Unfaithful to Wagner
Had he confined himself to correcting an uninteresting typing error in my review of several books on Wagner, Michael Tanner would have done something marginally useful (Letters, 25 February). Instead he goes on to produce a bully-boy letter which is about the silliest and most bad-tempered piece of pedantic turf-guarding by an aggrieved and mean-spirited so-called professional expert that I’ve read in a long time. Mostly he just blathers on about how I shouldn’t be allowed to write about Wagner, no doubt thereby telling us he’s the one who ought to have done it. Enraged by these unedifying thoughts, he totally misses the point of what I did say: that given Wagner’s vast output and its even vaster criticism, trying to decide what is ‘essential’ about him is a difficult, if not impossible goal to realise. Hence my remarks about the need for imagination and taste (infidelity) in thinking about and producing Wagner. The water fixation that I mentioned, Tanner brushes aside rather recklessly; yet the merest acquaintance with the operas – 14, if one includes Die Hochzeit, not 13 as he alleges – shows a considerable attention to water. I didn’t say ‘all’, I said ‘most’ of the operas: besides, when the irascible Tanner says, again recklessly, that he can’t recall any water in Walküre, he typically passes over the opening moment of the opera, Siegmund’s ‘Ein Quell! Ein Quell!’, after which Sieglinde offers him not bread, not wine, not love, but, yes, water: ‘Labung biet ich dem lechzenden Gaumen: Wasser wie du gewollt!’ Walküre opens with a thunderstorm and ends with a magic fire, precisely the pattern that not I, but the ingenious Matthais Theodor Vogt, discerns in Wagner’s work. Yes, and Siegfried has water too, as when Siegfried in Act I looks in the stream (‘zum Klaren Bach’) to discover that he isn’t related to Mime, and in Act III Brünnhilde makes much of that very same stream. As for Tristan, the foolishly mocking Tanner may wish to consult Susan Sontag’s superb essay on the opera. ‘Wagner’s Fluids’, published some years ago in this very paper.
Since he can’t get any of the small points right, Tanner botches the slightly bigger ones a lot more. I said that Wieland Wagner started a trend in Bayreuth away from late 19th-century naturalism; this was followed (as in ‘coming after’, not ‘copied’) by many other directors, using many different methods, but all in directions away from 19th-century naturalism. Tanner can’t deal with this at all (one supposes him still to be counting the operas and checking for references to water, stymied by the question of how many references make up an obsession) and he is just as incapable of figuring out what to do with Nattiez, Mallarmé, Proust and Mann, whom he can’t quite seem to place. To Mallarmé and Proust, Wagner was avant-garde.
But his main complaint seems to be my ‘telos’ (note the fancy word), which was my account of Paul Lawrence Rose’s book. In the first place he is quite wrong to argue that it has been ‘sufficiently dealt with elsewhere’. What an odd thing to say, since I was reviewing the book in the LRB and not ‘elsewhere’. Imagine what would happen to authors if a review ‘elsewhere’ were thereafter to disqualify the book for comment ‘here’. Here is where I was discussing Rose, not elsewhere and this, our by-now hopelessly confused Wagner tyro cannot rationally accept. Actually I thought that bad as he was. Rose was worth discussing since he brings up the question of Wagner’s politics, something about which Tanner literally ventures nothing. If a book suggests that Wagner is totally anti-semitic, should not be thought of as writing anything but anti-Semitic hateful music, and therefore should not be performed in Israel, surely a reviewer is entitled actually to report the argument and then go on to connect the argument with similar practices, those identical political practices of denial and exclusion, that exist in Israel? Ever so anxious to guard against infringements of his little piece of territory, Tanner continues to bluster, arrogating entirely to himself the right to decide what is or is not appropriate to reviews of books on Wagner. Never mind that Wagner speaks about these political, metaphysical, aesthetic matters at enormous length; never mind that many (but not enough) critics have talked about them too. What Tanner wants is only his laundered (note the water fixation) and specialised Wagner, with canons and orthodoxies imposed by critics like Tanner. Who appointed him anyway?
The fact is that Tanner is precisely the regressive and literal-minded purist decreed by Cosima to be a guardian at the Wagner shrine, a mentality which my whole review was directed against. Banish everything except what was declared orthodox at Bayreuth, implies Tanner. This puts him in the general fundamentalist category occupied by Paul Lawrence Rose, except that Rose, while wrong-headed about the music, is able to lake seriously the proposition that Wagner is a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon, with much to say to contemporary audiences. No, says Tanner, we want just the things we’re told to want by the official Wagner dogma, and damned be the rest.
