David Bromwich’s piece on Paul de Man (LRB, 7 October) was the best ever written on the subject, but Bromwich omitted one of the crucial factors in the rise of de Man’s reputation. Much of the academic worship of de Man resulted from the fact that he was, in the most precise sense of the word, a mind-fucker.
I knew many of his victims among the female graduate students at Yale. De Man seduced their psyches with a tenacity more rapacious than any his less imaginative colleagues used in trying to possess their bodies. When he told the women in his seminar they would not make the ‘bourgeois errors’ about literature that were made in every other seminar, he thrilled them with the promise of escape from their conventional families. When they felt terrified by their ignorance of psychology, history and ethics, he flattered them with proofs that all those terms were hollow and that their ignorance was the source of their greatest intellectual strength. He flattered their sense of uniqueness by publicly discouraging his most obviously foolish acolytes, and, unlike vulgar physical seducers, he apparently asked for absolutely nothing in return for the vertiginous thrills he provided. What some of his victims still don’t understand is that what they gave was precisely the exoneration that he needed most desperately, because every mind that he seduced to his own emptiness was a mind that had thrown away the instruments by which he might be judged.
Hanging at the Academy
Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides certainly do love German Expressionism, as David Sylvester pointed out (LRB, 21 October). R. & J.’s exhibition of and catalogue for ‘German Art of the 20th Century’, sponsored by Lufthansa and Volkswagen, left out vast tracts of German art – including much Thirties work by Heartfield, Grosz, Hannah Hoch and others. Neither did they include any work by any post-1945 East German artists. The recent show of ‘American Art in the 20th Century’, sponsored by American Airlines, had very little Thirties US social realist art. Not that we should be surprised by any of this. All exhibitions have a ‘performative’ aspect as well as one which is ‘constative’: exhibitions make history as well as reflect existing interpretations. Get real! Let’s have some intelligent analysis of why R. & J. are addicted to the ‘slap-it-on thick’ school of Modernist metaphysicians (on either side of the Atlantic).
Leeds Metropolitan University
Johnson’s South Africa
In everyday conversation R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 July) is a considerably more humane and complex person than he is when he becomes the victim of the bright and punchy prose style which he seems to think appropriate for his kind of intellectual journalism. Colin Legum (Letters, 23 September) compares him to ‘the ubiquitous pub character who has no good word to say for anybody or anything’: but surely what is most disturbing about his articles is not their gloom but a certain air of scarcely suppressed farce. Johnson – who was born in South Africa and knows the place quite well, but is above all the travelling Oxford don – is struck again and again by how silly almost everyone seems to be: political leaders are corrupt or incompetent, parties make the most elementary and predictable errors, everything is drifting into chaos in a fundamentally absurd way. If only someone on the political scene in South Africa had a bit of the wisdom of …
South Africa is indeed beset by grave and complicated problems, but there are many hopeful signs along with the many worrying ones, and in any case a great, varied and wounded society attempting with difficulty to transform itself is to be seen in its agony and uncertainty as tragic rather than as a subject for a commentator’s confident ebullience. The worst thing about Johnson’s cheerful gloom, however, is that it perpetuates one of the central myths of the colonial narrative: people at the centre are, to use E.M. Forster’s terms, rounded characters; people at the periphery are flat – stereotypes or, in Johnson’s vision (or at least his vision as a journalist), caricatures.
University of Natal
Odious but unavoidable
Wendy Doniger’s Diary (LRB, 23 September) argued her thesis most persuasively, but like so many other Eurocentric (forgive the odious but unavoidable term) perspectives, it translates poorly into the New World. The horse as a symbol of sex, politics and religion can be forced to fit the American West, past and present, only by the most ruthless procrustean surgery. In locations where the horse was neither a toy nor the plaything of mythologists but, instead, a guarantor of survival, anyone who sexually or otherwise mutilated a living horse could very easily find himself deballed or, at the least, strung up.
In Ms Doniger’s examples the American Indian is a deal more likely replacement for the horse, anyway on this side of the Mississippi River. And treated as more repellent by far than witches were those white men and women who succumbed to the sexual prowess (presumed) of Indians of either gender.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
May I come in late over Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of Weeping’ (Letters, 9 September)? The line currently in contention between Frank Kermode and Barbara Everett is: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore.’ The word in contention is ‘falst’, modernised to ‘falls’ in Helen Gardner’s edition, and accepted by Kermode. The late William Empson famously did not accept it, and that is where the story begins.
As I read and (thanks to Everett) hear the line, ‘falst’ puns on ‘false’/‘falls’ in a familiar indictment of female unchastity and untrust-worthiness. Everett also performs another familiar turn against Kermode’s reading, when she asserts the mutual trust and consequent mutual blame for betrayal of trust as between heterosexual lovers. This I believe is not Donne, but does well by liberal humanism in the British literary tradition.
The second clause of the same line reinforces the false/falls paronomasia. I read ‘which it bore’ within an ironic French-accented syntax, which carries the theme of cross-Channel travel and translation in the poem (and the period of its composition). To paraphrase the whole line: ‘When a tear falls, which you who bore it falsified’. The shift of the relative pronoun to the (French) position of antecedence to the verb is still the trap into which student translators of French into English are most likely to fall, by transposing grammatical subject and object of the principal verb. English grammar would allow Donne, had he wished (but he did not in my opinion), to have distinguished ‘whom it bore’ (Gardner-Kermode reading) from ‘who bore it’ (my reading).
