Three’s a Crowd
Alan Bennett wonders (LRB, 1 January) whether the Holy Spirit resents the other two Persons of the Trinity for ‘being better known (and certainly more identifiable) than he is’. The answer is that he doesn’t, being less interested in the visual arts than in music, where – as almost any celebrated setting of the Lesser Doxology demonstrates – the Father and the Son are summarily ticked off on the register as present before the composer settles down to show us his stuff in an elaborate and lengthy exposition of the et Spiritui Sancto.
I accept with thanks Dr Jian’s scholarly account (Letters, 19 February) of the true sources in classical Chinese of the mangled epithets reported from Hong Kong during the last days of British rule. Only the first two, however, appeared in my review. Actually, ‘eternally unpardonable criminal’ and ‘triple violator’ seem, on closer reading, to be no more than pithier versions of ‘statesmen who are deemed to leave negative imprints on the course of history’ and ‘guilty figure’. On the more vulgar abuse allegedly showered on Governor Patten, surely it is the BBC’s command of literary Chinese, rather than mine, that is at fault. Now that tempers have cooled somewhat, however, we might all agree that the last governor was clearly not an admirer of the Beijing leadership, and vice versa – but that, on the whole, Hong Kong’s historically inevitable return to Chinese sovereignty seems to be going well, for which all sides deserve much praise.
Assault and Flattery
Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) is entitled to his opinions about what constitutes a threat to his notion of common-sense literary history, his views of what he calls ‘reasonably disinterested scholarship’, his belief that questions of sexuality and gender are mere ‘curiosities’, and even his xenophobic generalisations about American scholars. But, in a sentence that appears one full column into his recent attack on the Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, after he has already denounced an entire series of 22 books, its general editor and its editorial board, Kermode writes: ‘The most recent addition to the series … is reasonably typical of the rest, so far as I have seen them.’ Could I ask, in fairness to myself and to the other unnamed scholars whose work Kermode derides, that his ‘reviews’ be restricted to opinions (preferably substantiated) of books he has actually read?
Rereading the Zonnets
Enthusiasm for The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets fairly danced off the pages of Tom Paulin’s review (LRB, 22 January). Helen Vendler’s theory about the couplet tie, and the key-words which knit the final couplet securely into the rest of the fabric, is a compelling one. What Paulin and Vendler have to say about sonnet 44, about how the word badges has been prepared for by dj and b sounds earlier in the poem, is convincing. I was surprised, however, to read that Vendler finds no couplet tie or key-word(s) in this sonnet, and suggest that there is a strong case for seeing naught, in the penultimate line of the poem, as a key-word.
[N]aught is tied acoustically to thought, which occurs no fewer than four times, on two occasions as an end-rhyme with brought and wrought respectively. To begin with, the poet asserts the power of thought over the constraints of the flesh – ‘If the dull substance of my flesh were thought’ – and the first two quatrains play out this fantasy, creating an imaginary solution to his physical separation from the beloved:
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
The line in which thought occurs twice is the pivotal line 9 – ‘But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought’ – in which, poignantly, it is the power of thought that reveals its own powerlessness, and in which, it could be argued, the poet confronts his own existence as something separate from the beloved. Until this line, the poet’s thought can be seen to be taken up by the beloved, since, in one of those visual puns that Shakespeare delights in, the thou of the sonnet is contained graphically within thought.
‘But that, so much of earth and water wrought’ (l. 11) brings him back to earth, answering the flight of ‘For nimble thought can jump both sea and land’ (l. 7). In wrought, with its crucial echo of water, we hear this sound for the last time before we come to naught, and it is the word’s round shape, a nought or O, which prefigures the ‘heavy tears, badges’ of the final line. The o sounds, in moan, so slow and woe fall on the ear like sighs, but also like the regular falling of round and heavy drops.
This patterning of sounds through the poem takes us from the airy nonchalance of the first two quatrains (not forgetting the punning ‘No matter then’ of line 5) to a reluctant acceptance of the body’s gravity and constraints in the heavier, slower sounds of the third quatrain, and so to the couplet, culminating, as Paulin puts it, in the ‘scaly weight of the word badges’.
It is interesting that Shakespeare associates badges with bodily fluids elsewhere. In Act I of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock cries:
For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.
And in Act II of Macbeth, Lennox, describing the dead Duncan’s grooms, says: ‘Their hands and faces were all badg’d with blood.’
