SIR: Peter Pulzer (LRB, 20 February) objects to Bryan Gould MP using Rawls in his Socialism and Freedom in the context of a case for Labour. Rawls’s ‘objective morality’ is, he points out, liberal. He generously allows that some of the Labour Party may follow Rawls’s prescriptions on liberty – he mentions the Leader and Deputy Leader – but are the others, he hints, to be trusted? There is in any case,’ he says, ‘another problem. Rawls has already been pinched by the Alliance … Talk like that, whether on social justice or on electoral reform, and you are already stamped as a defector.’
May I testify? I used Rawls explicitly in the section on ‘Equality’ in my Fabian pamphlet ‘Socialist Values’ and in the footnote to the last Pelican edition of my In Defence of Politics. Raymond Plant did likewise in his Fabian tract, ‘Equality, Markets and the State’, as did Julian Le Grand in The Strategy of Equality: Redistribution and the Social Services (1981), and now Bryan Gould. And I’ve written in the Observer, the New Statesman and the Scotsman that, if there is a hung Parliament, Labour must be ready to envisage coalition and electoral reform; and I see that Mike Rustin has argued the positive case for electoral reform both in his recent Socialist Pluralism and in an article in Marxism Today. I examine myself for wounds and stigmata daily, but I cannot find the ‘stamp of a defector’. I find instead a lot of mere diary entries to speak to Labour Party bodies on socialist values.
If the Alliance have ‘pinched Rawls’, plainly the theft was not very thorough. I suspect Peter Pulzer meant to say ‘bagged’, but jibbed at such a silly concept. Rawls, indeed, is the property of no party. To equate philosophic liberalism solely with the Liberal Party or Alliance is an old pun unworthy of an academic’s argument. The socialist use of Rawls on equality is simply to argue that his prescription that all inequalities must justify themselves to show that they benefit the least advantaged should be pushed hard, should be the object both of public policy and social pressure. Some inequalities will be admitted by most people to be beneficial; many more will surely not. This is an egalitarian spirit but not to be caricatured as a demand for literal equality. I know no one who has ever made that demand (except GBS for the sake of argument). And even this demand, not for ‘Equality!’ but for ‘No unjustifiable inequalities!’, has to be balanced, I agree, with Rawls’s maximisation-of-liberty principle (in so far as it is compatible with the equal liberty of others).
In formal terms this is common ground between new-style ‘social democrats’ and new-style ‘democratic socialists’. What may not be common ground is the traditional socialist argument, of which Tawney (not to open all that up again) was the most eloquent expositor: that the liberty side of the equation remains very formal for the majority of people unless the equality side moves radically, up and far closer. My ‘objective morality’ is also liberal, but I think it can only be reached for all by democratic socialist means.
SIR: In his magisterial article Peter Pulzer asks whether ‘standards have plummeted’ at Cambridge since he was taught History there. May I point out that the author of the book which provoked this question, Roger Scruton, holds a post not at Cambridge but in the University of London. Pulzer rightly ridicules Scruton’s reference to ‘the nihilistic satire of Karl Kraus, the vampiric screaming of Schoenberg, the cold architecture of Loos’. Anyone who aspires to a more differentiated view of Viennese Modernism is welcome to attend the seminars of the Austrian Study Group which regularly meets here in Cambridge. They would soon discover that Kraus, Schoenberg and Loos were profoundly conservative thinkers – ‘conservative’ in a sense that is evidently not understood by the apologists of Thatcherism at home and tyranny abroad.
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
SIR: Recently Jean MacGibbon raised a question in your pages (Letters, 23 January) about the version we give, in our biography of Stevie Smith, of Olivia Manning’s message upon hearing that Stevie was gravely ill. We have it that Olivia Manning said, ‘If she’s really dying send her my love,’ wording Mrs MacGibbon considers ‘banal’ and uncharacteristic of the author, whom she recalls as saying: ‘If Stevie’s so frightfully ill I suppose we must let bygones be bygones.’ Jean MacGibbon is wrong in saying we attibuted the ‘misquotation’ to her. While we do remember having tea with her, we do not recall her telling us the story about Olivia Manning. At the risk of creating marital discord, we must point out that the source for our quotation, which is cited in our endnotes, is our interview with her husband. Her letter caused us to return to our tape-recording of that interview, and we can report that Mr MacGibbon did indeed tell us the version of the quotation which Mrs MacGibbon finds so banal. We hope to arrange soon for this tape, and most of our other taped interviews, as well as letters we received about Stevie Smith from people who knew her, to become part of an appropriate library archive.
