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


In defence of Raymond Williams

Publishers are usually well-advised not to complain about reviewers, but I would like to breach this convention to vindicate not so much the two Verso books concerned as the political experience and thought which has received such cavalier treatment in your pages. Mary Beard (LRB, 26 October 1989) and R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 February) are united in dismissing the thinking of the British New Left as of little account, reviewing, respectively, Out of Apathy: Voices of the New Left, edited by the Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group, and the posthumous collection of Raymond Williams’s essays and lectures, Resources of Hope, edited by Robin Gable. In both instances your reviewers dwell on real or supposed flaws as a device to avoid a substantial engagement either with the books they were meant to be reviewing or with the New Left politics at stake in them.

Mary Beard criticises the early New Left for its failure to anticipate feminism, and uses this – a failing noted and discussed in Out of Apathy itself – as an excuse simply to ignore any other claim that the early New Left might have on the attention of your readers. If the record was so blank why did it attract the interest of several hundred Oxford graduates and undergraduates, including many feminists, three decades later? Indeed it is fascinating to see the contemporary resonance of Raphael Samuel’s exploration of ‘the sense of classness’ or the continuing debate among philosophers of ethical and political issues first broached in the debates between Edward Thompson, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the late Fifties. The early New Left’s rejection of Stalinism, and critique of Labourist statism, was salutary ground-clearing, while the new approaches to culture and the mass media decisively widened the agenda of political analysis and prescription.

Even the gender-blindness of much early New Left thought can be exaggerated, since it was this milieu which produced writing by Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook), Juliet Mitchell (The Longest Revolution) and Sheila Rowbotham which helped to inspire Sixties feminism. Surely there was some link between the cultural politics of the early New Left, or the categories of Raymond Williams’s thought in The Long Revolution, and at least some of the characteristic concerns of this feminist writing?

Mary Beard had several books to review and so her skimpy treatment of Out of Apathy probably just reflects her lack of interest in that particular chapter of intellectual and political history. Less forgivable is Johnson’s unbalanced and philistine polemic, offered as an assessment of Resources of Hope, and of five other books about Williams, most of which are not even mentioned by name in this ‘review’. Johnson confesses himself puzzled by my claims for Williams’s stature and originality as a socialist thinker, and prefers to attack him for ‘wooziness’ and ‘muzziness’ and the affectations of a ‘literary gent’. According to Johnson, Williams ‘was not a major or even a very coherent theorist’, his early books ‘do not really sustain the large ideological weight later placed upon them’, and his book on Orwell is the ‘one good book’ he wrote after 1961. We are told that Williams’s work aimed simply to make his left audience feel good and has nothing of value to offer those who wish to address the issues of the Nineties. These perverse judgments are offered up with an evident zest to shock the bien pensant but with nothing by way of argument. Someone who can dismiss The Country and the City, or Modern Tragedy, or Marxism and Literature, or the book on Cobbett, so thoughtlessly does more damage to himself than to the intended target of such shallow jibes. Perhaps Johnson felt that he would be out of his depth if he engaged in real discussion of Williams as cultural theorist or critic. But he scarcely fares better when tackling his essays or his practical and political interventions.

The Resources of Hope collection contains such key texts as ‘Culture is ordinary’, ‘Communications and Community’, ‘Socialism and Ecology’ and ‘Parliament and Democracy’. Discussion of any one of these would have given Johnson something of real substance to reflect upon. The first was an early statement of Williams’s cultural position which was to include such highly practical, specific and influential works as Communications – a work which not only helped to open up the whole field of cultural studies but probably had a direct, practical impact on institutions such as the Open University and Channel Four. Thus his 1961 lecture on ‘Communications’ is attractively discursive, but not at all the woozy rambling of Johnson’s ‘literary gent’. And it concludes with proposals for a democratic, decentralised broadcasting structure which would lease facilities to independent producers.

