Handling the straightgeist
I am grateful to Richard Rorty for his principled good sense on ‘multiculturalism’ (LRB, 20 October), but would nonetheless offer two reasons why cultivating a distinctive subculture is a worthwhile move for subordinated groups – as opposed, for instance, to seeking a ‘share in the mythic America imagined by the Founders’.
First, subculture is good for morale. Considered as a model for the good society, a gay disco lacks quite a lot, but for a gay man it is a place where he is in the majority, where his values and assumptions run. Of course, it is a fantasy world, as he knows all too well from the street aggression as he enters and leaves. But, by so much, it’s a space of sharing and reassurance. Second, subculture is where we may address, on terms that make sense to us, the problems that confront us. Gay cultural producers – from Jimmy Sommerville and Neil Tennant, through Thom Gunn, Neil Bartlett and Gay Sweatshop to gay academics – are helping us to think about how to handle the straightgeist (as Nicholson Baker called it in the LRB). And they are helping us to work on our own confusions, conflicts and griefs – matters of misogyny, bisexuality and sadomasochism; class, racial and inter-generational exploitation; HIV and Aids.
As Rorty says, subordination is located in ‘disparities of power rather than differences in culture’. However, subculture is not just where oppression is registered and resisted, it is where self-understandings – fraught, as they inevitably are, with the self-oppression that stigma produces – may be explored and re-formed.
Mitchell shown up
I have just returned from the US to catch up with Christopher Hitchens’s review of Watergate (LRB, 21 July). Hitchens among his contentions makes two factual mistakes: John Mitchell was not Attorney General in January 1973; he had been succeeded the previous summer by Richard Kleindienst, after resigning to take command of the Committee to Re-elect the President. Hillary Rodham did not work for the Senate Watergate Committee, which did not recommend the impeachment of the President. She worked for the chief counsel’s staff for the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, which did. It also escaped Hitchens’s attention that The Haldeman Diaries (as I wrote in the New York Times on 19 June) contain a unique notation that Mitchell admitted to Haldeman that he and Magruder had ‘signed off on’ (i.e. approved) the Watergate operation – something the ex-Attorney General went to his grave denying.
Kettle of Fish
William Scammell (Letters, 20 October) lets us know that he too was taught in the Fourth Form that you can easily tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor: one always starts with ‘as’ or ‘like’ and the other doesn’t. But since he allows us to think he is acquainted with Aristotle, who was so interested in these modes of indicating resemblance that he went on about them at some length in both the Rhetoric and the Poetics, he should know that the matter is not so simple. Aristotle would not be happy with the position that all Raine’s conceits were similes. That is the sort of simplification he laboured all that time ago to avoid. I am not so sure that he wouldn’t have had to classify Scammell’s chosen example, ‘His delights were dolphin-like,’ as a simile; it ‘soars off into imaginative space’ in order to explain why Antony’s delights could properly be said to resemble dolphins. Of course (for us, at any rate, though Aristotle might have marked it down for being diffuse) this doesn’t make it less splendid than it would be if we called it metaphor; it is still not ‘within reach of us all’.
What about Raine’s ‘nervous moth of light’, which has no ‘as’ or ‘like’ but could be expanded to include one or the other? What, to take a more famous conceit, about Donne’s compasses, which have an ‘as’? Both are conceits, exploiting modes of resemblance which cannot be classified by schoolroom rules; they essentially depend on their farfetchedness, a quality to be found in some similes and some metaphors. We are surprised by the registration of a resemblance we could not have foreseen, and the ability to discover and communicate such resemblances is what impressed Aristotle. The idea that metaphors are necessarily grander than similes with their telltale ‘likes’ is a mistake. To speak of the leg of a table is to use metaphor; for, as Aristotle observed, ‘metaphor consists in giving a thing a name that belongs to something else.’ But this is a tricky subject, treated in many difficult books besides Aristotle’s, and Mr Scammell is fortunate in having so simple a method of dealing with it.
Your reviewer of my book Knowledge of Angels (LRB, 6 October) says that ‘the reviewing world did not simply overlook Knowledge of Angels, they chose to overlook it’: rightly in his opinion. Knowledge of Angels was reviewed in the Times, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and the Tablet. All these reviews were favourable. It was reviewed, with some reservations, in the Independent and the TLS. Your reviewer has now expended a whole page of your journal in slating it. I do not regard my book as having been ‘overlooked’: rightly or otherwise.
Jill Paton Walsh
John Sutherland has had some fun at the expense of Jill Paton Walsh. He tells a good story with only a few slips on the way. (It was Gaffer Samson’s Luck not Lunch that won the Smarties Prize in 1985, not 1984.) But it is as absurd to call Knowledge of Angels ‘Blytonish’ as it would be to bracket Mrs Humphry Ward with Elinor Glyn – just because they both wrote for adults. And does he really believe that a publicity agent, however wily, can engineer one of those coveted places on the Booker shortlist? I certainly don’t.