With reference to Alexander Rose’s letter, only two points need to be made. One, everything I ascribed to Rose is in his book and was given in my review as a direct quotation. Two, the jacket of the copy I was sent for review identifies Paul Lawrence Rose as Hecht Professor of History at the University of Haifa in Israel. I cannot be responsible for the way Rose chose to identify himself in Wagner: Race and Revolution. Appendix B, called ‘Wagner in Israel’, is identified as being written for a Jewish and Israeli audience.
Columbia University, New York
It’s not every day that the author of a reasonably scholarly book on Wagner can find himself described in the LRB (LRB, 11 February) as a ‘Khomeini of the arts’ who endorses the Islamic ban on The Satanic Verses. Edward Said seems to be so unhinged by an appendix in my book, Wagner: Race and Revolution, which supports the banning of public performances of Wagner in Israel that he jumps in his usual illogical way to the assumption that I would favour a universal ban on Wagner. Such a ban would be not only unenforceable, but ridiculous. I took pains at a meeting of the New York Wagner Society on 25 February to emphasise that I was in favour of performing Wagner outside Israel and that I did not subscribe to the opinion that anyone who liked listening to Wagner was a covert anti-semite. Nor did I claim there – or in my book – that there is only ‘one’ message in Wagner, as Professor Said alleges, but rather that an awareness of the hidden anti-semitic agenda in the operas is essential to a full understanding of their creative meaning and power.
Such a ludicrous invocation of Khomeini may inspire objective readers to wonder about the soundness of Professor Said’s often expressed opinions on Orientalism and the Palestinian issue. In his review he bangs on quite irrelevantly about the evil Israeli victimisation of the innocent Palestinians. He seems to be under the illusion that Zionist references to the possible ‘transfer’ of the Arab population of Palestine are comparable to the expulsion of the Jews from Germany canvassed by Wagner in 1869, as well as by the mainstream of German anti-semites in the 19th century. I would have thought it blatantly obvious that there can be no comparison between the ‘transfer’ of a German-Jewish population which was devotedly loyal to the German state and Zionist consideration – often under conditions of war – of the transfer of an Arab population which was in large part the sworn enemy of the Jewish state. Moreover, transfers or exchanges of hostile or irredentist populations have been a valid solution of international conflicts in this century and have frequently been approved both by the League of Nations and by the United Nations.
Edward Said’s real aim, I think, is to convince Western opinion that the Arabs’ misfortunes are as grievous as those of the Jews in this century. He cannot bear to allow the Jews the singular suffering of their ‘transfer’ and ‘deportations’ during the Holocaust. Hence, the four hundred Arab Hamas deportees are transformed by Professor Said from terrorist enemies of Israel (and indeed of all Jews) into latterday unoffending ‘Jews’ deported by the ‘Judeo-Nazis’ of Israel. In this magical process, Professor Said conveniently forgets those inconvenient Arab proposals to ‘transfer’ Jews not only out of Arab lands and out of Israel, but also out of Europe. These proposals were made long before any Arabs left Palestine as refugees from Zionist settlement: it was Professor Said’s Palestinian brethren who launched the riots to drive out the Jews in 1920, and who carried out the massacres of Jews at Hebron and elsewhere in 1929. And it was the Mufti of Jerusalem who met with Himmler and Hitler to urge them on to the murder of European and Middle-Eastern Jewry alike. There is indeed continuity between Wagner’s idea of expulsion and the policy of ‘transfer’ in the Middle East, but the continuity is to be found in Palestinian Arab mentality rather than in Israeli policy.
Paul Lawrence Rose
Centre for Research in Anti-Semitism,
‘Inside Stalin’s Family’
The publication of The Long Shadow: Inside Stalin’s Family by Rosamond Richardson has hit me like a bolt fom the blue. The author, whom I used to know and with whom I was going to write a book about my mother’s side of the Stalin family, the Alliluevas, says that she had my full co-operation and in her introduction lays claim to my close friendship. In fact, neither friendship nor co-operation has existed since October 1991, when, in an exchange of letters between myself and Rosamond Richardson, on the one hand, and on the other between myself and Alan Samson, Ms Richardson’s editor at Little, Brown, it was agreed that I was no longer going to have anything to do with the author or her book. We have not met since and there has been no further correspondence.
