To the Malibu Hills
Andrew O’Hagan is less than fair about John Ford’s role during the period of the Hollywood blacklist (LRB, 11 September). I speak as a blacklistee. Ford could be brutal, sexist and cantankerous. But he was no coward. As the anti-Red purge was gathering steam, and men and women of goodwill (and bad conscience) were scattering to the Malibu hills in fear, Ford attended a Directors’ Guild meeting where Cecil B. DeMille was haranguing his colleagues, urging them to expel certain of their liberal members like Joseph Mankiewicz or force them to sign a loyalty oath. Against the current of the times, Ford stood up and told DeMille to go to hell.
His Own Prophet
What is disappointing, even embarrassing about the poetry of Robert Lowell in retrospect is not so much the tin ear or heavy-handedness, not the posturing and self-dramatisation, not even the straining after the important subject, the insistence on being taken as major, when, in fact, with very few exceptions, the poetry isn't really much good at all; what is, finally, so dreary about the oeuvre at this remove, the reason his enormous Collected Poems sinks like a breached tanker, are Lowell's cultural assumptions, his notion of a cultural hierarchy and his pre-eminent position in that hierarchy so tirelessly cultivated throughout his career. That a reader as intelligent and independent-minded as Michael Hofmann (LRB, 11 September) is made all quivery by these poems suggests that perhaps, in the end, Lowell was as brilliantly successful as Hofmann claims, only not in the way that he claims.
There is no need to quarrel with Michael Hofmann’s choice of the opening lines of ‘Mary Winslow’ for early evidence of Robert Lowell’s ‘naturalist or documentary side’, but equally, and inadvertently, they illustrate Lowell’s ability to make poetic gold out of what otherwise, or in other hands, might have been no more than a translator’s bêtise: ‘the body cools/And smiles as a sick child/Who adds up figures’ is only Rimbaud’s ‘Souriant comme/Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme’ mangled by prep school French into something rich and strange. ‘Le Dormeur du val’ offers no reflection on Lowell’s poem; the good poet, as Eliot observed, ‘welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.’ If there is any mark of the theft, it would be the mildly ungrammatical deployment of the ‘as’. Then again, the whole poem rests on the croupier’s ‘Rien n’va plus,’ rendered flatly enough as ‘Nothing will go again’ in both of the 14-line stanzas that make up the poem. It is not only the passing of the Copley ancestress that is being noticed, but the reckless and desperate collapse of the old economic order – those sherry-sipping ‘poised relations’ waiting for the will to be read. Les jeux sont faits.
Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia
Perhaps Michael Hofmann was getting tired after several strenuous pages. Or perhaps he was carried away by his own doomy thesis that Yeats, Pound and Eliot ‘have had no successors’. ‘Ted Hughes already feels like a rumour,’ he oracularly concludes. What can this mean? That Hughes’s work was a short-lived chimera? I first kept poems of his from little magazines in the mid-1950s because they struck me as the most powerful being published. Through the 1960s, from Wodwo to Crow, his work became still more sustained, distinctive and deep. In Crow he wrote a series of symbolic fables which took me to the heart of the natural world, our perceiving of it and participation in it; how experience gets into (or fails to get into) language; how we struggle to make sense of existence. I’d have liked him to load things less on the downcast side but nothing is ever perfect. Moortown, which first came my way read aloud by Hughes in Kendal, contains poems that drench you in a farmer’s dealings with animals – the strongest countryside writing I have come across anywhere. I could go on. ‘Rumour’ really is wide of the mark. ‘Poetry of permanent weight and poignancy’ might be more like it – probably the equal, and the counterpart, of Lowell’s in America.
Michael Hofmann identifies Robert Lowell’s last recorded reading as the one which took place on 8 December 1976 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Though undoubtedly one of his finest readings, it was not his last. That took place on 30 April 1977, only a few months before his death. He read ‘Mr Edwards and the Spider’, ‘Bringing a Turtle Home’, ‘Returning Turtle’, ‘Memories of West St and Lepke’, ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Wilson’, ‘Central Park’, ‘The March I’, ‘The March II’, ‘For John Berryman: After Reading His Last Dream Song’ and ‘To Frank Parker’. The Woodberry Poetry Room at the Lamont Library, Harvard holds a copy.
A Play for Plotters
I am mystified by Frank Kermode’s letter (Letters, 25 September). The whole point is that the performance (as all the sources and critics agree) was ‘commissioned’ not by Shakespeare’s company but by followers of Essex. I discussed at length Augustine Phillips’s statement that the play was ‘long out of use’.
