Anything but Shy
In his essay on Fritz Stern, Thomas Laqueur also discusses the historian George Mosse (LRB, 7 June). As a former doctoral and undergraduate student of Mosse’s at the University of Wisconsin, and as someone who had a close relationship with him for several decades, I wanted to correct some inaccuracies in Laqueur’s commentary, while fundamentally agreeing with its thrust. Laqueur describes Mosse as ‘homosexual, shy, and drawn to new homes in Israel and England’. Mosse was anything but shy. A brilliant orator, lecturing to as many as five hundred students, he was consistently thought-provoking, funny, self-deprecating and teasing of his audience. His voice, at once beautiful and booming, was clear and powerful. Mosse, unlike Stern, was rarely awed by other male intellectuals or academics, though he told me he was intimidated by Gershom Scholem, whom he described as a ‘force of nature’. He could be timid around articulate women, however, including his psychoanalytically trained sister Hilde.
As for his homosexuality, I am grateful Laqueur mentioned it; it has often been overlooked or minimised in appraisals of Mosse’s life and work. Many of his closest friends and students suspected he was gay, yet it was only at a banquet celebrating his 80th birthday that he openly admitted it. In his memoir, Confronting History, he said he believed that his outsider status in academia stemmed from the dual impact of his homosexuality and his Jewishness: both were significant parts of his identity; both gave his cultural politics and his method of doing history an unusual sparkle, relevance and originality.
Mosse’s relationship to Israel was also complex. While he insisted on the country’s right to exist, he was openly critical of its militarism and racism. He felt very much at home there, however, and came out in Israel as a practising homosexual before he did in the US. Mosse’s Jewish identity changed over the years and he often used his courses and subsequently his books to work out what it meant to be a secular, assimilated German Jew in the late 20th century without abandoning a deeply felt commitment to Bildung and without being co-opted through the acceptance of honours or awards.
James Morone refers to the ‘swaggering machismo’ that allegedly characterised Wall Street in the mid-1980s (LRB, 21 June). The reference that rankles is to ‘swinging dicks’. The full and correct reference is to ‘Big Swinging Dicks’. Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker unloads a money-losing position of Texaco bonds on an unsuspecting French client. A senior manager at Salomon Brothers lauds his achievement by declaring him a ‘Big Swinging Dick’. Speaking as a portfolio manager and Wall Street habitué of the past twenty years, I can vouch that no self-respecting master of the universe would be content to be a mere ‘swinging dick’. Derisive laughter would result; morale would crumble. Nowadays, the prosaic title ‘managing director’ has replaced the more colourful phrase. Makes one nostalgic for the days when bonds were truly junk.
Simon Bradley is not up to date with the policies of the ‘imperishable Peabody Trust’ (LRB, 21 June). ‘Exempted from the right-to-buy legislation of the Thatcher years,’ he writes, ‘the trust continues to provide housing for working people at low and stable rents.’ But over recent years, Peabody’s senior management has started to rent out flats at market rates, and has brought in private companies to run some of its services. For Peabody tenants, this has meant higher costs for worse services. Local Peabody estate offices have been closed and local staff made redundant. Peabody is now a highly centralised organisation, driven by a pro-market management that treats tenants as ‘customers’. Bradley says that because of Peabody ‘large working-class enclaves can still be found a few hundred yards from the Houses of Parliament’ and in other central London locations. But this situation is changing quickly. The Peabody estate where I live, on Southwark Street, just behind Tate Modern, has lost many flats to the market, and the rents are way beyond what social tenants can afford.
Perhaps sharing a podium with President Chávez has skewed Tariq Ali’s take on the recent closure of RCTV (LRB, 21 June). Despite the familiar charge that Bush has the ‘luxury’ of ‘uncritical news channels’, no channel in the US has been taken off the air because of its criticism of him and then replaced, the next day, by one broadcasting pro-Bush songs. The fact remains that Chávez, as Reporters Without Borders put it, ‘silenced Venezuela’s most popular TV station and the only national station to criticise him’, and replaced it with a pro-government propaganda outlet. The closure met with near universal condemnation across South America and among human rights groups. Polls indicated that up to 80 per cent of Venezuelans opposed the revoking of RCTV’s licence. Demonstrators protesting at the shutdown were dispatched with tear gas and rubber bullets. In considering all this Ali’s intervention is to warn ‘against an obsession with the power of the media’. Chávez, he tells us, ‘won six elections despite near universal media opposition’. If RCTV was so powerless, why bother to silence it?
Tariq Ali perpetuates some broadcasting myths: ‘Thatcher refused to renew Thames TV’s franchise, and it had merely shown one critical documentary. Blair sacked Greg Dyke.’ Thatcher abolished the Independent Broadcasting Authority after it failed to suppress Death on the Rock, only for it to be replaced by the very similar Independent Television Commission. The new rules for awarding ITV franchises, devised by the Home Office and the Treasury, were designed to damage the system, and did so. However, Thames TV ceased to be a broadcaster because it failed to bid enough for its London weekday franchise, and failed to bid at all for the weekend one. The fatal wounds were self-inflicted. As for Dyke, he was sacked by the BBC Board of Governors.
