Vol. 2 No. 7 · 17 April 1980

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Simplicity Smith

SIR: ‘Simplicity Smith’ indeed! It seems to me that the cap would fit Mrs Mitchison herself better than Adam Smith. Near the beginning of her review of Andrew Skinner’s collection of papers (LRB, 6 March), she says that Professor Skinner’s book brings out ‘the well-known rift between the human nature of the moral system, with its deep ties of sympathy for others, and the calculating but beneficial selfishness of the human nature of the world of economic relationships’. In fact, Professor Skinner affirms more than once that Smith’s account of human nature remains consistent in his moral and economic theories. On pages 104-5 he says explicitly that ‘the contrast which was at one time drawn by commentators between sympathy on the one hand, and self-interest on the other, was often based on a misunderstanding of the two terms.’ Mrs Mitchison’s ‘well-known rift’is now well known to be a myth.

Then Mrs Mitchison writes of ‘the “hidden hand" of God’ in Smith’s economic system. There is, I think, good evidence that Smith’s use of the expression ‘invisible hand’ (so far as I am aware, he never wrote of a ‘hidden hand’) does not have a theological implication. Professor Skinner does not suggest that it has.

Next, Mrs Mitchison writes of ‘Smith’s extraordinary indifference to observation, quantification or experiment’, and thinks this is illustrated by his essay on the history of astronomy, in which, so she says, ‘simplicity was the test of rightness.’ I wonder if she has read that essay. Professor Skinner, who knows in what circumstances Smith thought simplicity relevant, also knows that Smith was very far indeed from ignoring ‘observation, quantification or experiment’ in this work. He writes on page 35 that ‘Smith’s knowledge of astronomy was almost as remarkable as the uses to which it was put.’

I hesitate to add anything about Smith’s economics, since I am far less competent than Mrs Mitchison to comment upon his work in that subject. Nevertheless I am surprised to find her saying ‘it is a pity that he did not apply himself – as an economic historian if not as an economic theorist – to collecting evidence on some of his assertions.’ As an editor of much of Smith’s work, I have been impressed by the extent to which he did apply himself to gathering evidence, especially on historical matters. In this respect, he seems to me to have been more assiduous than was common in his day. Mrs Mitchison writes as if Smith should have been capable in 1776 of discovering things that were perceived much later. Is not that an oversimplified view for an economic historian to take?

D.D. Raphael
Imperial College of Science and Technology, London SW7

Peacock’s ‘Melincourt’

SIR: It is a pity that V.S. Pritchett in his otherwise appreciative review of Marilyn Butler’s fine study of Peacock (LRB, 20 March) does not seem to share her (and Shelley’s) high opinion of Melincourt and should have marred his admiration of Sir Oran Haut-ton by a distinctly non-pavonine simian spelling of his name. Dr Butler devotes her most original chapter to Merlincourt and convincingly shows how undeservedly dismissive the conventional critical estimate of it has been. What she calls the ‘shapely design’ of its structure, based on the three volumes, is brought home not least by her careful diagram (Fig. 1., page 85) in support of the novel’s ‘aesthetic achievement’ despite its admitted flaws.

E.M. Valk

Blunt’s Professorship

SIR: Michael Mason’s defence of Anthony Blunt (LRB, 20 March) is depressing, even for many who think that London University was probably right on balance to leave him his emeritus chair. There is nothing whatever in Blunt’s career as a spy for Stalin to support parallels with Christ and Socrates, nor to evoke regret that only one speaker at the London debate ‘made the proposal that his actions could be morally defensible.’ If Mr Mason believes that Blunt acted out of ‘belief in social good’ then he should produce some evidence, rather than accuse the overwhelming majority of his fellow-countrymen of humbug, cruelty and irrationality. It will seem to many a far simpler hypothesis that anyone who actively wished Stalinism on his fellows, knowing full well what that meant, acted out of hatred for them, or at least for a sizeable proportion of them.

