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Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

In a purported review of selected essays by Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June), Mr Craig Raine expatiates at some length and with manifold insinuations, sneers and convolutions on an unscripted, entirely ‘spoken’ exchange between Christopher Ricks and myself on the question of T.S. Eliot’s feelings about Jews and Judaism. As I stated in the verbal exchange (the admonition to ‘reconsider a transcript’ is almost ludicrous in its self-importance), I remain deeply perplexed by certain passages in the poetry and prose of a great master of sensibility, language and cultural argument. Such perplexity, which Professor Ricks fully shared in his courteous, erudite contributions to the discussion – it involved two other participants – seems alien to Craig Raine. His the apodictic arrogance and certainties.

Notes Towards a Definition of Culture continues to strike me as an often frigid, innerly confused text. To approach the theme of any such redefinition within the immediate wake of the Holocaust without addressing that event, without seeking to elucidate its possible roots within European civilisation and Christendom, without examining the very notion of culture in the light (in the absolute dark) of the new barbarism, remains either frivolous or worse. For Eliot to do so when his earlier sympathies with certain aspects of European reactionary sensibility were fully known, and, by 1948, deeply embarrassing, remains a challenging, saddening puzzle. The footnote in the original version which I referred to only makes matters much uglier. That Eliot himself felt this (or that it was pointed out to him) is made manifest by precisely the amendment to the 1962 paperback. Unlike Craig Raine, almost any common reader will, I suspect, find that amendment officious and chilling. But the issue is not, of course, the footnote or Craig Raine’s little games with it. It is the central silence in Eliot on culture, on European civility, on the future of poetry and thought, in respect of the Auschwitz world. That silence utterly perplexes me and the comparison with Heidegger’s – another man of eminent genius but of the most conservative and ‘masked’ political tenor – is perfectly admissible.

Craig Raine may be wholly ignorant of the connotations of ‘crackerbarrel’ with reference to Pound. Pound’s Jew-baiting, and the lunatic economics to which it is intimately related, are a characteristic part of a certain American, Mid-Western ‘crackerbarrel populism’ and rhetoric (mainly of the Twenties and Thirties). As I have tried to show elsewhere – and not in ad hoc television exchanges – Pound’s anti-semitism produces lousy verse which looks and sounds as if it had been stuck on the body of his serious poetry. Witness its essential absence from the great ‘Usura’ Canto. In Eliot, the Jew-despising passages come in the very midst of great poetry and are thoroughly integrated with it. The difference is immense, and Professor Ricks’s tortured book addresses this difference with unfailing scruple. One may add to this the biographical fact that even in the years of his all too overt Fascism in Italy, Pound – this again is ‘crackerbarrel’ in a very American-Populist vein – sought to be of assistance to individual Jews. If there is some Last Judgment, the confused, the self-contradictory and the sloppily humane will fare better than the cautionary, icy masters of silence and propriety. This, at least, is my naive belief.

Eliot’s distaste for Jews and Judaism is undisguised in his poetry and in such seminal statements as the 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (not reissued, of course). Eliot’s covering of his tracks when anti-semitism had, via the Holocaust, become inhumanly debasing does invite the adjective ‘feline’ (he was, after all, a virtuoso in regard to cats). For Eliot, the Jew remained an anarchic, opaquely troubling agent of incoherence in what should be the Europe of Virgil, of Dante and of the great Anglo-Catholic poets and thinkers. I have stated time and again that such a view is perfectly legitimate and in need of serious debate. The notorious passages in Eliot’s poetry, the silence in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the truly dismaying attempts by Eliot to suppress his After Strange Gods and to tinker with the footnote which I cited to Professor Ricks, are no contribution to any such discussion. In his last Venice years, Pound often handed visitors a small card inscribed with the message (I quote roughly and from memory): ‘Forgive me if I do not speak; I have made too deep a botch of things.’ The humane dignity of that gesture, its contrast with Eliot’s choices, is worth pondering.

