One consequence of my migratory flight paths and seasonal residences is that my mail trails a country or two behind, and catches up with me late, in redirected clusters; thus, in May, in Florence, I have just seen the March issue of LRB. Imagine my surprise to find that a letter I had written in, and sent from, London had been re-routed, and declared to have come from the vague vastness of Ontario. Apparently, the editors, like Peter Robb, the reviewer to whom my novel, Oyster, was assigned (LRB, 6 March), are smugly certain that they know my place better than I do, and cannot control their urge to put me in it.
The geographical ignorance, wittily commented on by Canadian readers, may be simply a matter of wide editorial latitude. But what can one make of the foggy climes in which Robb moves? It would be difficult to take as other than parodic his out-of-date Sunday-supplement level of acquaintanceship with Australian writers and painters, were it not for the awful suspicion that Robb takes himself very seriously indeed. What can one say of a reviewer who claims to be an authority on outback Queensland on the basis of having a friend who has been there? Gosh. I’ll bet he’s even got a friend who’s read a novel or two since Jane Austen, though he needs another who can slip him some potted journalists’ paragraphs, pitched to his level, on Proust, say, and Joyce, and a few others who so mistakenly thought that mythmaking, and explorations into the nature of time and memory, were the province of the novel. What scope, as yet unexplored, for Mr Robb to thump his little pulpit and preach his earnest and ridiculous sermons.
Janette Turner Hospital
Florence, London, etc
Glen Newey’s review of Jürgen Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms (LRB, 8 May) manages to combine an informative discussion of Habermas’s recent work with some classic Germanophobe sneers. We are witnessing ‘the none too stealthy ascent of the Fourth Reich’, claims Newey, and since Habermas’s intellectual progress has ‘in some measure … mimicked that of Germany itself’, we are invited to conclude that Habermas bears some of the responsibility for this development. Newey’s rather bizarre views suggest he has not read many of Habermas’s more directly political interventions over the past few years. But more to the point: why is it considered acceptable for liberal (?) British (?) academics and journals to use terms like ‘Fourth Reich’ in relation to contemporary Germany when the equivalent terms applied to other countries or political cultures would, one hopes, be considered merely abusive?
Where are the big hitters?
Terry Eagleton, like many others with Marxist sympathies, looks to a revival of Modernism as a way to counterattack the excesses of Post-Modernism. Judged in terms of some grand battle between Modernism and Post-Modernism, my book Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (LRB, 24 April) appears, no doubt, to make too many concessions to the latter position. But there is another way to locate what it is about. For many years I have tried to get Marxists to take the geographical conditions of both their theorising and their politics rather more seriously than is their wont. While my initial interests focused on urbanisation, they subsequently encompassed questions of environment, space and time, the geography of uneven development, the significance of place, and other geographical questions. The productions of space, place and environment in their various guises have much to tell us about how capitalism works and how oppositions to capitalism get constructed and why they succeed or fail (hence my plea for a ‘historical-geographical materialism’).
But it has not been easy to get any of the ‘big hitters’ in the Marxist team to listen. For example, New Left Review carried not a single article on the extraordinary political-economic shifts occurring through massive urbanisation until 1984. When it did so it was appended to Fred Jameson’s article on Post-Modernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism. This is typical. Most of the themes I am interested in are entailed in the Post-Modern critique of Modernism and Marxism. Under assault from outside, Marxist Modernism has to confront the questions that I try to consider from within the Marxist frame in this book. Eagleton accepts that ‘old-fashioned left internationalism was callously cavalier’ about the issues I raise and paid a price for ignoring them. But he worries that I leave too many holes for Post-Modern dilutions to pour into the tight ship of a revitalised Modernist Marxism. I share his concern, but I also worry that in the haste to pull Marxism back up by its Modernist bootstraps, these vital geographical questions will be prematurely relegated to that periphery of Marxist thought where they languished in the past. Eagleton pinpoints the problem when he asks: ‘How are we to avoid at once the fetish of the particular and a universalism cruelly indifferent to difference?’ I cannot say exactly how to do it or where the proper balance lies. I tried in justice, Nature and the Geography of Distance to theorise it, but I am still not sure I got it right. Eagleton, judging by his review, cannot find the balance either.
