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Letters

Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981

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Conspicuousness

SIR: I am grateful for the review which my book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England received from the Provost of Kings (Mr Bernard Williams) in the London Review of Books (LRB, 2 April), and in particular for his perceptiveness in knowing how pleased I would be at having it described as ‘clotted and ill-natured’, as bearing an equivocal relationship to its chief argument, as using Christianity as a vehicle of Sarcasm, and as having ‘dark associations’ with the ‘scepticism and distrust of all merely secular improvements which can be found’ amongst ‘the more unreconstructed sort of cardinal’ in the ‘unliberated heartland of the Church of Rome’. I hope I shall not seem ungrateful if I make two critical comments.

At various points in his review the Provost states that I am incapable of arguing my opinions. Given that I have a certain articulateness, it is, it seems to me, quite likely that I can argue them. Argument, however, is not what it seems to me suitable to do with opinions. What one does with opinions – all one needs to do with them, having found that one has them – is to enjoy them, display them, use them, develop them, in order to cajole, press, bully, soothe and sneer other people into sharing (or being affronted by) them. To argue them is, it seems to me, a very vulgar, debating-society sort of activity.

Secondly, I find the Provost’s dislike of ‘parochiality’ difficult to understand. We may not all be able to be ‘acerbically’ parochial, but we are all parochial – Sir A. Ayer, Sir I. Berlin, Sir S. Hampshire, the Provost and their ‘conspicuous’ friends no less than the inconspicuous Cambridge friends that I celebrate in two or three of my chapters. Whether a clique, and its claque, becomes conspicuous or not may be related to the quality of its mind and activity, but is equally likely to be related to quite extraneous considerations, like its capacity for self-promotion and mutual admiration, and the contribution that it makes to prevailing fashions. I do not resent the conspicuousness of the Provost’s friends any more than I resent the conspicuousness of the innumerable other groups of friends that constitute the English intelligentsia. But I do rather sense that the Provost resents my attempt to make my friends more conspicuous than they have been in the past.

About three-quarters of Religion and Public Doctrine is concerned with thinkers who are by any standards conspicuous. In the two or three chapters which deal with inconspicuous Cambridge thinkers, I have tried to suggest that these should become more conspicuous, that they dealt with questions which are of central consequence to the understanding of English political and religious thought, and that the conspicuous thinkers I do discuss will be understood better by being considered in association with them. If the Provost’s review has persuaded anyone that this is so, I shall judge it more than worth the pleasure it has given me.

Finally, may I add a few words about the Provost’s claim that Religion and Public Doctrine is neither about politics nor religion. The Provost is evidently quite a clever philosoper, but I have never found him very clever about politics. Indeed, I have always felt that his political opinions had been formed in the 1950s, and were so much the average opinions of their time and place that he had never paid them the compliment of thinking about them. Even if this is so, however, even if the Provost is feeling his age, so to speak, it is absurd to attempt so gross a misrepresentation as is to be found in the first paragraph of his review. Religion and Public Doctrine is laced with politics: it is also laced with religion. Its subject is a political religion.

Maurice Cowling
Cambridge

Proust Regained

SIR: John Sturrock does not in his estimable review (LRB, 19 March) inspire full confidence in Terence Kilmartin’s revision of Scott-Moncrieff’s translation of Proust. It is impossible to judge with certainty of the aptness of translations of clauses and phrases taken out of context. But the dozen or so examples of changes made by Kilmartin that Sturrock gives are picked from many that he came upon in a prolonged sampling; and three of them at least raise doubts over and above those raised by Sturrock himself.

Consider, first, dévote. Scott-Moncrieff (‘SM’) has ‘instinct with piety’, Kilmartin (‘K’) has ‘devout’, obviously an improvement. But the word dévot is usually used with pejorative intent – it is often best translated by ‘bigot(ed)’. This would doubtless be too strong in the context in question. But is there no pejorative nuance in Proust? ‘Pious’ can fairly readily take on pejorative tones in English, in the right contexts; ‘devout’ rarely does. Something of Proust might not have been rendered here.

Second, orageux et doux in Proust is translated ‘dear tempestuous’ by SM, ‘delightful stormy’ by K. ‘Stormy’ is doubtless better than ‘tempestuous’. But why is doux in both cases rendered by a merely approbative adjective? Doux has a distinct descriptive meaning, ‘soft’, ‘sweet’ or ‘gentle’, and in virtue of this meaning stands in specific and directly oxymoronic contrast with orageux. This opposition is doubtless intended by Proust. It should be preserved.

Third, je puisse un peu les emmerder. SM has ‘I can s – t on them,’ K, Sturrock says, ‘naturally gives us the full four letters’. But this is simply inaccurate, unless emmerder has changed its meaning radically in the last sixty years: it is simply slang (now very harmless and very widely employed indeed) for ‘to make things difficult for’, ‘to make trouble for’, ‘to irritate’, ‘to get on the nerves of’. It may have been stronger sixty years ago, but I do not believe that it had anything like the force that ‘to shit on’ has, still less had, in English. A translator into French would make a mistake of the same order if he were to use pisser in his rendering of the expression ‘pissed off with’. In this respect emmerder is like con, which, as an adjective, has between familiars about the same force as bête, and absolutely no hint of obscene connotation; as a noun, too, its standard use to mean ‘stupid fool’, ‘idiot’ is wholly non-obscene, and often affectionate.