The Long Shadow, however, makes extensive use of taped interviews I gave to Ms Richardson and also uses my family photographs (incorrectly dated, for some reason). She has made much use of taped interviews with my five cousins in Moscow. Even my own books – published and unpublished – are quoted and misquoted. Rosamond Richardson has not had my permission to do any of this. Neither she nor her agent or publisher has approached me to ask for my permission to make use of my work and belongings. She has taken everything from me and my Moscow cousins as if it were a gift.
Yet 75 per cent of the substantial material in her book originates from me and my cousins. The rest is drawn from well-known histories of Russia. (As an author of cookbooks, Ms Richardson does not seem to be especially well qualified to write about Russian history.) Did she imagine herself as some Andrew Morton, bringing to public view the private life of my father’s family? In England – I have been told – loyalty, friendship and privacy are highly valued. And my habit is to trust people – I am never suspicious at first. The actions of Ms Richardson, however, represent a complete breach of trust and the claim that we share a friendship is a lie. Moreover, to make one’s name by using other people’s lives, as Ms Richardson has tried to use mine, is a vulgarity of the worst sort. She says her book makes grand revelations and gives the impression of being an expert. My Moscow relatives will be greatly surprised to see themselves depicted as Ms Richardson has depicted them.
The thanks Ms Richardson expresses in her introduction cannot disguise the deceitful nature of her behaviour towards me, and her agent should find some better way of thanking me than just words. I am absolutely appalled that the daughter of respected Cambridge academics could do such cheap things: she does not have to struggle for her bread and butter.
Alasdair Gray’s dismissal of that well-known Victorian triple-headed verse-monster ‘Tennyson, Browning and Arnold’, as ‘hardly ever reflecting their nation’, is facile and dim, but I read it with resignation, just like the time before and the time before that; in Victorian poetry that’s just the way things go (LRB, 11 March). What’s harder to swallow is this: ‘Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Melville, Thomas Hardy’; and this: ‘Pope’s Dunciad, Johnson’s “London”, Blake’s Songs of Experience and Shelley’s “Peter Bell” ’; and this: ‘Burns, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Keats …’ No wonder Gray compares the company of his favourite writers to a club: this is the White’s of literary history. It’s especially rich of him to shout and wave his arms about rescuing James Thomson from drowning while standing on Christina Rossetti’s head.
University College London
I suggest that it is Tom Nairn who is absurdly and criminally complacent and not liberal intellectuals (LRB, 25 February). Perhaps he should take some time out from his armchair to visit Sarajevo, or Chinese Tibet where he might see a vibrant Han nationalism at work. If that is all too distant, perhaps a visit to one of our inner cities would convince him that homegrown nationalists are neither Morris dancers nor poets: they dress in black, wear large boots and shave their hair. They have atavistic habits such as the wearing of swastikas.
What was he on?
Once again I find it my misfortune to have my book on Anna Kavan reviewed by a self-styled expert on drugs (LRB, 25 February). ‘This freezing horror remains the central image of heroin,’ we are told. Not so, Ms Young, otherwise the vast addict population would be jumping into cold showers and rolling in the snow. I can only speak from personal experience of opium and intravenous morphine, but the latter is pretty close to heroin and it is nothing like a freezing horror at all. Comparisons are difficult, but relaxation in a warm bath while in a state of extended post-orgasmic release would seem to be closer to the truth. If heroin led only to icy horror, it would be difficult to explain why its usage has expanded in less than half a century from a largely upper-class vice to an industry bigger than Coca-Cola and McDonald’s rolled together. Of addiction and withdrawal I cannot speak, since I have never experienced either. However, to judge heroin on the basis of addiction and withdrawal is rather like judging alcoholism on the experience of delirium tremens. And to bring on an anonymous teenage addict to corroborate the ‘icy fucking grip’ of heroin is tantamount to hauling in a lager lout to illuminate the alcoholism of Malcolm Lowry. Kavan was an addict for over forty years.
The usual suspects are rounded up. Coleridge gets the treatment, as if there were not a vast corpus of work beside his minuscule drug-influenced output. De Quincey, of course, despite the fact that his experience of opium is unlike that described by any known writer since: even George Crabbe, whose few present-day readers will doubtless remember the wild hallucinatory images of The Library (1781) and The Newspaper (1785). Attempts to ‘explain’ Kavan through her heroin use run into the impenetrable fact that for many years while a heroin addict she wrote quite conventional novels under the name of Helen Ferguson. True, they were rather grim, but so were Thomas Hardy’s novels, and what was he on?
