Walk on by
Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on the beggar’s art (LRB, 18 November 1993) is also a wonderful treatise on the ways in which we must all learn to bear the sufferings of others. Recently I heard a pointful story from the great Herb Caen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. A lady vegetarian councillor in that most compassionate of cities was walking between lunch and work, and passed a derelict with hand outstretched. ‘I feel bad sometimes about not giving anything,’ she observed, ‘but I’m so afraid he’ll just go straight off and spend it all on meat.’
I was amused by Michael Dobson’s description of my book Appropriating Shakespeare (LRB, 18 November 1993) as written by someone ‘approaching retirement after reigning for nearly thirty years in the upper reaches of Shakespeare studies’. I haven’t reigned anywhere, merely tried to contribute to a critical and scholarly enterprise when I could, and I’m actually in my mid-fifties, with a three-year-old daughter and no thought of retiring. Dobson couldn’t know these biographical details, but it’s sadly typical of recent fashions in criticism that anyone who challenges them is dismissed as belonging to ‘an older generation’, however cogent his or her arguments may be.
In fact Dobson didn’t review my book – if to review means to give a faithful account of its contents and a reasoned evaluation of them. He merely produced a series of jibes: that I read through the annual bibliographies ‘solely for the pleasure of being righteously infuriated’; that my book is written for ‘resentful and unsuccessful critics determined to cultivate their grudges’; that I have produced a ‘jeremiad’ in ‘five hundred supercilious pages’; ‘a monumental exercise in fault-finding’; that my own critical position is ‘merely a position’, and other dismissive smears.
What Dobson doesn’t tell your readers is that I begin with a long account of the course of critical theory since the late Sixties, tracing the process by which some Parisian iconoclasts tried to destroy virtually all the concepts and categories used in literary criticism. This account, showing the intellectual bankruptcy of so-called post-structuralism, is not some arterio-sclerotic whimsy of mine, but draws on a vigorous contemporary critique by a highly respected group of thinkers well known to LRB readers, from Perry Anderson and the late E.P. Thompson to A.D. Nuttall, John Ellis, Peter Dews and Simon Clarke. Since the self-proclaimed avant-garde of Shakespeare criticism continues to cite the iconoclasts as if they had never been refuted, I wanted to expose its parochialism.
The rest of the book is directed at the various groups struggling for power, all of whom, I argue, distort Shakespeare according to their political agenda. I am not at all concerned with the ‘good old days’, as Dobson suggests, but write out of a total engagement with the contemporary, distressed by the gap between really intelligent and helpful work going on in some areas, and the sad quantity of uncritical and derivative criticism produced for Shakespeare. Dobson is part of the problem.
Although it is nowhere mentioned in her review of Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years, (LRB, 16 December 1993), Linda Colley is clearly a supporter of the Marxism Today theory of Thatcherism. She talks of the ‘success of a certain kind of right-wing populism’ for example. Success? Electoral success certainly. But this was only the first chapter of the Thatcher mission. The rest, with help from Professor Norman Stone and others, was about restoring a sense of British greatness. In this Mrs Thatcher, in her own terms, failed almost completely. She did not succeed in breaking the trade unions, in pushing down wage levels or in raising the level of profit. When she was deposed as PM Britain remained, as it was when she came to office, a country in crisis.
Finally, Colley makes no mention of the challenges from the enemy within, in Mrs Thatcher’s demonology often bearded men with unacceptably left-wing views like myself, which so undermined her rule. She did not expect the miners to take a year to beat in 1984-5 and she had no conception of the forces of popular protest which she unleashed by pushing ahead with the Poll Tax. That indeed is a conundrum which historians might ponder. How could this great populist manage to introduce one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation this century?
First-Class Fellow Traveller
In his piece on Patrick Hamilton (LRB, 2 December 1993), Terry Eagleton alludes very briefly to ‘an impressive drama’ for which Hamilton ‘hasn’t been remembered – The Duke in Darkness’. Some time during the late Forties or very early Fifties, for our annual school play at Colston’s, Bristol, this was the choice of our producer (presumably the English master). It was also my very first experience of working backstage. Someone (the English master again, probably) had had the idea of setting the play to Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis. Half a century later, the images immediately conjured up by mention of the play, the sound of the music or the smell of greasepaint are identical: though I am not sure which is the real trigger, it is certain that the Duke lives, at least in my own ‘turbulent unconscious’. Is there anybody else out there who remembers this production?
Say what you like about Harold
It appears that Lord Wilson’s career (LRB, 2 December 1993) owes a great deal more than we had realised to the visionary author of Lifemanship, Mr (as he was then) Stephen Potter. Of course there was no footnote on page two of Capital! One can’t help sharing with his Lordship a gentle smile at the picture of Christopher Hitchens, slamming shut that dusty tome, his vague feeling that he has been obscurely and rather pointlessly got at growing now into an absolute certainty.
But will we ever see his like? A mediocrity who became known for his passionate (!) belief in meritocracy. The plain man’s plain-speaker, damning the consequences, as he cringed his way straight into power with shameless and unhesitating hypocrisy. A man who could lop the raison d’être off Parliamentary socialism, while simultaneously managing to convince some of the more barking members of MI5 that he was a Soviet mole.
Simply put, the man defined his epoch. What politician since has failed to follow his example? Yet what politician since has been able to live up to it?
