Bugger the Reader
In his review of Simon Goldhill’s Foucault’ Virginity, James Davidson (LRB, 19 October) takes Kenneth Dover to task for insufficient sobriety in the section of his study of Greek homosexuality entitled ‘Dominant and Subordinate Roles’: ‘Dover abandons his painstaking philology, turning instead to pornographic vase paintings elucidated with the help of anthropology and zoology.’ (Post-Modernist classics seems to abominate analogy.) Earlier in the review Davidson renders himself liable to a similar charge by claiming that ‘historians of phallocracy’ are forced to turn to images because abusive sexual language ‘is conspicuous by its absence in ancient Greek’. This is a staggering mis-statement which a glance at the index of Dover’s book would be sufficient to refute. The Greek for ‘get stuffed’ is ou (ouchi) laikasei, which literally means ‘accept a cock down your throat’. There are plenty of instances in the ancient Greek world of sexual language being used aggressively and self-assertively, with the implication that the act denoted has humiliated or will humiliate the object of the abuse. There is a large amount of evidence for this in the form of abusive graffiti. Does Davidson think that the person or persons who incised the following onto a pillar in Karnak intended to remind Ptolemy of some pleasurable casual sex he had recently enjoyed? ‘Ptolemy – they fuck him in the street. Ptolemy the son of Abdaios – they buggered him in the same street.’ What was the intention of the men who inscribed walls in, respectively, Gela, Thasus and Ostia with the words ‘the writer will bugger the reader,’ ‘I have buggered the passer-by,’ ‘I bugger all those who write on the wall’? How are we to explain the type of graffito laying claim to possession of an object and warning off potential thieves (‘whoever steals Olympas’ bowl will be buggered’) except in terms of self-assertive male aggression and of the assumption that penetration is a humiliation for a man? While I agree with Davidson (and Goldhill) that Greek sexuality is a complex matter and that many of those who write on it tend towards heavy-handedness, and while I am far from happy about concepts (or indeed words) like ‘phallocracy’, I cannot see how it can be gainsaid that in the ancient Greek world the phallus was on occasions thought of as a weapon rather than a generative organ or an instrument of pleasure.
University of Manchester
Claudia Johnson (Letters, 5 October) fails to address my concern, which was not with Jane Austen’s sexuality as such, but with Terry Castle’s misrepresentation of the evidence she produced in support of an extravagant argument in the sexual area. Of that, Professor Johnson has nothing to say. As to the contents of my Critical Heritage volumes, they make my point: discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are one thing, our reading of the novels another. Professor Johnson takes a scattering of items and quotes them against me. But Charlotte Brontë, few example, on Emma tells us much about Charlotte Brontë, almost nothing about Emma. Her comments belong to the history of reader reception, the documentation gathered in my two volumes. Professor Johnson tells us that Jane Austen ‘is a cult figure for many gays and lesbians’, an observation of historical value which should find its place in my next Critical Heritage volume, on the modern period. Indeed, each generation and culture of readers will construct its own author. This is precisely why there is a pressing need for more Julia Kavanaghs, critics who stand above passing fashions. Professor Johnson will recall my discussion of Kavanagh’s chapter on Jane Austen in English Women of Letters (1862), also in the 1811-1870 Critical Heritage volume, with these closing lines:
Mrs Kavanagh was successful in writing critically at a popular level without any undue concession to popular taste. She resisted, as many other critics failed to do, pressures of the time, such as the demand for a literature of inspiration or piety, and a particular requirement of the 1860s and 1870s, a literature fit for home reading, obedient to current standards of decency, good-taste and politeness.
Fanny Price may or may not be ‘the nerdiest of all heroines’ as Claudia Johnson says, but Fanny refuses to enter into the marriage games that the men have set up for her. She says no. No to Sir Thomas when he says she has an obligation to marry Henry Crawford, and no again to Edmund when he (rather more mutedly) suggests much the same thing. This takes some distinctly unnerdish pluck, and parallel the earlier occasion when she says no to the hateful Aunt Norris over joining in the acting. On each occasion she is accused of being ungrateful.
University College London
Nothing in Jane Austen’s novels or letters leads me to conclude that she was gay, or that she harboured homoerotic feelings for her sister (though great love, certainly). However, were I to reach that conclusion, I would not view her as a polluted icon; rather it would be a matter of considerable interest. But then gender politics is emotionally charged terrain. In arguing against a gay reading of Austen, one is vulnerable to caricature: as someone keen on preserving the straight status quo, or in a state of prejudicial denial. But many admirers of an artist’s work are interested merely in the truth about that artist’s life and personality. Ms Castle and Ms Johnson express themselves with the air of going bravely against the fashionable current, daring to say the unorthodox truth. But perhaps the opposite is true – it is, after all, currently fashionable to see love between men, or love between women, as invariably or latently erotic, even though we know that love between members of the same sex does exist in uneroticised form. This would not be less interesting, though perhaps less arresting
Who cares about the NBA?
