Moderation or Death
Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s study of Sir Isaiah Berlin (LRB, 26 November), claims that I accused Sir Isaiah of being soft on Communism. This is not true. In the piece to which Hitchens refers (the only article I have ever written about Berlin), I praised Berlin for his hostility to Communism. But I criticised him for being soft on Communists and their fellow-travellers. Like many liberals, Berlin pursued a policy of pas d’ennemi à gauche. The wisdom of this policy, in a man not naturally given to feats of courage, is amply displayed by Hitchens’s review: a collage of mischievous gossip, innuendo and self-righteous contempt, the only ground for which is the support Berlin offered to those who were prepared to defend liberal democracy against revolutionary Communism. Were history called on to judge, would Berlin’s name come higher or lower than that of Hitchens, I wonder, on the list of those who have sided with political crime?
I’ve taken a lot of flak over the years for criticising The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which Isaiah Berlin treats Tolstoy’s analysis of the way history works as something that had to do with Tolstoy’s psyche. Berlin’s failure to understand War and Peace, allowing himself to be distracted by Tolstoy’s religious mania (which is like rejecting the laws of gravity because Newton believed in alchemy), had everything to do with his faith in the Vietnam War. Though I was sufficiently anti-Communist to fight in the Hungarian Revolution and had an uncle beaten to death by the Communists during forced collectivisation in Hungary, I realised in 1966 that the Vietnam War could not possibly be won and should be abandoned, simply because I happened to reread War and Peace. The most profound wisdom about everything is in the great novelists and playwrights, but when people want to understand the world and the difference between the desirable and the possible they don’t turn to the greatest minds, which are available everywhere in paperback, they turn to supposed experts like Isaiah Berlin, Henry Kissinger and McGeorge Bundy, who with their limited intelligence and imagination and their unlimited vanity have done as much harm to Western civilisation as all its enemies put together.
It’s ironic that Michael Rogin’s article on Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Nelson Algren (LRB, 17 September) has provoked notes only on Algren’s rueful aphorisms. Surely the problem is with the book’s central paradox: the letters, while affirming the famous transatlantic passion, simultan eously register Beauvoir’s crowded, work-centred, politicised life in Paris. During the period they cover she wrote 12 books, including The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex, and also pitched in hard with Sartre and thousands of others in the campaign against the Algerian war. For all the force of the letters, the interesting new material is less on Algren than on the amazing range of her commitments. She did nothing by halves.
Michael Rogin ascribes to the letters ‘an eloquence rarely found in the volumes Beauvoir wrote for publication’. This curious judgment compares informal, idiosyncratic, foreigner’s English with French in many and various modes. It also ignores the claims of a lifetime’s writing, with durable kinds of ‘eloquence’ across the genres – fiction, memoirs, essays, journalism, polemics, letters. It collaborates, even if against Rogin’s intentions, with those myth-makers who reduce her life and works to a string of love-affairs; it’s exactly the sort of mystification (her word) Beauvoir sought to demolish in The Second Sex.
Recent commentators have performed a similar operation on Hannah Arendt: against the evidence of major works in political philosophy and two interesting marriages, she’s supposed to have spent decades carrying a torch for Heidegger. It seems that the intellectual woman is still a disconcerting figure in the landscape.
Sparrow v. Rowse
A.N. Wilson, in reviewing John Lowe’s biography of John Sparrow (LRB, 1 October), made copious reference to A.L. Rowse, who had been Sparrow’s ‘rival’ for the Wardenship of All Souls and whom Wilson admired. Wilson claims that Rowse had
written a damning book called All Souls and Appeasement, in which he exposed the damage done by this quasi-academic dining club when figures such as Lord Halifax and Cosmo Gordon Lang, both fellows during the Thirties, used the High Table as a place to discuss and plot their disgraceful foreign policy. The dry-as-dusts and the clubmen were able to unite against Rowse, not only ejecting him from the chance of the Wardenship, but also turning up their noses at his great series of popular and learned books about Elizabethan England, or his unimprovable two-volume history of the Churchill family.
This extract contains so many inaccuracies, it seems Wilson’s knowledge of the book referred to is limited to its title.
First, All Souls and Appeasement was published in 1961 – a decade after the election for the Wardenship which, according to Wilson, it had influenced to Rowse’s detriment. Secondly, Wilson has completely misrepresented Rowse’s purpose in writing the book. To substantiate this I need only quote page one, headed ‘Approach’:
It is not my business to defend All Souls College, but there is a widespread idea that the college as such had a large part in the fatal policy of Appeasement that led to war. Lord Boothby – with whom I saw eye to eye on this issue at the time, and over other matters since – has several times referred to ‘that disastrous dinner-table’, as if it were over dinner at All Souls that that policy originated or was planned. Of course it was much discussed in college, and some of the most eminent members of the college had a leading hand in it; but the overwhelming majority of us were opposed to it – the younger generation of Fellows practically to a man, most of the middle generation of professors and some seniors. Of the public men and politicians who were Fellows, Leo Amery was consistently opposed to Appeasement: throughout the whole of that deplorable decade he was more right than any front-bench figure, even than Churchill, with whom he fought side by side in vain. Sir Arthur (now Lord) Salter, though he was a recent recruit to the college from outside, had an equally good record of consistent opposition. There remain Simon and Halifax, and of course Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times during the whole period and the most powerful figure of the lot; these three were in it up to the neck.
