Tom Shippey (LRB, 26 July) wonders where I can have been in recent years if I think that the English press praise ‘England’ when matters go well at football, but blame the ‘British’ when they go badly. Well, actually I’ve been living in England and noting that this slippage does indeed occur. Admittedly it’s happened far less often in the last two years, since my book went to press, and admittedly, too, I might not have noticed the frequency of its earlier occurrences had my attention not been drawn to them by a Scottish friend.
Shippey also seems to imply that I’m so anti-English that I must be either upper or middle-class and probably have a foreign grannie lurking somewhere in my background. Nothing so exotic, I’m afraid. I did, however, learn a thing or two about the Englishness of radical republicanism from one of my grandfathers, and I later made the discovery that for a long time radical republicanism had been a popular form of Englishness. When my book came out I further learnt that this fact was news to some of my reviewers. John Carey asserted that ‘the English temperament’ – genetic or acquired? – naturally favours monarchy. This apparently explains why Shakespeare put domestic scenes featuring the royals into his plays: he was providing snippety, reassuring information of a kind nowadays supplied by the tabloids. You know: Hal the good egg as shown in episodes with his father or in friendly chat with Francis the drawer. Or was Carey perhaps thinking of the cosy arrangements of Lear and his daughters? Shippey is too intelligent to fall for that – and to be fair he makes some good points against me. But when he says that my account of Englishness is one ‘defined by negatives’ I have to say No, in Thunder, it isn’t, any more than it was for Milton, Blake, Shelley or Browning – to name just some of the poets about whom I write and whose radical republicanism is essential to their ways of being English.
Professor Honderich’s letter (Letters, 26 July) makes it easy to understand how he made his errors about Burke and others. ‘According to Ian Gilmour’s review of my book Conservatism,’ he writes, ‘I speak of Lord Hailsham’s “undergarment”, say that the Russian political system has fallen only as short as ours of being ideally democratic and discuss books by Labour politicians. I don’t.’ Let me take these points in order.
1. In my review I said: ‘The most glaring exclusion of all, however, is that of Lord Hailsham. Honderich is aware of Hailsham’s existence since he makes a heavy joke about his trousers, which Honderich calls his undergarment, but he is evidently not aware of his books.’ Honderich is entitled to complain that my execrable handwriting produced ‘under’ instead of ‘lower’ garment, especially as it is the only solid point in his letter: but the correction does not make his joke any lighter or lessen his negligence in failing to know of Hailsham’s books.
2. My remark about the Russian political system was a quotation from Honderich. After giving his exacting definition of democracy I wrote: ‘Honderich points out that Western democracies do not meet these requirements (he does not say how any regime could ever meet them) and then adds in all seriousness: “something the same has been true of the Soviet political system.” ’ On page 130 of Conservatism Honderich says: ‘Western democracies are certainly not actual instances of it [i.e. democracy], however closer they may be than certain other existing governments. Something the same has been true of the Soviet political system.’
3. I never suggested that Honderich discussed books by Labour politicians. Discussing his ‘honest threadbare bibliography’ and his exclusion from both text and bibliography of Hailsham, Patten, Waldegrave and Pym, I wrote: ‘These omissions might have been ascribed to a bizarre decision by Honderich to disallow books by all practising politicians, were it not that he does include Roy Hattersley and Gordon Brown.’ Their books duly appear on pages 248-9; Hattersley is cited on page 82.
Honderich further claims that I said his subject does not exist ‘since Conservatism does not pick out anything’. I in fact said that what Honderich meant by Conservatism – in his words, the ‘political tradition … exemplified by the Conservative Party in Britain and the main part of the Republican Party in the United States’ – does not exist because the Conservative and Republican traditions are different.
Contrary to what Honderich says, I was in no way upset by his having no respect for Conservatism – that was entirely predictable. Nor did I, or do I, object to his confidence in his own views. But British Conservatism is intimately bound up with British history and the Conservative Party. I merely think, therefore, that, however well justified Honderich’s confidence in his own great abilities may be, for him to attempt a polemic against Conservatism without bothering to study British history, or to take his reading of British Conservative theorists much beyond The Portable Conservative Reader, was decidedly imprudent. If, instead of sneering at Oakeshott and Popper, Honderich tried to learn from them, the second edition he promises us might be a considerable improvement on the first.