In his piece on the end of the NBA, John Sutherland (LRB, 19 October) writes as if there were still such a place as abroad when it comes to buying books, and as if we could once again make it go away by agreeing that it isn’t there. If I want some books I click on www.books.com, select what I fancy from everything that’s in print and type in my Visa number. My books arrive in a parcel from somewhere or other (I presume on this planet) and my plastic gets charged a lot less than it would have been down the road under the NBA. And I don’t even have to go out in the rain.
Kurt Vonnegut once said something to the effect that, back in the old days when going abroad meant climbing up the hill to gawp at the foreigners in the next valley, we needed one storyteller for every few hundred people, but now that every published storyteller can speak to six billion of us we need fewer of them; however, we’re still made the same, so one in every few hundred people retains an inner compulsion to spend his or her life collecting rejections from publishers.
For the short term John Sutherland is right: the end of the NBA means more rejection-collecting. But soon anyone will be able to put their writing on their Web pages and have 50p drop into their bank account from anyone else (here or abroad) who decides to take a look. Most of the writing will be junk of course, but then most of what gets printed now is junk.
University of Bath
John Sutherland, as befits a Northcliffe Professor, writes short, racy sentences and is entertainingly mad about the abolition of the Net Book Agreement. But it is hard to see what he is mad about. I have never had any difficulty in US shopping-mall bookstores, finding shelves of classics, poetry and good reference books and a paperback selection I would have a problem finding over here. I am sorry that small bookshops feel themselves threatened by the end of the Agreement. But that is still not an argument for price-fixing. When I order new American books by post from Mr Loeb in New York (no discounts) I get them in a week. Over here I waited four weeks for a copy of Jane Austen’s Letters. I tried to get a copy of Jane Smiley’s Moo (reviewed in your current issue but published on 25 May) from four small bookshops. They had all ‘had one but it is gone’. They weren’t sure it was still in print.
Find Your Level
In his recent letter (Letters, 5 October) Steven Rose quotes and targets a sweeping reductionist statement by James Watson, the Nobel laureate of double helix fame; and he informs us that his own ‘critique of sociobiology is in fact simultaneously philosophical, scientific and political’. To address the first point. Scientists’ world views – whether they be reductionist, dialectical, or what not – are not the same as their research. Many scientists are ‘reductionists’ and a few favour ‘dialectical explanations’ (as Rose does) on some philosophical level, but they continue to do and publish their research in less lofty terms. Edward O. Wilson has made some radical claims for the theoretical possibilities of sociobiology, but in Journey to the Ants (which Rose reviewed) there are delightful discussions of co-operation, communication, conflict and dominance in terms of field and laboratory observations and Darwinian theories. Sociobiological research can be and has been criticised and debated on scientific grounds, but Rose continues to claim that the science is guilty by association with the philosophical doctrines of those who do the research and with the political misuses to which it might be put. This brings me to his second point – Rose’s claim that he has homogenised science, philosophy and politics. What is it that animates his hostility to such eminent scientists who study ants and chromosomes? Is it merely their scientific errors or philosophical reductionism? No – it is Rose’s own political biases. In Not in Our Genes, which he co-authored, we are told that the real culprit is ‘bourgeois science’. And, it is claimed, the ‘struggle’ to create a socialist society is best served by ‘dialectical explanations’. Rose’s heartfelt commitment to what he sees as world betterment has made him vigilant in opposing the dangers of the misuse of science. But it has left him blind to the dangers of classifying scientific research in ideological categories such as ‘bourgeois science’, a tradition of research that few scientists, across the political spectrum, are aware of. In Nazi Germany, the Nobel laureates Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard denounced ‘Jewish physics’ and advocated what they called ‘aryan’, or völkisch, physics. In the Soviet Union, where the political authorities terminated and prohibited genetics research, terms like ‘reactionary science’ were bandied about. I’m sure Rose would not wish to see academic vigilantes patrolling the corridors of learning (as they have begun to do in the US). It should be clear by now that in the homogenisation of science, philosophy and politics it is always the politics that curdles.
Stevens Institute of Technology
What’s wrong with ‘les gages de la peur’ (Letters, 5 October) is that ‘gages’ is the wrong word. If the theme is fear, not sin, the correct adaptation of the Biblical ‘le salaire du péché’ has to be ‘le salaire de la peur’. Hence the title of both the Clouzot film and the Georges Arnaud novel on which it was based.
Barnard College, New York
Number 52 Division
The word ‘precinct’ used by Paul Foot in his discussion of Jeffrey Archer’s shopping trip in Toronto (LRB, 7 September) is an Americanism unknown and unused in Canada. The correct reference would have been ‘Number 52 Division’. That is the term used officially, and in the press, and in general usage. Englishmen seem never to grasp the differences between Canada and the United States. Now I know how Australians and New Zealanders feel.
In our issue of 5 October, the three lines from Laura Riding’s poem ‘The Flowering Urn’ quoted in Alan Clark’s letter should have read as follows:
Will rise the same peace that held
Before fertility’s lie awoke
The virgin sleep of Mother All …
Editors, ‘London Review’