The essays on ecology reflect a sensibility that long pre-dated the rise of Green politics and which had already achieved a major statement in the The Country and the City. If Johnson was really looking for relevance and immediacy he could have discovered it here. Likewise, the 1982 essay on Parliament is a practical political intervention which has lost none of its timeliness. Its critique of the undemocratic features of the Palace of Westminster – with its first-past-the-post electoral system, its secrecy and hierarchy – is accompanied by the sort of highly specific proposals which have inspired Charter 88: notably a commitment to citizen’s rights, proportional representation and executive accountability. It is not Williams who is ‘vacuous’ but your reviewer if he fails to see the effort to spell out alternatives in these essays or in Towards 2000.

The Verso collection included some informal talks or occasional articles together with ‘classic’ essays of the sort that I have referred to. This editorial decision, which I still think justified, allows Johnson to concentrate such rational argument as he can muster on a couple of lesser pieces which are treated as if they somehow sum up Williams’s work. The article entitled ‘Mining the meaning’ was commissioned as a critique of the ‘keywords’ used by the Coal Board, Government and press to justify the pit closure programme as well as Government conduct of the dispute. It was not meant to be a general article on the miners’ strike or an assessment of NUM strategy. Nevertheless Williams did append a concluding paragraph indicating his reservations concerning NUM ‘tactics, timing and personalities’. Had he been asked for an article on the strike as such, these reservations would have been spelt out in a more direct and detailed manner. Even so, they would not have coincided with Johnson’s own gloss to the effect that the strike was the last kick of an old order, and that Scargill was an autocrat who enjoyed no democratic sanction from his members. Scargill, unlike MacGregor, had been elected to the post he held – elected by a huge majority after a campaign in which he toured the coalfields arguing that massive closures were imminent and would have to be met by strike action. Nevertheless, I believe the failure of the NUM executive to hold a ballot on the strike to have been a bad mistake.

Johnson supposes that a misplaced loyalty to his friends in the NUM led Williams to mute his criticisms. Yet his friends among the South Wales NUM were precisely those within the union who had argued for a ballot and against the use of Yorkshire pickets in Nottinghamshire. As it happens, this position was spelt out – while the strike was still in progress – by Williams’s friend Kim Howells (of the South Wales NUM) in the Verso collection Digging deeper. But when Howells, or for that matter Anthony Barnett or myself, argued for a ballot – as we did in the very pages where Williams was also writing – we did so from the perspective of wishing to see the strike succeed. For reasons clearly spelt out by Williams, we believed that the resistance of the mining communities had exemplary qualities – and that a humane economic policy would have worked with rather than against the people of the coalfields.

Johnson’s second lengthy admonition concerns the supposed vagueness in Williams’s advocacy of the need to cultivate a new sense of the ‘general interest’. Johnson thinks there was not enough ferocity in Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’. He finds this latter notion altogether too mild, and would have preferred to see Williams launch a broadside against the Unions and Labour Movement as neanderthal formations richly deserving any drubbing that they received from the likes of MacGregor or Murdoch (no mention in Johnson’s discussion of the print workers of the need for strike ballots, since those ballots were held and resoundingly supported strike action).

In these passages R.W. Johnson sounds uncomfortably like his namesake Paul, evoking a distempered animus against the unions. While Williams warned of the dangers of ‘militant particularism’, he was also aware that British trade unions were capable, as in 1975-8, of incredible and even ill-advised restraint, allowing their members’ living conditions to deteriorate in the name of a quite nebulous ‘social contract’. And while the print workers were capable of an ugly egoism and exclusivity, Johnson’s claim that they are to blame for the power of the media empires fails to explain how the latter flourish even more when unions are weak. Johnson’s polemical trick is to construe Williams as an accomplice of sectionalist practice which he never condoned and which he criticised in the fashion he thought most effective.