House of Commons
Nepal’s Changing State
I would like to comment on Alan Macfarlane’s recent piece on Nepal (LRB, 10 May). It is remarkable that, in referring to Dor Bahadur Bista’s study of Fatalism and Development in Nepal, Macfarlane so signally fails to consider the significance of the recent dramatic developments in Nepalese politics for Bista’s esis that Nepal’s lack of development is due largely to the pervasive influence of ‘Bahunism’, a cultural configuration combining caste and fatalism. During the last few months, the political pressures which have been clearly building up in Nepal for over a decade have finally burst through the carapace of the monolithic ‘partyless panchayat democracy’ to challenge the existing political order. But the democracy movement in Nepal is not, as Macfarlane appears to imply, simply a ‘miracle’ triggered by events in Eastern Europe or China; nor does the political transformation now taking place simply mark ‘a further stage in the rapid integration of Nepal into the Western capitalist world’. The changes are the outcome of dynamic and identifiable social forces within Nepal that require a more systematic analysis than is provided by Bista’s vision of fatalism as a kind of ‘curse’, or by Macfarlane’s image of the tribulations of a traditional society ‘with little experience of competitive, individualistic capitalism, suddenly thrown into such a capitalist world’.
The problem with essentially conservative theories of ‘stagnation’ is that they cannot account for change when it becomes undeniable – except as ‘miracles’ generated by external events. But the relationship between economics, politics and ideology (cultural configurations), in Nepal as elsewhere, is a dynamic one, and one full of potential for dramatic change.
What is striking about the democracy movement is that those active within it include, notably, members of those ‘high caste’ groups whose fatalistic ‘Bahunism’ Bista sees as so pervasive that it undermines Nepal’s prospects for ‘modernisation’. If ‘fatalism’ and ‘caste’ undeniably constitute important elements of the political ideology of the ruling classes in Nepal, it is now evident that they are unable to prevent other ideologies from gaining ground. But to understand precisely why the language of democracy and change has become increasingly powerful, and how the political transformations now taking place have become possible, it is necessary to consider the economic and social developments that have been taking place in Nepal over the last fifty years, for it is those developments that have created new contradictions and conflicts, and the potential for further change. It is precisely Nepal’s development (with all its problems and crises) that has given birth to those social forces which currently take the form of the democracy movement.
University of East Anglia
I haven’t read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel The Light Years, but I have read Mary Wesley’s A Sensible Life and am puzzled as to why Patrick Parrinder chose to review them (LRB, 26 July). He could have sent them back as most reviewers do when faced with books they a. can’t stand, b. can’t understand, c. find worthless. Professor Parrinder, a heavyweight academic judging by his CV (Professor of English at Reading University, published by Susquehanna University Press), is not above the odd cliché-ridden, inaccurate summation: ‘Her best-selling status is based on a combination of up-market Mills and Boon with her claim to be a last celebrant of the vanishing life of the English upper and upper-middle classes.’
Ms Wesley is something of a phenomenon. Most contemporary best-sellers are pedestrian, written to order, whereas her ideas, her plots and her extravaganzas come bubbling up and course along, barely containable, as though surprising their creator. This pleasurable gusto may be one reason why so many people, not all of us featherbrained, find her entertainingly readable, with reservations that some of us feel, and think worth arguing about – such as her interesting emphasis on urination, and her preoccupation with sex (disappointing, not the sort that turns one on, though she may be thought salacious: ‘Gamey Mary’ was how one interviewer described her).
Patrick Parrinder (LRB, 26 July) criticises Elizabeth Jane Howard for ‘wooden’ dialogue. His sole proof is that she has a pre-war country-weekend hostess asking: ‘Have we enough chamberpots?’ I wonder how Mr Parrinder thinks the hostess would have phrased the enquiry. ‘Got nuff them jerries, Perkins?’ ‘All right for pisspots, Smithers?’ Hardly.
Norman Potter (Letters, 26 July) should read what I said more closely before writing that I found in Herbert Read only a ‘miserable catalogue of insufficiencies’. I praised him as a gentle man, for the most part saintly, a writer of cool orderly prose, the man who helped to purge the British of their inter-war artistic insularity. I can’t understand what he means by saying I rewrote the biography I was reviewing, and ‘re-invented’ Clerical Read, a term I used to emphasise the division between this aspect of him and Innocent Eye Read. Is it suggested that the idea of Clerical Read came from somebody else?
