Since it is impossible to say how many people should go to university, the Government's target of 50 per cent of all those between 18 and 30 must have been selected for its electoral appeal, Stefan Collini tells us (LRB, 6 November). His tone is accusatory, as if this were a cynical ploy, but given the general tone of its other policies, that the Government should base its appeal to the electorate on an imagined desire for an expansion of higher education seems almost heart-warming. Besides, in the absence of a more principled argument, if it were true that 50 per cent is likely to be a popular figure, wouldn't that be at least some kind of basis for choosing it as a threshold?
I read Collini's piece looking for arguments that could be used in support of a more generous settlement for higher education. He makes the case that scholarship should be pursued for its own sake and that education is a public good. That's fine, but the argument is not about whether the state should support universities but to what extent. I wouldn't want the state to fund any and every application for a place on a course, in a laboratory or on a fellowship: nor, I suspect, would Collini. And, at the other end of the scale, even Charles Clarke would preserve a small community of scholars.
I was all the more disappointed that Collini seemed so untroubled by the failure of education to dent the broader structures of inequality. This seems rather more depressing than the evident failure of university English departments to provide the DfES with a supply of decent prose stylists. Surely it is, at least in part, the potential of a university education to transform a life that makes it a public good? The challenge, which seems not be have been met in the White Paper, is to put universities on a sustainable financial footing without making the apparent cost even more daunting for working-class students.
University College London
Working nearer the other end of British higher education from Stefan Collini, I, too, often wonder what is to become of universities. One approach to the problem of how to distribute students round the system might be to adopt the strategy that has kept American football so competitive for decades. At the end of each season, the clubs get to pick new entrants to the league’s ranks of professional players, straight from their college teams. This procedure, called the ‘draft’, is managed in such a way as to ensure that no team can consolidate its success season after season. The team at the bottom of the league gets the first pick and that year’s winning team the last; success is then more directly related to training, player support and teamwork. If we did this for universities, institutions at the bottom of the league tables could pick the best and brightest, while Oxbridge colleges would have to wait until last to find their new cohort. We’d then be able to tell which universities were making a difference to their students’ life-chances and which merely take in students and consolidate their position.
University of the West of England, Bristol
‘Swiss’ not Swiss
Rousseau’s ideas, David Runciman says, ‘can often seem too true to be Swiss’ (LRB, 23 October). Although associated with the Confederation since 1526, the Republic and Canton of Geneva formally became a member only in 1814. The Genevan Rousseau died in 1778 and could not have been Swiss, strictly speaking. On the other hand, Geneva and the other six future Swiss cantons might have found themselves, before joining in the early 19th century, in a position as regards the Confederation similar to that of those countries today that are ‘European’ without being members of the European Union.
Gareth Dixon is right that the atmosphere by Tower Bridge during the closing days of David Blaine's hunger artistry was not one of mob hysteria (Letters, 6 November). But then Andrew O'Hagan is not wrong, either, that the spectacle was profoundly bound up in our morbidly scopophiliac culture. What I think they've both missed is that Blaine in his box was a remarkable work of art, deserving much more serious attention than it received at the time. In staging the spectacle, Blaine was clearly inviting – and inviting reflection on – the jealous attention which we all focus on the famous these days. And, contrary to what Gareth Dixon wrote, the murderousness of that fixation was all too evident in the early days of Blaine's vigil.
For those who visited the spectacle, there were striking satirical ironies to observe in the piece: the weird excitement over the most ordinary reality, the fact that the tremendously visible Blaine was, in his hoody and blanket, indistinguishable from hundreds of other virtually invisible homeless people living on the South Bank. And there was also great beauty: I can't have been the only person who was moved by Blaine's Zen assertion of his private will under the most relentless glare of publicity. He remained inscrutable in an almost heroic way. I am surprised that his endeavour has not been taken more seriously: it's not as if art historical antecedents – Joseph Beuys, Cornelia Parker – are all that hard to think up. But perhaps we will have to wait for Harmony Korine's film of the occasion to realise fully how untrivial it was.
Play for Plotters
Frank Kermode needn't worry (Letters, 6 November): his spat with Blair Worden is drawing a crowd, even if the spectators are reluctant to come between the pass and fell-incensed points of mighty opposites. I wonder, though, whether the dispute in its present form is strictly necessary. Worden is convinced that the play about Richard II performed on the eve of the Essex rising was not Shakespeare's; Kermode is not convinced that it wasn't. Both speak as if the question has a definite answer one way or the other; they seem to share the assumption that a play is a fixed and authorially controlled text which must be performed as written or not performed at all. But there is not much reason to suppose that Renaissance theatre scripts had any such integrity. Plays were readily adapted, doctored, cut or supplemented – especially, it seems, successful plays such as Hamlet, Doctor Faustus and The Spanish Tragedy.
