Ross McKibbin (LRB, 26 July) quotes R.W. Johnson: ‘the Orwellian will feel that the truth must always come first.’ Orwell, however, was saying nothing new. The argument that the intellectual must put truth above party originated with Julien Benda. Admittedly, Benda would have rejected Orwell’s political commitment. The Orwellian, according to McKibbin, is dedicated to truth and to decency. So, I would agree, was Orwell, although he did have his lapses. But like so many other commentators, McKibbin fails to mention that Orwell was also a thinking socialist. McKibbin describes Neil Kinnock as ‘the kind of decent man an Orwellian might wish to support’. An Orwellian, perhaps, but I cannot imagine Orwell himself supporting a party that nowadays defines socialism as: ‘We can run the shop better than the Tories.’ The term ‘market socialism’ is purest Newspeak.
Richard Bowring writes (LRB, 14 June) that a ‘chance remark’ by his history teacher at school about the significance of the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War made him interested in studying Japanese. Two cheers for Bowring’s teacher! Bowring goes on to state that ‘it was the first time a non-European power had so comprehensively beaten a European power.’ Macaulay’s schoolboy could tell him that the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was done quite ‘comprehensively’. The boy would probably know also that the Battle of Hattin, where in 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders, had devastating consequences for a Western adventure.
Unless the West can rid itself of deeply ingrained illusions of natural superiority, there is very little hope of a mutual understanding between the West and the older civilisations of the East, now resurgent. One way to understanding is objective historical knowledge, to which scholars can contribute. Such knowledge may help to induce the intellectual humility to accept that Western economic and technological superiority has been, historically, brief. One cannot but wonder at the persistence of misrepresentations even in serious media and some ‘scholarly’ writings, e.g. of the Greco-Persian wars and of Arab civilisation, including its historical tolerance of Jews (in striking contrast to the treatment of Jews in Europe). Is it possible that the newly proposed history curriculum for schools will reinforce the pervasive ignorance of non-European civilisations?
Richard Bowring writes: The comments on Tsushima were made in the context of the ‘modern era’, but nevertheless I take the point. I am a little more uncomfortable, however, when it comes to the possibility of ‘objective historical knowledge’ coming to our aid; and the usefulness of a West/East dichotomy can be very short-lived when one gets into the detail. The study of Japan in Asia quickly shows us that we are not the only ones to be guilty of cultural arrogance. But then we all need to study more European history too – even, apparently, members of the British Cabinet.
Embarrassments of Peace
George Walden’s passionate argument for our meagre British fortune no longer needing to be spent on military defence but rather on learning (LRB, 26 July) is marvellous. But why do he and the Ministry of Defence find it ‘embarrassingly’ hard to define the military threat to Britain today? Why not ‘wonderfully’, ‘joyfully’ or ‘magnificently’ hard? Perhaps Collins & Co, publishers of Tim O’Brien, the best of all contemporary writers on war, could send round some copies of The things they carried (reviewed in the same issue of LRB) to the Ministry of Defence and the House of Commons. Our civil servants and elected representatives might, after reading it, stop blushing and just be glad they don’t have to plan for any of us to die in a combat zone.
Ian Gilmour is better at listing titles of books than he sometimes is at reading them. In his letter (Letters, 16 August)he persists in the bloomer of his review when he ascribes to me the idea that the Russian political system has been only about as far short of being ideally democratic as ours. I say that with respect to only one of three features of democracy, and say very differently with respect to the other two, and hence of the Russian system in sum. See pages 127 – 30 of Conservatism. I invite him to concede the point.
He does concede that he, or maybe his handwriting, made a second little error, about Lord Hailsham. As for the third, about whether I discuss the books of Labour politicians, I most certainly persist in thinking he at least implied what he now says he didn’t suggest. I thus persist in thinking his overall error rate is higher than mine.
He is wonderfully silent about the oddity of his supposing that ‘Conservatism’ when used of a tradition with diversity in it is meaningless, but ‘socialism’ isn’t. It is in fact absolutely impossible to suppose that things in some respects different cannot be grouped and discussed together.
Can one write against Conservatism without putting in a lot of history, and looking up books by practising politicians, even those of Ian Gilmour? Yes, one can. That is what happens in pretty well all books of political philosophy. Can one defeat a book without attempting, in review or letter, to provide an alternative answer to the main question it asks? No, one can’t.
University College London
Seeing my etchings
Obviously, if everyone has always believed the disputed Rembrandt etching on my dust-jacket to be Joseph Telling His Dreams, then there are likely to be grounds for this. But, as Valéry said, ‘what has been believed by all, always and everywhere, has every likelihood of being untrue.’ For example, as evidence that Rembrandt is depicting a domestic morning scene, Barbara Everett (Letters, 16 August) says that the figure at the top right is ‘rapidly dressing himself’. Despite her careless tone, she is decidedly categorical. Fair enough. But how would the etching look if this figure were undressing himself? Exactly the same. In fact, I think the man is taking a glove from his left hand with his right, before he enters the room. ‘Rapidly’ is an unjustified Everett embellishment. The action may be hurried, deliberate or unbearably slow. Who can say?
It is symbolic of our differences that Barbara Everett should instantly suppose that he is decently buttoning up while I should imagine he is unbuttoning. It is primness, I fear, which prevents her coming up to see my etching. People fuck, shit and piss in Rembrandt etchings. The little dog licking its balls isn’t a difficulty for Rembrandt, or for me – as Barbara Everett should know, because I discuss its role in my book, though she produces it as if it were evidence I had overlooked. The dog is a greater difficulty for her: what kind of whiffling sensibility produces her eyes-averted description of the dog ‘giving himself what seems to be his early-morning wash-over’? Her Rembrandt, too, is a nervous, scholarly type, with one eye on the art critics, anxious to fulfil the requirements of the topos. Similarly, her notion that the young Christ should be depicted with ‘the face of God’ hardly squares with Jakob Rosenberg’s assertion that Titus Rembrandt was indifferently the model for Jesus, Joseph and Tobias.