Puzzlement seems to be my vice. Why Craig Raine’s gratuitous polemic some seven months after an ephemeral television round table (he most carefully avoids mentioning Clive James’s robust astonishments)? As Faber poetry editor, Mr Raine may feel that he wears T.S. Eliot’s mantle. Or might it be that Craig Raine flatteringly exaggerates what he takes to have been my part in the rejection by the Old Vic of his version of Racine’s Andromaque? As it happens, I feel and admire the strengths of Raine’s poetry. It is poets – and this bears directly on the Eliot issue – who should most unflinchingly ‘declare their interests’, who should be most alert to the articulation of inhumanity within human speech. It is the poet in whom officious cultivations of political advantage or journalistic repute are least comely. Pound knew that, and knew it magnificently, when he wrote ‘Pull down thy vanity, pull down.’ A text Mr Raine and I might, perhaps, feel in agreement on. At least I hope so.

George Steiner
Cambridge

Craig Raine is correct to point out that the footnote in Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948) which George Steiner referred to in last year’s televised debate with Christopher Ricks does not imply ‘that the Jews were historically responsible for their own fate.’ However, in the debate itself Steiner merely questioned Eliot’s silence after 1945 – and this, his main point, is incontestable. In fact, the footnote in Notes (both versions) can be seen as little more than a circumspect reworking by Eliot of his previous and relatively uncircumspect remark in After Strange Gods (1934), in which, delineating the preconditions for a live cultural ‘tradition’, he comments: ‘The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’ Clearly, after 1945 Eliot was concerned to make the issue of religious belief (rather than racial background) his sole emphasis.

In general, the recent debate on the issue of Eliot and anti-semitism was extremely unsatisfactory – as exemplified both in Steiner’s careless and superficial critical comments (as on the ‘crackerbarrel’ nature of Pound’s anti-semitism) and in Ricks’s Eliot and Prejudice, a book which fails to adopt any coherent historical or cultural perspective on its subject-matter. Much more – or, more accurately, something – needs to be said on the nature of Eliot’s intellectual allegiance to the work of Charles Maurras, leader of the virulently anti-semitic Action Française, before this issue can be discussed coherently. Ricks relegates this central topic to the derisory status of a footnote, commenting: ‘Eliot admired much in Maurras, and repudiated some things: for Oswald Mosley he showed his contempt.’ What he doesn’t do is offer a word of explanation as to who Maurras was; nor indicate a rationale for Eliot’s admiration; nor mention Maurras’s role within the Vichy regime; nor indicate that Eliot did not repudiate Maurras’s anti-semitism. This strikes me as extraordinary in a book of nearly three hundred pages devoted to the topic of ‘Eliot and Prejudice’.

I know I am not alone in being disconcerted by the hagiography that accompanied Eliot’s centenary – to which Craig Raine notably contributed. But if the only alternative to hagiography is intellectual shadow-boxing or textual origami then it appears likely that literary canonisation requires almost Orwellian processes of historical omission and evasion.

Erik Svarny
London W11

Towards the end of his sharply-focused review of Chinua Achebe’s book of essays Hopes and Impediments, Craig Raine remarks that ‘all minorities will treat representations of themselves as typical, whereas art deals with actualities, and not necessarily with truth and justice.’ I don’t think he means to suggest that blacks are a minority, but it is odd to imply that what is actual may be untrue. I take it that Craig Raine means that a writer’s choice may feel eccentric and therefore risk distortion of larger, or more general, truths. This would be consistent with his criticism of Achebe’s account of Conrad’s presentation of blacks as ‘deprived of human expression’. He is surely right to say that the preface to Victory won’t bear out Achebe’s claim. What he doesn’t do, however, is to consider the strength of the claim as it affects Heart of Darkness, which is, after all, the story on which Achebe concentrates, and as a result of which he accuses Conrad of being a thoroughgoing racist. If you put together the description of the ‘actual’ blacks of this tale it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that they amount to a ‘typical’ or ‘representative’ statement.

Achebe also draws attention to Kurtz’s black mistress, who, so Achebe says, wins Conrad’s ‘special brand of approval’ (Marlow describes her as ‘savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent’), and who is to be contrasted with the ‘refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story’. The full contrast between the two women, Achebe argues, ‘is implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other’. I think Achebe may have missed an important ironic effect here, although it will not help Craig Raine’s cause. Kurtz’s Intended may be able to speak, but she isn’t to be trusted with the truth of what has happened to her fiancé. Women, typically, cannot bear very much reality.

