Vol. 2 No. 12 · 19 June 1980

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Past Master

SIR: John Dunn’s review of the first batch of ‘Past Masters’ (LRB, 22 May) contains some ill-humoured and ill-informed sneers at Humphrey Carpenter’s volume on Jesus. Among these is the suggestion that a writer about Jesus should decide whether he is divine and must make a judgment about ‘who he thought he was and what he thought he was doing’, and that the ‘indispensable’ approach should be, among other things, ‘more credulous’. Surely even the most committed Christian must admit that the historical evidence about such issues is simply insufficient to make rational decisions or judgments, and that many if not most of the readers of such a book will not be committed Christians and would therefore resent and reject an obviously credulous approach. After all, the relevant evidence itself suggests that most of the people around at the time couldn’t make up their minds what Jesus was and who he thought he was or what he thought he was doing. Should we really be more credulous today? And how can we consider Jesus’s moral teaching except in the context of our own moral ideas? Dunn thinks Carpenter has gone too far; I don’t think he has gone far enough. But surely he was right to go as far as he can.

Nicolas Walter
Rationalist Press Association, London N1

John Dunn writes: Irony is a dangerous device. I must apologise to Mr Walter for having inadvertently misled him by my use of the word ‘credulous’. The central complaint which I wished to level at Mr Carpenter’s book was not that its author failed to believe that Jesus was ‘God’, a task at which I should abjectly fail myself, but rather that he failed in the event to muster virtually any clear beliefs about Jesus. As I noted in my review, a high degree of scepticism about the character of Jesus’s life seems to me eminently convincing in itself. But it scarcely assists an author to write a very compelling book under the rubric of a series like ‘Past Masters’.


SIR: Roger Poole says exceptionally kind things about the quality and usefulness of Structuralism and Since (LRB, 5 June): as that book’s editor, part author and main shareholder, I’m grateful to him. I am only sorry that the experience of reviewing it should have brought on a fit of such global despondency. Mr Poole comes to needlessly alarmist conclusions about what structuralists and deconstructionists are doing to the world. Why, I ask myself first, does he welcome the appearance of Structuralism and Since now, ‘as we turn into the Eighties, with resources of every kind running out’? Can he be planning to burn his review copy, in order to eke out dwindling supplies of heating oil, or what? Fossil fuels may be running out, intellectual resources are very obviously not. There are plenty of new and intricate arguments to try and understand, too many books and articles to keep in touch with. If intellectual resources were truly running out, there would have been no need for primers such as Structuralism and Since in the first place.

More serious is the political issue Mr Poole raises – the issue of deconstructionist ‘nihilism’. He worries that ‘the idea of the individual as legal and ethical subject within the State and before the Law’, is in jeopardy, and that the dignity or bravery of such men as Andrei Sakharov are menaced by Derrida’s notions of ‘absence’ and ‘textuality’. The idea of the individual as legal and ethical subject is neither sacrosanct nor unchanging in its form: it has evolved, it will evolve. It may be that the ideas introduced into the philosophical world by Derrida and Lacan will affect its evolution; more likely, given their refined and byzantine nature, they will not. These ideas could never annihilate the ‘idea of the individual’, nor, that I have heard, do they seek to. Selves may be fictions, but they are fictions we cannot do without; they are necessary expedients.

As for Sakharov, whatever he writes is susceptible of deconstruction. It is not inviolate simply because he has written it: it may contain just the kind of philosophical contradictions Derrida is so expert at detecting. Sakharov’s arguments are not guaranteed to be totally coherent by his courage in resisting persecution. It is demeaning to him to argue that he should be above suspicion of this kind. To detach the text of his statements from the man himself is actually to increase their power, since it is to elevate them to the level of ideas, not persons. Their author’s maltreatment is of no relevance to the analysis of his arguments. Mr Poole’s fears for mankind are entirely respectable, but they are misplaced in a review of the book in question. Deconstruction in no way entails nihilism. It does not evacuate meaning from the text it deconstructs, it adds to that meaning by showing at what point the writer has failed to be aware of his own presuppositions. It exhibits inconsistencies of argumentation. It is, as practised by Derrida himself, a form of scholasticism aimed incidentally at showing that language is inevitably the bearer of more meanings than we can any of us assume when we use it.

John Sturrock
Lindfield, Sussex

Speaking up for Le Carré

SIR: Re Raymond Daoust’s letter on Le Carré (Letters, 5 June), my point about the plot of Smiley’s People was (simply) that if Karla is as clever as Smiley makes him out to be, it seems unlikely that he would engage such obvious, almost caricatured bunglers for an assignment of this order. If the hired hands hadn’t been such slobs, Karla would no doubt still be safe today in Moscow Centre. Also, if he was unable to use Moscow Centre resources to help arrange the ‘legend for a girl’, why was it so easy for him to arrange for what seem to be official bumpings-off of those who tried to thwart his unofficial wheeze? Or did I get that wrong?

Ian Hamilton
London NW1

Novels about Adultery

SIR: Professor Kermode (LRB, 15 May) can think of very few novels ‘which show a lively interest’ in the ‘ugly passion’ of jealousy. He mentions the several he can think of. Curiously, he fails to mention A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which contains the most exhaustive account of jealousy I know of whether in a work of fiction or non-fiction.

Calvin Hall
Santa Cruz, California

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