Third, Rowse made it very clear in this book that he was consistently on cordial terms with these three upholders of Appeasement, however strongly and eloquently he challenged them personally. This is of some interest in connection with the election for the Wardenship, as two of them, Simon and Halifax, were involved. (Dawson had died in 1944.) Rowse, who was Sub-Warden at the time, wrote of Simon, in All Souls and Appeasement:
[At] the end he rewarded me with a great mark of confidence: loving All Souls as he did, he very much wanted me to become Warden of the College, a thing I had never in all those years dreamed of. Perhaps this may be set down as another mark of his bad judgment, for it would never have suited my book, nor was it what I wished at heart: it would have been an utter frittering away of life and time, when there was little enough left of either. I was perfectly clear in my own mind about that at the time, though loyalty to the College and to my friends made it impossible to say so – there were others, of course, not sympathetic enough to see that, and there would be no point in telling them. But that this was John Simon’s last wish for the institution he so much loved revealed a touching confidence.
Rowse subsequently recorded, in Friends and Contemporaries (1989), that Halifax had also backed him for the Wardenship, although he added that ‘when Simon saw which way the election was going, he characteristically went over to the majority.’
Finally, Rowse’s publications on Elizabethan England and on the Churchills were disregarded not only by members of the All Souls community but by those beyond it. Apparently, Rowse was never invited to lecture by the Oxford History School, in spite of his very considerable attainments as a historian, and his work on Shakespeare was constantly sniped at by the professionals in the Eng. Lit. industry. Even his close friend, David Cecil, who in 1948 had been elected Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford, ‘never spoke up for my (unanswerable) discoveries about Shakespeare’ and in the matter of the identity of ‘Mr W.H.’ in the Sonnets ‘he merely thought that I “might be right”.’ Isaiah Berlin, who Wilson claimed had even into his last years successfully and covertly opposed Rowse’s being knighted, was acknowledged by Rowse in All Souls and Appeasement as one of the younger fellows who during the Thirties had seen eye to eye with him on Appeasement. Perhaps then such hostility as Rowse encountered at All Souls was due more to his personality than to his political views or to his scholarship.
Nom de Guerre
Paul Auster’s 1970 article ‘The Art of Hunger’ opens with the fact that Hamsun’s struggling protagonist ‘has no name’. James Wood (LRB, 26 November) declares that his ‘name we fumblingly learn about half way through the book to be Andreas Tangen’. But it’s clear – as early as page 58 of Sverre Lyngstad’s much praised new translation – that the narrator is lying. Indeed, he tells us so himself.
Hamsun’s deliberately unnamed individual, perhaps Everyman, his would-be writer self, seeks meaningful identity. He must stubbornly remake himself. Until he does, he remains nameless. The nuances of naming are important in Hunger. Put on the spot, facing authority (the police), the homeless young drifter promptly and purposefully reinvents himself. He gives the name ‘Andreas Tangen’ (which he at once finds absurd and privately disavows): it’s less nom de plume than nom de guerre. He claims to be a ‘journalist’, which is at least partially accurate as he hasn’t yet published a full-length work; nor had Hamsun. But later, still starved of publication, Hamsun’s protagonist simply ends by drifting off and thus continuing to exist. He exits from city as from book, performing the ultimate confidence trick, writing an end, an escape where none seems in sight.
On the Backs of Dead Poets
I’m appalled to learn that OUP have axed their poetry list. Surely a major part of their renown rests on the publication of major poetry anthologies, dictionaries of quotations, Companions to English literature etc? In short, they would appear to thrive on the backs of dead poets, which makes it all the more shameful that they should abandon the living ones.
Where Historians Refuse to Look
John Barrell’s was a fine review of Island Stories (LRB, 29 October), and Raphael Samuel was indeed a ‘superb teacher’. For many like myself at Ruskin College he was the first authority figure to value our experiences. History to him was an activity not a profession and his teaching was an extension of this stance. There might then be a solution here to any puzzlement regarding Samuel’s disquiet about professional history. He found his sources where some in the profession still refuse to look.
