The Faurisson Incident
R.W. Johnson, in his hasty review of Christopher Hitchens’s books (LRB, 16 August), gets the story about Noam Chomsky quite wrong. It is surely not the case, as Johnson avers, that ‘the key point of the Faurisson incident was that Chomsky was contributing a preface to a book he had never read’ (my italics). As Hitchens explains in detail, Chomsky did not write his defence of free speech as a preface to a publication by Faurisson; the circumstances of its appearance allowed Chomsky’s enemies deliberately to elide his defence of Voltairean principles with Faurisson’s defence of the Nazis – surely the ‘key point’ of the matter. Furthermore, my twenty years of reading and listening to Chomsky convince me that Johnson’s remark that ‘Chomsky has been far too willing to sign almost anything put in front of him’ is so far from an accurate description of the scrupulous attention to fact and principle that has characterised Chomsky’s work as to perpetuate that very obfuscation of Chomsky’s views against which Hitchens’s essay is directed.
I was dismayed to have brought to my notice, under the headline ‘Loony Lefties Set to Kill Everyone’ in the current issue of Viz (No 43, August 1990), a description of myself as ‘Malcolm Evans, an odourous [sic], flea-ridden, communist subversive drug addict’ who, in collaboration with a bunch of ‘festering, filth-ridden, greasy cohorts’, is master-minding ‘a sinister plot to assassinate hundreds of top politicians, show-business celebrities and members of the Royal Family’.
As a publicity-shy academic who has done nothing to encourage this sort of attention, I can only conclude that it has something to do with the long-running ‘Bardbiz’ controversy in your journal. I do not normally reply to comments on my work in the press, but feel the time has now come to take issue with James Wood, who presented me, in his first letter (Letters, 22 March), as being somehow responsible for Terence Hawkes’s iconoclastic views on Shakespeare (I also taught my grandmother to suck eggs), and who identified me with a critical tendency known as ‘cultural materialism’, which he described, in his second letter (Letters, 24 May), as producing ‘predictable, second-rate and sinister – yes, sinister – readings’ of the great works. This, I fear, may have been subsequently misconstrued in some quarters as proof of a darker wish on my part to assassinate the Prime Minister, royalty etc. I note the fondness for the word ‘sinister’ shared by Wood and the Viz journalist and take this opportunity to set the record straight.
A curious quirk in the dominant construction of Englishness is that while we are expected to be reticent about matters like take-home pay and religious or sexual preferences, an up-front positive declaration on the question of value in Shakespeare is considered de rigueur. Who could forget Kenneth Baker’s opening piece of belletrist kitsch on BBC 2’s The Late Show, when he confronted Hawkes’s sceptical view of the Bard in modern British culture and education with a vision of his (Shakespeare’s, not Hawkes’s) work as a sublime mountain range, the valleys in cloud and the peaks twinkling in the sunlight? We all know this gesture. It is as if, to prove their cultural underwear is clean, these people have to produce it from their trouser pockets and proffer the gusset for inspection.
Walter Benjamin recognised that ‘there has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.’ After decades of fanzine-type Shakespeare criticism devoted to the ‘culture’, we now have a generation of critics who are prepared to take the institutional ‘barbarism’ into account and to leave the much-hyped and hallowed personal, imaginative response in the closet. To avoid the fate of becoming the Shakespearean fundamentalist’s Salman Rushdie, however, I am quite happy to admit that, in the privacy of my home or on long walks in the country, I commune with Shakespeare and let his beauty and truth wash over me. Hardly a morning passes when I don’t wake up with that marvellous line from King Lear playing in my mind, wondering if I am going hence yet or still coming hither, or whether this may indeed be that precise split-second of ripeness. I also imagine that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing for Viz or doing what Terence Hawkes does, and I can pay him (Shakespeare, not Hawkes) no higher compliment than that.
