Please allow me to emit a barbaric yawp. Some of Donald Davie’s review of my Devolving English Literature (LRB, 9 July) is devoted to poets whom I do not discuss in the book, including Charles Tomlinson, Basil Bunting and Donald Davie. Since, sometimes, exclusions can be significant, I would like to yawp at Davie’s ignoring of the entire historical argument of Devolving English Literature, 90 per cent of which deals with Scottish, American, Irish and other writing of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The argument which Davie ignores starts with a consideration of the 18th-century Scottish origins of what became the university subject of ‘English Literature’, a subject whose Scottish professors, including Adam Smith and Hugh Blair, were preoccupied with purity of diction and correctness of language. Considering the impact which such emphases had in Scotland, in America, and in the wider English-speaking world, Devolving English Literature attends to how the richly impure, eclectic, heteroglot work of Burns, Scott, Carlyle, Whitman and other writers helped fuel the impure linguistic riches of such Modernist works as Ulysses, the Cantos, The Waste Land and the poetry of MacDiarmid. The book concludes by arguing that such writings by essentially ‘provincial’ writers of the last three centuries have left a legacy useful to contemporary sophisticated ‘barbarian’ poets, including Dunn, Heaney, Leonard, Murray, Paulin, Walcott. A thumbnail sketch like this is insufficient, but I wish Davie had been fair enough to attempt one. The above outline may hint at why my book might not delight the reviewer who is still remembered as the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse.
For if some of Davie’s writings have helped open up the English literary mind, offering it American and Slavic excursions, other aspects of his work have been caught in just the sort of Anglocentric and narrow attitudes which Devolving English Literature seeks to question. Though written years before I was born, Purity of Diction was a book that made a lasting impact. Notably cool towards ‘impurities of diction’, it ‘was, as it still is, a manifesto’, wrote Davie in 1966. His whole influential emphasis on ‘diction’ rather than language was itself a purifying gesture, oppressively akin to the emphases of Adam Smith, Hugh Blair and other 18th-century Scots. Davie’s 1966 postscript made another purifying gesture when it made clear that he wished to conduct his argument ‘leaving aside the troublesome actualities or probabilities of Anglo-Welsh, Anglo-Scottish, New Zealand literature, Trinidadian and so on’. Such an exclusive, purifying brush-off may stand for the Anglocentric attitudes which my book contests, and which Davie in his review denies exist. Those ‘troublesome actualities’ which Davie excludes are potently present in much writing from Smollett to Whitman, and from Burns to Tony Harrison.
I hope that Devolving English Literature may serve also as a manifesto, one which champions impurity and pluralism, concentrating on certain heteroglot and multicultural writings of Scotland and America as emblematic of these qualities, though having no monopoly on them. Davie wishes to smear me as a ‘nationalist’ who knows only ‘resentment’. I hope that other readers may be more generous, and may consider how smoothly the wish to articulate cultural difference may be dismissed by the powerful as ‘having a chip on the shoulder’. I hope also that the book may find readers in England who recognise that I have as little time for Anglophobia as I have for Anglocentric prejudice.
University of St Andrews
It was very pleasing to see the work of the poet W.S. Graham praised by Donald Davie in his review (LRB, 9 July) of the Faber Book of 20th-century Scottish Poetry, edited by Douglas Dunn. While Dunn and Davie speak up for Graham’s poetry, please may I speak up for Graham’s character? Davie describes him as ‘a drunk; and not a convivial drunk, but sour and contumacious … not an attractive character’. I met Graham briefly at an Arvon Foundation course in 1979. Yes, I know he was on show, and yes, I suppose he was drunk, but he was friendly, approachable, kindly and charming. His most contumacious statement was: ‘Nobody’s going to push me off to bed early tonight!’ He emanated a quality to be found in poems like ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’, ‘To My Wife at Midnight’, and ‘Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch’ – tenderness. I wrote to him afterwards and he replied with a letter-poem in which he describes the reading he gave as ‘Putting out the best of my poems/Not for them but to help/Myself speaking’. And perhaps the following lines answer the quoted comment about Graham’s ‘quirk of having been not-quite-obviously-Scottish-enough’:
A scarlet stream
A thread of blood is showing
From the Scotch corner
Of my fierce mouth.
Not an attractive character? I thought he was charismatic! May I also take this opportunity to ask why Faber have never published his Complete Poems, and have left it to two very small presses, Ecco and Greville, to publish poems written after 1977?
Since my name was invoked in delirium in a piece called ‘Yaaaggghhhh’ (LRB, 25 June), please allow me to clear my name and clear the air. I was quite surprised that London Review should grant A. Craig Copetas enough column inches to exhaust his readers and his entire vocabulary, and to cobble together what, in effect, amounted to a second review of Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs in the same issue. Mr Copetas was far too modest when he disclaimed his own fictive aspirations, for there was certainly a good deal of fiction in ‘Yaaaggghhhh’. Despite this apparent modesty, however, there was a sufficient undercurrent of self-congratulation in the piece to show that his red-blooded, straight-shooting, Mid-Western candour has not been undermined by the English cultural malaise which he so boldly takes to task.
