The Buttocks Problem
I write in admiration for Paul Foot’s frankness as a barer of buttocks and bringer of bad news (LRB, 5 September). It is never too late to lie down and retell the tale. I attended a stinking little preparatory school in Berkshire from the age of seven. The first time I was beaten by the headmaster was in my second term; I had just turned eight. (Numbers seem as magically important now as they did then.) Four strokes on the right buttock with a jokari bat for having run up a total of, yes, four ‘minus points’ in the weekly plus-and-minus accounting of conduct. Talking after lights out, bad prep, running in the corridors of this miserable establishment, sniggering in chapel (two services a day), a missing shoelace at games – all these incurred minus points. Once you had collected four minus points or more in a week, you had to explain the circumstances of each in writing and present them to the headmaster – in my case, the figure four was often reached before the weekend, and so the text, containing four, five or possibly six little paragraphs, would be ready by the time the summons was generally issued – before grace on Friday lunch, an intractable kedgeree, rather less edible than usual, in view of what lay in store.
On the occasion of my debut beating, I stood to attention in the headmaster’s study, and behaved like a toy soldier, ready for some sacrificial stand. The pain was very impressive and I burst into tears. Summoned for many more beatings over the next four years, or four and a half, I never behaved like a toy soldier again and never cried. The number of strokes varied over the years. Four or six were standard, but I remember receiving a restrained three and an indecisive five. The jokari bat left a red disc on the right buttock which glowed for a day or so and then turned blueish-brown as it faded. You could see it most clearly, of course, on other boys in the showers.
On one occasion, I had six strokes of the cane and was treated for the results, along with a handful of other offenders, by the matron’s assistant. Only one of our number – nine boys in all, caned in ascending order of seniority – was reduced to tears. I still think of that as a victory.
The headmaster, who would have been in his early sixties, was also a Latin teacher. In class, during a particularly grim period for the school, he would often bleed from the ear as he was roused to a frenzy by our shortcomings, dishing out minuses that might or might not be traded in later for a beating. But in class there was safety in numbers. One to one in his study was a more unforgettable business. Thirty-five years later, I remember the smell of that little room, of his hands as he helped me pull my shirt tails out of my shorts – tobacco smoke on skin – and the tapestry scene on the stool where I took up the required position, folded in three, so to speak, with the knees drawn up under the chin and the feet under the buttocks: a pretty piece of English woodland with pheasants – two, maybe more – rising from the scrub, put up by a diligent gundog. Maybe that’s the sort of place where the great British prep school was supposed to take you in the end. It strikes me as a desolate spot, where all traces of the schoolboy solidarity to which Foot refers have vanished. Everyone is on his own, getting older and sinking quietly into the grounds of his estate. It’s a kind of class punishment, though, and in that sense collective. I’m glad it hasn’t happened to Foot.
Big Bang to Big Crunch
John Leslie, in his account of the Penrose/Hawking debate (LRB, 1 August), writes: ‘The limited speed of light restricts how much of the universe we can observe. There are regions so distant that no light from them could yet have reached us, during the roughly ten billion years since the Big Bang.’ I can believe that there are regions so distant that light leaving them now can never reach us (assuming continued expansion) but it is surely impossible that light did not traverse totally the much smaller universe of the remote past – unless, of course, even the early (but post-galaxy formation) expansion already exceeded light speed. Indeed, we are constantly being told that we are viewing extremely old galaxies having ages of approximately 90 percent of the age of the universe. This is often accompanied by a related anomaly, in that these objects are said to be N billion years old and N billion light years distant – the latter by implication now, which is patently not a valid equation. Could a cosmologist please explain?
I too was in the Oval crowd when Donald Bradman was dismissed for a duck in his final test innings. Unlike John Sturrock (LRB, 22 August) – though I stand to be corrected, and Mr Sturrock is backed up by John Arlott’s famous commentary on Bradman’s two-ball innings – I seem to remember that Bradman did not ordinarily ‘stop’ the first ball Eric Hollies sent down. He was beaten by it, appearing not to have the faintest idea what it was doing; and an awed intake of breath travelled round the Oval terraces. With Hollies’s second delivery he was out in the way Mr Sturrock describes. But am I wrong or right about the first? Was anyone else there who can testify?
Night of the Living Dead
Marilyn Butler’s impatience with Christopher Ricks seems oddly misplaced (LRB, 1 August). In recoiling at what she calls ‘bear-baiting’, she blithely claims that ‘few students taking up graduate work in literature are starting from scratch; as undergraduates they will have studied literature but not, if Ricks has his way, theory.’ Possibly this is true at some timeless institution unfettered by what George Steiner calls ‘the playful nihilism of deconstruction’, but literature is a decidedly unpopular topic in most English departments. A small example: not two years ago the prize-winning undergraduate who landed a lavish graduate fellowship at the most distinguished Ivy League programme told me that he wanted to study American fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I presumed that meant he had an interest in Henry James, and said so. No, he replied, he had never read James, never been required to; he liked the theory of the Fin de Siècle.
Department of Speech
Ruth Parkin-Gounelas’s parody (Letters, 5 September) of the new academic conformism was amusing, but a little overdone. Young academics are not this close, yet, to being the Red Guards of our intellectual life.