Low Tharston, Norfolk
Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 20 October) says that ‘for the first time in history the Labour Party is led by a public school boy while the Tory Party is not’; but from 1980 to 1983 the Labour Party was led by Michael Foot (Leighton Park) while the Tory Party was led by Margaret Thatcher.
Lulu and the Maggots
Did Brecht ‘write’ his plays (LRB, 20 October)? Did Fassbinder ‘write’ his films?
My experience of Brecht is limited to a production of Baal at Oval House, Kennington, about twenty years ago. As the set designer I was to assemble scrap building materials, scaffold poles and furniture from a skip onto the stage. The director, Bill Martin, had collected a disorderly bunch of actors, seemingly off the streets. (He was short of ‘maggots’ and tried to persuade me to join them, but the thought of crawling around the stage with a lot of other maggots, naked bar underpants, was too much for me.) Though Brecht hovered determinedly, the play seemed designed as a ‘scratch’ event to be performed by a scratch team. It was as if this ragged bunch of otherwise hooligans were roaming the streets, looking for right moments and right places and a few onlookers (anybody would do) before whom to make a ‘scene’. Brecht seemed not so much the author as the one who was leading them on.
The performance attracted enough attention to bring Alan Sillitoe in one evening; which reminds me that I also contrived sets for Mother Goose. This performance was elevated to the Cockpit Theatre. As I had to be on hand backstage during the performance, I was allowed to sit in the foyer bar. One evening it was completely empty except for one small, pretty woman who, it appeared, had been stood up. She was a very charming and lively person and we had a nice, warm chat. Just before she left I said I felt sure we had met somewhere before. She said that we hadn’t but that she was ‘Lulu’. She was, of course, the pop singer and not Alan Berg’s tragic heroine come to haunt Brecht’s play.
My suggestions about non-English limericks seem only to exacerbate Gerald Long’s dogged chauvinism (Letters, 20 October). Of James Joyce’s versions: ‘probably excruciating’; of Thomas Aquinas’s: ‘jawbreaking’. Literary discourse must push beyond such huff and puff.
No one doubts the fluent, and perhaps inimitable, at-homeness of the limerick in the English language. Yet note how many of the best thrive on self-parody. A hundred examples spring to mind, but I’ll quote, quite arbitrarily, from just one:
‘We should thtop,’ lisped a young girl of Louth.
‘All the buttonth have come off my blouth.’
Here the sly, deft play with the limerick’s traditional form is at least as important as the sly situation in itself.
Limericks in a foreign tongue are doubly parodic – of the form, and of the language they are written in. The French examples offered by your correspondents H. Harvey Wood, Christopher Hill and Stuart Silverman (Letters, 20 October) can all (after minimal syntactical and verbal adjustment here and there) emphasise this fundamental point.
St Thomas grasped that point prophetically when, seven hundred years ago, he enlivened his solemn prayer with a Latin limerick’s clattering rhyme and galumphing rhythm. Joyce loved the form. Twenty-four of his limericks (some, it is true, better than others) appear in his Poems and Shorter Writings (Faber, 1991). Of these, one is macaronic, in English and French, and another, taking characteristically anarchic liberties with the form, is in Finnegans Wake-speak:
Humptydump Dublin squeaks through his norse,
Humptydump Dublin hath a horriple vorse,
And, with all his kinks english
Plus his irishmanx brogues,
Humpydump Dublin’s grandada of rogues.
How pleasant if this correspondence prompted some scholar to hound down those lost French limericks Ellmann told us about.
The limerick provided by Christopher Hill (Letters, 20 October) is one of George du Maurier’s, mistakenly rejected by Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 8 September). As printed in Punch, the first line reads, ‘Il était un gendarme … ’; the last, nicely: ‘Cette dent, d’importance et d’orgueil’.
Du Maurier’s other performances in this genre include:
Il existe une Espinstère à Tours,
Un peu vite, et qui porte toujours
Un ulsteur peau-de-phoque,
Un chapeau bilicocque,
Et des nicrebocqueurs en velours.
‘Cassez-vous, cassez-vous, cassez-vous,
O mer, sur vos froids gris cailloux!’
Ainsi traduisait Laure
Au profit d’Isidore
(Bon jeune homme, et son futur époux).
That tails off a bit, admittedly, after the soaring inspiration of the first two lines.
No limericks in French? This hasn’t been true for at least a century, as witness the following by George du Maurier:
Il était un homme de Madère
Qui frappé le nez a son père;
On demandait: ‘Pourquoi?’
Il repondit: ‘Ma foi!
Vous n’avez pas connu mon père!’
As it happens he prepared an English version:
A young man from Madeira arose
And punched his progenitor’s nose;
When the people asked, ‘Why?’
He responded, ‘My eye!
You don’t know the old man, I suppose!’
Both versions appear in Langford Reed’s Complete Limerick Book, from which I take them, curious French and all.