I think that Jacques Derrida has the answer to the false problem of the Sun newspaper: it is simply the Undecidable made newsprint. Ian Aitken (LRB, 7 December 1989) gives us a choice: either we take an ‘apocalyptic’ view of this despicable publication, seeing it as having contaminated the whole of the British press with its populism, or we can take a ‘triumphalist’ view, and credit it instead with having by its success allowed Rupert Murdoch to see off the print unions and move Fleet Street into the present and over to Wapping. But do we have to set one of these versions againt the other? Do that, and we find ourselves nodding through the sleaze and the intrusiveness of the Sun just because its proprietor managed eventually to rid his industry as a whole of certain infamous practices highly profitable to print workers – certain infamous practices profitable to other newspaper workers such as journalists have of course survived, or even flourished as a consequence. The phenomenon of the Sun is one, however, not two, and as such it transcends in its integrity the competing assessments of it suggested by Mr Aitken. It is a fine local example of Undecidability, fit to rank with the Greek pharmakon dear to Derrida. That Greek term, your readers will recall, is an example of Undecidability of which he makes very brilliant use in writing about Plato, in whose texts the word pharmakon occurs sometimes in the sense of ‘poison’ and at other times in the sense of what works against poisons, to wit ‘remedy’. There are times also when we cannot be sure which of these senses to give it. This is clearly the homeopathic line we should take towards the Sun. It is the pharmakon of our daily press, the agent of its corruption and, thereby, the agent also of its cure. Seen so, the paper takes on a rare dignity.
Having written about David Jones and Seamus Heaney, I of course think poets have the right to send readers to dictionaries (Letters, 26 October 1989, 23 November 1989, 7 December 1989). But readers must feel the journey is worthwhile, not merely as an element in self-improvement but as an aid to critical appreciation. Jones’s dictionary diction always, in my view, enforces a sense of his punctilio and scruple about specialised languages (of trades, crafts, arts etc), and that punctilio is itself one of his major themes; Heaney, in North, for instance, evinces a similar scruple about the vocabulary of archaeology, and his local dialect usages (many not in the OED, as it happens) are manifestly part of a broadly political strategy which a number of poems actually take as their theme. When I read Richard Murphy’s sonnets in ‘The Price of Stone’ I consulted the dictionary dutifully and now I know the meaning of the words he uses. But I can still see no point in his using them. Where Jones’s and Heaney’s forms make space for their vocabulary, and are in turn vivified by it, Murphy’s sonnets seem merely pretentious or, in the case of ‘Convenience’, bathetic as a result of his dictionary discoveries. His usages are, I think, as far from ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ and its long, wilful but somehow also supplicating demand as I can well imagine.
Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice
Craig Raine is wrong to suggest (Letters, 7 December 1989) that it is only Tom Paulin who feels unease over the connection between the moral character and physical appearance of Ossipon in The Secret Agent. Had Conrad’s readers found attractive the description of a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type’ and leering, ‘almond-shaped eyes’, then I’m a Martian. Raine ignores the pervasiveness of the images which both fed and grew from 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism. The point of the matter is that attention to physical difference (categorised to ‘type’) reflects alleged moral difference, thereby elevating both the appearance and the character of the white observer. Even Livingstone was aware of this process. Writing, in the Last Journals, of blacks, he declares: ‘Nothing but the most pitiable puerility would lead any manly heart to make their inferiority a theme for self-exultation; however, that is often done, as if with the vague idea that we can, by magnifying their deficiencies, demonstrate our immaculate perfections.’ That Livingstone takes for granted their inferiority and elsewhere practices what he here condemns is testimony to the hold which such cultural imperialism had on his society. But at least he had some awareness of how it operated. Incidentally, it’s very revealing too that much Victorian writing on travel in Africa is riddled with explicit derogatory references to the Irish. I wonder why; they’re not all portrayed as attractive to women.
20 August 1968
I would like to correct a slip of the editorial pen in my Diary of 7 December 1989. Writing about the East Germans, I mentioned that their armies ‘occupied Bohemia and Moravia 21 years ago’ – not ‘51 years ago’. What I was referring to were not the events of the Munich agreement of October 1938, but the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the night of 20 August 1968 by 600,000 troops composed of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic. This invasion marked the return of German troops to what some twenty-three years earlier had been the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Like the Wehrmacht, these ‘friendly socialist troops’ were protecting the Czech people from their democratic follies. Last month both President Gorbachev and the head of the provisional government of Eastern Germany apologised for this act, though the Russian troops are still there.