The moment of Marlow’s refusal to tell the Intended the truth is carefully prepared for. When he goes to see the aunt who has helped gain him the position that will send him to the Congo, he is made uncomfortable by her innocent belief that the company will wean ‘those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. Marlow reflects:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

The tone of that may seem almost bafflingly impenetrable, as though Marlow isn’t sure how serious he wants to be or wants his listeners to understand him as being. Yet he returns to this reflection when, anticipating his meeting with the Intended, he tells his listeners that ‘she is out of it – completely. They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.’ From this follows his lie to her: ‘The last word he spoke was – your name.’

If, as Craig Raine asserts, Marlow is Conrad’s ‘moral mouthpiece’, it may be said that their view of women is typical in more senses than one, and that would be consonant with their view of blacks.

John Lucas
Beeston, Nottingham


Eliots

Just back from France, I’ve been catching up with my LRBs, and thought Karl Miller’s Diary of 1 June a splendid piece. The link between football and the warring tribes of the Border was enlightening, though to me the names of Milburn and Robson stand for shops in Newcastle rather than footballers. One comment, though – it seemed to me inappropriate to bring in the author of The Waste Land. Eliot, I think, is mainly an English West Country name. Interested as the poet was in his ancestry, and interested as he was in Scotland, I never heard him claiming any descent – nor do I think ‘Eliot’ is a Border spelling: all those I’ve known (like Walter Elliot, who successfully raided the Treasury for school milk), or read of, are spelt with two l’s, and some (like Stevenson’s ‘Auld, auld Elliotts, claycauld Elliotts, dour bauld Elliotts of auld!’) with two t’s. Another thing: Karl Miller points out how Scott and the ballads left out the ugly side of Border reiving. It is worth mentioning the early Buchan story, ‘The Riding of Ninemileburn’ (in the collection The Moon Endureth), where there is reiving and revenging, but no glamour or glory: a poor man’s cow is robbed and his child will die without the milk. The Diary set me speculating: is John Elliott the historian, who has successfully raided the archives of Spain, anything to do with the auld bauld Elliotts? Or Robert Armstrong, who so unsuccessfully raided the law courts of Australia, with the late Johnnie Armstrong? One could go on.

Janet Adam Smith
London W11


Uck

‘Lewis’s manner tends to cancel itself out, to vanish up its own arsehole, as he himself might have put it,’ John Bayley writes in his review of The Essential Wyndham Lewis (LRB, 22 June). As he himself emphatically would not have put it, rather. The writer who early on expressed ‘my naif determination to have no “Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger” ’ certainly wouldn’t have made an exception for ‘arsehole’. John Bayley’s view that Lewis aimed for ‘gracelessness and clumsiness’ in his style seems strange to me, but is of course arguable, although in the review it is stated rather than shown. The arsehole felicities, however, are altogether Bayley’s own.

Julian Symons
Deal


Reach for your spears

While I agree in principle with A.J. Ayer (Letters, 22 June) that there are many problems which beset our attempts to make sense of Wittgenstein’s views on the social character of language, I very much doubt whether the one he mentions can be among them, since the collaborative picture of meaning that Ayer makes trouble for rests upon the notion of a private language which was anathema to Wittgenstein.

The problem is supposed to be that A can’t know what he means by a word unless he knows what B and C mean by it, and B can’t know what he means unless he knows what A and C mean, and so on. How exactly does this affect Wittgenstein’s doctrines? Wittgenstein believed that there was a way of meaning something by a word which neither was a matter of interpretation nor depended on consultation with one’s fellows. ‘Meaning is the last interpretation.’ The novice who observes the practice of others will, after some time, be inclined to join in, and only then can we suppose he attaches a meaning (or tries to attach a meaning) to the words the others use. If he ‘goes on in the right way’, he will mean what they do; if he does not, then he may be subject to correction by them. Now, however notoriously difficult it is to say what ‘going on in the right way’ amounts to, it cannot simply be a matter of consulting one’s own ideolectic understanding and attempting to tailor it to the meaning others have attached to that word (as exemplified in the use they make of it). For this invokes the forbidden picture of the incipient speaker privately consulting a rule or image so as to measure it against the public standard. This is just the conception that Wittgenstein warned us to resist in his arguments against the idea of a private language. Many recent expositors in the analytic traditon have pointed out that there is no temptation to regard linguistic meaning as consultative in this way, save against the background of the forbidden conception.

