Got to keep moving
Jeremy Harding, reviewing Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop by Charles Shaar Murray and an Autobiography by Miles Davis (LRB, 24 May), writes at some length on Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and ‘a form of the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara’. Miles Davis is hardly mentioned, except to illustrate his condescension (immediately capped by the reviewer) towards Hendrix.
Compared unfavourably with both Davis and Robert Johnson, Hendrix seems to fall between jazz, blues and the reviewer’s two stools of credibility: Davis heading the cool academy and Johnson’s pre-war, rural and sinister obscurity combining ‘street-cred’ ethnic primitivism with early music. Hendrix is left to the vague, tinseltown no man’s land variously called ‘pop’ or ‘rock’. His years of apprenticeship in the culture and some specific performing circuits of black North American music, traced in some detail by Murray, are largely ignored.
Harding concludes that the shortcomings of a contemporary public ‘became the biggest obstacle in Jimi Hendrix’s path’ and we are to gather it completely defeated him. After commenting probably on the early canonical studio performance of ‘Red House’, Harding writes: ‘Later, stumped for ideas, Hendrix would do a phrase to death. This hectoring mode was an admission of defeat at the hands of pop music. “Red House”, by contrast, could easily withstand a further two verses of solo guitar.’ It may well be biographically right to speak of Hendrix’s ‘defeat at the hands of pop music’, but musically the assertion is qualifiable. Harding concedes that ‘even after his ascent up the British pop charts, the blues remained his strongest suit.’
His development of the form – for instance, in slow blues (from the self-consciously old-time ‘Red House’, ‘Hear my train’ and ‘Peoples’ to ‘Machine-Gun’, his final, more original contribution) – belies the reviewer’s statement that ‘by 1970 Jimi Hendrix had played his way through rock music into a dangerous limbo.’
Heart of Darkness
Readers of the London Review of Books are presumably expected to sympathise with Christopher Hitchens’s account of Conrad Black’s campaign against him (LRB, 28 June). However, although I have virtually nothing in common with Black – certainly not his politics or his wealth or his power or his ruthlessness – I must say that I actually sympathise with his view of Hitchens’s journalism. Hitchens himself calls one of his articles ‘ill-tempered and mean-spirited’, and that seems a fair description of most of those I have read over a period of nearly twenty years.
They belong to a form of journalism he shares with several figures right across the political spectrum (such as Alexander Cock-burn and Tom Nairn or Auberon Waugh and Paul Johnson or Richard Ingrams and Julie Burchill), which depends on abuse and rhetoric rather than analysis and reason, and which attempts to arouse emotion rather than increase understanding. Ten years ago I told him I thought he was a discredit both to his profession and to his politics, and I still think so. No, I wouldn’t want to ban him – or anyone else – but I certainly don’t want to read him.
George Bernard’s review (LRB, 14 June) contains a number of comments on my book Perfection Proclaimed which show that he has misunderstood it. First, I do not take my sources ‘more or less at face value’. My intention was to examine radical religious expression more closely than previous accounts in order to free it from the pejorative descriptions of hostile witnesses which have invariably coloured subsequent understandings, sympathetic or not (and it is quite clear in which camp Dr Bernard places himself). Where possible, I sought to show how such expression functions in radical religious worship and politics. Dr Bernard mocks my recounting of Abiezer Coppe’s extravagant gestures, but in fact I analyse Coppe’s understanding of his own prophetic role as he textually recounted it, rather than presenting it in a naive, unmediated way. Far from a ‘face-value treatment’, the book attempts to give a more satisfactory account of radical religion by setting text against context.
Second, I certainly do isolate a series of sub-cultures known by their jargons (not however, pace Bernard, a ‘clear category’), but far from seeing both groups and individuals as distanced from ‘organised religion’, I try to show the nature of the continuities between the radicals and the rest. Bernard’s description does not make sense. He refers to my subjects as ‘half-educated or self-taught’, but he thereby excludes others who were formally educated, and it is the connection between the educated and the semi-educated which was so important. I make no claims for any quantitative dimension of radical affiliation or literacy, but one cannot ‘exaggerate the volume of such writing’. We know roughly how much was published even if some works have now been entirely lost. A great many books were published at the time (probably out of all proportion to the number of radical personnel). Evidence of radical book-collecting which survives shows that the translations in particular were popular. I am also rebuked for taking ‘the wider context of Civil War and Interregnum Puritanism’ for granted. It was not my aim to challenge this context, although I think I have made some contribution to our knowledge of its shifting internal dynamics.
Third, I am accused of confusing ‘form and content’, of privileging radical expression over radical ideas and projects. For many radical prophets, ultimately powerless as they were, ‘form’ was their ‘content’ (to use Dr Bernard’s terms): their awareness of outer reality. The confusion was inherent in radical religious culture.
Dr Bernard’s problem seems to be that he cannot take religious radicals seriously: they are ‘nut-cases and fruitcakes’. Such labelling of course enables us to marginalise them into silence. I give them a chance to speak, partly in order to understand how expression and behaviour which was and is regarded as insane could have a function and set of meanings within a particular community. That is why one gives lots of space to interpreting the nearly incomprehensible. It seems to me most worrying that a professional historian should allow a very irrational prejudice to cloud his view of the irrational in history.