Christopher Hitchens’s comparisons between Harold Wilson and Attlee were highly selective. Leaving aside time and place – immediate post-war and landslide majority – Attlee made mistakes too. India, for example, can be balanced against the shameful settlement in Palestine. Wilson’s achievements were in encouraging personal freedom and the establishment of rights and opportunities for literally millions of people. Law reforms affecting divorce, homosexuality and abortion lifted a great deal of fear and oppression from hidden minorities; the Chronically Sick and Disabled Person’s Act empowered hundreds of thousands of people to exercise freedoms inconceivable in the Attlee era. The Open University and the Equal Pay Act enriched and enhanced, in particular, the lives of women. The Health and Safety at Work Act protected thousands of workers in the most dangerous industries. Of course this is not the stuff of the barricades to Hitchens, because most of the beneficiaries are beyond his ken and beneath his pen.
Worthing, West Sussex
Keep on trucking
Michael Wood may be too quick to condemn Michael Hofmann’s transcription of Spanish in his review of Corona, Corona (LRB, 2 December 1993). Hofmann’s substitution of camións for the standard camiones (not just ‘lorries, trucks’ but also ‘buses’) could be an attempt, for example, to imitate regional Mexican pronunciation. Whether deliberate or not, Hofmann’s camións accurately conveys the instability of e in the final syllable. His Mexican poems may be glib, but his Spanish is luckily intact.
Purdue University, Indiana
Identicals are identical
Colin McGinn’s reply (Letters, 21 October 1993) to my claim that his account of Donald Davidson’s theory of anomalous monism is contradictory contains at least three ad hominems, an appeal to the authority of others who have agreed with him over the past twenty years, and (wearily, he says) exactly one reason for supposing he is right, namely a comparison that, by itself, does not prove his case.
My claim was that, as described by Mr McGinn, the two key theses of Davidson’s theory (‘every mental-event token is identical with some physical-event token in the brain,’ and ‘mental-event types are not identical with physical-event types, nor are they reducible to them’) are contradictory. Whether I am right or not on this, it now seems to me, depends on just what McGinn/Davidson mean by the claim that ‘every mental-event token is identical with some physical-event token in the brain.’ I took this statement to assert what it seems to say, namely that every mental event, literally, is identical with some physical event, not that some events have two different kinds of properties, one kind being mental, the other physical. In other words, I took him to be describing a neural identity theory – a theory that claims consciousness literally is a brain process – not a kind of neutral monism according to which some events have two different sorts of properties, one kind mental, the other physical.
Suppose, then, that I am right as to what sort of theory McGinn was telling us about. Then clearly, McGinn’s comparison – ‘if two red objects are identical with two objects that have shape, then those shaped objects indeed have the same colour; but it does not (of course) follow that they have the same shape’ – is beside the point. The red colour token of a red and, say, square object clearly is not identical with that object’s square shape; but if all mental events are literally identical with physical events, then a particular, say, milk thought has to be literally identical with some physical event or other. So on this construal, McGinn’s comparison misses the mark. (Many philosophers, including this one, have wondered how someone can believe that two so different sorts of things as a thought and a neural firing are literally identical, but that is another matter.)
I must confess, however, that nothing McGinn said in his description of Davidson’s theory absolutely rules out the possibility that he had in mind a neutral monistic theory that somehow puts together into one event two different, non-identical items, one mental and the other physical, just as the objects in McGinn’s comparison put together a red patch and a square shape. If that is what he meant to say, then I have to retract my claim as to the contradictory nature of McGinn’s account of Davidson’s theory, and have to agree that McGinn’s comparison is indeed apt. In that case, though, there is very little ‘cash value’ difference between Davidson’s theory and certain kinds of dualistic theories, including some that postulate uncaused, ‘free’ wills as a way to solve the free will problem Davidson’s theory is designed to solve. (Note, by the way, that McGinn’s article on Davidson neglects even to mention compatibilism, the position championed by Hobbes and Hume, and perhaps the solution to the problem of free will versus determinism most widely held in the English-speaking philosophical world.) It also seems to me rather odd, not to mention misleading, to say that a milk thought token is identical with a brain firing token when what is meant is that they are different, non-identical, properties of the same event, just as it would be odd and misleading to say that the red of an object is identical with that object’s weight when what is meant is that they are two different properties of the same object.
In any case, motivated by McGinn’s article and letter, I turned to the relevant Davidson article, ‘Mental Events’, in an attempt to figure out what Davidson had in mind, but have to confess my inability to come to a firm decision as to precisely what he was up to. Consider, for example, that his criterion for mental-eventhood makes virtually every physical event also into a mental event, including, and this is Davidson’s own example, the ‘collision of two stars in distant space’. It counts as a mental event, says Davidson, if that event happens to be ‘simultaneous with Jones’s noticing that a pencil starts to roll across his desk’ – the point being, I have to assume, since he doesn’t say, that we can then describe the star collision by the definite description ‘the star collision simultaneous with Jones’s noticing the start of a pencil rolling across his desk’, a description that for him is mental because of the mental verb ‘noticing’.
Mill Valley, California
To answer Warren Wallace’s query (Letters, 2 December 1993), John Cheatle was a BBC producer, whom I knew because he lived in the same converted house on the east side of Gloucester Road as did Audrey Lucas, a friend of my mother’s and, more interestingly, of Evelyn Waugh’s, as may be seen from the latter’s correspondence. Cheatle died by his own hand, of gas-poisoning, in that same flat in, I think, 1983. I believe he was in danger of losing his job because of his drinking habits.
The more usual, democratic and correctly scanned version of the limerick Mr Wallace quotes goes like this:
My back aches, my penis is sore,
I simply can’t fuck any more
I’m covered with sweat
And you haven’t come yet
And – my God! – it’s a quarter to four!
removing it, of course, from the Yang to the Yin, if that’s the right way round.