I admit these things with a certain reluctance as I feel they are irrelevant to recent work by myself, or by anyone else, on Shakespeare’s plays as cultural artefacts and the Bard himself as an ideological symbol. I also had to learn, at someone else’s expense, how to emote and respond to the complexities of the Shakespearean text in this way, in spite of Boris Ford’s belief, expressed in another ‘Bardbiz’ letter (12 July), that we should experience Shakespeare as we might ‘perhaps listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets’, because we find them ‘profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable’. Where I come from, people were so poor that anyone who spotted an unaccompanied cello sonata would have killed and eaten it. Everything we knew about culture we had to glean from Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and the background chapters in the Pelican History of English Literature. The real barbarism of the Shakespeare industry has resided in this type of casual high-cultural bullying, with which we all risk becoming complicit when we make concessions to its distinctively ‘personal’ and ‘flexible’ aesthetic idiom.
With the third instalment of what is becoming his epistolary novel, James Wood – now in the role of Joe Public, the punter’s friend – is himself beginning to feel bullied. Alan Sin-field and John Drakakis have already made it perfectly clear that he knows very little about his pet hate, cultural materialism. I will not attempt to make the situation worse as I owe Wood a favour. Some months ago (under the name ‘Douglas Graham’) he gave my book on Shakespeare, Signifying nothing, a good review in the Guardian. How this squares with his current crusade, I am not in a position to judge. My guess is that the ‘alternative’ Shakespeare criticism has reached its moment of ripeness and that a new breed of opportunists is emerging, ready to build their reputations on the corpses of the Eighties radicals who took on the great dinosaurs of the past (Tillyard, Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson and so on). It may be that Wood met some of these newcomers when he was an undergraduate. Or perhaps ‘James Wood’, like Douglas Graham, is a front for someone else. I smell the hand of Cambridge University, the National Theatre and possibly the Freemasons in all this. As the man on Police 5 used to say, keep ’em peeled.
I am sorry that Julian Symons (Letters, 30 August) responds so huffily – and at ninety degrees – to the mild strictures in my letter. I rather wished I had pulled him up more sharply. I did take the precaution of showing his review, without comment, to a few people who had known Herbert Read’s work. All agreed that ‘Symons obviously has it in for Read.’ Possibly, there was no intention on his part to be quite so dismissive (automatic writing?), which would account for his bewilderment when taken to task.
The evidence is clear enough. Starting on a down-beat, the review has Read ‘a saint … also ridiculous’ and ‘only a saint or an idiot would …’ in the first two paragraphs. Hence that objection. Read was surely neither. Then, to use transactional language, which feels appropriate here, the review has six strokes for Read and no less than 28 blows. Perhaps Julian Symons would count with me: the suggestion is that Read deserved them. Such an analysis is forgivably crude because in this context, telling. It leaves out the tone the review adopts – on which no comment – and its ostensible purpose, the reviewing of James King’s book, which I said was done inadequately. If this does not amount to a double putdown, disguised as something else, I wonder what would.
Nowhere do I suggest that Read was a ‘fine’ artist, on any reading of this oddly-chosen word. I prefer to say – to begin with – that Herbert Read was a splendid man and we should be thankful that he existed. His contribution was always generous, often highly pertinent, and in certain ways – as I indicated – of specially enduring and accessible interest. If his creative energy suffered undue dispersion, it was in the service of public duty to a disintegrating culture as he then saw it. Anything at all ‘public’ is unfashionable just now, but perhaps such duties should be reinstated in public esteem?
A further objection might be put as follows. Major artists will look after their own reputations – even posthumously. Minor ones must take pot-luck. The standard-bearers in our recent cultural history are fewer in number, and more vulnerable. It is unseemly, disrespectful, and at the cost of our own urgent needs, to seek to cut them down to size as a seemingly routine exercise in ‘re-evaluation’. Has this become a habit of Post-Modern criticism, or is such practice almost the whole of its self-definition and raison d’être?