Assessing Blunt’s actions is not at all a matter for ‘unusal delicacy or judgment’, it is perfectly standard: I may murder my neighbour and announce that I have done it for society’s good, or even for his own. That will not help me at my trial, nor, I imagine, will it bring moralists flocking to my support, for those who believe that such matters can be settled by Benthamite arithmetic are now hard to find. What Mr Mason totally misses is that the general view is not at all cruel: the worst that has happened to Blunt so far is to have been hissed out of a cinema – unpleasant, but better than being hanged! Mr Mason confesses himself baffled by the simple certainties of his fellows, and I imagine Blunt must have been too, on the subject of politics: but it may still be the case that the public are absolutely right.

Yorick Wilks
Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex

SIR: Michael Mason’s article about the Blunt affair assumes that the seething block headlines and screams of loathing that were on display in the tabloid newspapers mirrored the attitude of the general public. This may not be so. The popular press half-creates, half-perceives the opinions of its readers. It has a duty to sell itself and sensationalism is a favourite device. If the Blunt affair had been treated to any degree of understanding it would have made a poor story. It would have been necessary to play it down. Editors could hardly have been expected to forgo its latent sensational elements and, of course, took the path to the front pages. A recent New Statesman survey on the press coverage of the run-up to the May General Election showed that people are not easily swayed by what they read in the press, and can spot attempts to force opinions upon them. Perhaps more people are sympathetic to Anthony Blunt than Michael Mason supposes.

Thomas Blaikie
London NW1

‘The Climate of Treason’

SIR: Mr Eric Homberger (Letters, 3 April) is mistaken in supposing I do not identify the 1939 article where W.H. Auden looked forward to the death of Liberal Democracy as ‘a good thing’. It is identified (New Era, January 1939), with much besides, in my Politics and Literature in Modern Britain, in an article there he claims to have studied and resented, ‘Did Stalin dupe the intellectuals?’ He accuses me, too, of quoting ‘brief passages of verse taken out of context’, and might have added prose as well. I am unimpressed, though, by the charge of taking them out of context. Their context is the Thirties, which is what my argument is about; and if it is a sin to quote briefly, which I doubt, then Mr Homberger is a sinner too: his letter gives us just two words of Brecht from a conversation of 1938.

I embrace the challenge of context. Mr Homberger quotes from an Auden article in New Republic (6 September 1939) advocating stillness and prayer when ‘the ship catches fire’, and rightly suggests that this refers to the outbreak of the Second World War. He might have added that the article appeared a fortnight after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 23 August 1939. That a British Communist sympathiser living in neutral America should advocate stillness and prayer, at such a moment in history, is open to less cosy interpretations than fading Stalinist loyalties. Brecht was shortly to write Mutter Courage, during the same period of Communist alliance with the Nazis, to help Hitler’s war-effort by discouraging armed resistance to him – a point instantly taken by a reviewer early in 1941, when it was first shown.

Mr Michael Sidnell thinks me wrong to ask for more evidence on the commitment of intellectuals to Stalinism in that age. I disagree. I hope he will begin by carefully considering the evidence for commitment I have already offered in Politics and Literature, which is far from slight. But there is altogether likely to be more, especially in the way of private letters, and they need to be brought to light. I have begun this process by quoting in my book a letter Auden wrote me in 1971 that makes his early commitment to Communism plain, though with interesting qualifications. Could others now do the same? There must be plenty more evidence in private drawers. Meanwhile the revelations of the Blunt affair and similar cases make the snobbish-sentimental view of our Thirties intellectuals – nice young men just down from Oxford and Cambridge – harder and harder to maintain. We have been carefully encouraged to believe that intellectuals are incapable of believing in extermination, or even knowing about it when the evidence is before their eyes. This is the convenient fantasy of a literary Establishment, but we do not have to believe it. As Auden’s letter about Soviet brutality proves, such men did know.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

