SIR: May I reply to Kermode’s misleading review of my Romantic Roots in Modern Art (LRB, 24 January). I am charged with subverting T.S. Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’. Since I use the phrase in a context so clearly defined as to avoid any confusion with Eliot’s meaning, whose name for this very reason was deliberately omitted, Kermode’s thunderous digressions seem quite disproportionate to the occasion. I am rebuked for criticising the metaphysical halo surrounding some modern art, on the grounds that paintings always come with some set of instructions. Even if that were the case, objecting to one set of labels as I do is surely not the same as denying the relevance of any. My Kantian disinterest does not preclude descriptions or instructions. Nor – and most important – does it denote a hatred of Expressionist art.
If Kermode sees fit to quote me, may I be quoted correctly and in context – the context being Kandinsky’s belief in the messianic function or non-objective art which announces the coming of the Holy Ghost. Kermode has my blessing to read into Kandinsky’s belief whatever he likes, a belief which is not strictly comparable to the creed professed by Yeats and Lawrence. Hence my statement that this form of Eastern Christianity ‘may sound strange to Western ears’. Changing the ‘may’ into a ‘will’, Kermode obviously alters the meaning.
Finally, and the most damaging charge of all: I am supposed to condemn every form of primitivism as ‘barbaric and evil’. What a terrible simplification of an argument which repeatedly differentiates between the primitivism in art and that of Nazism. Few readers – should I have any left after such distortions – will arrive at his conclusions.
Kermode is right about one thing: some of us foreign chaps do sound rather ‘heavy’, and not just because we labour in an alien tongue. Hence the occasional gracelessness. We actually do prefer ‘heaviness’ and ‘engagement’ to that modishly waspish, insular dryness which rules the British critical idiom today. However, in this case a heavy-handed touch seemed to me matched by – to coin a phrase – light-handed criticism.
SIR: Mr Keys (Letters, 7 February) says: ‘The point is, his judgments are subjective, a matter of individual preference.’ Quite so. How could they be otherwise? But Leavis wished to honour what was valuable in recent history, and would never have dreamed of actually falsifying history itself. His distrust of Marxists may be more comprehensible when one remembers that photo of Mr Dubcek, from which his entire body has been erased, leaving only his unoccupied shoes. Protagoras said: ‘Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not.’ What Leavis feared most was a Marxist view of culture and criticism which would have run something like this: ‘Marxist man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they (still) are (if ideologically correct); of things that are not, that they are not now, or that they never should have happened, or that they never happened anyway.’ For absolute thoroughgoing subjectivism, the Marxists cannot be beaten. But Leavis was self-punishingly honest, and refused to look at the world any other way than the way it was.
University of Nottingham
SIR: Christopher Reid reports (LRB, 24 January) that my ‘drawings are very much School of Stevie Smith, but even worse than hers’. This profoundly patronising pseudo-comment presumably derives from Mr Reid’s poetry having recently been assigned to the payroll of the London Literary Mafia’s education committee as ‘School of Craig Raine, but even craftier’… It’s something of a relief that an alumnus of this ordure fails to admire me or my retrospective book, especially when – as he points out – the schools of real thought represented by such greenhorns as Ginsberg, Beckett and Kathleen Raine apparently do. Meanwhile, for the benefit of those of your readers who might wish to form their own impressions, but could not easily afford the hardback edition Reid pretended to review, the Growing Up collection is also available in paperback at £2.50 (ISBN 0 850 233 7).
SIR: Richard Usborne is, of course, quite right to correct the new ODQ (LRB, 24 January): the Evangelical vicar of Mgr Knox’s limerick had the Bishop’s portrait and wanted the portable font. However, for the limerick to make sense and also to scan correctly, all that is needed is a simple transposition of the two words ‘of’ and ‘for’ in the ODQ version (eccentrically printed as prose). It then reads, as originally written:
Evangelical vicar, in want
Of a portable, second-hand font,
Would dispose, for the same,
Of a portrait, in frame,
Of the Bishop, elect, of Vermont.
The correct placing of the commas is also important, both for the rhythm and in that accumulation of significant detail which is part of the elegance of the total effect.
SIR: I assume that Richard Usborne, reviewing the ODQ, is being provocative, and knows full well the origin of the lines:
In his chamber, weak and dying,
Was the Norman Baron lying…
He is somewhat of an optimist to expect to find it in the ODQ, but I am grateful to him for reviving boyhood memories, as well as to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his repentant baron for freeing his serfs and vassals, and encouraging my growing social consciousness.
Mr Usborne may be interested to learn that my Oxford Complete Copyright Edition of Long-fellow’s poetical works (1904) includes the following note before the poem: ‘Dans les moments de la vie où la réflexion devient plus calme et plus profonde, où l’intérêt et l’avarice parlent moins haut que la raison, dans les instants de chagrin domestique, de maladie, et de péril de mort, les nobles se repentirent de posséder des serfs, comme d’une chose peu agréable à Dieu, qui avait créé tous les hommes à son image.’ – Thierry, Conquête de l’Angleterre.
D. Kenwin Harris