Qui êtes-vous, Sir Moses?
SIR: I’m sure many will applaud C.R. Whittaker’s stirring appreciation of Professor Sir Moses Finley, clearly one of Britain and Europe’s foremost historians (LRB, 6 March). In these post-Westland times, it is refreshing to recognise the positive value over many years of one enduring example of British ‘inward investment’ from across the Atlantic, in the shape of a scholar who has immensely enriched the study of ancient history in these islands. But I fear Whittaker says more than he intended, when he slipped so effortlessly from ‘English-speaking’ to ‘British’ historians. Except in the obvious case of the history of Great Britain, whatever is meant by British historiography (does one have to be a British passport-holder?) unless work funded, directly or indirectly, by the Government? If so, why does he skate so breathlessly over the real ‘historical backcloth’, which he describes so carefully in France, Italy and Germany? It is false to blame the practitioners for a failure of nerve, when in recent years they have been starved of the resources and officially discouraged by Sir Keith Joseph from doing their job in the imaginative manner that Whittaker desires. The promise of the Sixties and Seventies has not simply evaporated: it has been ruthlessly suppressed.
And Whittaker is less than generous, as well as rash, in speaking of the late Martin Frederiksen’s review of Finley’s The Ancient Economy as if it were some reactionary’s manifesto ‘lambasting’ Finley’s own. Finley has himself often advised caution and commented upon the difficulties in the evidence available to the economic historian of antiquity. Frederiksen’s enthusiasm for new ideas in ancient history, whether from historians of other eras and places, from sociology or the vastly increased bulk of new archaeological research, will be remembered by all who knew him. He certain encouraged my own developing interest in Finely’s historical oeuvre in my years as a pupil of his at Oxford, and was fully supportive of my eagerness to pursue that interest further by moving over to work with Finley’s himself from 1974. That was the very moment when he was engaged on writing the review in question. Frederiksen was wholly sympathetic and admirably open towards Finley’s approach, especially as far as it concerned Greek society and economy: his doubts involved particular aspects of interpretation in Roman history, in which he himself was an expert. The quarrel was never over theory as such, but over its application in specified instances. Surely historians are entitled to disagree?
There has always been a depressingly predictable state of open hostility between the Oxbridge universities in the matter of ancient history. Oxford has tended to value traditional scholarly excellence, while Cambridge has stressed innovation, imagination and flair since the Sixties. But ancient history is fortunate to have both (and many other major departments up and down the UK). I can see no value in the outmoded perpetuation of what I can only describe as Oxbridge sectarianism. Historians should be attempting to explain to public opinion why their subject, like the other humanities, deserves its fair share of public support, in the universities and elsewhere. That can be best done by allowing each to do the sort of history to which they are best suited. In the longer term, if one wishes a future Secretary of State for Education, and the UGC as his or her agent, to fund new avenues in history (including the history of the ethnic minorities in Britain?), then Whittaker should be making out that case to his MP (or his potential MP). Waging guerrilla war with his historical colleagues is counter-productive.
Whittaker speaks wistfully of the engagé historian: but there is no shortage of those at the moment, most of them once firm supporters of the present government. Sometimes one wishes that historians could keep their politics out of their methodologies. I say that as one who is not ashamed to admit being a democratic socialist, but I am a professional historian too. Other countries have different traditions, but I don’t think I would wish England different in this respect. The spectre of Oxbridge tribalism is distasteful, just as much so as that of Belfast or Liverpool or Grantham. Can we allow politics to get back to the real issues that are affecting ordinary citizens’ lives today?
That was the principal theme of Finley’s Politics in the Ancient World – and I feel sure he would agree, if asked to comment on modern British/Irish politics directly.
Department of Ancient History, Queen’s University, Belfast
SIR: For some inexplicable reason most historians these days, but not Sir Moses Finley, have a kind of death wish by which, if presented with a little space and a wider audience, they do everything possible to alienate their readers. C.R. Whittaker did have the grace to admit that what he wrote had very little to do with the book by Finley which he was ostensibly meant to review, and about which the reader will learn only that at one point Sir Moses gets a little angry with some of his fellow historians. Instead he set himself the task of explaining why it is that Finley is revered on the Continent but not in England. Four thousand words later, I was not much the wiser. I did learn for the first time that ‘Karl Christ’s Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff, published in 1972, contains no index entry to Weber.’ I also learnt that there is something called ‘New History’ for which apparently one has to invent one’s evidence: this is called by Whittaker ‘a daunting labour’, though on the face of it I would have thought it less daunting than the ‘Old History’ in which one actually had to discover the evidence and then go through the troublesome process of trying to evaluate it. No doubt much would have become clearer to me if I had attended the Belagio conference and had listened there to the important words of Peter Temin. Unfortunately, I did not have the privilege of attending, so that a passing reference to that conference does not do much to illuminate for me the subject of Finley and his works. Nor, indeed, does the reference to Mr Temin, or to Mr Simmel, or to Mr Marrou, or to Mr Glénisson, or to Mr Veyne, or to Mr Mauss, or to Mr Lévy-Bruhel, or to Mr Nippel, or to Mr Christ, or to any of the other 76 names, by my reckoning, that Whittaker drops in the course of his article.
To throw in the names of Marx and Weber, or whoever, in the way that Whittaker does, advances neither argument nor understanding. They might just as well be part of some kind of code, understood, I hope, by Whittaker, and perhaps by one or two other ‘New Historians’, but only by them. Not only is the article pretentious, and boring, but it is also incredibly lazy. What the code does is to allow Whittaker to avoid the more difficult task of actually providing us with a comprehensible and, with a bit of luck, perhaps even stimulating answer to the question that he himself posed. This kind of academese is of no service to Sir Moses, who, whether he be ‘New’ or ‘Old’, never goes in for it. It is also no service to history at a time when it needs all the friends that it can get.