Seeing my etchings
Craig Raine (Letters, 30 August) uses for his dust-jacket Rembrandt’s Joseph Telling His Dreams, titling it The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors – thus (in my view) making it seem less good than it is; and he justifies this by the argument that ‘Titus Rembrandt was indifferently the model for Jesus, Joseph and Tobias.’ Joseph Telling His Dreams dates from 1638. Titus, the painter’s sole surviving son, wasn’t born until 1641, earlier babies surviving no more than a month or so. Titus would not have been of an age to model for Joseph, 17 in the Bible story, until (say) 1658. In 1658 Rembrandt had been painting for over thirty years; he was dead by the end of the 1660s, and Titus pre-deceased him. In those thirty years of work Rembrandt had created an idea of Jesus so consistent as to be called characteristic. Craig Raine dislikes the phrase, ‘the face of God’. I think he’s confusing my views with Rembrandt’s, as well as fusing Rembrandt’s with his own. If I had views about the face of God (and I haven’t) they’d be irrelevant. But Rembrandt did. He had an actuality that Craig Raine simply isn’t letting him possess.
Rembrandt knew the Bible better than most of his contemporaries, and made little-known stories his own, though he mediated them with an accuracy that often permits exact citation of sources. In addition, the painter created, or was willing to perpetuate, an image of Christ so consistent as to be called characteristic. Rembrandt gives his Jesus a halo or nimbus of light – not just a hint, but an explicit circle over the head, or lines radiating wide around the face and head. The familiar etching Christ Preaching, or the even more magnificent ‘Hundred Guilder Print’, Christ Healing the Sick, make the figure of Jesus a great source of light. The nimbus is regularly present, even if not invariable – it seems to depend on circumstances of pictorial background, medium and perhaps audience in ways that I just haven’t knowledge or authority to talk about. But it’s there in all the great images I can recall. This auriole, plus the long cloaking hair and beard, and the invariable swaddling uncontemporary robes (if Craig Raine finds a Jesus in overcoat and trousers I’d be happy to hear about it) all make Rembrandt’s Christ something very different from the people who surround him.
I believe the Joseph to be about Joseph because this marvellous image says so at sight – it’s entirely different from the ‘preaching’ images; and my initial reaction is deeply uninterested in what art historians have traditionally said. But to lean merely on this position would be brutally egoistic: impressions must be justified from outside the self. What Rembrandt is doing is clearly governed by system and principle, and I don’t think Craig Raine is wise to push all this aside with a cry of ‘whiffling sensibility’. In short, it matters that the boy in the Joseph lacks nimbus and robes. The reason may be that, though Christ, he is young, and as yet unauthorised by the Holy Spirit. But I think it’s because he isn’t Christ.
Craig Raine should take a look at the other two images which relate to this print. One is the Albertina drawing of 1642, Joseph Telling His Dreams to Jacob. It shows the same bedroom, from a different angle; Rachel leans from the bed, in the same posture, and Jacob’s chair is now to the right of the bed, with a child leaning against his knee. Apart from these three and Joseph, the room is empty. But the Rijksmuseum possesses the preparatory study for the Joseph etching itself, the Dutch drawing deriving from some time earlier in the 1630s. In it, the principals are grouped as in the Albertina drawing, but the room is dense with people: brothers and others.
Of this swarming roomful of people, portrayed much more brilliantly in the etching – which is superior in every way to the other two pictures – Craig Raine observes hootingly that the brothers are ‘old enough to be grandfathers of Joseph’. Yes, but Joseph’s brothers were old enough to be his grandfathers. Rembrandt has faithfully followed Scripture in making his Joseph ‘loved’ by Jacob ‘more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age.’ The painter’s Jacob, an Old Testament patriarch, is always a very old man, both dignified and tender, and he is fifty or sixty years older than his son: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (for instance) portrays a man of eighty or even ninety alongside a Joseph who is, though a father himself, still very young. Therefore some of Joseph’s brothers would be markedly older than himself.
Raine ironically sees a Rembrandt thus faithful to sources outside himself as necessarily a ‘nervous, scholarly type’. This is an illusion: Rembrandt’s truth is heroic. Where his contemporary Poussin idealised by generality, Rembrandt struggled throughout this first half of his career to find laws through truth and realism, by preserving facts, by recording the random. A writer and critic of Raine’s gifts shouldn’t be willing to seem to despise such heroic accuracy.
