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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 6 · 3 April 1980

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Canons and Conveniences

SIR: One of the roles of a critic is to expose commonly held prejudices and to offer in their stead thoughtful analyses. Unfortunately, Charles Hope’s review (LRB, 21 February) continues to propagate two popular misrepresentations of Hegelian philosophy.

According to Mr Hope, ‘the idea that all aspects of a particular society, whether in its art, its religion, or its customs, are manifestations of a single unifying principle,’ the Zeitgeist, is a critical facet of Hegelian historicism. Further on, Mr Hope claims that this ‘historicist’ analysis fails to consider ‘various strands of tradition’ but relies solely on ‘knowledge of contemporary social conditions’ to explain creative acts. That is, Mr Hope claims that a Hegelian analysis of something – for instance, the design of a building – invokes only a single idea, the Zeitgeist, to understand the thing being considered. This single idea is supposed to inform all social products and phenomena, and can therefore be employed by Hegelians to explain all manifestations of the society.

Mr Hope grossly misrepresents Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel never conceived of Zeitgeist as static or reified, but rather as a dialectically-evolving expression of mankind; change is a critical element of Zeitgeist. And thus any understanding of ‘contemporary social conditions’ must not only include a statement of the Zeitgeist: it must also explain the way in which the present has evolved from the past. If Hegel is important in the history of ideas it certainly must be for recognising and drawing the world’s attention to the influence of past history on present circumstances. The idea that what exists at present has developed and evolved in a necessary and rational manner from what has come before; the idea that to fully understand the present one must understand the necessary relationship between past and present – these ideas are among Hegel’s main contribution to the Western tradition. In no way, therefore, does Hegel ever urge consideration of any aspect of society without simultaneously urging consideration of its historical roots – ‘strands of tradition’ – because only through the latter can we understand the former.

Hegel rejects the Foucaultian philosophy which claims that the transition from one Zeitgeist, or episteme, to another is irrational, i.e. possesses no necessity which we can discover. Hegel contends that all transitions are necessary and thus rational, i.e. determined such that we can discover the underlying reasons. Mr Hope distorts this Hegelian position by contending that Hegel is thus claiming that we can predict the Zeitgeist that will succeed the present one, that we can tell ‘the type of fashions that will’ arise in the future. Hegel, however, is very clear on this point. Although change is rational, a philosopher can only capture the prevailing sentiment of his time.

Ezekeil Emanuel
Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford

Charles Hope writes: It is ludicrous to assert, as Mr Emanuel does, that ‘if Hegel is important in the history of ideas it certainly must be for recognising and drawing the world’s attention to the influence of past history on present circumstances.’ This had been the practice of historians ever since the time of Thucydides. Hegel’s originality lay not in postulating ‘a necessary relationship between past and present’, but in defining the relationship in terms of a particular metaphysical system, one element of which is the notion that all aspects of a society are manifestations of a single unifying principle, often called the Zeitgeist. In my review I had no intention of claiming that Hegel conceived of this principle as static. But I did wish to suggest that concepts such as ‘a dialectically-evolving expression of mankind’ are unhelpful for a historian who wishes to discover why a particular building looks as it does. Nowhere in my review did I discuss Hegel’s attitude to the future, so I fail to see why Mr Emanuel thinks that I have distorted it.

‘The Climate of Treason’

SIR: George Watson (Letters, 6 March) is, I believe, quite correct in thinking that his article ‘Did Stalin dupe the intellectuals?’ is not universally thought to have done him much credit as a literary historian. He cites brief passages from poems, essays and plays by the likes of Brecht, Gide, Spender, MacDiarmid, and upon this ‘evidence’ convicts the literary intellectuals of wanting, ‘like Hitler’, mass murder in Britain. He may indeed believe that the ‘literary intellectuals’ were such wicked fools, but he has not proven that they actually contemplated such an idea. Perhaps this was why Goronwy Rees so contemptuously dismissed Watson’s article when it appeared in Encounter. Brief passages of verse, taken out of context, will not ‘prove’ anything, and certainly will not fairly or accurately represent a writer’s political views. For a literary critic, Watson has surprisingly little awareness of nuance, ambiguity or tension in politics. His Brecht, for example, has no private reservations, and did not express himself to be ‘highly sceptical’ of events in the Soviet Union in conversation with Walter Benjamin in 1938.

His letter adds a new accusation that Auden in 1939 anticipated the end of Liberal Democracy and its replacement by either socialism or fascism, and felt this was ‘a good thing’. Here you have the essence of the Watsonian approach to the 1930s. This (unidentified) article he takes to indicate that Auden was a much more fierce sort of red than had been understood. This was certainly not the way even ‘the milder sort of fellow-traveller’ would talk. For years it was thought that Auden in 1939 was busy revising ‘Spain’ and eliminating those passages which seemed to condone political acquiescence in acts of violence (‘The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’ was deleted from the poem in 1939); it was also noted somewhere that Auden, writing in the New Republic (6 September 1939), advocated stillness and prayer as the best course of action when ‘the ship catches fire’ (i.e. when war breaks out). In the Nation (7 October 1939) Auden emphasised how we must recognise ‘how weak and corrupt we are’. Auden, one thought, was actually advocating – if the term isn’t too assertive – something rather like Christian orthodoxy, political quietism and artistic self-restraint.