SIR: Mr Watson writes that he holds the view that Auden and Co ‘knew of the Soviet death-camps, and wanted something of the same thing here’, I cannot produce for Mr Watson any letter or recollection connected with Auden in particular that could ‘prove decisive’ about how much of the awful truth he knew, but that any intelligent and politically concerned person in the Thirties, either in Britain or in Germany, should not have been fully aware of a sufficient quantity of the awful truth in both Russia and Germany to enable him to deduce the whole awful truth for himself is quite impossible to believe. A person little concerned with politics such as myself (apart from being for a time on the Committee of the Cambridge University Liberal Party) and without Auden’s manifold political and international contacts (or his intelligence) was fully aware of the extent of the horrors in both countries. When only a schoolboy aged 16 or 17, I made up the riddle: ‘What is the difference between an aristocrat and a Communist? An aristocrat shoots pheasants, while a Communist shoots peasants.’ That was in 1931 or 1932, based on my knowledge of Russia. When visiting Germany between 1931 and 1936, staying mostly with Jewish friends, or anti-Nazi Germans, I and they were fully aware of the Dachau death-camp near Munich, and also of the common phrase of being careful what you say in case you go ‘auf dem Kamin’ (up the chimney), a phrase in use long before the full-scale extermination camps for Jews, Communists, homosexuals and anti-Nazis had been set up. When John Cornford, the poet and Communist agitator who was killed in Spain, came to my rooms in Cambridge on 17 May 1936 and tried to persuade me to Communism, I gave only one reason for refusal: ‘John, I am not a murderer, and do not wish to become one.’

Anthony Dickins

Shostakovich’s Memoirs

SIR: Hans Keller ‘made jolly sure there would never be any such person’ as the BBC’s principal adviser on new music (Letters, 20 March). When in office he wrote:

I happen to be in charge of New Music at the BBC, and I have revised our score-reading system and our rules of acceptance and rejection in such a way which makes it incumbent upon me to read any new score submitted … I speak with the widest possible experience … possibly with the most comprehensive knowledge of new scores one can attain … I have not yet … made a demonstrable mistake, nor indeed have I been accused of one, except by one or the other composer I have judged negatively.

Hans Keller, ‘Music 1975’, the New Review, March 1976

Just who is fantasising?

Robin Maconie
Department of Music, University of Surrey

Hans Keller writes: If Mr Maconie will divest his question of its rhetorical element, I shall happily answer it: he is. Making ‘jolly sure that there would never be any such person as the BBC’s principal adviser on new music’ meant, amongst other things, that I made it impossible for my own negative judgment, or any other BBC staff member’s, to result in the rejection of a new work: only a panel of independent assessors could, and can, effectively recommend rejection.

Literary criticism we could do without

SIR: For a critic Brigid Brophy (LRB, 21 February) is a good novelist. I have read both Colin MacCabe’s book and much of James Joyce and, as neither academic nor novelist, I find the first a useful gloss on the second. Members of the academic world will have a better sense of how to deal with Ms Brophy’s bile but I remain astonished that, save in a passing sentence, she avoids all reference to the central theme of MacCabe’s book, viz: the intense political role that Joyce essayed in the literature of his time. To have been brought up on Joyce with her mother’s milk may make him cosy and familiar to Ms Brophy but has she actually reread him since she became old enough to vote? I have no doubt that Ms Brophy also managed to read Ovid, Milton and Sterne blind to their political significance, but then Ms Brophy’s concept of politics and the political role of writers revolves around them being or doing no more than nagging to death Arts Ministers over PLR. Joyce survived the stupid, uncomprehending reaction of the critics of his day. I suspect MacCabe will do the same.

J.D. MacShane

Brigid Brophy writes: If politics is its ‘central theme’, Mr MacCabe’s book is even emptier than I thought. A last chapter of 13 pages recounts, largely through his letters to his brother, Joyce’s understandably out-of-touch efforts to follow Irish and European politics from the position of an expatriate in Trieste. In addition, Mr MacCabe purports to give a ‘political reading’ of Finnegans Wake, but it turns out to be a neo-Freudian reading, which discerns in the book such things as the ‘impact’ of feminine narcissism on ‘phallocentric male discourse’. Apart from its incidental disclosure that Mr MacCabe supposes ‘disinterest’ to mean ‘lack of interest’, this chapter is notable only for his question: ‘Can we categorise the text as a feminine discourse despite its articulation by a male pen or must that pen be accounted for?’ Alas, Mr MacCabe doesn’t go on to say what a female pen is like and whether it manages to assume a non-phallic shape. Perhaps he has misunderstood ‘la plume de ma tante’.

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