Since in his text Donne has the neutral ‘which’, I cannot choose between ‘whom’ and ‘who’, and must attempt to persuade my readers in turn that ‘falst’ and ‘bore’ are two active verbs with a single feminine grammatical subject ‘thou’ who is elsewhere the ‘thee’ of Donne’s speaker’s address. Now we need both the concluding lines of Donne: ‘When a teare falls, that thou falst which it bore,/So thou and I are nothing then, when on a divers shore.’
A woman bears a child as she coins a word as she stamps a coin with a royal image as she translates a word from one side of the (whose?) Channel. And each and every one of these acts is illegitimised, counterfeit and unchaste, outside the control of the man who speaks and chides her with the ‘nothing’ (the ‘nought’ which he suspects she ‘goes to’) whenever he is absent from her side. He has reason to suspect for he judges her by himself, and this is what he goes to in spite of his (or are they only her?) tears.
University of Sydney
Toward the beginning of Jerry Fodor’s penetrating review of Christopher Peacocke’s new book (LRB, 7 October), he attributes to me the term ‘the linguistic turn’. I used that term as the title of an anthology I published in 1967, but it was coined by the late Gustav Bergmann – an original and important, though now unfortunately neglected, philosopher. Fodor’s mistake is often made, and is of course of little importance. Still, I should like to express regret that I took for granted that my readers would recognise the term as Bergmann’s, and that I referred to him as its coiner only in an inconspicuous footnote.
University of Virginia
Exporting the Royals
Robert Tombs’s review of Jasper Ridley’s Maximilian and Juarez (LRB, 7 October) may well be sound in its account of France’s role, but shows a thorough lack of knowledge of Mexican history. He is simply wrong to state that ‘small property-owners did not exist in Mexico,’ as numerous studies over the last two decades have shown. Similarly, for a good twenty years no serious scholar of rural Mexico has accepted that ‘an estate-owning aristocracy, the hacendados … ruled over an indebted peasantry that were little more than slaves.’ The Liberal Government, we are told, was supported by ‘disaffected warlords’. To quote just one example, Juan Alvarez, one of the great Liberal caudillos, was a Liberal from the start: when did he become disaffected, and from whom or what? The Conservatives were apparently supported by the hacendados, but then how do we explain that the majority of prominent Liberals were ‘estate-owning aristocracy’?
Ian Hamilton’s review (LRB, 7 October) of Up at Oxford quotes Ved Mehta as claiming that an Oxford don in the late Fifties said to him, ‘By the way, Mehta, which way was I going?’ and when told added: ‘Then I’ve had my lunch.’ This same story was told in my undergraduate days (late Forties) of a dean of arts and science at McGill University, named Gilson. It is possible that it may have been an old absent-minded professor joke even then?
It is gratifying to find that David Cannadine, who thinks so little of the British royal family, has written at such length about my biography of the Duke of Connaught, Witness of a Century (LRB, 23 September). I am sorry, however, that the book has caused Cannadine to suffer such a nasty bout of prejudice and I hope that my soothing words will now help him to get over it before he loses his balance and topples off the historians’ rostrum.
Cannadine believes that because his contempt for the royal family is equally directed at them all, they are therefore all equal in the extent to which they are nonentities. (Even so did Senator McCarthy declare all academics to be Communists.) Who today, he asks, knows anything about ‘such defunct dynasts as the Duke of Cambridge, the Marquess of Carisbrook or the Earl of Athlone’? Obviously Cannadine doesn’t, but if he had even a smattering of the history of the British Army (surely not a wholly negligible subject) he would know a good deal about the Duke of Cambridge, defunct and dynast notwithstanding. Cannadine’s tunnel vision becomes even more acute in his perceptions of the history of the Second World War and its aftermath; here he equates Mountbatten’s uniquely demanding task as last Viceroy of India with the Duke of Windsor’s responsibilities in the Bahamas, the Duke of Gloucester’s in Australia and the Earl of Athlone’s in Canada! So I am not much distressed by his dismissive attitude to the Duke of Connaught.
All the same, if I understand correctly what Cannadine means by inferring that the Duke of Connaught had a ‘two-dimensional personality and a one-dimensional mind’ I think I agree with him. Such endowments did not qualify the Duke of Connaught to become a professor at Cambridge University but they were helpful to him and the public service in the important and responsible duties which came his way.
Finally, I find it odd that Cannadine thinks I should have written the biography of a man who died in 1942 not only in the perspective, but even in the idiom, of 1992. That, of course, was a good year for Cannadine, but there was nothing special about it for me or, for that matter, the Duke of Connaught, beyond the fact that it was the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Should I really have described Gladys Deacon as ‘sexy’, the stink of battle as ‘grotty’ and the coronation of Nicholas II as ‘brill’? I prefer to write, as I was taught at Oxford to do, in the general style of the period with which I am dealing.
From the Soapbox
Perry Anderson (LRB, 21 October) surely gets to the nub of what Edward Thompson was all about when he notes of his ‘Peculiarities of the English’ that ‘what had astonished me were the corners he cut in representing the arguments he wanted to refute.’ It is interesting to note that thirty years after the split between himself and Thompson on the New Left Review, Anderson still does not seem to understand that while a finely honed academic argument might be acceptable for the lecture hall it will need to be much sharper if it is to inform working-class politics.
Down with incest
Once again one of your reviewers has made a woefully inept passing remark about the sexual abuse of children, this time Marina Warner, in a piece temptingly entitled ‘The Virtue of Incest’ (LRB, 7 October): ‘incest has become one of the dominant focuses of moral panic, flourishing virulently in fantasy as well as occurring, often tragically, in practice.’ Always tragically, I would assure her, but I suppose by saying that I become a fantasist who has lost his moral cool.
University of Delaware