I would be interested to know Terry Eagleton’s grounds for asserting that F.R. Leavis was a parochial philistine on the topic of Modernism (LRB, 12 November). Leavis’s field was literature and the chief exemplars of literary Modernism in his time, in English, were Joyce, Eliot and Pound. In the Twenties Leavis made a point of using Ulysses in his teaching, and I believe he lost his fellowship at Emmanuel for bringing a copy of this censored novel into the country. He wrote some of the first deep and enthusiastic criticism of Eliot’s poetry in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and his account of Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ in that book is an exemplary piece of pioneering evaluation. It is fashionable these days to bad-mouth Leavis for any old shortcoming that can be laid at his door. Arguing this cogently is altogether harder.
Terry Eagleton says of Peter Conrad’s book that ‘each sentence strives to be an aperçu.’ One sentence he quotes contains the aperçu that ‘the 19th century, powered by the internal combustion engine, was a time of hectic, propulsive dynamism.’ The earliest internal combustion engines were those of Nikolaus August Otto in 1876, Gottlieb Daimler in 1885 and Rudolf Diesel in the early 1890s. If I am right in this (and the Encyclopaedia Britannica is on my side) then it looks as though (even in Germany) only a tiny bit of the 19th century was running on anything other than old-fashioned stuff like steam, water, clockwork, wind and muscle. Either Conrad and Eagleton have got the wrong century or else they’ve got the wrong engine.
David Selbourne’s City of Light, which purports to publish a Jewish account of China in the 13th century and which my review last year (LRB, 30 October 1997) described as a forgery, has reappeared in paperback. It was strongly championed by Melanie Phillips in the Sunday Times of 18 October. In this piece Phillips takes issue with my review on grounds that I believe to be dubious, although she states correctly that I make three concessions: that my point of view is narrow (I am only concerned with the reliability of City of Light as an account of China – a mere seven chapters out of ten), that a genuine travel account may have been extended by inauthentic material (I cannot tell if the non-Chinese remainder is genuine or not) and that I have not read the whole book (I find insoluble problems every time I try).
But she is wrong to say that I suggested ‘degrees were unavailable in the 13th century.’ What I said was that some of the degrees mentioned in the text were probably extinct. She quotes me as saying: ‘Jews couldn’t have been living in Zaitun because the port was too obscure to attract foreigners’ – my very words. Now look at them in context: ‘Obviously some errors in the text may be accounted for by perfectly simple hypotheses: when Jacob avers that Jews have lived in the port he visits for “more than one thousand years”, one can easily imagine that this is mere exaggeration – as it has to be, since the port concerned was probably too obscure to attract foreigners even five hundred years earlier, and too insignificant to enter Chinese records at all much earlier than that.’ Brilliant journalism, but utterly pointless.
In support of her own views, Phillips cites Wang Lianmao of Quanzhou Maritime Museum. The Chinese text of an interview with Wang makes it clear that he would like to believe the account genuine, but he too finds errors in it and avoids a definitive verdict. I am more convinced than ever by the paperback edition of the unreliability of City of Light: not one of the dozen or so substantive charges against it made in my review has been answered in the Afterword, while an expanded note on the puzzling ‘Baiciu’, evidently included by Selbourne to allay my suspicions, proves that this garbled name of a famous rebel was only known to the narrator of the account in a form which derived from an 18th-century misreading of an Arabic manuscript – as good a proof as any that something is badly amiss.
I am no expert on Sino-Jewish contacts, nor on the 13th century, so I consider myself open to correction, though certain in my overall conclusions. Next year an academic review of Selbourne’s work by experts in the appropriate fields will appear in the Journal of Asian History, and they will assert that City of Light ‘was written in English by Dr Selbourne and Dr Selbourne alone’. I mention this because I doubt that it will merit half a page in the Sunday Times.
School of Oriental and African Studies
A bas les Anglo-Saxons
The slogan chanted by French football supporters after their World Cup victory should be in the order ‘black-blanc-beur’, not ‘blanc-black-beur’ as Anand Menon had it (LRB, 12 November). It is a militant response to the Front National’s co-option of the tricolour for their annual Fête du bleu-blanc-rouge. In any case, the jubilant fans didn’t chant that, they chant ed ‘Zidane for President’. Paris’s former mayor Jacques Chirac would doubtless have been alarmed if, as Menon asserts, this call for his replacement had been projected onto the Arc de Triomphe, since the lightshow in question was organised by his Gaullist successors at the City Council. In fact, the monument acted as a backdrop to a simple succession of players’ names and photos.
Utterly Complete Orwell
The new 20-volume edition of the Complete Works of George Orwell isn’t actually, as Ian Hamilton claims (LRB, 29 October), ‘utterly complete’, as the editor carefully explains. On the other hand, the 11 new volumes of shorter writings really do add a great deal to the old four volumes, including all the reviews (of plays and films as well as books), all the ‘As I Please’ columns in Tribune (as well as the deuteropseudonymous article on socialism in the Christmas 1943 issue), the Manchester Evening News articles on political ideas in 1946, all the notebooks and many more letters, far more detailed annotation, and so on.