SIR: Geoffrey Strickland (Letters, 20 February) asserts that ‘there are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist.’ These, I take it, are philosophical theses – and about literature. The two claims are certainly not plain facts; they belong at the end, not at the beginning of a philosophical debate. If true, they are at least surprising.
Why is it that there is a well-established tradition for distinguishing some pieces of writing as ‘literary’ and not others? If there is no real basis for doing so, the consequences are enormous, as implied by Strickland’s recommendations for changes in the university curriculum. But the conclusions are too hasty. I suspect the idea that ‘literature doesn’t exist,’ philosophically speaking, is only an exaggerated way of denying any definitive properties of language, semantic or syntactic, which constitute ‘literariness’. Of course there are other ways of defining and demarcating literature – in terms of purposes or responses, for example, or in terms drawn from aesthetics. There are no sound philosophical reasons for dissolving literature, and literary study, in an inter-disciplinary soup. Significantly, it is Don Quixote, not The English Constitution (or the Daily Mirror for that matter), that Strickland tells us to go off and read.
Department of Philosophy, University of Sterling
SIR: In writing of Joseph Kerman’s book Musicology, John Deathridge (LRB, 20 February) provides a bewildering illustration of the musical academic world’s failure to create a convincing critical tradition: ‘probably,’ he suggests, ‘less to do with intellectual torpor… than with the recalcitrant nature of the musical material itself’. In the event, he does little to demonstrate this recalcitrance beyond reference to the inadequacy – sometimes self-admitted – of some of Kerman’s own attempts at musical criticism, and the particular disaster of Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music. It is interesting that in this part of his article he does not introduce the plausibly successful critical writings of Charles Rosen and Hans Keller mentioned by him at an earlier stage. Meanwhile Cooke’s vain hope that pieces of music might be translatable into linguistic discourse is taken as illustrative of the inaccessibility of music to rational discussion – which is quite a different matter. The ‘arcane habits of mind’ of the musicologist with which Deathridge began his article are here amply displayed, but it is hard to see that he has done anything to justify them, or endear them, to the reader.
In fact, what Kerman has argued for in Musicology is an academic musical profession whose activities are geared towards better, more perceptive performances. Is it all that hard to imagine a kind of writing which would make both performer and listener respond more acutely to what is interesting or exciting in a piece of music? One of the ironies of the emergence of the historical performance movement – which both Kerman and Deathridge have highlighted – is that we have on occasion heard great and familiar works being broken on the wheel of performing theory, the salient features of complex structures becoming submerged in mannerist detail. However bad or ill-informed performances may have been a generation ago, this kind of thing did not, on the whole, happen. Perhaps against such a background, the revitalisation of reading and interpretation, even on an institutional basis, would not come amiss.
SIR: Since Paul Driver accepts Paul Horgan’s Encounters with Stravinsky as worth citing (LRB, 23 January), let me refer him to Appendix B of this book. It is a letter sent to the New Yorker’s editor in January 1972. ‘In the course of countless conversations with Stravinsky during the last decade and a half of his life… I was privileged to be in his company many times… when we spoke always in English; and I have never known conversational English more pungent than his, or more grammatically correct, precise (often devastatingly so) in vocabulary, and original in style, all within the frame of the natural syntax of the language … As for style – to me, anyhow, Stravinsky in his recorded dialogues (not “writings”) with Mr Craft always sounded like the Stravinsky I listened to time and again in direct English conversation.’ Mr Horgan noted that this letter (which flatly contradicted the New Yorker’s music critic Winthrop Sargeant, another doubter of the authenticity of the Stravinsky in the dialogues) had not yet appeared in that magazine by the time his book went to print.
Paul Driver writes: In my copy of Paul Horgan’s Encounters with Stravinsky the appendix citing this letter has been omitted as part of an abridgement by the author for the British edition (Bodley Head, 1972). The comments in the letter don’t entirely match Horgan’s evocation of Stravinsky’s speech throughout the book, but I would agree that Stravinsky’s conversational English was pungent.
SIR: Just a brief comment on Donald Hawes’s correction (Letters, 6 March) of my correction of A.N. Wilson. I think there is room for argument about whether someone whose huge output of essays, plays and poems included a couple of hymns may be called a ‘hymn-writer’, or about whether the younger Thomas Arnold was familiarly referred to as ‘Tom Arnold’ like his famous father. And I know perfectly well that the Cornhill began publication in 1860, which is what I wrote: ‘1869’ was a misprint.
SIR: In his review of Kiss of the Spider Woman Nicholas Spice (LRB, 6 March) makes an interesting point about the little boy’s difficulty in breaking ‘the taboo on tenderness’ when it came to uttering the word ‘breast’. This recalled a review by Brigid Brophy of Melanie Klein’s Our Adult World, many years ago in the New Statesman (7 March 1963). She opened her piece with a ribald reference to breasts (and, I think, brassieres) which shocked me and, I hope, was out of character. My letter of protest was headed ‘Ribald Breasts’. All this suggests that it is not only young schoolchildren who confuse the word with those four-letter words now in common use.
James MacGibbon has a long memory. He may, or may not, have forgotten that the editor responsible for publishing the offending article was the same one he is now addressing. It did not strike me at the time that Brigid Brophy’s piece on Melanie Klein was out of character. It strikes me now that these may still remain (a biography of Melanie Klein is now impending) troubled waters.
Editor, ‘London Review’