Keble College, Oxford
When reading (if I may venture to use so tempestuous a term) the review by Terence Hawkes and the subsequent letters (Letters, 14 June) from John Drakakis and Alan Sinfield, I found myself speculating when they last read one of Shakespeare’s major plays as they might perhaps listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets: because they find them profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable. Or do they sit listening entranced to Bach’s and Mozart’s ‘texts’ as ‘critical representations of ideological materials which disclose the conditions of their own historical existence’?
Their writing doesn’t convey to me the least impression that they enjoy or are moved or restored by Shakespeare. Or that they believe it is any part of their business as university teachers of literature to help their students enjoy and be moved by Shakespeare and understand how these responses arise out of the text and are controlled by the way the drama and the verse work. And ditto for Bach and Mozart, no doubt. For after all, when all has been said and done about their witting and unwitting ‘dissident intentions’, Shakespeare and Bach and Mozart really are a ‘slavishly over-venerated’ trio of ‘mystified individual autonomies’, aren’t they?
What’s so good about Reid?
In my piece about Thomas Reid (LRB, 22 February), I wrote that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume all ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately” or “directly” perceive are mental items.’ Désirée Park finds this well-known view ‘singularly unconvincing’ in her first letter (Letters, 22 March), but she doesn’t say why in her second (Letters, 14 June). Instead she objects that the phrase ‘mental items’ is ‘ambiguous’, and that I am ‘not entitled to use [it] and then complain about “slippery terms” ’.
The phrase ‘mental items’ is no more ambiguous than the word ‘animal’. It is merely indefinite – like ‘animal’ as opposed to ‘lion’ or ‘turkey’. That is why I used it. I chose a non-committal term in order to state an interesting generalisation about four philosophers as concisely as possible without using any of their own semi-technical terms like ‘idea’, which are (to repeat it) mightly slippery. I think this is something which I am entitled to do. Park says that ‘for a given writer major terms can be identified and defined.’ I agree – although what the definition may reveal is in-eliminable slipperiness. She says that such identification and definition ‘takes time, but it remains true that discussion is not enhanced by introducing free-wheeling “mental items” and bypassing crucially distinctive “ideas”.’ I say – what discussion? There are many discussions. Some are for the ‘learned journals’. Some are for the LRB. I was engaging in a discussion in which I thought it worth pointing out a striking resemblance between four great philosophers, and I hoped I had found an amazingly neutral way of doing so that would not offend any textual scholars. My friends say that this hope was forlorn.
Jesus College, Oxford
Homage to ‘Christopher Homm’
I am always delighted to find a poem or article on your pages by C.H. Sisson (LRB, 10 May), but why not tell those of your readers who still might be dummies that Sisson is the author of one of the great unappreciated books of the 20th century, Christopher Homm? Only mildly fanfared, Christopher Homm is not a mild book but, in purest classical English, a savage and loving account of working-class life told backwards from death to the moment of Christopher’s birth when, ‘crouched in his blindness’, he is about to set out on the road to Torrington Street (where he dies in the opening sentence of the book), ‘and if he had known how bitter the journey was to be he would not have come’. In spite of all that, this is a very funny book; some keep it under their pillows at night, others toss it out closed windows.
The arrival of this – and I usually use the word very advisedly – masterpiece in my own life was properly apocalyptic. I was standing in a small but respectable public library in upstate New York searching the S’s for a mystery I had not read when this small stiff-covered paperback done up in red and yellow suddenly fell to my feet and, as I stooped to pick it up, lo, angels began to sing, and so I opened and began to read: ‘He was a pattern of amiability when he fell flat onto the gravel.’ Let fan clubs spring up from Mogadishu to Stockholm.
John Bayley does scant justice to Norman Cameron’s poetry in his review (LRB, 14 June) of the very welcome Anvil Press reprint. First: Cameron’s work has been grossly neglected over the years, but at last becomes once more available to English readers. Second: Cameron, like his lifelong friend and fellow poet James Reeves – still also grossly neglected – was a quiet poet. During his lifetime public attention was continuously distracted by noisier others – first MacSpaunday, then Dylan Thomas and latterly, since Norman’s death in 1953, by Modernism-in-decline. Professor Bayley devotes more than three-quarters of his review-page to two vers-librettists whose work, even he admits, is ‘irritatingly with-it’. It is also intellectually and emotionally without-it – literally chaotic – and so not poetry at all.
Cameron was a scholar of poetry; his translations of Villon and Rimbaud are in the Arthur Waley class. His poems, though small in number, are all of the first water – and totally incomparable with Enoch Powell’s imitations of Housman. ‘Academic’, Professor Bayley remarks, is a hard word: but his review, while in effect hard on Cameron, has the air of tired, and uncaring, inconsequence, rather than of conscientious critical academism. As a lifelong friend of Cameron and deep admirer of his writing I protest at this new injustice done to him.