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


Dreams

Jeffrey Saver’s review of Allan Hobson’s The Dreaming Brain (LRB, 4 August) was instructive as to the habit of old behaviourism masquerading – or deluding itself – as new. So the ‘activation-synthesis’ theory is ‘non-reductionist’? This begs the question that, relative to human experience, all mere mechanisms, neurological or otherwise, are reductionist as total ‘explanations’. Stilt, while on the subject, we may note how Saver pooh-poohs as antiquated Freud’s (1895, later suppressed, as Saver admits) ideas on neurology, while extolling rather breathlessly currently hallowed neurological notions. The difference in these circuitry mechanisms being, if not between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, then surely not more than between a diesel and a petrol engine – interesting to engineering but disappointing as psychology. Except to a behaviourist, that is.

The whole article is a tissue of neurological naiveties. So implanting electrodes in a cat’s brain allows us to give it dreams? Big deal, supposing we’d never observed that heavy suppers or the presence or absence of a loved one also achieved this objective – the first being, if you like, a neurological reason, the second perhaps rather more than this. Saver further tells us, as though we didn’t know it already, that dreams are bizarre; then he discovers for us through Hobson that ‘dreamers are artists’ – as though Freud, and how much more interestingly, had had nothing to say about this. The most offensive aspect of his review is, indeed, the reductionism, amounting to travesty, to which he subjects Freud in comparing his scheme of things with the scientific certainties of Hobson. That of which he does make passing mention is overschematised and oversimplified, utterly failing to take into account the richness of the human dimension in Freud’s psychoanalysis – that is, the very aspect of Freud notably absent, or specifically excluded, from behaviourism. But behaviourists never learn, except dubiously about rats and cats.

Saver seems actually to know this, as he dodges eagerly, if unprofitably, from the hard facts of neuron stimulus and response to the softer-than-software territory of dreams themselves – not any of Freud’s, heaven forbid, but Hobson’s undetailed ones or, still more anonymously, those of a ‘Washington scientist-scholar’ from which he elicits a figure – ‘The Engine Man’ – that has a strange, attenuated resemblance to some of the dream-characters of Freud; here, with regard to behaviourism and its mechanical explanations, there is even something risible.

Dreamland, though, is marsh ground and Saver soon leaps back to the drier regions of neurology. Respectable science as it may be, neurology has yet, pace the entertaining anecdotes of Oliver Sacks, to tell us anything profound about ourselves as human and social individuals – how could, indeed, a mere uncovering of circuits and their responses ever do so? The argument of ‘activation-synthesis’ describes itself as still that of the reflex machine – without even an explanation of its primum mobile: i.e. the mechanism that causes the brainstem to fire its random signals, later to be cortically elaborated into dreams. Not that the last question is particularly interesting in itself, since an answer would immediately beg the next more fundamental question: it is at least possible that ‘activation-synthesis’ is the mechanism ‘causing’ dreaming – but does this tell us anything illuminating about the significance of our dreams? Saver acknowledges that Hobson has not, after all, managed to explain ‘why’ we dream – which rather disposes of his own easy dismissal of Freud, who certainly did seek to give, in ‘The Psychoanalysis of Dreams’, a (non-neurological) explanation, and in this and later writings integrated it into an overall picture of humanity in all its biological, social, personal-developmental and historical richness. More or less mistaken, as final explanations, these ideas are certain to be, but they do take on board what behaviourism, to its discredit and ultimate triviality, always leaves out.

Ron Taylor
London SW19


Fateful Swerve

Whatever else one may say about the late Paul de Man, one reason for regretting his passing has come more and more frequently to mind these last few months: alive, he scared some of his colleagues and students into being careful in print. Now it seems that any argument is good. To de Man’s published wartime errors Juliet Flower MacCannell has added (Letters, 7 July) a character-flaw which we are meant to take as extending from his earliest writings (and private letters) to his last: that of not being a very nice man. True, a would-be Olympian tone came easily to the young de Man (as to the young Shelley, the young Marx, the young Adorno et j’en passe), and, also true, up to the end he maintained a wariness toward the social sciences. Contrasting his ‘record’ with those of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Jakobson and some of the Frankfurt School, MacCannell asks: ‘Whom are we to believe?’ The key word is of course believe. It would be an act of misplaced pride to suppose that we readers could work things out for ourselves; and if we were disposed to do so, those who make such a fuss and flurry of enthymemes over de Man’s ethos would have less to thunder about. Nice thought: and only the thunderers would stand to lose anything by it.