It is far from clear that A.J. Ayer is making this mistake, but it is best to remind ourselves of the revisions to our thinking that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language recommends. Meaning is not a matter of contrasting a personal interpretation with that of others; it is a matter of joining in. There were many reactions the tribesmen could have taken to the drawing of a picture of a bison by one of their number: many ways, that is, of joining in. The Wittgensteinian insight is this: in the case where they did not reach for the spears, we should not automatically suppose that the one who drew the picture could console himself with the private thought, that that was what they were meant to do.

Barry Smith
Birkbeck College, London WC1


Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Peter Pulzer writes most of what I hoped to read about Mrs Thatcher’s Universities (LRB, 22 June). Perhaps I, a former university teacher whose pension is index-linked, as the salaries of my still working colleagues are not, should keep out if it. But I was a member of the Association of University Teachers – indeed for a time a branch chairman – so I will not.

I make one point only – one which I am sure has been a part of the argument among university teachers, but which Pulzer did not make explicitly. He gets near it when he says that in threatening not to conduct or mark final examinations the teachers were acting against the students, who were not the enemy (and indeed could not affect the outcome). But the threat was by one side to refuse to keep to the final – and crucial – part of a long-standing bargain between two sides, the other side having kept to its part. All students assume that their attendances and studies over three or four years are to lead to examinations, and to the award of degrees as appropriate; they notice their teachers supporting and encouraging them in that assumption. Assuming for a crude calculation that about a half of a university teacher’s responsibility is in teaching and examining, and that about one in three students was to be thus harmed, ought not the teachers to have offered to repay about one-sixth of their (admittedly inadequate) last three years’ salaries?

Of course, we do not know how many students thought that the threat might actually be implemented, but it was made, and made at the time when most students are full of anxiety. It is hard to imagine a suitably damaging analogy to the action threatened, but I am working on it – perhaps something about retired couples saving up for years and paying for retirement homes which turn out not to have been built.

G.O. Jones
Oxford

Peter Pulzer’s own recognition that universities are now places dependent on research funding from private industry, on the sale of courses to overseas students at high fees, and on commercial sponsorship of courses, should serve to convince him of what there was never any doubt about: his position as a ‘hired labourer’ in a profession increasingly demanding of entrepreneurial skills. Gentlemen’s agreements such as existed at Oxford may seem more acceptable, but AUT members, along with the employees of other hard-pressed, under-funded public services, have realised that being a ‘good citizen’ doesn’t pay the mortgage. If it ever did. Dr Johnson says: ‘Our Universities are impoverished of learning, by the penury of their provisions. I wish there were many places of a thousand a-year at Oxford, to keep first-rate men of learning from quitting the University.’ An 18th-century brain drain.

The AUT was surely right to demand money that wasn’t there – wasn’t that the point of the protest? And as in the case of the strike threatened by the dock labourers, this dispute had to be with the employer in order not to be deemed political and thus illegal, and can have had nothing to do with union leaders’ so-called ‘one-track minds’. Professor Pulzer’s antagonism towards the unions interferes further with his argument. Speaking of the desire for national salary agreements, he claims that this ‘serves the power and autonomy of union professionals more obviously than the interests of universities and those who work in them’. This becomes less obvious later on, when the question of attracting and retaining high-calibre staff is raised. The Government’s remedy of ‘greater differentials in salaries within and between universities’ risks ‘adding to our miseries’. The examination boycott is described as wrong in practice because wrong in principle. We read on to see that ‘the boycott was wrong in practice because nobody would benefit from it.’ It didn’t work. Only £285 was forthcoming. If the boycott was wrong in principle it was, in my view, because it seemed to be about enriching individuals rather than fighting for improved state funding throughout the higher education system. There are undeniably people out there who deplore, as Peter Pulzer does, what the present government is doing to our public institutions: but they are unlikely to warm to the special pleading and self-regarding élitism displayed in this article.

Kathryn Metzenthin
London N2


Who killed Olof Palme?