The figure in the upper-right-hand corner I describe as dressing hastily, and Raine grunts loftily: ‘Who can say?’ Anyone can, who uses his or her eyes. Craig Raine doesn’t need telling by a book like Gombrich’s Art and Illusion that painters use symbols as poets use words. It is early morning in the Joseph etching (and it is the sense of solid yet luminous moment which helps to raise this image above the other two versions); and the time is early morning because the space beyond the upper archway, being lighter and brighter than the room itself, suggests full early-morning sunlight. If that space were dark, the man might seem to be undressing. He is not, as Raine proposes, taking off gloves because human beings do not raise their arms to shoulder level and extend their elbows in order to take off gloves. The man is lifting, shifting, setting in place and pulling down (all in one gesture) his waistcoat or jerkin. Because his stance is effortful and purposive, though commonplace, his posture could not be sustained long without his over-balancing. He therefore appears to be frozen in a moment of peculiarly rapid gesture.
This is perhaps the reason why Rembrandt liked to portray small children, as well as animals. A familiar drawing is the woman holding in the air a screaming and kicking child: it’s not a posture which could, in the nature of things, be long maintained. The image gives the impression of peculiar momentariness, and therefore of reality. In the Joseph etching, the man briskly pulling on his waistcoat as he moves in through the door matches the snapshot activity of the small dog washing itself in the lower-left-hand corner of the print. Craig Raine’s candid-camera manly uproar about the dog’s having private parts misses the point, I think. It’s not what he’s washing that’s important, it’s that he’s washing. Man and dog earn their place in the picture because both say ‘Morning’: this is how the Renaissance and Rembrandt use living details to illuminate laws. The rapid and self-absorbed and detached activity of both man and dog highlights the very different yet related, still communication of Joseph at the centre, telling his dreams. Light dawns from within as from without.
Craig Raine can read Dickens or Joyce wonderfully well. I think he’s just not bothering to read Rembrandt. It’s a pity. Nonetheless, it all goes to affirm Raine’s own splendid opening chapter’s argument: that critics, who are always blowing their own valve trumpets and thus making foolish mistakes, need to begin from a position of some humility.
Somerville College, Oxford
Craig Raine is getting his chiton in a twist. If he takes a look at the preparatory grisaille painting by Rembrandt (in the Rijksmuseum) for the etching in question, he will surely concede that the latter has nothing to do with Jesus. The coat worn by Joseph is clearly a cut above the average. In the painting, Leah (rather than Rachel, who had died giving birth to Benjamin) is without question reclining in the curtained bed: if in the etching she’s standing (note her right hand on her head), then I’m a cock-eyed inebriate.
Raine says: ‘The real meaning of “many-coloured” is “long-sleeved”.’ It is not. ‘Many-coloured’ is an alternative rendering of the second word in the Hebrew phrase involved (ketonet passim): its cognates in Assyrian/Arabic yield the idea of ‘brightly-coloured bird’/‘mosaic’ or (in the RSV) ‘pieces’. But another gloss of passim, plural of ‘flat of the hand or foot’, indicates a tunic reaching to the palms or soles. The whole phrase could then mean ‘a long, sleeved tunic’ (as in the NEB etc), not necessarily one with long sleeves. ‘Rembrandt makes no attempt to suggest [the coat’s] “many-coloured” quality,’ writes Raine: but why should he? The artist had many learned Jewish friends with whom he may have discussed this very point.
Joseph or Jesus? Raine is surely being perverse. The wrapt inward gaze on the lad’s face, which Rembrandt has made the focus of the etching (in the painting it is rather the coat) and over which he has taken great pains, is not of someone ‘disputing’ but of a teller of dreams – just that. The equally concentrated involvement of the elders magnetised by him bears testimony to this. As for the gang on the right (on the left in the painting, the etching being reversed), their attitude is a long way from that of the doctors in the relevant ‘disputing’ plates: some of the former exude real meanness.
The dressing/undressing/glove-removing vignette in the doorway? Does it even matter what he’s doing? He could so easily have been popped in as an aesthetic makeweight (to charge the arched space), or, more importantly, to complete the arterial curve starting at the testilinguing tyke (who’s fast asleep in the grisaille). Maybe not.