St Andrews, Fife
Humpty Dumpty got it wrong
There were several errors in Glen Newey’s essay on Cornelius Castoriadis (LRB, 5 February). Castoriadis broke with the Greek Communists during, not after, World War Two. Newey says that he emigrated ‘to France with the onset of the Metaxas dictatorship in Greece after the war of liberation’, whereas the dictatorship had ended by the time of Metaxas’s death in 1941, four years before Castoriadis left Athens. Newey writes that ‘in later life Castoriadis wandered from Trotskyism’, but in forming the now legendary group and review Socialisme ou barbarie in 1948, Castoriadis had already instigated, at the age of 26, a definitive break with Trotskyism.
Even a cursory reading of my most recent collection of Castoriadis’s writings, World in Fragments, would have told Newey that what Castoriadis calls ‘social imaginary significations’ are not the product of any ‘psychic mechanism’. As Castoriadis says time and again, society is irreducible to the psychical – Newey irrelevantly criticises a ‘project of psychoanalytical reduction’. The association of Castoriadis’s internationalist left-libertarian ‘project of autonomy’ – which was ever resistant to fads as well as to authoritarian responses – with ‘the self-styled “Post-Modern bourgeois liberal”’ Richard Rorty, ‘romantic nationalism’, ‘Fascism’, ‘Nazism’, ‘the NKVD’, ‘Kim Jong-Il’ and Tony Blair seems wilfully ignorant. Pace Humpty Dumpty (whom Newey quotes), words don’t just mean what we want them to mean.
David Ames Curtis
Fascism in the Archives
As I noted in my letter about MI5 history (Letters, 5 February), John Hope has claimed that the MI5 officer Maxwell Knight was the British Fascists’ Director of Intelligence at the time he was recruited to MI5 in the mid-Twenties. I argued that, while the available evidence certainly showed that ‘for several years Knight was both a senior Fascist and an employee of MI5,’ that evidence was ‘not incompatible with Knight’s having become the Fascists’ Director of Intelligence at the same time as, or shortly after, he joined MI5’.
John Hope has told me he has just received a copy of a document in the United States National Archives which shows that in December 1923 Knight was representing the British Fascisti (as they were then known) in informal discussions with the US Embassy in London. This predates by a year the document from the Australian Archives which was hitherto the earliest known evidence of Knight’s Fascist involvement. There is some uncertainty as to whether Knight joined MI5 in 1924 or 1925, but whichever date is correct, the American document appears to show that Knight was already a leading Fascist when he was recruited by MI5.
MI5’s archives could well contain many of the answers to this frustratingly opaque episode but, although some interwar material is reputedly soon to be released, experience indicates that this will be an exercise in public relations rather than glasnost. It seems likely that historians will have to continue trying to piece together the truth using scattered fragments of evidence from as far afield as Washington and Canberra.
Melissa Benn notes that the majority of women in the House of Commons voted to cut single-parent benefits (LRB, 5 February). In the US recently most female senators voted to abolish the Federal entitlement to welfare. As Benn points out, this says something not just about the current state of feminism, but about the current state of liberalism. As an American, I have a problem with Benn’s portrayal of American feminism as being monolithically new or revisionary. What about Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, to name only two? As a contemporary of Naomi Wolf and Natasha Walter, I don’t look down my nose at the second wave as AbFab’s Saffy might. I hope Benn is underestimating my peers.
Nicolas Walter’s comments on Melissa Benn’s review of Natasha Walter’s book (Letters, 19 February) made me wonder about one thing: is there anywhere in the world, apart from Britain, that could develop a hereditary aristocracy of radicalism?
Olomouc, Czech Republic
Not Whoa the fairies!
I reject entirely the meaning imputed by Alfred Baker (Letters, 5 February) to the song ‘Oh the Fairies’ (not ‘Whoa’; that was the second line). I attended the Players’ Theatre regularly every week for more than thirty years, and I never once heard such suggestions made by the audience. After all, there were ladies present!
The book Late Joys at the Players’ Theatre, edited by Jean Anderson (1943), contains part of the score and the opening verse (or possibly the chorus) of ‘Oh the Fairies’, and gives the author as T.S. Lonsdale, 1878, and the composer as W.G. Eaton. The song is described as ‘No. 10 on the song sheets’. Perhaps the Players’ Theatre could help?
In response to Richard Davies’s question (Letters, 22 January) about the meaning of the word hink in James Ellroy’s novel, LA Confidential, the slang word hincty/hinkty/ hink(y) meaning ‘snobbish, aloof, haughty’, found its way into undercover/police jargon as hink(y) – a word that can mean a number of things, such as ‘petty, cheap, nervous, jumpy, cautious, suspicious’ etc. I (t)hink that there must be some connection between the slang word hincty/hinkty/ hink(y) and words such as hinkin (Old Norse) meaning ‘to limp, falter, hobble’; hink (Scots obs.) meaning ‘to falter, misgive, hesitate’; and inca (Old English) meaning ‘to doubt, question’.