Williams did advocate a different unionism, but he also believed in the capacity of ‘the movement’ to learn from its experience. This belief intensely annoys Johnson, for whom it is another sign of vacuousness and the Welsh or Nonconformist penchant for lugubrious uplift. Yet, interestingly, Williams’s patient pleas for a new unionism no longer seem so unrealistic – the tactics of the Ambulancemen’s strike are certainly much closer to those he believed were necessary. And whatever the failings of Brenda Dean’s SOGAT I don’t think that any fair-minded critic would include bloody-minded machismo amongst them.

Williams’s critique of ‘militant particularism’ was not directed solely at the sectionalism of trade-unionists: Resources of Hope also warns against lack of preparedness to negotiate a new ‘general interest’ in necessarily and rightly particularist social movements, such as Welsh nationalism or feminism. Similarly he argues in one of the essays that the new struggle for nuclear disarmament in the Eighties must also be a struggle for democracy, human rights and social justice. ‘To build peace, now more than ever, it is necessary to build more than peace’ – an argument taken up, in his own way, by Vaclav Havel on ‘the other side’.

Williams’s discursive style – target of such heavy sarcasms – aimed to bring out complexity, to avoid intimidation and to encourage people to interrogate their own experience. Unlike the great majority of academics, Williams was concerned to reach, and did reach, an audience of working-class activists and autodidacts. The tact and restraint with which he addressed this audience does not seem to me to have been lacking in truth-telling, unless one believes, as Johnson appears to do, that spades must always be called bloody shovels. This characteristic moderation meant that a rebuke from Williams had far more force than the ritualised political abuse we hear from Front Bench politicians – or, if I may say so, than the polemic to which Johnson has descended.

Williams did not address himself, as Johnson supposes, to trade-union leaders but to a general readership which he hoped would include Labour Movement activists and intellectuals. As a Cambridge professor, reasonably rewarded for a job he liked doing, he did not feel it right to attack the militant representations of miserably-paid dinner-ladies or refuse collectors, or moderately-paid miners or car-workers, though he did urge the necessity of linking trade-union action to a wider concern for social justice.

Johnson’s real animus is directed at Williams’s intense and reflective concern with values and with the social settings needed to sustain them. He belabours Williams for a ‘style rich in reference but largely empty of fact’. Certainly there is a ruminative and reflective quality to Williams’s prose and an absence of statistics. But there is such a thing as a moral fact: consider the import of Havel’s writings, for example, with their appeal to existential authenticity. Using the Johnson approach a year ago, Havel could well have been dismissed as a vague dreamer whose ideas lacked the necessary purchase to be politically significant.

Williams knew that his own cultural politics was only one component of the radical renewal of socialism for which he was working: he pointed to the need, for example, for a feasible economics of eco-socialism and self-management. But the example and advocacy of his own work will continue to be a source of inspiration and argument to those who try to democratise the UK state, to resist the pincer grip of government and commercialism on the broadcasting media, to reverse the philistine assault on education, or more generally to challenge the misery caused by the callous workings of capitalism in Britain and the wider world.

Robin Blackburn
Verso, London W1


Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’

Frank Kermodes honest account of his uncertain response to Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (LRB, 8 February) goes some way to explaining the general critical denunciation of the new book. (I make the current ratio about three-to-one against.) A clue to the source of the disappointment seems to lie in Kermode’s desire for a glossary which will explain all of the text’s undecidables. It is odd that Pynchon’s most user-friendly novel should provoke such a desire for lucidity, and this is doubly strange when the book is also criticised for being lucidly familiar. It seems as if reviewers have wanted both more of the same and something entirely different. In the confusion they have failed to find something they can immediately categorise.