Su Yüan-hsi
New Haven, Connecticut

Juliet Flower MacCannell, reporting that I called for ‘the elimination of the social sciences from the university’, proceeds to praise the virtues of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roman Jakobson. Perhaps she has forgotten, but my complaint was that the social sciences in the United States have increasingly concerned themselves with questions that have quantitative answers. This leads social science departments to neglect, not only the work of the scholars she mentions, but entire traditions of social thought and of the human sciences. Interdisciplinary humanities centres have been created in many American universities to fill the vacuum by addressing questions about language, mind and society that American social science has abandoned. There is, of course, little chance that these social science departments will be eliminated, but on many campuses they consume valuable resources while contributing little to reflection on important issues that have traditionally concerned social theorists and psychologists.

Jonathan Culler
Cornell University, New York

Juliet Flower MacCannell’s letter describes me as claiming, in my letter of 19 May, that ‘Paul de Man never changed,’ and as criticising Christopher Norris’s ‘sensible attempt to read de Man’s early literary criticism as de Man’s students from the Sixties did – as his way of re-thinking the roots of fascism’. I claimed, to the contrary, that de Man’s thinking changed decisively between 1942 and 1953 – that the critique missing in his wartime writing of ‘models of poetry and history implicated in fascism is there, sharply stated, in the early Fifties, as well as later’ – and I criticised Christopher Norris, not for his cogent account of the re-thinking of the roots of fascism in de Man’s essays ‘The Temptation of Permanence’ and ‘Heidegger’s Exegeses of Hölderlin’ (both of 1955), but for his misdescription of other early essays, specifically those on Wordsworth and Hölderlin, as apolitical or anti-political, and for the kind of biographical interpretation that led him to the misreading of those essays (through the reasoning that it would make sense psychologically for de Man at that point to have become cynical about politics). In describing the crucial swerve in de Man’s thinking, my ‘major resource’ was not, as MacCannell writes, ‘a very late text indeed, the talk on “Kant and Schiller” ’, which in fact I did not mention, but rather the important early essay ‘Le Devenir, la Poésie’, where de Man finds, in Hölderlin’s radical re-thinking of Schiller’s notion of the Occident, the resource for his distinctive practice of ‘rhetorical reading’ as a form of ideology critique. Many of de Man’s essays from different periods have a great deal to say about social and political life, but they have to be read attentively.

Cynthia Chase
Cornell University, New York


Mozart and Freud

John Stone (Letters, 4 August) makes heavy weather of a footnote in my review: having used Hanslick’s history of music in Vienna for years in my work on 19th-century culture, I knew that his citations are hopelessly incomplete. I also know that what appear, by their presumably different titles, to be two journals are, as Mr Stone points out, the same. What I meant to convey in this ill-written note was not that Mr Robbins Landon was misquoting, but that his dependence on earlier material is heavier than it might have been. Certainly all scholars use their predecessors, and the Mozart material has, of course, been diligently explored. My chief criticism (which Mr Stone chooses to ignore) was that Robbins Landon drops in pages-long chunks of texts without the kind of independent commentary one would hope for in a book that is not a collection of documents. As for Wolfgang Hildesheimer, I know that he is not a professional musicologist and I do not anywhere say that he is. I still like his book on Mozart, and have said so. Mr Stone’s heavy-handed comments about Alan Tyson only make my point for me. I praised his study, not because he is a distinguished scholar of Freud, but (as my review should have made plain to anyone) because it is a fascinating study for its own sake. Mr Stone is not a close reader. Evidently he does not believe, with Aby Warburg (and I quoted this favourite saying of his as long ago as 1978, in my Freud, Jews and Other Germans, page 129, basing myself on biographical articles), that le bon Dieu est dans le détail.

Peter Gay
Hamden, Connecticut


Not enough women

I feel I ought to warn you about an alarming tendency I have noticed in your august journal. There is positive evidence to suggest that both the Female Writer and the Female Reader are fast becoming endangered species. Both the trickle of books by women reviewed and the driblet of female reviewers appear to have dried up altogether despite the fact that certain publishing houses are thriving on their efforts and one of them is even celebrating 15 years of service, an event not noted in the London Review, so far at least. As this appears not to be the case in your opposite number from across the Atlantic, whose pages are considerably enhanced by the contributions of the very same endangered species, one is forced to conclude that a special Greenpeace-type operation is called for before it is too late.

Betty Caplan
London SW4

It would be good to publish more female writers (lower-case) than we have recently done. There is, however, no tendency, let alone strategy, of avoidance. Any more than we want to be thought ‘august’.

