LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

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

Letters


The Oxford Vote

SIR: I am in a position to comment on two of the rhetorical questions posed by A.C. Bramwell in the hysterical letter which you published in your issue of 18 April. Bertrand Russell made a substantial contribution to the foundations of mathematics and the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein’s cavorting around his room with a poker has no basis in fact.

A.J. Ayer
London W1

SIR: In her attack on Peter Pulzer’s article on the Oxford vote, A.C. Bramwell ignores Professor Pulzer’s conclusion that the strength of Oxford’s case lay in the tremendous boost which that vote gave to the morale of all those who care about education at every level. Dr Bramwell expresses a deep concern at the awful conditions and the quality of the lives that many working-class people are obliged to put up with, and seems to imply that this is somehow the fault of the anti-Thatcher-voting dons. Illogically, she also blames them for supporting comprehensive schools. Now many of us have thought for a long time that Oxford University, the birthplace of much that is greatest in the adult education tradition, was pretty heartless when it came to caring about the needs of the people in whose city it occupies so central a place. And so I’d have thought that Dr Bramwell, like me, would have rejoiced in the vote, in that, however much self-interest lay at its heart, it also expressed an eloquent concern for education as a whole. Better late than never! It must have been the first time in its history that the walls of the Sheldonian Theatre heard a passionate plea on behalf of nursery schools.

The debate and the vote were perhaps only the most dramatic evidence of a growing concern among dons about, to take one example, the harm to schools on their own doorstep. Only the year before last, the local paper headlined a ‘Dons’ Petition to support Sixth Forms’. In Oxfordshire the damage has included the dropping of Classical Greek from the curriculum of the only state school in the county to offer the subject, the abolition of the Chinese department of another school, which had gained a national reputation for the distinction of its teaching of the subject, of Russian from yet another … The list is formidable. It is evident that more – not less – expression of opposition to the starving of resources is needed from the great brains of Oxford. There is a road in Oxford called Between Towns Road and it is beyond that that those heartless estates exist which Dr Bramwell rightly deplores – two nations indeed. It seems fair to interpret ‘that vote’ as implying an opposition to the most dangerous of the Two Nations notions: that of the educated and the uneducated.

Vi Hughes
Ruskin College, Oxford


Onomasticon

SIR: Marilyn Butler’s handsome and just review of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs (LRB, 21 February) touches on many matters, three of which I should like to speak of (reversing her order). Butler says that Lurie ‘seems to insist … on the existence outside the world of her fiction, not of a proliferating series of fictions, but of a stable and real world’. Butler also mentions Lurie’s ‘acts of appropriation’. And Butler observes of the heroine, Vinnie Miner: ‘As her punning name betrays, she is at once a miner, a delver underground, and a minor, an arrested child.’

Well observed. There is also the issue of Alison Lurie’s onomasticon. We happened to spend some years together at UCLA and her novel about that place featured such worthies as Howard Leon (i.e. Leon Howard) ‘appropriated’ from ‘a stable and real world’. I could go on, but the short of it is that my wife’s name is Virginia, alias Jinny, Miner. It is amusing, as it were, to be remembered by Alison after this while. Given her strong reputation in England, it is with mixed feelings that I recognise that she will not be able to incorporate into her future fiction anyone who must subscribe himself

Earl Miner
Department of English, Princeton University


The Case for Geoffrey Hill

SIR: Tom Paulin may have a good case against Geoffrey Hill’s poetry (LRB, 4 April), but he certainly doesn’t make it well enough to win any kind of reasoned assent. Doubtless, he would like his objections to sound as principled as he believes them to be, but they come out sounding peevish; as a contributor to the collection of essays on the poet which he reviews unfavourably, I regret this. ‘Hill is a parasite upon Eliot’s imagination and any account of his work must face this frankly in order to argue the ultimate authenticity of his style.’ I am prepared to face the alleged parasitism, but find no evidence for it in Paulin’s review. He does demonstrate a debt in one line of an early poem, but does not pause to show what makes the debt parasitic.