Ian McEwan must powerfully regret that he doesn’t have the kind of objective correlatives which would have made Black Dogs more congenial to good ol’ boys like Craig: firearms, narcotics and dog-eared first drafts from the trash-cans of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. ‘I’m sitting,’ notes Mr Copetas, blushing furiously and wringing his baseball cap in his hand, ‘in a seedy hotel room in Uzbekistan writing about Black Dogs, instead of filing a report on the gunfire outside my window. Which is getting closer, by the way.’ Black dogs be damned! Copetas had the dogs of war snapping right at his heels. Meanwhile Ian McEwan – his radical, now-generation credentials sorely discredited – is sitting in Oxford without so much as a single bullet to jolt the creative synapses.
What are Craig Copetas’s recommendations for the real ‘McEwan novel’ which he accuses the author of not having written yet? Go to the ‘Front’, he says, which for some reason he seems to think is a hotel with inadequate room service. Ride a Harley Davidson. Write about businessmen ‘who suck their brains out through cocaine pipes or get side-blinded [sic] by Aids’. Think more earnestly about abortion clinics. Get real, get stoned, get shot of all your mincing inhibitions. Take note, English writers everywhere. Throw your cardigans away and walk and fly. Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Fay Weldon and Wendy Cope must be smacking their heads and wondering how they could have ignored such a grand prescription. Who will take up the gauntlet? Who will publish and be damned? Who will write The Hound of Uzbekistan?
If John Ellis is right, (Letters, 9 July), Saussure grossly misunderstood his own theory. What Saussure wrote was: ‘Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.’ It is against this conception (which I call difference-semantics) that I directed my reductio ad absurdum argument.
Ellis can’t believe that Saussure meant what he said, so he brings in unSaussurean concepts. His version runs: ‘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.’ It will be seen that he has replaced Saussure’s language-system theory by a language-use theory. I said there was not a sentence of textual support for this in Saussure. Ellis has now presumably reread the Cours, and found, as I told him, nothing about use or situational appropriateness. So he quotes two sentences which refer to something else: meaning and function in the linguistic chain, and the unity of signifier and signified in the sign – all language-system matters concerning the relation of sound-images and concepts. Saussure is actually making the point that we perceive signifying chains like si je la prends and si je l’apprends as divided differently because of differences in the way the signifiers function in the chain.
One argument of The Poverty of Structuralism was that literary critics and philosophers, untrained in linguistics and hostile to it, had systematically misread Saussure. Saussure meant literally the sentence I quote from him, and many others like it; he neither meant nor said anything like Ellis’s sentence. So I can’t help feeling that Ellis has now advanced from the status of critic of my thesis to that of published evidence for it: he is doing just what I say people like him do. Ellis has of course made clear his own hostility to the main developments in linguistics since 1957; it doesn’t matter if you are a follower of Chomsky or an opponent – if you are even influenced by him you are damned. That will cover almost every living scientific linguist and certainly covers me.
But it goes deeper than that. The same logic that identifies Chomsky with his critic Turner identifies Derrida with his critic Ellis. There are at least two traditions in the study of language: empirical grammatical investigation and inventing philosophical fables like ‘language-games’ or ‘phonocentrism’. Panini, Priscian, Saussure, Jakobson, Chomsky, Lakoff, Turner and even I have had a certain commitment to the former. Plato, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida et al do the latter. Ellis, like other literary critics, is the captive of philosophical fables about Saussure. That is why he cannot believe that Saussure meant to assert as literal truth the proposition: la langue ne comporte ni des idées ni des sons qui préexisteraient au système linguistique; why he confidently invents a different Saussure; and why he accuses me of misunderstanding Saussure when I adopt the literal sense of Saussure’s exact words.
I thoroughly enjoyed Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, reviewed by John Bayley in the issue of 23 July. I have often been compared to Byron in reviews – probably more because critics wish to call me ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ than for any real resemblance in my work. I would have to admit that I share certain temperamental characteristics with him, though – chiefly my feeling of alienation from the sexual mores of England and my love of swimming. Recently, I made a Byronic offer to BBC2’s Bookmark programme. I would swim the Hellespont if they filmed me, I said. Its producers have remained in shock and been unable to answer for the last two months. If any other film or TV company is interested in the idea, I’m still game for it – even though I now know from Charles Sprawson’s book that I may have to tread water in the middle waiting for a Russian tanker to pass.
Grains and Pinches
Victor Kiernan’s review (LRB, 9 July) of S.A.M. Adshead’s new book on the history of salt misses out, as does the book itself in large measure, the relationship of salt to Victorian political radicalism. Salt was a subject of considerable interest to some followers of the Utopian socialist Robert Owen. A group of Owenites who set up a community at Ham near Richmond in the 1840s banned salt from the table, not just for themselves but for visitors as well. In their opinion, the use of salt inflamed the senses, preventing rational socialist thought.
While we may be tempted to take this with a large pinch of the condescension of posterity, it is perhaps worth reflecting that the idea that there is a connection between eating habits and political correctness, in the general shape of vegetarianism, is still common.