Watson’s Auden, like his Brecht, Gide and others, is no more than a convenient weapon to use in his sharp, fraudulent polemics against ‘the self-excusing of the Sixties and Seventies’. By this I assume he means David Caute and Samuel Hynes and other students of the period who have done their best to obscure the ‘truths’ so abundantly visible to Watson, and also, perhaps, to the editor of Encounter.

Eric Homberger
University of East Anglia

SIR: George Watson would have us believe that ‘Auden and Co’ wanted and worked for death-camps in Britain and admired Stalin for setting them up in Russia. For this accusation he has no evidence whatsoever.

Mr Watson asks for ‘a letter or recollection that could prove decisive’: but presumably he has the wit to realise that indisputable evidence that ‘Auden and Co’ did not ‘purpose the death of millions’ could not exist. Leaving aside the historical value of a ‘recollection’, what possible use would it be to cite the letter to an artistic collaborator in which Auden says that as a bourgeois he will not join the Communist Party? Yet he was and he didn’t, and he made poetry out of the conviction that he belonged to a dying class. In asking for the evidence, Mr Watson does tell us something about himself. He is a man who without ‘decisive’ evidence can assert that ‘Auden and Co’ acted with a view to mass murder. He is also a historian who appeals to the public at large for the evidence for the case he claims to have ‘documented’!

As to literary history, Mr Watson might make a beginning by observing how Auden’s Marxism affected his literary forms and how those forms took on a subversive character; how Eliot made a sharp turn, after a period of experimentation, in another direction; how Yeats’s style was ‘infected’ by the younger school of ‘communists’; how Spender’s forms undercut his communist tendentiousness; the place in leftist literary theory of free verse, ‘epic theatre’, doggerel and montage. He might, in short, begin to say something about Marxist aesthetics in literature and its relation to Communist ideology. Such investigations, of course, are unlikely to bring as much publicity as a quick and total smear.

Michael Sidnell
Trinity College, Toronto

Blunt’s Professorship

SIR: We were most impressed by Michael Mason’s article on Anthony Blunt (LRB, 20 March) and would like to offer our heartfelt approbation for his sentiments. Mr Mason’s comment, ‘his actions could be morally defensible in their historical context,’ seems to be the first recognition of the fact that Blunt is termed a ‘traitor’, basically, for opposing Hitler and Fascism, something for which one feels he ought to be congratulated. As John Cairncross recently said when asked why he became involved in the Russian spy network in the Thirties, ’I wanted to oppose Fascism and I had many Jewish friends.’

Simon Kunitz
London SW1

Eliot’s End

SIR: I enjoyed Graham Hough’s review of my Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (LRB, 6 March). But what I wrote about the middle passage of ‘Ash-Wednesday’ II was not that the ‘litany is the mode of paradox and a form of chant’, but that it ‘is the mode of transition or ascent … Its two-stress line is at once a mode of purposeful paradox and a form of chant, as if the conscious meaning were spelt out of or into a deeper mind.’ Graham Hough is impatient of such attention to detail, while I maintain that that’s where the poetry is.

A.D. Moody
University of York

Literary Criticism we could do without

SIR: I hope Mr Parrinder’s thesis or essay is more accurate than his letter to you (Letters, 6 March), in which he describes me as ‘author of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without’. This achieves an inaccuracy rate of 662/3 per cent, since the book is in fact by Michael Levey, Charles Osborne and

Brigid Brophy
London SW5

Unmatched Antiquary

SIR: I suppose that, lest silence be taken for assent, I must reply to Mr Sharpe’s sorry letter (Letters, 20 March). In my review I emphasised the virtues of his able and valuable book. I also argued, civilly, that there are points of substance where his thesis is weak. On none of those points does Mr Sharpe offer an answer. Indeed, he now seems to have shifted his ground so far that it is hard to see why he thinks that the reader, for whose welfare he professes so edifying a concern, has been ‘abused’ by my review rather than by his book. His sole reply is to attribute to me, and to attribute my objections to, views to which I would no more subscribe than he would.

As for ‘conflict’, I can only think that Mr Sharpe, whenever he sees the word, associates it with a particular view of early 17th-century politics with which I was not, in fact, concerned. There is ample evidence of conflict – or, if he prefers, of intense factional rivalry – in Mr Sharpe’s book. My point, which was politely made, was that at times he might have done more to bring it to life. But I can see how so straightforward an observation could be misunderstood by an author resolved to interpret respectful criticism as personal vindictiveness.

Blair Worden
St Edmund Hall, Oxford

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