So if Worden is right in saying that the deposition of Richard II was an irresistibly hot topic in early 1599, it is at least possible that the Lord Chamberlain's company would exploit it by adapting their existing and successful version of the story, rather than by embarking on a complete new one (especially at a time when they had other preoccupations, like building the Globe). A hybrid text – Shakespeare somewhat Haywardised – would be consistent with the assorted references in state papers, as well as with what we know about Elizabethan theatre practice. It would also mean that when Augustine Phillips said the play was old, it was true but not the whole truth. But as he was being asked about a payment he had accepted from a man who was now going to be hanged for treason, he would be careful, wouldn't he?
University of East Anglia
I covered the funeral of the anti-tax activist Paul Gann in 1989 for the Sacramento Bee. I was thus surprised to see the implication in Gary Indiana's article (LRB, 6 November) that Mr Gann had been collecting recall signatures this year.
Ramz not Rams
It may seem out of place to quibble about a transliteration in Uri Avnery’s account of his participation in the human shield in Arafat’s Mukatah, but when the word for ‘symbol’ on a Palestinian poster is rendered as ‘rams’, an unfortunate confusion arises (LRB, 6 November). The plural of the English word for a male sheep, ‘rams’, is pronounced with a final voiced consonant, and renders very exactly the sound of the Arabic word for ‘symbol’. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that there is another quite distinct Arabic word ‘rams’ (with a final unvoiced sibilant) which means ‘grave’, ‘tomb’, ‘dust’ etc. It seems desirable to use a straightforward standard transliteration and to avoid any suggestion that the Church of the Sepulchre and other monuments are being designated by the Palestinian Ministry for Refugee Affairs as tombs: so, ‘ramz’.
It’s a pity that Jeremy Harding (LRB, 9 October) did not pick up on Mark Treharne’s superlative 1998 translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Saison en enfer. Treharne would have proved useful, too, on a point of textual scholarship raised by Harding. In respect of the prose poem ‘Villes 1’, he reports that André Guyaux (who is currently revising the Pléiade Rimbaud) has ‘announced a “correct reading”’ of a scarcely legible moment in the manuscript (standard practice in French editions and English translations has been to leave an unhelpful blank), which Guyaux gives as ‘Brahmas’. That this should be ‘announced’ as news is news to me. Treharne has ‘Brahmas’ in his facing-page French text, translates it as ‘Brahmins’ and in a note says: ‘The word is hard to decipher in the manuscript. Rather than leave a blank I have hazarded a reading congruent with the other Indian terms (rupee, nabob) in the text.’
Finally, Harding is quite right to describe Graham Robb’s biography as ‘dazzling’, but, as he gently acknowledges, being dazzled can also amount to being blinded. Demystifying the Rimbaud myth by putting him in soberly assessed context is one thing. Putting him in his place is another thing altogether.
Danish Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, Copenhagen
Jeremy Harding writes: In trying to say something about the parallax effect and the jumpy perspectives of the so-called ‘urban’ Illuminations in the LRB several years ago, I wrote that ‘Mark Treharne’s superb English versions … catch these shifts and transections exactly’ (LRB, 30 July 1998). Treharne’s translations were good when they appeared and they look good now. As for those ‘Brahmas’, Prendergast is right to say that they’re not news. I meant by ‘announced’ to suggest that the excellent Guyaux can deliver his views with an Olympian authority: ‘pronounced’ would have been more like it. Yet Guyaux is also patient and courteous in exposition, especially on this point, about which he wrote at length in Poétique du fragment (1985). But if the word really is ‘Brahmas’, as he and Treharne agree, why translate it as ‘Brahmins’? Perhaps because it’s ‘the minor officials’ of the ‘ministries’ who are in question here, and it seems to make more sense to liken them to officiating figures – Brahmins – than to the deity proper: Brahma. But the Illuminations rarely work in this helpful way, and I wonder if the better translation mightn’t be ‘Brahmas’? That they are ‘Brahmas’ in the plural, rather than the one ‘Brahma’, ought not to be a worry: in other Illuminations, as Guyaux points out, we find Queen Mabs, Rolands, Sodoms, all in the plural. Besides, French has a word for Brahmin: ‘brahmane’. It occurs in ‘Vies’ I: ‘le brahmane qui m’expliqua les Proverbes’, which Treharne translates as ‘the Brahmin who once explained the Proverbs to me’.
In her review of Paul Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel (LRB, 23 October), Laura Quinney quotes from ‘At the Sign of the Black Horse’ the lines about how little Asher’s soul might not ‘recover radical innocence and learn at last/that it is self-delighting’, and refers the lines to William Blake. In fact, the lines are an almost verbatim quotation from Yeats’s ‘Prayer for My Daughter’.
National University of Ireland, Maynooth