It beggars belief that your reviewer should prefer Saussure’s model of semantics – now 76 years old – to the powerful and delicate models of modern linguists and logicians. If John Ellis (LRB, 14 May) were an aeronautical engineer he would prefer airships. Light dawns when we see what he thinks Saussure’s model was. ‘In Saussure’s theory,’ he writes, ‘signs contrast because their uses contrast, and a contrast in use is established only by observable differences in the situations where their use is appropriate.’ This is a sensible sounding theory, but there is not a sentence of textual support for it in the Cours de Linguistique Générale, and I think Ellis must have got if from some secondary source. It is not even consistent with Saussure’s overriding principle of keeping the linguistics of language separate from the linguistics of speaking.
This is a relatively benign example of the way in which literary critics and literary philosophers have responded to the weaknesses in Saussure by re-inventing him. By modern standards Saussure’s accounts of both syntax and semantics are inadequate. His claim that language ‘is a system of differences without positive terms’ leaves him no logical scope for anything but a semantics of pure differences (presented chiefly in the chapter on linguistic value). It won’t work, and in The Poverty of Structuralism I offered a reductio ad absurdum argument against it. Otherwise, his theory of meaning is merely a gesture in the direction of some unformulated semantic problems. But its very blankness has been an invitation to psychoanalysts, literary critics and philosophers from Lacan onwards to project onto him their own consciousness of the complexities of what is to be explained, and confuse that with a theory.
When they look at generative grammar they see a precise theory and can see how little it explains. Unlike linguists, they don’t think that is a signal to extend the theory and explain more, step by step. They think it shows that formal semantic theories are philosophically inadequate; and they turn to Saussure instead, and inscribe upon him travesties far more amazing than Ellis’s. An example of an early travesty of Saussure – a wild philosophical misreading – is Derrida’s claim that Saussure elevates the spoken language over the written form because of a metaphysical prejudice (phonocentrism). The claims of some of the literary critics I called linguistic idealists are wilder still. The imaginary Saussure they have constructed is an idealist philosophers and not a linguist.
Ellis’s principles would, I think, lead us to reject as ‘positivist’ not just formal semantics but the whole tradition of formally modelling the mind in fields like artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology; and that is hard to justify on the basis of literary criticism. Ellis is absolutely right to think that the complex significances that a literary critic can pick up are far beyond anything that can be modelled by any present or presently conceivable method of semantic modelling. You don’t need to go to a fine critic like Kermode. Any hack reviewer is doing things that not even the greatest linguist can explain. But that is no justification for reviving dead linguistics.
What she sang
Anyone reading Hilary Mantel’s piece on Christopher Andersen’s Madonna biography (LRB, 23 April) might be forgiven for wondering what Madonna did and how she came to deserve the book and the review. They might deduce that she was a star whose fame was derived exclusively from a combination of sleaze and ambition. Only a very close reading might uncover the fact that she sang, but it would not reveal what she sang or how it sounded. And yet surely no account of her fame can escape her music. Image, attitude and marketing are clearly part of ‘Madonna’, but to ignore the records seems perverse, if not unusual.
Hilary Mantel writes about Madonna with the kind of sneer that is reserved, it seems, only for pop performers. Articles in the LRB on rock artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have, by contrast, bordered on the reverential, while pieces on classical performers (Nicholas Spice on Gould and Brendel) are helpful and analytical. It is not obvious that such differences of treatment can be justified. It certainly is not true that pop defies enlightening analysis. The musicologist Susan McClary has, for instance, done for Madonna, in Feminine Endings, what Mantel fails to do: explain her music.
In his initial letter in this correspondence, Donald Davie triumphantly concluded that the reason I did not respond to Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘damning observations on the whole enterprise’ was that I had no answer. Leaving aside the fact that Milosz has not actually commented on the enterprise in question – that is, on my anthology and, I suppose, my literary activities – I should merely like to say that I did not take up this particular part of Davie’s piece because there was not the room to deal with it adequately in a letter. (I might mention that there were poems by Milosz in the very first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, which Ted Hughes and I founded in 1965, well before Milosz’s was a household name in English literary circles.) I felt it was more important to defend myself against Davie’s libellous charge of ‘careerism’, and that is what I attempted to do, while also pointing out that I was, in fact, devoted to the English poetic tradition which Davie claimed I was incapable of appreciating. In fact, oddly enough, as I read Davie’s letter I was just finishing a 7000-word essay which addresses an aspect of Milosz’s poetic ocuvre touched upon in my short biographical introduction to the selection of his work in the anthology. This essay was written for PN Review, and will, I hope, appear in that journal in due course.
Davie talks about my ‘squeamishness’ about the terms ‘master’ and ‘mastery’. He adds that I am ‘insubordinate on principle, a Leveller’. This is because in my letter, in parenthesis, I said that ‘master’ was Davie’s term and is not one I would use. I would not, because I prefer to describe, in terms other than those of bondage, my relationship with literary works I admire. I may add that this does not make me a deconstructivist. As to insubordination, I am not in the Army and Davie is not my commanding officer.