The voices of disappointment and dismissal have tended to resort to the simple observation that Vineland does not match up to the scale of Gravity’s Rainbow (or, in Kermode’s case, the perfect ‘riddle’ of The Crying of Lot 49), and have refused to take the novel on its own terms. This nostalgia for the intricacies of the original trilogy (V1, V2, and Lot 49 as the ‘excluded middle’) seems oblivious to the irony – given Vineland’s terms of revision and reassessment – of its own longing retrospection, its own yearning for the good old tricksy novels of the Sixties and early Seventies. The easy conclusion for the critics seems to have been that Pynchon has gone a bit soft in the head. This analysis fails to take into account two points: first, the entropic pull of mindlessness which is forever present in Pynchon’s writing (Mindless Pleasures being the original title for Gravity’s Rainbow), and which always threatens the baroque plotting; and second, the reason why a fourth novel, if it appeared at all, had to be a different kind of book from the original trilogy.

The nature of Vineland ought to have come as no surprise since we were warned of the author’s state of despondency 17 years ago. Towards the end of Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon not only dissolved Tyrone Slothrop, having set him up as the book’s archetypal quest-figure and holy fool: he gestured towards his own disillusionment with the whole novelistic project.

There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop … and there ought to be a punchline to it, but there isn’t. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down, Celtic style, in the order suggested by Mr A.E. White, laid out and read, but they are the cards of a tanker and feeb; they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity (not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too, yes yes nothing like getting the 3 of Pentacles upside down covering the significator on the second try to send you to the tube to watch a seventh rerun of the Takeshi and Ichizo Show, light a cigarette and try to forget the whole thing) – to no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm.

Pynchon’s Tarot predicted a future of couch-potatoship, not revelation. Vineland is the fruit of this tubal immersion. Whereas the first three novels tested the world to see if it could be interpreted like a text, Vineland tries to replay the world like a videotape or a reel of film. The novel is constructed out of the spectral remains of a televisual reality which doggedly, and perhaps meaninglessly, persist to form the pantheon of our modern spirit world (Captain Kirk, the Bionic Woman, Steve McGarrett etc). Pynchon confronts the world of a generation that has always lived with and through television. He sees reality, not just through the eyes of Sixties casualties, Zoyd and Frenesi, but, more to the point, through those of their daughter, Prairie. It is with Prairie that his real sympathies lie – a girl for whom the legacy of the Sixties is mere celluloid. The ‘happy hippy antinomians’ Kermode mentions are deliberately anachronistic and the ‘consolations of paranoia’, which Kermode sees (I think erroneously) as Pynchon’s ultimate offering in Vineland, are equally part of the past.

It might have seemed to many (Pynchon included) that nothing could have followed the terminality of Gravity’s Rainbow. Its encyclopedic examination of ‘structures favouring death’ in Western society concluded with the descent on the last page of the final Exterminating Angel in the form of a nuclear warhead. What makes the appearance of Vineland so distressing to many of those still thinking in terms of a Cold War sense of an ending is that the situation in which this novel emerges (and which the novel is largely about) is of an entirely different order: no redeeming cataclysm, only endless TV repeats. In Vineland, Pynchon is acknowledging that end-thinking has itself come to an end. In a sense, the end is already over. Whereas Pynchon’s first three novels traced the logic of quest, knowledge and apocalyptic revelation, Vineland is post-apocalyptic. It seems odd that Kermode, of all people, should have overlooked this.

Pynchon’s previous books always pointed to a future that was yet to reveal itself. In Vineland, which largely consists of flashbacks within flashbacks, there is a sense that everything is behind us, everything is played out. The motivating force behind the plot is a maverick act of vengeance left over from the Sixties. Now this does not signal, as has been suggested by many critics as well as Kermode, Pynchon’s nostalgia for a bygone era. Pynchon’s attitude towards the Sixties is clearly complex and double-edged. (In the character of Frenesi, the spirit of the Sixties is cynically revealed as the secret desire for discipline and the infantile denial of death.) It is rather the continuation of his theme of the running down of culture (initiated in his 1960 short story ‘Entropy’) beyond the point of culture’s expiry. Our condition now is to be constantly looking back to an earlier age for signs of life (this is why Pynchon dates all the film references in the book as if stringing together a ghost history). Vineland is a post-mortem, not a nostalgia trip.