Editors, ‘London Review’


Looking it up

I refer to Paul Addison’s review of Martin Gilbert’s Never despair: Winston Churchill 1945-1965 (LRB, 7 July) in which he states: ‘There is, indeed, no reference to the fact the Monckton ever was Minister of Labour.’ Looking at only one reference (page 782, note 1), it states: ‘The Minister of Labour and National Service was Sir Walter Monckton.’ I then decided to look at the other references in the index (I presume your reviewers know how to use one). Page 752, note 1 also has: ‘The Minister of Labour was Sir Walter Monckton.’

N.P.B. Freeman
Hong Kong

Paul Addison writes: N.P.B. Freeman has detected an error in my review of the final volume of Martin Gilbert’s life of Churchill. I wrote that there was no reference in the book to the fact that Walter Monckton was ever Minister of Labour. Freeman points out that there are two footnotes in which Monckton was identified as such. While I agree that there is no substitute for complete accuracy, the correction in this case is more misleading than the error. The point I was making is that Gilbert neglects the industrial record of the Churchill Government, which was based on the principle of conciliating the trade unions. Monckton is relevant because he was appointed Minister of Labour with a mandate from Churchill to appease union demands, and proceeded to do so. Though readers may discover the secret of Monckton’s ministerial identity in the course of reading two footnotes on other matters, they will find no reference in the main text to his appointment, his policies, or the support he received from Churchill. The argument is about a gap in the biography, a gap which cannot be disproved by reference to microscopic traces in the small print.


Snobbery

It wasn’t so long ago that the editor of the LRB was enjoying an assault on snobbery in the Observer and on another occasion noting that ‘literary careers can be founded on the impersonation and adulation of privileged behaviour.’ What then is a piece of gossipy journalism doing in the issue of 4 August? Just whom Francis Wyndham and his grandmother knew and what kind of fun Wyndham had in his employments belong, I think, in another paper. Betjeman at Marlborough on the previous issue’s cover; Wykehamist (I infer from The Swimming-Pool Library) and Etonian on this. I thought the LRB was for grown-ups.

Peter Jones
Bristol

We think that, unlike Joyce Grenfell, currently serialised in the Observer, Francis Wyndham is a good writer. We don’t think that the matter of the school he went to should prevent us from paying attention to him. Alan Hollinghurst is a good writer too – a good writer, incidentally, but a little unfortunately for Mr Jones on this occasion, who wasn’t at Winchester.

Editors, ‘London Review’


Sporting Ladies

I haven’t seen A Genuine List of Sporting Ladies (c. 1770), quoted by David Nokes (LRB, 4 August), but would be sporting enough to wager a large sum of money that ‘bubbles’, in the second line, is a misprint for ‘bubbies’, meaning breasts.

Peter Fryer
London N6

We wouldn’t bet on it.

Editors, ‘London Review’


Royal Highness

There wasn’t much left of the Royal Family after R.W. Johnson got through with his review of Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and the Monarchy (LRB, 7 July). Nor, as I gather from the review, is there much left of the Royals in the book. Quite obviously they like their UK plain. Instead of wasting their time wallowing in Jacobinism, both should get down on their knees and thank their lucky stars that they are the subjects of a queen who has produced, in her son and heir, the only public figure in the world to denounce one of the universal horrors of our time, Modern Art, especially as found in architecture. When the future looks back to this bleak era, the one name to shine above today’s nihilism will be that of HRH Prince Charles.

Henry Hope Reed
President, Classical America, New York City


Unlisted

To bring a prosaic note to Julian Barnes’s brilliant account of the recently published location register of manuscript ‘material’ (LRB, 7 July), may I point to an instance indicative of the volumes’ ad hoc compilation. Stimulated by the recent World’s Classics edition of John Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat, I looked up his entry only to find that the remarkable manuscript memoirs – drawn upon by Christopher Hawtree in his introduction – were not listed, despite his assertion of their being held by a public institution not famed for its obscurity. Incidentally, wasn’t E.M. Forster in Coventry at the time Andrew Motion’s letter arrived at King’s? Who knows: had he returned to read it, he might have been stimulated to write the long-awaited seventh novel.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire


Italian-Style

Accustomed as I am to the often vivid display of odium litteratum in your colourful correspondence columns, I had never expected to find its matrimonial equivalent so unengagingly paraded as in the letter from the egregiously named Professor Roy MacGregor-Hastie in your issue of 4 August. Even if I knew that my father-in-law was illiterate and my wife’s friends intent on ripping me off, I think that I could still muster enough delicacy and respect for conjugal charity – if not love – to have refrained from such trumpeting of these facts to the readers of your periodical.

Bernard Denvir
London SE5