In his review of Redmond O’Hanlon’s In Trouble Again (LRB, 7 December 1989), Mark Ford speaks of a journey of exploration ‘in search of a remote and ferocious tribe called the Yanomami … reputedly one of the most aggressive peoples on earth’. The Yanomami, according to the reviewer, ‘are said to’ practise female infanticide; their young men engage in bloody ritual battles with gigantic clubs; they ingest hallucinogenic snuff and marvel at polaroid photographs. After one day in a Yanomami village, we are told, the author of the book is forced to withdraw because he cannot satisfy their demands for presents of food …
For the sake of those interested in the actual lives of tribal peoples, as opposed to their role as topoi in travel narratives, it should be pointed out that O’Hanlon has not been the only unwelcome visitor to Yanomami territory recently. Other arrivals, Brazilian garimpeiros – miners in search of gold – have been less tractable – in fact, they have shown themselves to be far more ferocious than the Yanomami. Their invasion of Yanomami lands has resulted, during the last six months, in the deaths of at least four Yanomami, including women and children, at the hands of heavily-armed garimpeiros in the vicinity of illegal airstrips in Roraima. The miners outnumber the Yanomami, whose total population in Brazil is under ten thousand. The Brazilian Government response to incidents of this kind has been to expel, not the miners, but the Catholic missionaires, anthropologists and medical teams working with the Yanomami, who are their only source of outside help. The action of the Government simultaneously obstructs the reporting of further acts of violence and increases the exposure of the indigenous communities to the diseases brought by outsiders, to which Yanomami have little resistance. Judicial orders for the removal of miners from Yanomami areas have not been acted on.
The reality of life for the Yanomami is that they are no longer remote and by no means invincibly warlike. On the contrary, like other hitherto sequestered Amerindian groups, they are fatally vulnerable to sudden incursions from outside. The recent visit to Europe by Davi Yanomami, one of the very few Portuguese-speaking Yanomami, and Claudia Andujar, a Brazilian who has spent the last decade working in their defence, has begun to draw international attention to their current plight. Those concerned with the fate of tribal peoples as their worlds are penetrated by the forces of capital should help maintain the momentum of the Yanomami defence campaign. They can do this by supporting Amnesty International and Survival International in their efforts to confront the Brazilian Government and the newly-elected President of Brazil with the serious consequences of their predecessors’ actions towards the Yanomami and the urgent need for a change of policy.
Reach for your spears
In your issue of 23 November 1989, my colleague Graham Martin, asking to be informed about Wittgenstein’s ‘theory of language’, begins by quoting a criticism by A.J. Ayer of this ‘theory’ of Wittgenstein’s. But Wittgenstein stated, repeatedly and emphatically, that he was not in the business of offering a theory of language, or of anything else. The philosopher’s job, he maintained, was to describe and not to explain. It follows that, unless Witgenstein was grossly mistaken about what he was doing – and there is no reason to think that he was – any objection against his ‘theory’ is fundamentally misconceived. It also follows that if Wittgenstein was right about the nature and role of philosophy (as I think he was), then Martin’s request to philosophers to explain how infants learn the differences between nouns and verbs, and so on, must go unanswered. What, after all, could such an explanation look like? Martin supposes that ‘an infant manages to work out that the noise “is” operates as a verbal sign’ from an ‘initial learning model’. But Wittgenstein rejects all theorising of this kind on the ground that it will always leave us with an unexplained datum of just the same kind as that with which we began. Thus if we say that an infant learns the use of ‘is’ from a ‘learning model’, of whatever kind, we shall still be left with the question: how does he know how that model is to be applied? The mere existence of the model would leave this question unanswered; and similarly if we postulated some further entity containing rules for the use of the model. ‘Explanations come to an end’ was one of Wittgenstein’s slogans. The difficulty is not one of lacking an explanation, but of pushing the quest for explanation to a point where it no longer makes sense.
Open University, Milton Keynes
A touch of the cat
Mr Hayes is not pleased with my saying that Dr Dunn’s editing of The Nagle Journal is intrusive (Letters, 7 December 1989); he feels that the common reader needs ‘a minimum of bracketed asides in the understanding of recondite terms’, and I quite agree. But Dr Dunn and Mr Hayes have a lower opinion of the common reader than I. To take just one example, they think the poor fellow needs help with the recondite term Capt., so it is expanded to Capt[ain] throughout a book that contains hundreds, perhaps thousands of captains – four on a single page – each one hedged with those square brackets that do so interrupt the flow of reading.
I must apologise to Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster (Letters, 7 December 1989) for what was clearly an inadequate acknowledgment of material from her excellent collection of memoirs of Brian Howard. My use of the ‘blanket credit of “principal source” ’, as she puts it, was merely an attempt not to burden the book with vast amounts of source-notes.
Justice for John Lehmann
Jean MacGibbon and the many other admirers around the world of the late John Lehmann (Letters, 7 December 1989) may like to know that Constable have commissioned a biography of him from Martin Taylor, which it is hoped will be published in 1992. Martin Taylor would be glad to receive copies of letters from, or written memories of, John Lehmann.
Constable, 10 Orange St, London WC2
The other day I passed a man on Peachtree Street wearing a lapel badge that read ‘I am a dolt,’ and I asked him why and he said because he had lost his ‘I am Professor MacGregor-Hastie’ badge.