Pynchon has always asked questions about the survival of forms of life after death. ‘What afterlife have the Firm found, this side of V-E Day?’ he asks in Gravity’s Rainbow. The suggestion in Vineland is that we may all now be inhabiting a kind of afterlife, as if we have all, like the character of Takeshi, had the Ninja Vibrating Palm Death Touch. Vineland is consequently populated by zombies of unspecified but growing number, unaware of their undead status. Pynchon’s Thanatoids (which leave Kermode perplexed) are people who, though hardly alive, cannot completely die, because death itself has been infiltrated by television: ‘We are assured by the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, that the soul newly in transition often doesn’t like to admit – indeed will deny quite vehemently – that it’s really dead, having slipped so effortlessly into the new dispensation that it finds no difference between the weirdness of life and the weirdness of death, an enhancing factor in Takeshi’s opinion being television, which with its history of picking away at the topic with doctor shows, war shows, cop shows, murder shows, had trivialised the Big D itself. If mediated lives, he figured, why not mediated deaths?’ Like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Pynchon’s novel is a supreme comic investigation of the meaning of death and of our human (or should it be non-human?) condition in a world totally mediated by artificial realities. As Frenesi’s father, Hub, says to her: ‘Take care of your dead, or they’ll take care of you.’ With Vineland, Pynchon is trying to do exactly that.

When Kermode complains of the re-emergence of the earlier themes in a ‘less cogent’ form, he fails to notice that a kind of exhumation and re-burial is taking place. As so many reviewers have half-heartedly told us, Vineland is about the Eighties coming to terms with the Sixties. What this actually means is that Pynchon is divesting himself of that nexus of ideas with which he is most frequently associated – namely, the linkage of plot, quest, knowledge and apocalypse. With Vineland, Pynchon is working his way out of his quest trilogy: old scores are settled, the lost and disaffected are found, underground characters rejoin mainstream life. The conspiratorial Sixties as embodied in Federal Prosecutor Brock Vond are literally carried off to the Land of the Dead. Pynchon is systematically disposing of his earlier themes. He is disrobing himself, Prospero-style, of his art.

Significantly, Vineland is Pynchon’s first novel to reach a resolution. Rather than balancing opposites along a path to deferred revelation, Vineland is a brilliantly crafted, deliberately centreless comedy in which Pynchon reconciles himself with his own history through the mature form of Romance. The ending is Californian late-Shakespeare. Mother, daughter and family are finally reunited, and the book’s (almost unqualified) last word is perhaps the end of all quests: ‘home’. In Vineland, Dorothy and Toto (alias Prairie and Desmond the dog) come back from over the Rainbow.

Christopher Walker
London W11


Turning the table

There was a typesetting error in the Contentious Guide to Metaphysics which I offered in the last issue. As it stands, it says that Hume took the existence of mind-independent tables and chairs to be highly improbable but unprovable. It should say that he took their existence to be highly probable but unprovable. Being a sensible man, he naturally believed that there were such things; he was ‘morally certain’ of their existence, in Descartes’s terms; but he knew he couldn’t prove it. (Descartes, by contrast, claimed that we could be absolutely certain about it.) This correction doesn’t make the Guide any less contentious. From one philosophical corner I hear dim cheers for the typesetter. From another, angrier corner comes the protest that neither of the two views of Hume is correct, because the poor man thought that the notion of mind-independent tables and chairs was unintelligible. But Hume’s considered view is that it is a simple if undecidable ‘question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects, resembling them’.

Galen Strawson
Jesus College, Oxford


Life of Heidegger

Your readers may like to know that the biography of Heidegger discussed in Richard Rorty’s Diary (LRB, 8 February) and reviewed by J.P. Stern (LRB, 20 April 1989) is being translated into English by Allan Blunden and will be published in 1991 by Collins in this country and Basic Books in the United States.

Stuart Proffitt
Collins, London W1