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Letters


Turpitudes

In his letter published in your issue of 25 October Mr D.A. Slade is, I am afraid, mistaken. Higher authority was indeed responsible for delaying the publication of Strategic Deception in the Second World War. But I alone was responsible for its length – or lack of it.

Michael Howard
Yale University


Distaste for Leavis

I can entirely understand that Frank Kermode would find Noel Annan’s expression of ‘acute distaste’ for F.R. Leavis ‘entirely understandable’ (LRB, 11 October). But why bother to mention it? The man has been dead 12 years, his critical influence, though not defunct, is no longer potent. There must surely be some alternative to the extremes of hagiography and personal animus Leavis still evokes. And I believe that one is at last emerging. There is the excellent monograph by Michael Bell in the Routledge Twentieth Century Critics series: sympathetic yet detached, fully informed by contemporary theoretical perspectives. And above all there is Raymond William’s memoir collected in What I came to say, the penultimate paragraph of which shows more insight into Leavis – man and critic and the connection between the two – than anything else I know. It also illustrates why Williams himself, despite occasional faults of windy vacuity, is the major critic in English of the generation after Leavis.

Michael Lee
University of New England,

We were interested to read in David Craig’s eulogy of the Leavises (Letters, 8 November) that neither Frank nor Queenie ever made ‘even one remark’ that was ‘mean’ in all the author’s years of acquaintance with them, and to learn three sentences later that Leavis ‘Showed a disinclination to meet or acknowledge [him] at public events’, while Mrs Leavis insulted him over tea, calling him a representative of the forces ruining English in the new universities. One is irresistibly reminded of the character in Monty Python who was emphatic that it had been necessary for Doug Piranha to nail his head to the floor (‘He didn’t want to do it; I had to insist’).

Jonathan Bate, Hilary Gaskin
Cambridge


Old Scores

Colin McGinn asks whether Wittgenstein ever brought together his argument in the Tractatus that postulating an afterlife, or a God, would not explain the meaning of life, and his argument in the Investigations that postulating linguistic meaning would not explain the meaning of words (Letters, 27 September). As he points out, both arguments depend on seeing that the preferred explanations begin a vicious regress, as one can still ask what gives them their meaning.

Wittgenstein does draw a parallel between two very similar arguments in the Philosophical Grammar, where he compares the demand for a final explanation of the meaning of a word with the conviction that the world must have a creator. There, he points out that any chart one might draw up which correlated words with their meanings is itself open to more than one interpretation. On page 94 he writes:

The chart doesn’t guarantee that I shall pass from one part of it to another in a uniform manner. It doesn’t compel me to use it always in the same way. It’s there like a field, with paths leading through it: but I can also cut across.

(What kinds of propositions are these? – They are like the observation that explanations of signs come to an end somewhere. And that is rather like saying ‘How does it help you to postulate a creator, it only pushes back the problem of the beginning of the world.’ This observation brings out an aspect of my explanation that I perhaps hadn’t noticed. One might also say: ‘Look at your explanation in this way – now are you satisfied with it?’)

Strangely, the published translation has a misprint at a crucial point: instead of ‘world’, it reads ‘word’.

There is another striking connection between the two arguments in Wittgenstein’s writings from this period. He repeatedly contrasts a ‘living’ meaningful sign with ‘dead’ meaningless marks, and asks: what gives the sign its life? And just as he denies that an immortal soul could explain the meaning of a person’s life, he denies that the life of the sign can be explained by invoking a soul, an object which gives it meaning: ‘The meaning [Sinn] of a proposition (or a thought) isn’t anything spiritual, it’s what is given as an answer to a request for an explanation of the meaning … The meaning of a proposition is not a soul.’ (Philosophical Grammar, page 131.) However, arguments, like words, are open to more than one interpretation. In particular, the passage McGinn quotes from the Tractatus leads to a very different conclusion to the one he drew in his recent LRB discussion of Ayer. McGinn concluded that the meaning of life lies in satisfying bodily and intellectual experiences. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, concluded that the meaning of life cannot be put into words at all, but rather ‘lies outside space and time’, and is a matter of living in the present in such a way that the problem vanishes.