Kavan was a depressive (a condition almost certainly inherited from her father), who turned to heroin as a palliative in the way that many other writers have turned to drink. In different circumstances, she would probably herself have turned to drink, or made sure that one of her many half-hearted suicide attempts succeeded. Addiction to heroin informed her work, as I point out, but less so than her innate depression, her several breakdowns the mid-Thirties (which were probably staved off rather than caused by her addiction), the influence of Kafka, and of Freud in his elevation of the dream-life as ‘the royal road to the Unconscious’. Addiction comes in a poor fifth after these.
A final minor, but rankling point in Ms Young’s condescensions. ‘Callard does not appear to know that when Kavan fictionalised her second husband as Oblomov she was referring to Goncharov’s terminally lazy hero.’ As with her assumption that the end result of heroin addiction is icy nightmare, she is doing her talking-down from a position of ignorance. Yes, I did and do know who Oblomov was. I have read Goncharov. I can only assume that she thinks reading Goncharov such an arcane activity that an explanatory clause on the lines of, ‘“Oblomov”, named after Goncharov’s terminally lazy hero’, is needed to explain the reference to the hoi polloi.
Down with decision theory
John Allen Paulos (LRB, 11 March), explains how psychologists can devise situations which lead unsuspecting subjects to make supposedly irrational choices. This must be entertaining for lovers of practical jokes, but it is not clear what it reveals about human rationality. We are told that, when asked whether ‘r’ occurs more often as the first or the third letter of a word, people answer on the basis of the words readily available to memory. Does this show that people are irrational, or merely that they don’t think hard enough about the question? How hard should a rational being try, when answering such a pointless question? Research into irrationality requires a ‘gold standard’ of rational behaviour. Much of the work Paulos surveys adopts a mathematical theory of rational decision-making which indicates the correct choice when all options and their outcomes are known. However, such a theory cannot tell us how seriously to take a problem, whether to mistrust the evidence or to stop and look for other solutions.
The Imperial Cancer Research Fund is developing computer systems to assist in medical decision-making. We have found that the models used by mathematically-minded decision-theorists are of little use in complex situations where evidence is ambiguous and data may be missing. Much better results are obtained from models based on understanding what people actually do when confronted with a dilemma.
Imperial Cancer Research Fund,
Philippa Tristram (Letters, 25 February) says that Amnesty International had been reported in April 1989 as stating that the implementation of the death penalty in China for no less than forty offences was ‘horrible but acceptable’. Amnesty International has never made any such statement. In early 1989, Amnesty International published two documents about the death penalty in China, both condemning it across the board.
Amnesty International, London WC1
Concerning Proust’s rhapsody on asparagusscented urine (Letters, 11 March), it was the reviewer who was guilty of misquotation, not the author of A History of Food, who did not herself refer to Proust. At least the error produced from Dorothy Bell, to whom I am most grateful, the magnificent original passage from Du côté de chez Swann. Having misquoted a phrase from memory, I was intrigued to find that the true version confirmed yet again the close bond between food and books. Asparagus chemistry reminded Proust of Shakespeare’s dramatic essence – at once ‘poétique et grossière’.
Never airborne without your excellent journal, I am bound for Copenhagen on SK508 reading about Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten, who, I learn (LRB, 11 February), was fond of ‘mince, herrings, rice pudding, apple pie, treacle tart [and] spotted dog’. One of those charming revelations for which I continue to subscribe to your … hang on: ‘spotted dog’, spotted dog? My Danish fellow-passenger is openly displaying a massive Engelsk-Dansk Ordbok, which he graciously allows me to inspect. But no entry for my dappled dessert. Intrigued, my companion inspects the article himself and, with an awareness of cultural resonance astonishing in so reluctant a European, suggests that, given the subject-matter, ‘perhaps it is a euphemism’ – a cop-out, a way of avoiding the frightening disorder of a fully expressed nursery food. But whose? Yours, Mr Spice, the forthright publisher? Or Mr Carpenter’s, the fearless biographer? Or Benjy’s, that most private and problematic man?
Have I myself been horribly misled concerning the appellation of the huge, spongy, spotted (spicy!) pudding, dripping cream, with which I, guileless infant, stuffed my mouth? The moment I can lay my hands on the Carpenter biography, the OED and Mrs Beeton, I intend to penetrate this mystery, willy (to coin a phrase you are not above using, Mr Spice) nilly.
In the light of recent comments on my failure to read the humour in Blake (LRB, 28 January and Letters, 25 February), your readers may be amused to find out that I am presently working on an anthology of popular satire and parody 1792-1822.
Academia: it’s a larf, innit.
Australian National University, Canberra