Exactly what did Olivia Manning say? Perhaps Mrs MacGibbon’s account is more credible, as the words were spoken to her on the telephone. Also, contrary to Jean MacGibbon’s view, we find her version to be more banal, the conventional thing one might say in such a situation, and therefore credible as what Olivia Manning said. Mr MacGibbon’s account has the sharpness of the raconteur’s tale, repeated and recast over the years for its fullest dramatic effect. But Mr MacGibbon was also present when the message was relayed to Stevie Smith, and also has a good claim as to the accuracy of his recollection. If the message was not relayed to Stevie as he told it to us, there would seem to be less reason for her to laugh. We must leave this dispute to the MacGibbons to settle or not settle between them. In future printings or editions of our book we shall alert the reader to their dispute in the endnote to which we attribute the quotation.
As for our ‘omitting the full story’, we do say that when Stevie heard Olivia Manning’s message she laughed. We were unaware that on this occasion she was speechless, and that her laughter proved she could understand what was being said, and that, therefore, James MacGibbon was able to get his power of attorney. But may we gently point out that, however momentous gaining the power of attorney may have been for the MacGibbons, it is a bit much to expect us to report it as the ‘significance’ of the story about Olivia Manning’s message to the dying Stevie Smith.
Jack Barbera and William McBrien
Jamaica, New York
SIR: Mr Nowell-Smith defends Re-Reading English against my remark about the phrase, ‘from Hoggart to Gramsci’, and says there’s ‘nothing absurd in subtitling a book’ with these words (Letters, 6 March). These words aren’t a subtitle, but part of the substantive text of a chapter of the book, and it would appear that Mr Nowell-Smith is springing to the defence of a book he hasn’t seen. In the circumstances I’m flattered that he should remember my own earlier mention of the matter. It wasn’t actually a boutade but part of an extended discussion of the book in question; it wasn’t ‘a year or so ago’ but in 1982; and I wasn’t, as he seems to think, concerned with whether the remark was ‘anti-alphabetical’ or even ‘anti-historical’. I had been noting that some of the ideologues under review were very lofty about the resistance of ’insular’ British academics ‘to the influence of “European schools of thought” ’, but that this didn’t seem to go with any great interest in learning the languages in which the thinkers wrote; and that the ideologues didn’t do much about exposing themselves to these influences until English translations happened to become available. What I wrote was: ‘Gramsci died in 1937, and his works began to appear in the 1940s, but at least [the author of the chapter] isn’t “insular”.’ My point, if Mr Nowell-Smith will allow me to decode what I thought would be recognised as irony, was that the author was being insular, and that there was indeed a deep insularity about a certain kind of British anti-insularity. Of course, the offending phrase was also in my view ‘anti-historical’, and vulgarly so, whatever the actual state of knowledge of its author. But I wasn’t entertaining ambitious expectations, and my specific complaint was about the provincialism of people who go on preeningly about their cosmopolitan perspectives.
Mr Nowell-Smith’s reference to a translation of Gramsci’s writings on culture published in 1985 is not pertinent either way to the book in which the phrase occurred, which appeared in 1982. Mr Nowell-Smith appears to be an editor of this publication. Maybe that’s what he is really trying to tell us.
University of Warwick, Coventry
SIR: ‘Britain’s problems, Heath declared in the autumn of 1973, were the problems of success’ (Paul Addison in his review of The Writing on the Wall by Phillip Whitehead – LRB, 23 January). But he did not. I’m not sure how this misattribution has entered educated folklore, along with Voltaire supposedly saying that he disagreed with what you said but … or Goering’s appropriation of the line about reaching for his revolver whenever he heard the word ‘culture’. Perhaps because in those distant days Mr Peter Walker played monkey to Heath’s organ-grinder. In any case, the phrase about the problems of success belongs to Mr Walker. I write this with feeling, having suffered from the same delusion as Mr Addison and having learnt the hard way by losing a bet on the matter.
