’s hot defence of Derrida and deconstruction (Letters, 24 January) is fatiguingly familiar in terms and substance. One could easily think deconstruction bunkum, and reactionary bunkum at that, without being an empiricist and without making what he glibly calls ‘the empiricist assumption that the only way to get at that world is by dropping all the problems and simply telling things like they are.’ I am not an empiricist, as it happens: but as a summary of what Locke and his school held, all that is a figment. Locke’s Essay is a highly elaborate attempt to grapple with just that problem; and he was so far from supposing we should drop it that he held its neglect to be the chief philosophical failing of the age. Nor was it ‘things like they are’ that he supposed the source of knowledge, but what he called ideas: ‘whatever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks’ – whether phantasms, notions or species: such notions, as he argues, being only sometimes based on real events and existences.

Locke thought a belief in innate ideas encouraged mental laziness and authoritarianism – charges he might aptly have levelled against deconstructionists ready to swallow a handbook summary of empiricism mediated to them by ill-read French theorists twenty years ago. Their readiness to study an original text may be judged from the fact that they believe Saussure to have discovered the Arbitrariness of the Sign: though Saussure did not discover it, and in the Cours de Linguistique Générale he plainly says he did not. And no wonder, since it was (as he acknowledges) a commonplace of 19th-century philology, and familiar to Aristotle, Aquinas and Locke. When I.A. Richards lectured on semiology in Cambridge English over fifty years ago, and long before it was ever fashionable in literary Paris, he aptly praised Coleridge’s letter of September 1800 on ‘arbitrary signs’ for bringing together ‘so many problems of what is now known as semasiology’ (Coleridge on Imagination, 1934). The reason why many of us here found literary semiotics in the Sixties a bit of a bore was that we had heard it all long before from a much older generation, so that it looked no more than another scrap of evidence for French academic provincialism.

Professor Donoghue, who is the subject of Dr Norris’s attack, can look after himself. But his handling here reminds me of another old colleague of mine who studied under Benedetto Croce in Naples in the early Thirties. Whenever he mentioned an inconvenient fact, Croce would raise a warning finger and murmur ‘Empiricismo’: unaware, apparently, that my friend was not an empiricist, and that you do not have to be one to demand evidence of general assertions.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

Ostentatio Genitalium

SIR: Mr Hope (Letters, 24 January) does protest a lot. His letter seems to hang on his last paragraph, so I will start with it: Mr Hope invites me to declare my antipathy to the worship of images, which ‘has been universally condemned by Christian theologians of all periods and all persuasions’. But sir, by worship I did not mean the latria, which must be given to God alone, but the dulia, worship by kissing, incense and lights that the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea (usually counted as the Seventh General Council) maintained, pace Mr Hope, was an inalienable part of the tradition of the Universal Church. This decree has been reiterated many times by popes, councils and synods.

For the rest, Mr Hope (if I have understood him correctly this time) does now admit that artists’ interest in showing the body of Christ naked, whether as the Child with its Mother or the Crucified Saviour, is a real 14th-century innovation, and that, as he puts it, it requires explanation. However, he brushes aside the edifice of evidence which Steinberg has constructed from images and texts as in some way insubstantial, or as he says, not significant; and sets up instead his own hypothesis that the innovation shows a change in attitudes not to the incarnation but to the Blessed Virgin. He does not offer any evidence that this in turn required showing the nakedness of the Child, nor that there may be some connection between these matters and artists’ interest in circumcision. I suspect that he will not be able to do so. The reason is simple: the devotion to the Virgin of Tenderness (Panagia Glaukophilussa, Eleusa) is very old, and the iconographic type goes back – in Byzantine painting – to the 11th century if not earlier. Mr Hope need only think of the Vladimir Icon, which was the palladium of Russia. There is no reason why the child in such pictures should be naked. Let him look again at the Madonna by Nardo di Cione which Steinberg shows (his pl. 36), in which the naked Christ child stands in a hieratic pose on his mother’s knee, and contrast it with a fully-clothed Virgin and Child by the same painter (now in the National Gallery in Prague) in which the Child chucks the Virgin under the chin in the most ‘real baby’ gesture. Clearly nakedness is not related to the ‘real motherhood’ aspect of the icons of the Virgin.

All this seems to be related to Mr Hope’s insistence that the Child in these pictures is an attribute of the Virgin, which ‘serves to identify’ her much as the Child on his back identifies St Christopher (I am glad that Mr Hope now balks at his earlier comparison with St Peter’s keys). But even that will not quite do. The St Christopher images illustrate a pious legend and were not particularly common (compared with those of St Francis, or St Augustine, or St Anthony Abbot), while the Virgin and Child ‘illustrates’ the doctrinal centre of the Christian religion. I must confess, sir, that I am a little embarrassed at having to make this very elementary point in your columns. However, whether you think the Virgin an attribute of the Child, or the Child of the Virgin (either interpretation seems to me equally comfortable, given the current use of the word ‘attribute’), you are left with the bulk of Steinberg’s evidence, most of which Mr Hope seems to accept, although he will insist on his own inspired guess (for he offers no evidence to support it) that all the pictures and texts in the book he reviewed refer in spite of appearances to a shift in the cult of the Virgin. Until he has convincingly reassembled the evidence to that end I will prefer Steinberg’s interpretation of it.

Joseph Rykwert
Department of Architecture, Cambridge