Johns Hopkins University
Off the Record
On the existence of both the nominative and the genitive of ‘clitoris’ in Latin, with apologies to Ruth Padel (LRB, 8 May):
Dear Don and Chris,
with regard to the genitive
not in Greek, which is easy, but Latin,
well, Roman cowboys
did not use any toys
to stimulate that tender
remnant of paleo-sex.
They employed only a fleshy member,
not a dildo of latex.
Had Ruth tried to remember
the power of analogical creation
like the formation
of genitive iridis
from nominative iris,
dear Don and Chris,
she could have dispensed
with all dictionaries
in three languages.
However, if she needed an icon
to warranty her scholarship,
she could have consulted
not the Torah,
In Aedibus Kenkiusha,
to find on page
one hundred and eight,
that in Latin
the nominative is clitoris
and the genitive clitoridis
Re Don Paterson and Ruth Padel’s discussion:
The genitive of clitoris must be clitoreõs:
any further remark would be otiose …
(But was it really the grammar they were interested in?
Or was it sin?)
Goodbye to Political Science
‘Everybody pays lip service to the notion of the environment,’ Tim Radford says (LRB, 8 May). Do they? Not Stephen Holmes in his review of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations in the same issue. Nor, evidently, Huntington. For these political scientists, something like the present world order is a given and demography seems to be only a matter of which groups or nations are most fertile. Huntington is said to advocate ‘an international order based on civilisations as a solution to the world’s woes’ and as the source of a ‘decent life for individual human beings’. But the current destruction of the biosphere, touched on but not analysed by Radford and ignored by Holmes, will if continued ensure a future without civilisations (or political science).
Under the Loincloth
I was surprised to read in Frank Kermode’s review of Leo Steinberg’s Sexuality of Christ (LRB, 3 April) that the Circumcision of Christ is discussed only in terms of the blood which issued from the wound, and that this is invoked only as a conjunction, or ‘hyphen’, with the spear-wound in Christ’s side. The point is surely that there was great interest in the holy genitalia in iconographic terms, and this goes far beyond establishing the humanity of the historical Jesus. That the child was circumcised according to the rites and practices of the Jews is beyond doubt. This being so, why are we only given images of the uncircumcised penis by Renaissance painters? I would be interested to know if Frank Kermode, Leo Steinberg or any readers can cite an example of a painting that shows the infant Jesus with-out the tell-tale gentile foreskin. It seems the Church has never come to terms with Jesus the Jew.
Probably and Possibly
Michael Dobson’s predominantly unfavourable review of Janet Todd’s The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (LRB, 8 May) criticises it on a number of grounds: failure to capture the ‘raffish’ quality of the Restoration, excessive speculativeness and, worse, ignorance of Restoration drama. But the main charge is that Todd produces a thicker biography than Maureen Duffy’s without producing any more ‘hard evidence’: the most recent Behn discoveries that Dobson cites are Duffy’s ‘trawlings through parish records’. He makes no mention of Todd’s own archival discoveries, nor of her exercises in scholarly deduction. Todd has uncovered previously unknown records in the Hague which substantially increase our knowledge of Behn’s work as a secret agent in Holland and Belgium: her material on Behn’s relationship with William Corney, and on the double-dealing of William Scot, for example, is new. To suggest that Shakespeare offers more purchase to the biographer than Behn does is preposterous. Todd has also discovered important new material on the historical background of The Fair Jilt, has examined with new detail and care the authenticity of the works posthumously attributed to Behn, and meticulously traced the network of literary friendships and relationships in which Behn participated. This biography is not a litany of the ‘probably’ and the ‘possibly’.
The most damaging criticism is that of unfamiliarity with Restoration drama. ‘It used to be,’ Dobson writes, ‘that people who worked extensively on the Restoration theatre did so without paying proper attention to Behn; now it seems that people pay attention to Behn who would never otherwise go near the Restoration theatre.’ As a general statement about Behn scholarship, this is true enough. But no one who has dutifully read Edward Howard, Neville Payne and Edward Ravenscroft can be called inattentive to the Restoration repertory. The basis for the charge is Todd’s inattention to Thomas Durfey. In a critical study of Restoration drama, Behn and Durfey would, of course, have to be compared. But Dobson does not indicate any significant biographical relationship between the two.