Vol. 3 No. 4 · 5 March 1981

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Vulgar Chauvinism

SIR: Since my attitude to Professor Rawson, and to your paper, has always been one of friendly respect (indeed I have collaborated with both), I cannot conceal my astonishment that he should have written, and you published, his review of Susanne Kappeler’s book on Henry James (LRB, 5 February). He sets the tone by expressing contempt for critics with funny foreign names like Lugowski. The name of Roland Barthes is the trigger for another uncontrollable fit of sneering, accompanied by an unreliable allusion to his book S/Z. Perhaps Rawson knew without reading it that it wasn’t worth his time, but it wouldn’t have taken long to ascertain that the whole of Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ is set forth in the body of the book; it is repeated, for convenience, in an appendix. S/Z may be foreign rubbish, but it cannot be called an ‘indecency’ for the reason given.

Dr Kappeler is also a foreigner, and perhaps should not expect a reasonable and fair account of her book. Nor, on the evidence of the review, can Henry James, also a foreigner though his name isn’t funny. I am hard put to it to find a way of describing this kind of reviewing by any other term than vulgar chauvinism, of which there seems to be a lot around just now. I hope Professor Rawson, and your journal, will come to see it as a form of prejudice to be resisted rather than fed with easy jokes.

Frank Kermode

Claude Rawson writes: Let’s spell it out. ‘Sarrasine’ is a 30-page story broken up in S/Z into 561 numbered bits, some only three or four words long, interlarded and surrounded by a Barthesian commentary of many times that length, running to about 220 pages, not counting Annexes: an initial barbarism which compounds rather than removes the particular indecency to which I referred. I hadn’t supposed that I would need to spell it all out in a review dealing mainly with another book, or to explain to informed readers that this is what I referred to as Barthes’s text, which has after all been around for a number of years and has acquired some notoriety as an object of a rather particular kind. But there it is. Let it be clear that Barthes’s text contains Balzac’s and that one could go through the latter within it, much as one might go through a built-up area by jumping over or by knocking down all the houses on the way.

The indecency which my review had been concerned with was the relegation of the unrescripted ‘Sarrasine’ to an appendix, ‘in ways which suggested that its chief interest was as an adjunct to Barthes’s text.’ Balzac’s story is printed as one of three Annexes to S/Z, and is numerically keyed (from 1 to 561) to the Barthesian script as an interesting ancillary exhibit, like the pieces of source-material printed at the end of some scholarly editions. There are, of course, ways of appending a primary text to a critical discussion which do not suggest ‘that its chief interest was as an adjunct,’ as when Trilling printed the ‘Immortality Ode’ after his essay on it. ‘For convenience’: yes, to make it easier for the essay to throw light on the poem, and not, as in Barthes, to add an optional seasoning to the critical dish.

On vulgar chauvinism what Kermode says is honourable and right. I share his feelings and he has mistaken the direction of my comments. When I spoke of multi-national co-productions, I was objecting to a kind of hollow internationalism which is largely, in my view, an extension of parochial narrowness. I meet an increasing number of professional colleagues who are perfectly at home with the code-words of international hermeneutics, but fewer and fewer who know a foreign language, and fewer still who will choose to read a book in that language when a translation is available. As someone who has spent a large part of his academic life trying to keep alive the idea that students of English and their teachers should learn foreign languages and have some unmediated access to a literature other than their own, I find this very depressing. It is depressing in much the same way, however, as the reduction of English as well as non-English writings through the shorthand of what sometimes passes for ‘theory’. This shorthand can indeed be more corrupting than the short cut of translation, for it may become a substitute, not only for the original text, but for the act of reading itself.