If Raine has fallen on stony ground, Barbara Everett is still right: the wayward poet has led us back to this tiny masterpiece, and that’s worth all the hoo-ha.
On the Stambul train
It is an extraordinary achievement, if that is the right word, to review a book about the struggle for the Balkans without mentioning Romania once (LRB, 28 June). Balkan means mountain, and that is what the region is all about, but the Carpathians are as important as any other range and saved the Daco-Romanians from Magyars and, indeed, Basil Davidson’s assorted South Slavs. But then, he thinks that ‘effective economic government from Belgrade’ is inevitable, and that ‘the only alternative can be secession’ when everybody else who knows that part of the world knows that secession has already begun. Catholic Slovenia has, in effect, gone, and Catholic Croatia will follow soon enough. I would not be surprised to see Islamic fundamentalism affect Bosnia and Herzogovinia or even bits of Macedonia.
There will be no Yugoslavia in ten years’ time. When I was in the Banat earlier this year (on the Romanian side of the border), there was a lot of talk about Greater Serbian chauvinism and there is a certain amount of apprehension among Protestants and Catholics alike, remembering Serb Orthodox persecutions in the past. Perhaps some of your readers, old-fashioned Marxists and Communists like Davidson, were never told that it was a Protestant pastor who created the turmoil which suggested to Elena Ceausescu the palace revolution which, indeed, took place, but put her among the dead.
And what is all this talk of Davidson’s about Partisans (always with a capital letter)? What a bunch of gangsters we now know they were, in Italy, Yugoslavia and elsewhere in South-East Europe. In Romania they are facing up to the truth that a lot of monuments to these ‘heroes’ will soon follow those to their patron, Stalin. Who knows, in Davidson’s disintegrating Yugoslavia we may hear the truth about Mihailovitch one day.
Chairman, British Association for Romanian
I expect I am not the first to point out the slip in David Cannadine’s interesting review of Dorothy Thompson’s work, Queen Victoria: Gender and Power (LRB, 16 August). The Queen’s father was not George III’s second son, the Duke of York, but the rather more worthy fourth son, the Duke of Kent. Her Majesty would not have been at all amused.
Your reviewer John Horgan (LRB, 16 August) allows his prejudice to blind him. Cage Eleven by Gerry Adams stands absolutely no chance of being pulped; rather, like two other books by Adams, The Politics of Irish Freedom and Falls Memories, it is enjoying excellent sales and is very likely to be reprinted, even after a large first printing and even after attempts by the National Front and the Democratic Unionist Party to have it suppressed.
I must admit that I have derived some amusement from conflicting reviews over the years, and your readers may like to share my enjoyment of the following:
The Hill and Conlon books … will keep their shelf life long after Cage Eleven has been pulped.
London Review of Books
When the work of most of the participants in literature’s yearly orgy of hype and hysteria has been consigned to history, Adams’s slim volume will be alive and well.
London Review of Books
There is no mistaking the pain and the compassion … Cage Eleven is an interesting record, which provides significant insights into Northern politics.
A pawky sense of humour, distinctly overdone.
London Review of Books
Warm and agile wit … The writing is natural and, one might say, writerly. There are deft shifts of focus, a relaxed sense of timing, a Myles na Go-paleen-like sense of character and an infinitesimal attention to emotional nuance.
Interestingly, Belfast reviewers proved able to set aside prejudices to which they would readily admit, in allowing that the book was ‘well written’ and ‘worth reading’ (Belfast Telegraph), and ‘amusing’, ‘graphic’ and ‘intriguing’ (Sunday Life).
Brandon Books, Dingle, Co. Kerry
It is surely remarkable, worth perhaps an entry in The Guinness Book of Records, that our own Conrad Black should generate such tedium as to bore even those capable of surviving a dinner with Mrs Thatcher and a London military ritual (LRB, 28 June). Little wonder that the Economist, not many months ago, described Canada as one of the most boring countries in the world.