Blair Worden has completely missed my point. If the representatives of Essex were asking Shakespeare’s company to put on a play based on Hayward, the company must already have been in possession of that play; i.e. they had, sometime in the fairly recent past, commissioned it. Since the play can hardly have existed before Hayward had written his book, that commission must have been made between February 1599 and February 1601. But on that date it was described, by the company’s spokesman, as ‘old and long out of use’. I know there was a rapid turnover of plays, but a lapse of something under two years hardly accords with Augustine Phillips’s words.
I thought I had made the questions clear, but since Worden addresses points I never made (and which, as he suggests, would be foolish) it is evident that I failed. Perhaps this note will make the issues more intelligible.
On Criticising Israel
Some years ago when I arrived at a hotel in Los Angeles the girl at reception remarked that I spoke English ‘kinda funny’ and asked where I was from. ‘England,’ I replied. She frowned for a moment, and then her face cleared. ‘Oh yeah, England,’ she said. ‘That’s part of France, isn’t it?’ I was reminded of this encounter with ignorance by Bennett Lovett-Graff’s letter about human rights violations (Letters, 11 September). First, he equates the plight of the Northern Irish Catholics with that of such people as the Liberians, which is manifestly absurd. Second, he states that the plight of these Catholics is invisible. How can anyone have missed the reporting of the thousands of killings that have occurred in the Province, the countless books about the Troubles, the documentary programmes and the fictional films? Where has he been for the last 25 years? Working as a hotel receptionist in Los Angeles?
Good and Bad Labour
Denis MacShane claims to have been elected to an ‘all white’ Parliament in 1994 (Letters, 25 September). I trust that by now he has been well and truly worked over by Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, Nirj Deva, Piara Khabra and Ashok Kumar, who were all Asian or black MPs at the time.
John Sturrock says that in the 18th century ‘not everyone who enrolled at Oxford could be trusted not to let the place down when, fresh from the Shires, they first opened their mouths’ (LRB, 11 September). Oxford has been badly let down rather more recently than that. During my first tutorial on Milton in 1991, I started quoting from Paradise Lost. My tutor – I shan’t name him – stopped me in mid-flow, shaking his head. He said to me: ‘When I hear you quoting Milton in your Liverpool accent, I keep thinking you’re about to ask me where the nearest chip shop is.’
I migrated to Australia in 1960, and so have missed the rise of Estuary English and the ascendancy of the glottal stop in the UK, which John Sturrock discusses. But I do remember my mother telling me in the 1950s that the reason my father, born in 1897 and the fourth child of a successful Edinburgh doctor, spoke standard ‘U’ English, was that my grandmother, a determined matriarch, decided that her youngest, at least, should be stripped of his Scottish accent; she therefore prevailed on his father to send poor Ralph Alexander on the lengthy and perilous train journey to Clayesmore, a private school (in Dorset, I think), from which, in due course, he emerged purged of his Doric and therefore, I suppose, sounding more genteel.
My father never spoke of this, but it must have been an experience worthy of record in one of those searing novels about the tyranny of education and the suffering of pupils. My mother, who would have gloried in a husband with a Scottish accent, was tight-lipped about it. As all my grandparents died before I was born, I cannot judge how much my grandmother was motivated by snobbery, and how much by a genuine desire to give my father a social advantage. All the rest of the family, I presume, spoke educated lowland Scots.
Justice for Prokofiev
Even Prokofiev’s most despised pieces have a way of not lying down, as Stephen Walsh sensibly indicates in his review of the first volume of David Nice’s biography (LRB, 25 September). Walsh notes of some of the late Soviet works, for example, that ‘they may not please those who regard Modernism as a one-way street to the increasingly disagreeable, but it is precisely the question begged by that point of view that they raise, perhaps decisively.’
How odd then to find Walsh himself repeating a few of the many other boring critical canards about this composer. He writes, for instance, of the astonishingly inventive and unexpected Second Symphony that it is ‘rackety and overcomplicated’ and ‘simply … Prokofiev’s attempt to out-clank Honegger’s steam-engine tone poem, Pacific 231’. Far from having much, if anything, to do with Honegger, Prokofiev’s Second has, despite its bright Fauviste orchestral surface, a ‘classicism’ no less striking than that of the First Symphony (the Classical Symphony). Indeed, this is the only Prokofiev work I know of based closely – maybe even worryingly so – on a piece of Beethoven’s. The model is Beethoven’s Op. 111, not only (as has often been observed) in the broad outlines of the two-movement structure, but, more fascinatingly, in many fine details of the thematic material and its working out. Honegger’s rambunctious effusion displays no such intriguing qualities.
The Tuskegee Experiment
Hugh Pennington incorrectly places the US Public Health Service's scandalous Tuskegee syphilis experiments in Macon County, Georgia (LRB, 11 September). The experiments occurred in Macon County, Alabama, where Tuskegee, with its black Tuskegee University and Veterans Administration Hospital, is located.