He looks for some time at Hill’s sonnet ‘Idylls of the King’ but the charge here is not that Hill echoes Eliot. Indeed the charge is multiple – that Hill echoes Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens in the poem, that the poem travesties history and that it is metrically inept. Readers will have drawn their own conclusions about Paulin’s ear; he complains of ‘pentameters … too monotonously definite’ in a poem where, for example, four of the 14 lines begin with a stressed syllable, two with a half-stressed syllable and the rest with unstressed syllables. In the circumstances his ‘monotonous’ needs more explaining; and similarly with his objection to ‘echoes’. Are all echoes bad or only certain kinds of echo? Paulin’s position is unclear. What is certain is that he hasn’t understood the use to which Hill puts his echoes in the poems discussed. ‘O clap your hands’ is not Yeatsian (‘Soul clap its hands and sing’); it is a quotation from the opening of the 47th Psalm which bears directly on the poem’s title: ‘O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.’ Hill’s use of quotation-marks in the poem is designed to draw attention to the fact that this is quotation – not an unreasonable expectation on his part. The echoes of Tennyson and Hopkins are functional within the poem, whose attitude to the ‘weightless magnificence’ of the past is not uncritical, as the adjective ‘weightless’ makes clear. The poem implies (or its author through the poem, if Paulin likes) that Victorian ‘magnificence’ and ‘triumph’ are not sufficiently cognisant of what is ‘terrible’ in the God worshipped by 19th-century Christianity. ‘Fresh rust’ is merely decorative in the Victorian sphere of influence – that is, the sonnet’s octave. In the sestet the perception of ‘warheads of mushrooms’ implies a historical readjustment both necessary and regrettable, the ‘rust’ of something ‘terrible’, if not exactly God, starting to bite. This interpretation is very different from Paulin’s: ‘Hill labours to produce an image of ye olde England covered by the secular ruins of the Welfare State.’ It may not appeal to him much. But it has some plausibility and takes into account in a positive manner what he sees as merely negative. It does not entail conjuring an allusion to the Welfare State out of nowhere, either. If Paulin wants to persuade his readers that he writes out of more than prejudice, he needs to put what further critical cards he may have on the table.

It is rather the same with the other passage from Hill to which he gives extended consideration. The point at issue is an alleged allusion to or echo of a notorious speech by Enoch Powell in the last words of Mercian Hymns XVIII: ‘To watch the Tiber foaming out much blood’. I say ‘alleged’ because Powell himself was quoting Virgil, and it is difficult to distinguish an allusion to a line of verse from an allusion to the same line of verse as quoted by a politician. The fact that Hill’s phrase is slightly different from Powell’s, and that he directs our attention to Virgil, not Powell, in his notes, shows at least that he did not want Powell to leap to mind in the reader, and a simple principle of economy suggests that Powell must be peripheral to Hill’s meaning if he is no more powerfully present than any of this suggests. But Paulin prefers to follow Peter Robinson, the editor of the collection he is reviewing, in suggesting that the Powell connection matters, because it enables him to impose guilt by association. Hill alludes to Powell: that must be sinister. By the same token Paulin’s allusion to Powell must also be sinister. Indeed it is so: for surely to take advantage of Robinson’s point so unscrupulously without indicating that Robinson’s conclusions are clean contrary to his own (it is not true that Robinson ‘baulks at drawing any conclusions’ – they are merely ones that Paulin would find inconvenient) – surely this is ‘sinister’, prejudice running wild, reason overpowered in a self-righteous political rhetoric.