In his letter (Letters, 22 June) about my recent review of a book on the Olof Palme murder, Anders Ferm reveals an inattentiveness to detail which is surprising in an experienced diplomat. First, I did not say that if Palme was murdered on behalf of a foreign power, the solution ‘must’ be found in the Middle East. I said – with deliberate caution – that ‘it would seem at least possible,’ and I further qualified my caution with certain reservations about such a likelihood. Then, Ambassador Ferm claims that there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ for my assertion that Olof Palme ‘acted simultaneously and covertly on behalf of Swedish arms exporters’. Evidence there certainly is, but again I think Mr Ferm has simply misread the sentence he quotes from. It does not say that Palme was an ‘arms trader’, nor does it imply he was engaged in illegal arms dealings, for which unlikely supposition there is indeed no evidence whatsoever. The fact that Olof Palme acted ‘covertly’ is, as Mr Ferm is no doubt aware, in the nature of such negotiations.

The best-known evidence for what I did write is contained in a report by the Constitutional Committee of the Swedish Parliament (KU 1987/88:40) dealing with the 1985-1986 Bofors bid for the supply of howitzers to India which has subsequently become the subject of a major scandal in that country. It is well documented in that report that Palme was very active indeed in his support for the bid, most importantly in his meetings with Rajiv Gandhi, the last of which was held in Delhi on January 1986. As it happens, Mr Ferm’s former colleague in the Palme Commission, John Edwards, confirmed in a recent TV documentary that Olof Palme was at that time ‘negotiating peace in the morning and selling arms in the afternoon’, as it was described. It surely cannot come as news to Mr Ferm that Olof Palme, generally speaking, had a robustly ‘hands-on’ approach to the promotion of the Swedish defence industry in the world market. Internationally, he used his considerable influence and authority on its behalf, as has been gratefully acknowledged by Martin Ardbo and several others implicated in the Bofors affair. Domestically, Palme – strongly opposed by the Foreign Trade Minister – urged the relaxation of the strict government ‘guidelines’ on arms exports to countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, at a time when it was, to say the least, debatable whether they fulfilled the requirement of not ‘being engaged in armed conflict’ or ‘suppressing human rights’. However, the fact that he seems to have had no difficulty in reconciling the promotion of arms sales with the promotion of world peace is now only of historical interest. What is of more immediate concern is that we should have as complete and unsentimental a picture of him as possible in order to comprehend fully the circumstances surrounding his untimely death.

Gunnar Pettersson
London NW5


Good Heart

I found John Bayley’s review of Graham Greene’s biography (LRB, 1 June) interesting but chilling. Much is made of ice in the heart. May I say that in daily life Greene was and is a very kind person, helpful to a young writer, generous with counsel and in other ways. He has indeed a ‘queer hunger for righteousness’, but one could look at this from another angle. Did not the need to write, the acceptance of the RC Church, his later ambivalence, his depression, restlessness and drinking, all spring from the pain of finding the world a place where only ‘an aboriginal calamity’ could explain such suffering? He found in this quote from Newman a compass whereby he could steer his own particularly vulnerable identification with all that required compassion. He is not alone in seeking to believe that one day Justice and Mercy might meet.

Barbara Collard
Bristol


‘Dictionary of National Biography’

I would be most grateful if you could bring to the attention of your readers the fact that it has been decided to do a volume of omissions from the Dictionary of National Biography from the beginnings to 1985 (the 1981-1985 supplement will be published in the spring). The new volume gives people an opportunity to suggest names of those they have looked up in the DNB and not found. This is the first time for a hundred years that such an opportunity has occurred.

C.S. Nicholls
Clarendon Building, Bodleian Library, Oxford


Eric’s Plaque

The inscription on George Orwell’s gravestone must indeed be nearing illegibility if Peter Cadogan thought it said Eric Blair was born in 1902 (Letters, 22 June); it was of course in 1903.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

This was a typesetter’s error, not Peter Cadogan’s.

Editors, ‘London Review’


Instead

I can match Christian Stead’s account (Letters, 22 June) of the vagaries of Waterstone’s Guide to Books. I actually bought a copy in Edinburgh last year, only to find our names, Peter and Leni Gillman, co-authors of Alias David Bowie, listed as Peter and Leni Gilman and Peter Leni Gillman. I wrote to the editor pointing out these errors but did not receive a reply. When I received my free copy they had not been corrected.

Peter Gillman
London SE25