Not Our War
I was surprised by David Coward’s assertion that ‘President Poincaré’s call for an end to internal division and ideological strife was universally accepted’ at the outbreak of the First World War (LRB, 21 June). The call for a union sacrée was rejected actively by a few and passively by many more, right from the start. The primary schoolteachers’ journal, L’Ecole émancipée, managed two anti-war issues before being banned. Romain Rolland issued his famous anti-war call, ‘Au-dessus de la mêlée’, in an essay banned in France (and Germany) and condemned in the press as anti-patriotic. In November the Fédération des Métaux adopted an internationalist position and this was followed by the syndicalist Pierre Monatte’s very public resignation from the confederal committee of the Confédération Générale du Travail. In January L’Union des métaux’s front page declared: ‘This war is not our war.’
The driving force of this opposition was the group around Monatte that had been producing La Vie ouvrière, which included syndicalists, left socialists and pacifists as well as émigré Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. This group became the main pole of attraction for the many intellectuals who came to realise that they had been duped into supporting a war that was not patriotic or democratic, or a ‘war to end all war’, but another imperialist conflict.
University College London
Quite the Opposite
In his review of the new RSC Shakespeare, Michael Dobson praises its short introductions to the individual plays, which, he says, are ‘among the best of their kind available’ (LRB, 10 May). Not in all cases. For example, the introduction to Richard II erroneously suggests that Shakespeare’s sources were limited to Holinshed and perhaps Daniel, with Marlowe’s Edward II as ‘a major dramatic influence’. In fact Richard II is Shakespeare’s most thoroughly researched play, with a range of sources that includes Hall, Grafton, Gower, Stow, Froissart and The Mirror for Magistrates at the very least. The introduction also casually eliminates the anonymous source drama Richard II Part 1 (mistakenly called Woodstock), with the remark: ‘Recent scholarship suggests that Shakespeare’s play precedes Woodstock, not vice versa.’ Quite the opposite is the case. Finally, it asserts that ‘the garden scene is apparently without source,’ although its origins are clearly in Richard II Part 1, III.ii.
Brigham Young University, Hawaii
Other People’s Words
It is simply not the case, as Terry Eagleton claims in his review of my book Mikhail Bakhtin: The Word in the World (LRB, 21 June), that I equate the Russian Formalists with their adversaries in the Soviet state. In Chapter 2 I float this idea – of the complicity of artistic and political vanguards – as a possible explanation of Bakhtin’s early critique of the Formalists’ elevation of ‘method’ into ‘truth’, their consecration of literary means as aesthetic ends. That I neither wholly agree with this critique nor regard it as Bakhtin’s only response to the Formalists is clearly indicated by my description of it as ‘precociously magisterial, provocatively monological, without a hint of play’. This criticism is underlined by the rest of the chapter: I charge Bakhtin with conflating two incompatible senses of ‘material’; with being linguistically naive in his equation of language with the inert media of the plastic and visual arts; and with ‘a perilous overreaching of theoretical discourse’.
There is nothing in the book to suggest, as Eagleton does, that I equate the new South Africa with the old apartheid state; indeed, most of it was written before the transition to democracy and has not been revised since. As the first endnote to Chapter 5 makes explicit, the remarks on which Eagleton founds this misconception were written in late 1993, a few months before the first democratic election (in which I voted for the ANC). The reference is not to the situation after the inauguration of the democratic order but to the last phase of the struggle before 1994.
I am not the only victim of Eagleton’s uncaring way with other people’s words: Bakhtin is misrepresented too. One instance must suffice: the monological and the ‘heteroglossic’ (Eagleton means ‘heteroglot’) cannot be counterposed because they are the terms of two quite different oppositions. Not to have understood this is not to have grasped a fundamental point in the book on Dostoevsky: that the linguistic uniformity (or monoglossia) of Dostoevsky’s novels, far from being inimical to dialogism, is actually the condition of their polyphony. A Wuthering Heights in which Nelly’s narrative was rendered in the broad Yorkshire of Joseph would not have given her the semantic parity with her interlocutor Lockwood on which that novel’s polyphony crucially depends.
In his review of Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, Inigo Thomas unintentionally repeated an allegation first made by Truman Capote: that Gore Vidal got drunk while on a visit to the White House during the Kennedy era (LRB, 10 May). In fact, the story is untrue. We are happy to say that we are sorry, to set the record straight by making it clear that Vidal did not get drunk as claimed, and to point out that he sued Capote successfully for making this allegation many years ago. A true account of the incident is given in Vidal’s autobiography Palimpsest.
Editor, ‘London Review’