Mark McLean’s letter (Letters, 11 September) about Ingrid Rowland’s piece on the Medici contains several mistakes. He is apparently ignorant of the classical doctrine of concomitance by which Jesus the Lord is present in the Host (and in the consecrated wine), Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. It is therefore true that ‘He is entirely present in both elements.’ But that this happens immediately through the words of institution/consecration is not proven: Louis Bouyer defended an Eastern view that it is the whole of the Great Prayer that effects the sacramental change. The ancient liturgy of Addai and Mari has no words of institution – for reasons disputed – though it does have a reference to the Lord’s words at the Supper.
As for McLean’s assertion that the Holy Spirit did not enter into the Host to transform it: St Thomas Aquinas discusses, following Aristotle, the multiple ways in which one thing is ‘in’ another. One way is as a cause is ‘in’ its effects. Since the tradition holds that the sacramental transformation is real, though not perceptible, and therefore an operatio ad extra in relation to the Trinity, it proceeds from the triune God as from one principle, so that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are ‘in’ the consecrated elements.
As for his further assertion that there is no epiklesis in the Roman Rite, we now have four eucharistic prayers, three with explicit epikleses of the Spirit. Even in the old Roman Canon, the prayer just before the words of consecration asks that the offering may be rationabilis. That represents spiritualis from Romans 12.1, where the text of the New Revised Standard Version has ‘spiritual’ and the footnote ‘reasonable’. The prayer is an implicit epiklesis: where there is the spiritual there is the Spirit. Noelle Maurice Denis-Boulet believes that the Gregorian editing of this prayer has been influenced by the Egyptian liturgy where there is, at this point, an explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit. The older book Missarum Solemnia by Joseph Jungmann takes a different view of the Gregorian text of the prayer and rationabilis, but nevertheless regards the prayer as an epiklesis of the triune God.
W.L. Smith STD
University of St Thomas, Rome
Tea with a Monster
You really shouldn’t have let Miles Taylor get away with the opening paragraph of his piece on Tony Benn, in which he treats Benn’s ‘interview’ with Saddam Hussein almost as a joke (LRB, 25 September). It was the worst example of grovelling to a truly evil monster since Diana and Unity Mitford took tea with the Führer.
Brian Winston takes me to task for the ‘unfounded suggestion’ in my book Motion Studies ‘that Muybridge should be considered the “father” of motion pictures’ (Letters, 7 August). I never used that phrase. Eadweard Muybridge made a foundational contribution to the invention of cinema: he did not invent it and I did not say he did. Muybridge’s two great breakthroughs were high-speed photographs of people and animals in motion and the reassembly of these sequences as projected animations. But as I point out on p. 213, the first of these was made irrelevant by the arrival of the faster medium of dry-plate photography. Elsewhere I observe that no one could be described as having invented cinema because it was a synthesis of various existing technologies and new media, notably celluloid film, which the Lumières and Edison took up but Muybridge never touched. Winston implies that I’ve left out key parts of the history of innovation that led to cinema, citing Henry Heyl’s 1870 projection of six still photographs of people posed as if waltzing. I did in fact mention this.
What interested me about Muybridge is that, with his involvement with the railroad baron Leland Stanford, the Indian wars of the American West, his other photographic subjects, as well as those photographic technologies that would lead to cinema, he engaged with the much larger story of what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls ‘the industrialisation of time and space’. My book not only doesn’t claim that Muybridge was, in that tired masculine metaphor, the father of cinema, it doesn’t even consider that to be what makes Muybridge worth consideration.
Cutty, One Rock
Rob Close's lexical fastidiousness (Letters, 25 September) does not go quite far enough. No doubt a great deal of whisky, including Cutty Sark, is drunk in New York, but almost all of it, surely, is drunk from whiskey glasses?
Amis’s Old Joke
Christopher Tayler suggests that Martin Amis’s joke of having a character called Love was ‘more tirelessly pursued some years ago by Blackadder’s General Melchett and Captain Darling’ (LRB, 11 September). It was pursued longer ago than that. Christopher Isherwood published Lions and Shadows, his fictionalised early autobiography, in 1938. In it he describes his career as a school prefect: ‘I had a study of my own and two fags to keep it clean. The fags were both new boys, their names were Berry and Darling. I caused my friends much amusement whenever I shouted down the passage: “Berry, darling!” or “Darling Berry!”’
Market Harborough, Leicestershire
Is ‘Omdamniverous’ in Ian Sansom’s piece (LRB, 25 September) somehow related to ‘ver’ as in ‘verity’ or ‘ver’ as in ‘vernal’, or is it a mistaken attempt at ‘omdamnivorous’ as in ‘carnivorous’?
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: What fools we are.