A bas les Anglo-Saxons
Anand Menon tells us a lot about France today (LRB, 12 November). But his view of de Gaulle is a bit askew. He suggests that le Général used foreign policy to ‘rally political opponents to his new Republic’. After watching de Gaulle in action for some years, I concluded that his opposition to the United States and ‘Anglo-Saxon hegemony’ was at the heart of what he called ‘une certaine idée de la France’ and not simply a tool for managing domestic politics. I also assumed that he negotiated a settlement in Algeria – and antagonised the French Army in the process – because he wanted a free hand to conduct the foreign policy he had always dreamed of: against America and in favour of ‘l’Europe des Patries’.
At the risk of replacing the ‘very gruesome taste’ in Christopher Hitchens’s mouth (Letters, 12 November) with a different though equally unpleasant taste: the ‘cloud’ under which Rimbaud left Cyprus in June 1880 – if there was a cloud at all – had nothing to do with Kitchener. According to Rimbaud’s letters and the Cyprus Gazette, he was hired to supervise the construction of the new governor’s summer residence in the Troodos Mountains. Later that year, Rimbaud gave two contradictory explanations for his sudden departure: ‘arguments with the paymaster general and the engineer’; the ‘company ceased operations’. Years later, in Africa, the word was that Rimbaud had ‘committed some kind of misdemeanour on a Greek island’.
The Italian trader, Ottorino Rosa, who rode alongside Rimbaud on long expeditions at the end of the 1880s and who was generally defensive of his reputation, heard Rimbaud talk about his time in Cyprus as part of his troubled past: ‘There, he had the misfortune, when throwing a stone, to strike a native worker on the temple, killing him instantly. In fear, he took refuge on a ship that was about to sail [for Egypt].’ This brings to mind a phrase in Rimbaud’s letter of 24 April 1879, when he was working as a foreman at a stone quarry 16 miles east of Larnaca: ‘I’ve had quarrels with the workers and have had to ask for arms.’
The only definite example of a homosexual relationship in Rimbaud’s life is his ‘season in Hell’ with Verlaine. Acts of violence, on the other hand, are commonplace.
I am glad to learn from Christopher Hitchens that the inscription to Rimbaud on the Summer Residence in the Troodos Mountains is in French. It is clearly the work of his compatriots, retracing the steps of ‘the Master’ some time after his death.
In his review of my book In Defence of History (LRB, 15 October) Peter Ghosh claims that I am engaged in a ‘polemic against history since 1960’, that my book defends an ‘exaggerated empiricism’ based on the ‘fetishising of documents’, that I believe that facts and documents ‘speak for themselves’. In Defence of History argues on the contrary that history has undergone a welcome renaissance since the Sixties. It defends at length the broadening of the discipline against conservative historians who would like to see it return to its old concentration on the politics of the nation-state.
The book argues that facts and documents do not speak for themselves but speak only when they are spoken to by the historian. Historians need to use, indeed cannot avoid using, theories and concepts developed in their own time. Ghosh himself denies this, takes the historicist view that ‘theory comes from within history’ and excoriates the historian’s use of theories derived from other disciplines. This is sheer obscurantism. Most advances in modern historical scholarship have taken place as a result of theories borrowed from elsewhere, whether philology, economics, sociology, anthropology or linguistics.
Ghosh claims that my portrait of the history of ideas as the continual reinterpretation of a limited number of classic texts ‘bears no relation to the modern discipline of the history of ideas’. He goes on to note, however, that the ‘old version’ which I describe ‘actually resembles Post-Modernism in the style of Hayden White or Ankersmit’. But this is precisely the point made in my book. White and all his numerous disciples and followers argue that all texts are capable of infinite reinterpretation, and it is this idea (among others) which my book is trying to argue against.
Ghosh seems to believe that any kind of aesthetic impulse which goes into the structuring of a work of history is evidence of that work’s conceptual vacuity. He refers to my book Death in Hamburg as an example. If he had actually read the book, he would have discovered that it is structured by a set of Marxist concepts. The conceptual and aesthetic aspects of writing a history book are not mutually exclusive; if they were, all history books would be unreadable.
Ghosh’s grotesque misreading of In Defence of History culminates in the claim that it construes Post-Modernism exclusively as the denial of the possibility of truth and objectivity. If he had read my book with any care, he would have discovered that it distinguishes between extreme Post-Modernist versions of hyper-relativism, which it argues against, and moderate versions of Post-Modernism, which it defends. He asserts that there was ‘no conscious tradition of Modernism’ in history against which to react, so there can by implication be no such thing as Post-Modernism. If we stuck to such a view, we would never be able to use concepts about people in the past which they did not use themselves. This would make the historian’s job impossible.
Something important has happened to history in the last twenty years: the great overarching narratives have collapsed, the story of history as progress has been abandoned, innovation has come above all from historians writing about the marginal, the bizarre, the individual, the small-scale. It seems quite reasonable to call these now-defunct narratives Modernist, as indeed many Post-Modernist writers on history do; and equally reasonable to call the new development Post-Modernist.
Gonville and Caius College Cambridge
Constance Blackwell’s attempt to treat Bill Clinton’s weaselling prevarications as emblematic of an American inability ‘to learn the English meaning of the word “sorry”’ (Letters, 15 October) is no more convincing than the assertion that Jonathan Aitken’s handling of the truth is a key to the English character.
University of Pennsylvania
In the State of Barbarism
John Calderón (Letters, 12 November) appears to be ignoring the historical experience of mankind this century. There have been about three dozen nations on all continents which practised Marxism in one or another way, with the same result without exception: an obnoxious one-party tyranny, huge loss of human life, unviable militarised economy, omnipotent secret police, mass executions, concentration camps, deportations and devastation of the environment. Attempts to use Marxism to end the barbarism in the world are like using petrol to extinguish the fire.
Utterly Complete Orwell
I must correct Ian Hamilton’s assumption (LRB, 29 October) that I alone selected the contents of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journals and Letters (1968). The title-pages truth fully state that the four volumes are edited by Sonia Orwell and myself. For months we discussed everything we then knew Orwell had written and only those items on which we were in complete agreement were included.
Don’t sleep with him/her
I have never played cards with a man call ‘Doc’ or dined at a place called ‘Mom’s’ (and a fat lot of good it’s done me), but in the case of Algren’s third axiom: how do you know beforehand?
I am gratified to see myself placed second in the LRB Top Twenty (Letters, 12 November). If only I had clicked another fifty times on ‘The Drudge Report’ I would have made Number One – as can any contributor patient, narcissistic and ruthless enough. Winning, as the American football coach said, is not the best thing: it’s the only thing.