He misreads me again when he suggests I would agree that Read’s ‘best work both invoked and embodied a poetic vision’. On the contrary: Read’s poetry, like his novel The Green Child, seems to have strained for a vision he never achieved. Hence his turn at one point to automatic writing, and his admiration for the disconnections of Surrealism. Even the war poems move from effective realism to writing pitched too high: so that his fellow soldiers become ‘my men, my modern Christs’, for whose souls the poet will cry ‘someday in the loneliest wilderness’. In short, no agreement is possible between those who think like Potter that Read was a fine artist, and those like me who regard his achievement as that of making a generation look freshly at visual art and the new commercial artefacts that sprang from it. That should not be taken as denigration. As to my failure to say whether James King’s biography was ‘worth buying or getting from the library’, I said it was factually adequate, well-organised, impartial, clumsily written. Whether or not it is worth reading depends, obviously, on your interest in Read.
Finally, a couple of marginal notes. Piers Paul Read has recently told of the decision not to give King access to his father’s letters to the family. A different decision might have made Read seem less a purely public figure and, on a personal level, probably more sympathetic. And since Norman Potter is mildly facetious about a writer of crime stories ‘detecting’ aspects of Read, it is worth mentioning that Read enjoyed crime stories, and that his reviews of them in the Thirties (he called Poirot ‘an ageless eunuch, immune from the vicissitudes of life’) contain some of his liveliest, least formal writing.
Seeing my etchings
Craig Raine puts forward (Letters, 26 July) a new interpretation of the etching by Rembrandt which has been traditionally known as Joseph Telling his Dreams. I am glad that, in reply to my review, he has chosen to stick to his guns. Having looked at Rembrandt’s etching again – not only in the detail given on the book-jacket but in its complete form – I can’t see eye to eye with him. But I remain grateful to him for being original enough to make his readers turn, or turn again, to an image that now appears perhaps the finest of all the artist’s early prints.
Tenderly focused, the picture is also full of life: from the youth rapidly dressing himself in the room through the doorway in the upper right-hand corner (not visible in the book-jacket), to the small dog at the lower left busily giving himself what seems to be his early-morning wash-over. These vivid details are easily interpreted as part of the scene of Joseph’s telling his dreams first thing one morning to his parents and brothers. Craig Raine may find it harder to fit such domestic activities into the subject of ‘Christ Disputing with the Doctors’. His letter still doesn’t explain, for instance, why his Jesus is wearing a smart overcoat (the dream coat itself) instead of what Rembrandt elsewhere gives the young Christ in the ‘Disputing’ etchings: a kind of grandly asexual oriental nightgown. I’m quite certain that anything Craig Raine found to say about such details would be unusually perceptive. And his general insight into Rembrandt remains true. These images are as great as they are because in them religious experience becomes human and real: so much so as to leave Jesus and Joseph all but indistinguishable.
When the bough breaks
Mary Beard’s review of my recent study of The Golden Bough (LRB, 26 July) involves a strange reversal of values. The subject of her elegant piece is Frazer’s reception; the subject of my book is his sources. Any consideration of his impact I had meticulously deferred to a related publication, Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination, dealing with many of the authors she lists in her concluding paragraph, to be published under my editorship this autumn. Yet she insists it is by his public appeal alone that Frazer must be judged. The appeal is easily explained. Possessed of a vivid and mellifluous style and a narrative drive rare among analytical writers, Frazer addresses religious anxieties deep in his audience, anxieties even now not confined to addicts of ‘esoteric religion’. He is an agnostic who cannot dispense with religion, a scientist with misgivings about science, a discursive writer with an itch to tell a story. He is a man whose mind incessantly travels, and one of the least complaisant authors in our literature.
In all of this his readers have followed, and continue to follow him. It is not in search of a justification for imperialism that they turn to his pages, since, convinced of the communality of human consciousness, there is little he says that can realistically support it. ‘It would be naive to suppose that Frazer’s theories and arguments had much to do with his popularity,’ says Beard: yet the verdict of the News Chronicle in 1937 – ‘he discovered why you believe what you do’ – suggests that it is precisely at the level of his meaning that Frazer does communicate.