A few other points: 1. How does Barbara Everett know the curtains belong to a ‘day-bed’? Has the mattress a sprung interior? 2. The ‘night-cap’ she invents is identical to the head-gear worn by Mary in the etching Christ between His Parents, Returning from the Temple (Bartsch 60, Dahlem). They are on the open road, with never a bed in sight. 3. They are also accompanied, funnily enough, by a little dog. 4. Some of the ‘brothers’ so confidently identified by Barbara Everett look old enough to be grandfathers of ‘Joseph’ and more decrepit than the Doctor she thinks is ‘Jacob’. 5. Finally, the coat on which so much of Barbara Everett’s interpretation rests, is not the dream coat. Its quality is no richer than the coat of the man on the left, or the dress of the woman on the right of ‘Joseph’. Rembrandt makes no attempt to suggest its ‘many-coloured’ quality in the ways that would have been open to him even in the colourless medium of etching. The real meaning of ‘many-coloured’ is ‘long-sleeved’. Supposing Rembrandt knew this, he makes no attempt to depict it. The sleeves are short.
Boris Ford hits the nail on the head when he claims that Terence Hawkes’, John Drakakis’ and Alan Sinfield’s writing ‘doesn’t convey … the least impression that they enjoy or are moved or restored by Shakespeare’ (Letters, 12 July). Although the dominant literary theoretical clique has loudly declared the ‘death of the author’, if they took the time to investigate the matter a bit more closely (and if they weren’t so taken with their own greatness) they would find that authors are very much alive and that they have things to say that indicate what a sad state literary studies are in. The late Raymond Carver, when asked in an interview if he knew anything about de-constructionists, responded (and his response applies just as well to cultural materialists and new historicists):
Enough. Enough to know that they’re crazy. They’re a very strange bunch. They really don’t have that much to do with literature, do they? They don’t even like literature very much. I don’t think they do anyway. They see it as a series of texts and textual problems, writers as signifiers and such like … Their way of thinking is arcane. Sometimes it’s downright creepy.
Carver is not the only writer to have made such a point (Toni Morrison, Carlos Fuentes, Walker Percy, among others, have said similar things). And it strikes me that something must be seriously wrong with literary criticism and theory if the people who do it convey a sense that literature itself means nothing to them or that it means something to them only insofar as it will help them to publish books, get tenure and become famous.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Boris Ford’s jeremiad against the level of aesthetic appreciation revealed by the agents of ‘Bardbiz’ reads oddly in the light of the original inflammatory piece by Terence Hawkes. You don’t have to agree with its provocative and preposterous thesis that the game is up for the likes of Shakespeareans like Boris Ford to acknowledge (with gratitude) the grace, wit and invention that makes the piece such a pleasure to read.
University of New Brunswick
World Cup Passions
Karl Miller’s passionate World Cup comments in the London Review of Books (LRB, 26 July) were, in some cases, highly valid ones, and in others, decidedly not. As a busy television viewer, presumably in the cosy confines of a Chelsea study, Mr Miller was right to debunk some of the less savoury aspects of the coverage offered by the British press and television teams – for instance, the soppy U-turn made by the tabloids once England had reached the quarter-finals. He was right to stress how Italia 90 at its best ‘was enthralling, and as an occasion in the history of the human race its interest was first-rate.’ He was also right to single out the paucity of refereeing, and the positive consequences of England at last playing a sweeper. But in my view, that of a correspondent who has covered five successive World Cups ‘live’, Mr Miller was guilty of a few premature penalty-area dives in his haste to overpraise and overknock some games and certain performers. The Italian World Cup was certainly full of drama, but lacked overall brilliance. The Italians were not a great side: they played some exceptional football, but were too often victims of their own hideous nerves, and of dubious tactical changes. Beating the United States and the Republic of Ireland by single goals were hardly world-class achievements.
West Germany were certainly the best team in the tournament despite Mr Miller’s moody doubts: he did not mention Andreas Brehme, the finest raiding full-back in the competition, or Lothar Mattheus, superb as a goal-scorer against Yugoslavia. Jurgen Klinsmann played two games for the West Germans in the tournament’s best match against Holland. Why Mr Miller chose to stress the Italy-Uruguay match is strange: Uruguay frustrated, but they didn’t play. Once or twice, Mr Miller must have found the comforts of his own study, instead of the harsh realities of a Neapolitan press box, too sleep-making to handle. West Germany played Czechoslovakia, not Yugoslavia, in the quarter-final.
Paul Gascoigne deserved some, if not all, of Miller’s lavish praises. He played well in the later stages, and certainly charmed a great many English female television-watchers with his wisecracks and tears – women, in many cases, who didn’t know the difference between a football and a tangerine. He still has to prove he is a really great player, and needs another season with Spurs before he will convince the Italians he is. There were one or two occasions when I saw him playing for Spurs last season when he did his best to imitate a butcher with a hangover, studs to the fore. In Italy, it was good to see him playing within the rules of the game.
Finally, your television critic was less than fair about the reporting of the Independent’s Patrick Barclay. Mr Barclay, like Mr Miller, is a Scot: no mention was made by Mr Miller of that country’s premature exit, but Mr Barclay certainly found space to mention that humiliation in some of his superb pieces. The lack of drama at the Scotland-Brazil match was one example of the tournament’s many let-downs. Watching soccer on the box is very different from covering it from a simmering press box. Poor Mr Barclay couldn’t win.