David Stern
University of Iowa


Oral History

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s poem ‘Blow Jobs’ (LRB, 11 October) so alarmed me that I was moved to write a poem about blow jobs so that there might be another woman’s voice crying out in the darkness about fellatio. For all I know, Pitt-Kethley’s work sent scores of women to their desks to write about them; I hope so, as the tone in P-K’s poem is so presumptuously authoritative. Authoritative, disempowering, reductive and just plain bursting with hate – of course, it’s hard to imagine a woman who hasn’t had her share of tedious sexual encounters but it’s dangerous to generalise about this business, particularly as it is rare that a woman is given an established forum to speak plainly about sex. If I were a man reading these poems and I hated and/or feared women either secretly or openly, I’d feel vindicated to the max.

Comic

We made love in a hurry almost fully dressed because company was due in twenty minutes. When he was about to come, he removed his member from my mouth and, having very cleverly shaped his fist into a vial, laboured for a few moments, and let go. You could tell from the way his fist expanded ever so slightly that it was filling with semen. It was, in its way, a comical sight. When it was all over, he plugged it with his thumb and lay back with his sealed mitt raised over his head. You could tell that he wasn’t going to spill a drop, and I thought him the most ingenious man alive. So civilised and so crude.

Tragic

My husband had just completed his arrangements to leave the apartment; all that remained were his desk and favourite brass lamp which the movers would pick up the following day. He was, as usual, exhibiting a kind of control one could easily mistake for coldness or smugness. Naturally, there was a great deal of tension between us: nine full years of tension, certainly enough tension to fuel a homicide or a sexual act and since we were not psychopathic, we chose the latter. Although we did not speak of it, we knew that this would be our last encounter of this kind, and I found myself seized by a frenzied desire to take him in my mouth. I ripped at his clothing with an enthusiasm I had not exhibited during eight of the nine years that constituted our union. Did I reflect that it was this particular act that had dominated my fantasies about my future husband nine years earlier? I did not. I applied myself to his member that I knew as well as a parent would its nine-year-old child. I coaxed, I cajoled, I petted, I praised, and, as he released himself with a high-pitched whine into the interior of my face, I punished. No, I did not bite or abuse him in any obvious way. But wiping my future ex-husband’s come off my face as he lay helpless and exhausted on the hardwood floor we had sanded ourselves, I felt a kind of confidence so strong as to resemble clairvoyance that I had just ruined him for anyone else.

Nostalgic

It was taking a long time for him to come. He knew it, and I knew it. Just as the cramp in my jaw was beginning to distract me, he reached down and massaged either side of my mandible with his beefy forefingerpads. I was touched by his sympathy; no man had ever thought to massage my jaw before and none has since.

Romantic

As my last lover had been silent as a tomb during the act of fellatio, the unabashed, seemingly heartfelt moans floating out of my fresh lover were a great relief. Not only did they lighten the mood of the act in general, but they also provided me with musical clues as to what to do next. There developed an unspoken agreement between us that I would apply myself with ever more delicate variation and as I did so and as his pleasure intensified, I felt grow in me a pleasant mix of pity and arousal: pity that such a large and sophisticated creature could be so moved by such a small, primeval act; and arousal, well, why not arousal – we were, after all, having sex – and this mix of emotions, this pity and this arousal, mimicked exactly the sensation of love.

Elaine Segal
Burlington, Vermont


That and Which

Although the London Review of Books makes my tube journey each morning almost tolerable, I find myself increasingly irritated (much to my fellow passengers’ consternation) by what I can only describe as your lack of editorial rigour. My problem is your failure to correct the errors of your contributors over their use of ‘that’ and ‘which’. On average, you allow this crime to pass unpunished on at least one occasion per column or about 85 times per issue. Fowler’s Modern English Usage clearly states the distinction between the two relative pronouns: ‘that’ for a defining clause, ‘which’ for a non-defining clause. Fowler comments that ‘it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.’ Does the LRB really see itself in such light? For the sake of all of us in the front carriage of the 7.15 a.m. to Tottenham Court Road, I hope not.

Richard Horton
London NW3


Omissions

The Economic Limits to Modern Politics by John Dunn, reviewed by Ian Gilmour (LRB, 25 October), is published by Cambridge University Press. Making sex by Thomas Laqueur, reviewed by Michael Mason in the following issue, was published by Harvard on 22 November at £19.95.

Editors, ‘London Review’