University College London
A footnote to Tom Paulin’s review of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form and the letters it provoked. When Perry Miller and I were putting together Major Writers of America, a large two-volume anthology for college students, at Harcourt, Brace in 1961 and 1962, the plan was to ask a scholar or critic to select and introduce each of the writers. To prepare the section for T.S. Eliot, we asked R.P. Blackmur. He agreed and responded in fairly short order with a list of what he thought essential. Miller agreed and I then asked Eliot whether he approved. Since Harcourt was Eliot’s American publisher, I was aware that such approval was necessary before Blackmur could proceed. Eliot was concerned, in permissions for college anthologies, that he not appear in too many such books at the same time and so kept his permission for such use quite low each year. Blackmur’s list included a characteristic passage from After Strange Gods (1934). Eliot objected, making it plain that because the selection from his work in the proposed anthology might well be seen as ‘official’, Harcourt having been his American publisher for so long, he did not wish the passage to appear. Blackmur, Miller and I regretted the loss because losing it diminished the representativeness of what Blackmur had done, but Eliot was quite within his rights as the copyright holder. A substitution was made and the anthology published. After Strange Gods was not a book Eliot wanted used in anthologies or reprinted by itself. The book exists in libraries, of course, and, once time extinguishes its copyright, may well be reprinted one day to continue its inexpungible damage to his reputation.
Sheldon Litt (Letters, 18 July) has written a shrill response to my review of Allan Young’s book The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This book, like my review of it, tries to explain not only the fact that doctors invent new names for old syndromes but why they do so. Young’s book describes in some detail and with a good deal of care why, as Litt puts it in his trottoir style, ‘what used to be called Traumatic War Neurosis, or something similar, is now labelled PTSD – what’s the big deal?’ Litt attributes to my review, rather than to its source, Young’s book, unqualified praise for the well-meaning attempts of psychiatrists periodically to revise the terms they use to describe mental disease. Quite often they have gone astray, but so have those of us in clinical investigation who have recently changed our minds about peptic ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis or how aspirin works. Only magical practices like homeopathy, chiropractic or ayurvedic medicine hold steadfast to their nomenclature over the centuries. Litt’s perhaps deliberate misreading of my review, and his failure to consult its source, remind me of the principle announced by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table (1858), which he called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy: ‘If you had a bent tube, one arm of which was the size of a pipe-stem and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand the same height in one as in the other. Thus discussion equalises fools and wise men in the same way, and the fools know it.’
Marine Biological Laboratory
Blame it on Kafka
Andreas Huyssen (LRB, 1 August) claims that George Steiner ‘maintains the Archimedean point of view of a selectively circumscribed high culture from which differences in the landscape below can no longer be defined or become simply irrelevant’. I assume, via Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that the expression derives from Pappus’ report that Archimedes boasted: ‘Give me a place to stand and I can move the earth.’ Plutarch’s earlier version is differently expressed. Unfortunately, although she gave the correct transliteration of the Greek, in English she replaced ‘place’ by ‘point’, presumably because Kafka had done so in German. Whether or not Pappus quoted Archimedes correctly is not my point. In the Sand-Reckoner, Archimedes excoriated Aristarchus of Samos for the blunder of giving dimensions to a point; he would never have allowed therefore that ‘Archimedean point’ had any meaning, let alone a mathematical one. Kafka’s usage seems to me interesting, but misapplied. Its meaning in Huyssen and Arendt has defeated a student of Archimedes, but Arendt did have an excuse that Huyssen lacks. For it is now a dead metaphor. The astronauts who had to repair the satellite that relayed the Barcelona Olympics were able to do so because they, unlike Archimedes, had a lever and a place to stand outside the earth.
On 24 November 1499, Edward, Earl of Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill on a charge of high treason. The legitimate male line of the first Plantagenet king, Henry II, then became extinct. (Warwick’s real offence was presumably the fact that he had probably the best legal claim to the throne on the death of Richard III; and the latter’s successor, Henry VII, wanted to clear the way to marry his eldest son to a Spanish princess.) Yet E.S. Turner (LRB, 22 August) tells us that the 15th Earl of Huntingdon, whose descent from Henry II was through two females – the Earl of Warwick’s sister Margaret, and her granddaughter Catherine, who married Francis, second Earl of Huntingdon – was ‘the last legitimate male Plantagenet’. What can he mean?
Christopher Prendergast asks (LRB, 5 September), à propos Flaubert, what the life-story of ‘un homme-plume’ would be. Fascinating, I‘d say, if it were a true sentence-by-sentence account, on the lines pioneered years ago by the Monty Python commentary on Thomas Hardy wrestling with the opening words of (was it?) Return of the Native.
He’s got a point
To assist Geoffrey Dutton in his campaign against the (mis)use of ‘famously’ (Letters, 18 July), I suggest using Dutton’s examples to see whether ‘famously’ is used as an adverb, to modify the verb. In the Seamus Heaney example, ‘the young poet’ is famous for how he had the ‘Digging’ feeling, not for the expression of it. Similarly, Gore Vidal is, grammatically, saying that Mark Twain is famous for the way he ‘spent his boyhood’ in Hannibal, Mississippi, rather than, as he must have meant, that the Twain connection made the place famous thereafter. It is a clear case of the ‘verbalising’ disease ‘impacting’ adverbs.
I do not believe for a moment, however, that, hopefully, we – all the forces of the post-colonial new world – can rein in this galloping fetish at the seat of Empire. That parallel misuse of the (former) adverb, ‘hopefully’, has gone on far too long. The case against it was much stronger, given that the new fad eliminated the old and useful meaning whereby one could say (à la Dutton), without taint of irreverence: ‘Hopefully, Christ on the cross thought of his Father.’ That positive meaning, the mainstream for a thousand years, is now extinct, hopelessly.
What a nerve!
Please use American spellings in your journal. This policy will be appreciated in Canada, America and other countries. British spellings look odd. How does one pronounce favour, foetus, realise, programme?