For what seems to be the trouble is that Paulin wants to proclaim a new dispensation in literary politics. Hill’s politics and those of his admirers are discreditable; they are ‘shabby and reactionary’. Paulin, however, supports what is ‘radical and egalitarian’. It is presumably in this cause that he insists on Hill’s debts to Eliot, since Eliot’s politics are supposed to be indefensible. They are certainly not to be defended here, because Paulin has yet to show that he is doing more than using Eliot’s name for the same process of guilt by association that underlies his use of Powell. As for being ‘radical and egalitarian’, the words have a glamour that ‘shabby and reactionary’ cannot match: the question is whether anything substantial lies behind them. They are words, after all, that have been used often enough both irresponsibly and unscrupulously, and the right to use them has to be won. Paulin I does not demonstrate that he has such a right at all. Indeed it seems fair to speculate that he does not have it. He thinks it ‘a serious charge’, made by Hugh Haughton, that Hill ‘seems to yearn “for real authority and real title” ’. Setting aside the question whether Hill does so yearn or not, one ought to ask what is wrong with yearning for real authority rather than the unreal dishonest kind. Paulin hardly writes as though he believes that all authority is wrong. Indeed it is his authority that stands as the sole guarantee for his radical and egalitarian righteousness. Is he a real radical, a real egalitarian? It is a serious charge that, having led us to understand that these are important matters, Paulin does no more than gesture in their direction. Literary criticism is a work of the reason. Paulin’s reasoned case against Geoffrey Hill is yet to come, but would be welcome.

Martin Dodsworth
Brill, Buckinghamshire

SIR: It seems hard that Geoffrey Hill can’t use the first four words of Psalm 47, frankly enclosed I within quotation-marks, ‘O clap your hands,’ without being accused by your reviewer Tom Paulin of dependence on Yeats’s ‘unless Soul clap its hands’. The words ‘clap’ and ‘hands’ occur in the passage from Yeats as they do in, say, the address to Tinker Bell. Psalm 47 is bound up with the concerns of the poem. ‘He shall choose out an heritage for us … God is the King of all the earth.’

E.E. Duncan-Jones
Cambridge


Ulyssean Realism

SIR: Denis Donoghue has taken the part for the whole in saying that I read Ulysses as a ‘realistic novel, complete with characters and plot’ (LRB, 18 April). In fact, as stated in the preface to my James Joyce, I specifically avoided using the term ‘novel’ to describe Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Ulysses does have characters, and a plot based on the Odyssey – who ever doubted that? – but my chapter from which Donoghue’s citations are taken is part of a polyphonic reading of the book, examining its generic status and some of its stylistic and symbolic structures. Donoghue himself seems committed to an oversimplified realistic reading when he suggests I have exaggerated the number of Molly’s lovers. I was careful to speak of Molly’s ‘ideal list’ of lovers, and the sentence to which Donoghue must be referring reads as follows: ‘The life-story she tells herself (the mature equivalent of Gerty’s dream of dark strangers) consists of an apostolic succession of lovers: Mulvey, Bloom, Gardner, Boylan, and (should the opportunity arise) Stephen Dedalus.’ Molly doesn’t claim to have had full sexual intercourse with Mulvey and Gardner, but she describes sexual activity with both men. In any case, her list should not be confused with the 25 supposed admirers (excluding Gardner) named by the catechist in the ‘Ithaca’ episode. The 25 I take to be a reflection or refraction of Bloom’s darkest suspicions.

A broader issue that Donoghue raises is whether the analysis of carnival and grotesquerie in Bakhtin’s study of Rabelais is really applicable to Joyce. It is true that the Medieval and Renaissance carnival was a public performance, whereas Bloom’s adventures as Lord of Misrule are offered as expressionist fantasy, reproducing the privatisation of modern life. But the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses implies the practice of popular drama as found in the pantomime and the music hall and (by extension) in the brothel, the courtroom and the séance. Elsewhere Joyce draws extensively on written ephemera such as newspapers, advertising slogans, sentimental fiction and pornography. His appetite for urban popular culture and its adulterated languages seems to be strictly comparable to Rabelais’s interest, as Bakhtin reconstructs it, in the Renaissance carnival; indeed, my response to reading Bakhtin was to wonder if he had not been writing (in Aesopian language) a contribution to the understanding of Joyce’s type of Modernism. But to view both Renaissance carnival and modern entertainment as forms of social licence which can then be cannibalised, as it were, in a certain type of high literature is not to deny the reality of historical and cultural change.

Patrick Parrinder
Reading


Mary and Jane Findlater

SIR: We should be grateful to hear from any of your readers who could help us trace the copyright holder or literary estate of Mary and Jane Findlater, authors of Crossriggs, published by Smith Elder and Company, London 1908.

Lynn Knight
Virago Press, 41 William IV Street, London WC2