Dr Kappeler knows several languages and she deals with particular texts. The disappointing thing is that she nevertheless writes at a level of abstraction where particularities disappear inside reductive and often arbitrary systems of formalist and socio-linguistic taxonomy; where one text can easily be made to look much like another; and where any text might just as well have been read in translation, because very little that is said pays sensitive attention to the full individual immediacy of what the author actually wrote. I have already reviewed Dr Kappeler’s book and don’t think it right to subject it to a repetition of my original strictures merely because Professor Kermode has intervened in her defence. But the point about her parade of international authorities is specifically at issue, and as in other recent books on fiction this tends to offer simplifying short cuts rather than a widening of perspectives. The names of Otrik, Lugowski and the rest, whatever the merits of their own writings, are here used to provide a kind of magical cover for Dr Kappeler’s schematising, with accompanying intimations of analogy with those scientific laws which are sometimes known by the name of their founder: scientific pretension is an old feature of magical practices. Meanwhile the texts themselves become so much cold meat, packaged, computer-tagged and stacked on refrigerated display shelves. The supermarket is the most international of institutions and the most parochial. They exist in every neighbourhood, and they’re all the same; and the critical cosmopolitanism to which I object is about as genuinely international as the outlook of someone whose horizons are bounded by the local Safeway store.

I felt no particular impulse to point out, as Professor Kermode and at least one other reviewer do, that Dr Kappeler ‘is a foreigner’, and I deliberately held back from noting that her command of English idiom is occasionally uncertain. The degree to which this is manifested is not seriously disabling. But it produces some local oddities and does not enhance her credentials as a commentator on an author whose language is as elaborately and idio-syncratically nuanced as that of James, whom Professor Kermode (a shade obsessively, I think) also insists on calling a foreigner. Since all these things are being laid on the line, I should make it clear to anyone who might be interested that my own racial origins are at least as outlandish as those of any of the victims of my xenophobic malignancy.

Finally, Lugowski’s name. My predilection for puns is doubtless to be reprobated. I thought I was having my bit of fun, not at the expense of his foreignness, but in mimicry of a routine practised with much seriousness by some celebrated exponents of the verbal sign. But I confess that the sinister overtones which my unamusing ribaldry extracted from the name happen to chime with a not so mirthful feeling that a menace really exists, though not of course from Dr Lugowski in person. And what is menaced are things for which I know Professor Kermode cares as much as I do.

In search of Eaf(f)ry Johnson

SIR: Brigid Brophy (LRB, 22 January) may be right that in finding an ‘Eaffry’ Johnson, baptised in 1640 at St Michael’s, Harbledown, near Canterbury, she became ‘the discoverer of the birth of Aphra Behn’; though it seems likely that of the two contemporary accounts which give Behn’s unmarried name as Johnson, the later is dependent on the earlier and therefore valueless as evidence, and there were anyway (as Maureen Duffy makes clear in her biography) not only a lot of Aphras and Johnsons around in Kent at the time, but even some Aphra Bean(e)s as well.

Ms Brophy vituperates against Behn’s most recent biographer, Angeline Goreau, for not mentioning the discovery. Goreau is furthermore ‘unable to read’, Brophy says, let alone ‘to decipher 17th-century clerical hands’ (a mystery in which she herself was initiated by Duffy). The point would be more telling if Brophy and Duffy had done their own transcribing correctly. As it happens, I’ve just been looking at the Harbledown baptismal registers. ‘Eaffry’ is actually (and very clearly) spelt ‘Eafry’.

Jeremy Treglown
Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oxon.

Maureen Duffy writes: Jeremy Treglown is mistaken in saying that there are ‘two contemporary accounts which give Behn’s married name as Johnson’. There are at least three to my knowledge and there may be others as yet undiscovered. The one that pointed me to Canterbury, Col. Thomas Culpepper’s Adversaria Vol. II (Harl. MS 7588), is in his own hand and dependent on no other since he states that Aphra Behn was his ‘foster sister’ and her mother his (wet)nurse. In the words of a lost Restoration play: ‘A man may presume to know his own milk sister.’ As for Jeremy Treglown’s two little ‘ff’s’, our transcription confirms that there was only one in Eafry. I have it before me in Brigid Brophy’s very clear hand, and the earlier printed edition tells the same tale. What used to be called a printer’s devil no doubt inserted the second one which my eye let slip through the proof net. However, this is nit-picking. The point is that Culpepper, his connections, and those of her putative mother’s family, the Denhams of Bucks, Kent, Lincoln and Somerset (into whom I have since done considerable research), afford very strong circumstantial evidence that this is the right Aphra John-son/Behn, and provide a very plausible background for the genesis of our first woman not ashamed ‘to write for bread’. They include among her relatives Sir Thomas Gower, Buckingham and Anne Wharton, all of whom Aphra Behn was known to in her lifetime. It is surety right, as Brigid Brophy says, that a reader should have the chance to consider this evidence.