SIR: In his review of Oliver Sacks’s essays (LRB, 23 January), Colin McGinn implies that someone who just gives ‘new descriptions of old data – more dramatic descriptions’ is not thereby doing science. I wish to point out that Einstein’s celebrated ‘Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury by the General Theory of Relativity’ (Prussian Academy Sitzungsberichte, 18 November 1915) rested squarely on and essentially amounted to a novel description of the known trajectory of this planet as a geodesic (a ‘straightest line’) in a spherically symmetric curved spacetime. I do not claim that the new description is more dramatic than Newton’s in a literal sense, for it deprives the ‘system of the world’ of the theatrical machinery of instantaneous action at a distance. Yet by enabling us, at long last, to visualise in detail how the ‘wandering stars’ are held to their predestinate grooves, Einstein’s redescription achieved an effect we may well call dramatic, in the reviewer’s figurative sense.
I must also take exception to McGinn’s alleged proof of the mortality of the soul ‘by philosophical neuropathology’. He argues that, as diverse ‘parts of the mind’ are lost upon various kinds of partial brain damage, we ought to expect the rest of it to go out of existence when brain damage becomes total. But all that a neuropathologist can show is how many – and, ultimately, all – brain-controlled patterns of behaviour are disorganised and destroyed by brain damage. We do not need his assistance – or that of the ‘mental philosopher’ – to learn that all behaviour stops at death.
University of Puerto Rico
Why Jakobson stayed behind
SIR: Your reviewer John Sturrock (LRB, 20 February) is uncertain why Roman Jakobson failed to return to Russia. He is aware that the label ‘Formalist’ was extremely dangerous during the Thirties – most of the Russian Formalists turned to fiction, biography and film in order to survive. Jakobson was still translator/cultural attaché/press attaché at the Bolshevik Embassy in Prague during Mayakovsky’s visit in 1927, and still able, with Tynianov, to publish in New LEF in 1928. In 1933 he was appointed to the Chair of Russian Philology at Brno. It was presumably between these dates that the entire embassy staff was recalled and that, on the Ambassador’s advice, Jakobson decided to remain abroad. He alone survived. I am unable to trace my source for this account, but I believe it is to be found in Henri Deluy’s French translation of Laco Novomesky’s poems, Villa Tereza. I have not seen the account confirmed by any other source.
SIR: An important note of correction needs to be made in relation to John Ryle’s recent review of books by Scruton, Foucault et al (LRB, 20 February). AIDS is not a venereal disease, like syphilis or gonorrhoea. It is a disease of the blood, contracted through direct or indirect blood-to-blood contact. Whilst it is currently localised in a number of particular social constituencies, it remains a viral infection to which everyone is vulnerable. The popular connotations of ‘VD’ only serve to increase the difficulties of the hundreds of families and friends currently coping with the deaths of loved ones, throughout the UK. At a recent funeral I was particularly horrified that the victim’s parents were totally unable to discuss the death of their son with relatives or neighbours for fear of consequent ostracism. One way of improving the current climate of ignorance and prejudice surrounding AIDS lies in the clarification of its ordinary, if complex medical nature.
Polytechnic of Central London
SIR: John Kerrigan (LRB, 6 February) searches for a stone to throw at a female colleague, and selects the give-away line: ‘she spends her time writing novels.’ I hope I am not alone in finding this an astonishing form of abuse for a university teacher in English at Cambridge to use. If people like this aren’t interested in creativity, why for heaven’s sake are they professing literature to young people? And setting themselves up as experts to the world? What would John Kerrigan have said to Shakespeare, who of course was no authority on anything, and just indulged himself in writing plays? Where would John Kerrigan be getting his salary from if he hadn’t done so?
Harvester Press, Brighton
Nicholas Shakespeare nods
SIR: The makers of Dynasty can at least claim dramatic licence for imposing a king on Moldavia. What excuse has Nicholas Shakespeare (LRB, 20 February) for moving the country to the Baltic?
Boodle’s, London SW1
SIR: Nicholas Shakespeare notes as an indelible image of the ubiquity of Dallas an old Patagonian Indian who ‘sat in her concrete hut as mesmerised by the episode she was watching as she was by the cocoa leaves she chewed’. Surely this should read ‘coca’ leaves, and are these not known less for their mesmerising quality than for increasing the power of endurance?
Department of History of Art, University of Bristol