The only other comment I should like to make, before ending my contribution to this singularly unenlightening correspondence, is as follows. Davie, in his most recent letter to you, picks two poems, both by the Hungarian poet, the late Janos Pilinszky, as examples of the inferior quality of the translations included by me in the anthology. Note, in his original review he admits he is not prepared to ‘venture judgments of Vasko Popa or Miroslav Holub on the basis of poems selected by, and translations commissioned by, a person so deeply self-deceiving as Weissbort reveals himself to be’. I take it that this means he did not read the actual poems, from which he is now selecting two for the purpose of disparagement.
Be that as it may, I selected the short poem, an example of late work by Pilinszky, translated by Peter Jay, who besides being my publisher (as Davie points out) is also one of the foremost British poetry translators, because I liked it. As regards the versions of Pilinszky by Ted Hughes and Janos Csokits, which Davie declares to be ‘versified … shapelessly and prosaically’, in support of which accusation he quotes a 1977 review by Clive Wilmer, I can only say that Hughes worked for many years with Janos Csokits, himself a leading Hungarian poet of Pilinszky’s generation, and that he met several times with Pilinszky himself. Indeed, Pilinszky had in mind translating Hughes into Hungarian.
Davie may feel that this denotes a marriage of convenience between two poets intent on furthering their careers through mutual translation. I prefer to see it as evidence of the meeting of minds and of spirits which I know to have taken place. As regards formal translation of formal poetry, I could refer Davie and your readers to an article by a more distinguished (dare I say it) authority even than Mr Wilmer, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, who in a magisterial (I am sorry to use the term) fashion disposes of Joseph Brodsky’s argument with regard to the mandatory formal translation of verse: that is, mimetic translation in which the reproduction of the original metre and rhyme pattern is taken to be a sine qua non of responsible translation. This simplistic, normative approach may be reassuring to its practitioners but it hardly begins to address the complex issues of poetry translation. Davie, as a verse translator himself, must know this.
It is, I think, significant that in his letter he quotes Wilmer rather than talking in his own voice. His animus against Ted Hughes is, in any case, quite evident. If I regard all this as a further example of his disingenuousness, it is as nothing when set beside the insults that he continues to level at me.
Mr Matthew Leigh (Letters, 14 May) attributes to me a collection of opinions I don’t recognise myself as holding. I don’t believe in ‘rules’, or share the views he ascribes to Aristotle and Schiller. I don’t object to authorial intrusions, even in modern imitations of non-intruding authors. I disliked Logue’s sleeve pulling, which I described as sticky with self-regard, as distinct from Byron’s, in the comparable example I quoted; and also from those brief Homeric intrusions Mr Leigh rather desperately comes up with, showing that he hasn’t the slightest idea of what I was on about. I suppose I should also spell out that I don’t object to ‘lyricism’, though I found Logue’s vacuous. Mr Leigh doesn’t, and he sounds to me like one of the Classicists I spoke of as being poor judges of English verse. I know many Classicist who aren’t.
Do I gather that Mr Leigh thinks Kings is a version of (the Patrocleia?
Bless me, father
Christopher Ricks in his review of But I digress (LRB, 14 May) praises John Lennard’s reading of Eliot’s parenthetic ‘(Bless me father)’ in ‘Ash Wednesday’ as the embodiment of the cry to his heavenly father in the final line: ‘And let my cry come unto thee.’ It is possible, but a more immediate reference is the opening request in the sacrament of penance: ‘Bless me father, for I have sinned.’ Eliot will have used these words in March 1928 during the writing of his penitential sequence when he made his first confession in the Anglican Church. The father was called Underhill.
Sunderland, Tyne and Wear
I would like to draw your attention to two errors in the review by Peter Campbell of my book Building Capitalism (LRB, 9 April): 1. slum conditions in Somers Town were decried by Charles Booth, the pioneering social scientist, not by General Booth of Salvation Army fame; 2. Somers Town was intended to emulate the Bedford Estate to the south, not the Grosvenor Estate. It was also the Bedford Estate, not the Grosvenor Estate, which built on land between Somers Town and Camden Town and erected walls and gates preventing any access from Somers Town.
Peter Campbell is sorry about the confusions and can’t think what came over him.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Reports from Albania
Reports from Albania tend to be sneering and/or adorned with grainy photographs of poverty. The Albanian people, who have had a lot to put up with, are now facing new kinds of exploitation. At least Matt Frei (LRB, 14 May) noticed the spectacular and unspoilt coastline’ (long may it remain so!). Maybe next time he’ll visit (for instance) Tirana University, with its well-equipped new British Resource Centre; and if he can take time off from his poetic descriptions of burnt-out steel mills, chat to (for instance) the teachers of English and French in Tirana and Shkodra. If he does, he may find himself reflecting on the courage and tenacity of people who have invested their lives and their reputations in studies which were regarded with suspicion (at very least) by the Communists, and who were not allowed the luxury of meeting enlightened journalists and photographers from overseas.
University of East Anglia
Counting their rosaries (LRB, 14 May) is in deed a nice image: but it seems more likely that they were telling their beads.
Wolf son College, Oxford