Hitler and History

SIR: As distinct from Miss Kate Graham (Letters, 19 February), I only write about Wagner (or anybody else) if and when I know as much as I can about him. Had she read the two fat volumes of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries from which she quotes out of context, she would have discovered 1. Wagner’s downright prophetic anti-Nazi attitude (which I touched upon), 2. his Jewish friends (including the Parsifal conductor Hermann Levi, a conscious Jew who passionately defended Wagner against Miss Graham’s type of accusation), and 3. the source of his pathological and inconsistent anti-semitism – to wit, the far more consistent Cosima herself, who no doubt ‘amended’ his remark before she recorded it.

What Cosima says Wagner said in private, then, is not part of German Romanticism – only of Miss Graham’s picture of it. In fact, her letter is welcome evidence in support of my case against history in general and the delusion of Wagner’s Nazism in particular – as are Cosima’s eye-opening Diaries themselves, when read in toto.

Hans Keller
London NW3

Labour’s Programme

SIR: George Watson (Letters, 19 February) has deconstructed my text too far. I wasn’t asking for decades or generations for the Labour Party to think out ‘what the sacred name of socialism means’. In fact, I think it has a fair idea of what it means. I was beseeching them to realise that the transformation of Britain into a democratic socialist society would take that long. Such a time-scale would generously allow George Watson plenty of time to emigrate to Australia. For the Labour Party to ‘get out of Parliament altogether’ is the last thing I would want: indeed, I stressed very strongly and seriously Foot’s intense parliamentarianism, Heffer’s too, Tony Benn also – except that he has the not entirely foolish thought (which worries Shirley Williams and her friends unduly) that Parliament is not the only, even if it is the predominant, stage for democracy in this nation.

Bernard Crick
Birkbeck College, University of London


SIR: Nicholas Tyacke, before pointing out what he sees as errors of emphasis and interpretation in Margot Heinemann’s Puritanism and Theatre, makes a general point about ‘a basic difficulty of interdisciplinary studies – namely, keeping up with more than one subject’ (Letters, 5 February). Doesn’t a lot of the difficulty derive from the way in which we conceive of ‘disciplines’ and ‘subjects’ as securely discrete entities which can be moved between (at the mover’s risk) only if it is understood that they are the bases from which we move?

The way in which academic institutions are currently structured into disciplines which are hypo-thetically complete and masterable often leads to individuals ignoring the help which may be at hand though under the guise of another discipline. Each object of study makes its own particular demands for skills and information which are seldom identical with those supposedly comprehended by the discipline in which an individual formally works. The need to ‘keep up with one’s subject’ is surely not as important as the need to equip oneself with the skills and information required by one’s particular object of study.

The executive convenience of ‘subject’ and ‘discipline’ divisions – divisions which operate on a number of levels including the distribution of editorial responsibilities in the academic presses and the layout of the bookshops which market their products – cannot justify a situation in which historians may use literary texts as ‘evidence’ in ways which seem naive or insufficient to more expert readers, and in which ‘history for historians’ is a different thing from ‘history for literary critics’.

Elizabeth Cook
School of English, University of Leeds

Literary Estates

SIR: I am compiling a Directory of Literary Estates in the UK and Ireland and I should be pleased to hear from any of your readers who either own the copyright in the work of deceased authors or administer literary estates.

David Fletcher
57 John Street, Penicuik, Midlothian EH26 8HL

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