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College,
John Drakakis’s hysterical onslaught (Letters, 14 June) is like Karl Kraus’s definition of psychoanalysis: the illness for which it proposes itself the remedy. It is one of those letters much more revealing about its own strategies than about those it attacks. It is, above all, an instructive display of how the academy protects itself. Note, for instance, the easy opposition which Drakakis establishes: cultural materialism, because it fails to talk about the text as having any meanings of its own, is fluid, radical, anti-authoritarian; an attack on that – and mine in particular – is an attempt to fix these fluidities. I am an heir of ‘Thatcherite bureaucratic centralism’; I am spouting an ‘authoritarian metaphysics’; cultural materialism is a ‘threat’ to my ‘own authority’.
One glance at Drakakis’s letter will show who is interested in authority – indeed, his letter affords a look at how criticism, at the end of the century, must defend its pseudorigour by claiming for itself an academic authority outside of which no one is allowed to have opinions. If one criticises cultural materialism, that is because one is ‘ignorant’ or possessed of ‘limited understanding’. ‘Insofar as Wood has imbibed the Post-Modernism hovering in the metropolitan air, he speaks for the chattering classes whose limited understanding rests upon bluffer’s guides, jacket blurbs and media hype.’ (The idea of the media hyping cultural materialism is comical.) This is revealing. I left undergraduate university life two years ago, and can still claim, surely, to have the hot blood of the academy in my veins. All that Drakakis knows about me is that I live in London; perhaps he has seen my name under some book reviews. But this sparse information is enough for him to place me in the ‘metropolis’ as a representative of the ‘chattering classes’. A little later, he closes the circuit: not only is Wood outside the university, but only the university knows how to judge texts. Cultural materialism is controlled by ‘fine critical and historical judgment, governed by a range of carefully formulated academic protocols’.
The most revealing phrase of all is Drakakis’s annoyance at my ‘self-appointed intellectual superiority’. All I have done is send a couple of letters to a literary journal. But of course, this makes perfect sense: it is because I am self-appointed, not university-appointed, that he is so irritated.
Drakakis calls my description of cultural materialism a caricature, but I ask him if anything is more caricatured than the paragraph from Paul Brown’s essay on The Tempest that I quoted? Why is the attempt to move the text away from ideological determinants towards the author seen as a conservative move? Why do these critics insist on seeing the author as some kind of unproblematic monad, so that to move the text towards this author is nothing more than ‘ventriloquism’? Why can’t an author be a complex thing, both determined by history and controlling it, both intentional and unconscious, the originator of language and the possession of language’s semantic multiplicity?
Cultural materialist may believe that they espouse a fluid and radical metaphysics, but all the evidence (those ‘verifiable facts’ so beloved of Drakakis) points the other way. Jonathan Dollimore, who is praised by Alan Sinfield for his ‘radical’ politics, shows how cultural materialism actually ties down polyphonic narrative. In his chapter in Radical Tragedy on King Lear, Dollimore establishes ‘a dominant ideology’ that runs through both the text and the history which permeates the text. Edgar’s bastard rebellion is simply representative of ‘the emergent ideology’ which, according to Marxist theory, gets eventually swallowed by the dominant ideology: ‘At strategic points in the play we see how the minor characters have also internalised the dominant ideology … Edgar embodies the process whereby, because of the contradictory conditions of its inception, a revolutionary (emergent) insight is folded back into a dominant ideology.’
There is an irony here: literary criticism (in the shape of cultural materialism) is at its most ‘rigorous’ ever. Cultural materialism, with its talk of strategies and sites, and its scaffolding of dominant and emergent ideologies, must seem like the last hope. And yet the language of this criticism is more metaphorical, more approximate, more gestural, than any critical language before it. This criticism is less precise than Hazlitt, for goodness sake! Literature challenges the thoughtful critic, the intelligent critic, to formulate a language of originality adequate to the text under discussion – this, you could say, is the critic’s version of the writer’s ‘anxiety of influence’. But cultural materialism substitutes a jargon of useless metaphorical approximation for real originality of response. And Shakespeare will go on eluding these predictable practitioners.