Galen Strawson

Oxford

SIR: Disengaged from its context in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, the phrase that Scott-Moncrieff took as his title might have served well enough for the ‘unsought’ Proustian memories. Curiously, the phrase, did not originate with Shakespeare. It is Scriptural, as would have been well-known had it not occurred in one of the Apocryphal books no longer included in the English Bible. In Shakespeare’s day it was no doubt to be heard regularly in church. ‘Remembrance of things past’ was already there in the Geneva (1560) and the Bishops’ Bible (1568). It is retained in the Authorised Version (1611). The Geneva version reads: ‘Whether they were absent or present their punishment was alike: for their grief was double with mourning, and the remembrance of things past’ (Wisdom of Solomon, XI 10). The Vulgate has ‘memoria praeteritorum’: more Ruskinian.

The well-merited sufferings of the Egyptians are what the passage refers to, and they are not to the point: but as Shakespeare’s sonnet shows, with its ‘grieve at grievances foregone’ and ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ (cf. ‘their grief was double’), Scriptural expressions in secular contexts are easily freed from their origins.

E.E. Duncan-Jones
Cambridge

SIR: I am outraged by John Sturrock’s dismissal of Philippe Jullian’s brilliant illustrations to the 1957 Scott-Moncrieff translation as ‘weedy and intrusive line drawings’. For me and many others they are wonderful visual evocations of Marcel’s times past. Sturrock’s hidebound attitude to visual fantasy perhaps explains why the journal he helps to edit, the TLS, is often such heavy going.

Isabel Jacobs
London NW11

Harrison’s Moment

SIR: Four paragraphs into Tom Phillips’s review (LRB, 2 April) I was surprised to discover that it concerned a book I wrote myself. I appear to have become part of a movement in which ‘for the first time since the Fifties the student is searching for quality’ and Howard Hodgkin. My book, it appears, has been ‘sniffing its moment’. If so, it is a stale smell by now, as my patient publishers could testify. English Art and Modernism: 1900-1939 was commissioned some ten years ago, and derived largely from work done in the previous decade.

Tom Phillips appears to have read at least one paragraph with some attention, since he quotes it in full as a representative of my valuations, though without the ensuing qualification by which its intended truth value is considerably shifted. Otherwise he seems concerned to do nothing so much as convey his own sense of irritation at the provincialism of English art. The point of view has been well enough rehearsed, and I have not claimed to contradict it. If Tom Phillips is making a criticism (as his tone suggests that he is, though his logic hardly supports such an intention), it seems to be that the subject of the book is the subject of the book.

Apart from this he offers to correct a ‘misunderstanding’ in my view of Epstein’s Female Figure in Flenite, of which I wrote that ‘it suggested a high degree of confidence on Epstein’s part in the expressive distortion of the human figure and in the strength of his response both to tribal sculpture and to the formal vigour of early Cubist painting.’ Phillips’s reproof is that ‘this seems a little grandiose when one compares the piece in question with the typical Abron (Brong) “soul figure" that it imitates so closely. The use of such material by the Cubists was much less slavish.’ The sentence I wrote does not claim that the Epstein sculpture gains by comparison either with any specific tribal sculpture or with early Cubist painting. It merely asserts that Epstein appears to have felt confident in certain ways. As an artist himself, Tom Phillips must sometimes have felt a confidence in respect of his own competences which was not entirely justified by their subsequent exercise.

But as regards his anxiety lest English art be seen to occupy the centre of some international stage, I will bear this lesson in mind, at least in the continuation to English Art and Modernism upon which I am now engaged. This will cover the years 1940-80, and will thus span the period of Mr Phillips’s own working career to date. I can reassure him that I will do my best to define the limits of the pond in which he swims, lest the brilliance of his own splashings be lost from view.

Charles Harrison
Banbury

George Eliot, Joyce and Cambridge

SIR: Michael Mason (LRB, 2 April) seems on one occasion to provide evidence for the argument he is opposing. Discussing the conversation between Mr Brooke and Dagley in Chapter 39 of Middlemarch, he singles out George Eliot’s remark that Dagley was ‘only the more inclined to “have his say" with a gentleman who walked away from him’ as an example of her failure to respect any absolute distinction between what he terms dialogue and authorial text. He then comments on the different form taken by the quoted utterance (‘I’ll hev my say’) when it appears in Dagley’s fully reported speech, and ascribes the difference to ‘fuzziness’ on George Eliot’s part.

The second point deserves more time than Mason allows it and, I think, another interpretation. For the fact that the utterance has to be translated into ‘standard’ English before it can appear in the authorial text surely indicates a substantial difference between the forms of expression felt to be appropriate inside and outside inverted commas.

Throughout the chapter Dagley is portrayed as a captive figure, even at the level of incidental comedy. His house is called Freeman’s End ‘by way of sarcasm, to imply that a man was free to quit if he chose, but that there was no earthly “beyond" open to him.’ And his language – for example, the vocabulary of ‘Rinform’ which he has assimilated but cannot comprehend – enfolds him just as securely.

The authorial text, on the other hand, is committed to the proposition that ‘every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,’ and cannot afford to become associated with the views or the words of such a terminally intractable figure. Its capacity to move between idioms, to translate, asserts a freedom not available to the occupant of Freeman’s End, and implicitly judges him: although the judgment may not be an unkind one. I would suggest, therefore, that the distinction drawn between the two utterances (‘have his say’/‘hev my say’) reflects George Eliot’s desire to sharpen the ironies playing on Dagley, rather than what Mason fuzzily terms her ‘fuzziness’. This particular crossing of the metaphysical boundary separating dialogue from authorial text only enhances their separateness.

The episode can best be understood by referring to the theme of the chapter: Brooke’s attempts to preserve his self-esteem against a greater lucidity, on the one hand, and a greater opacity, on the other. Having with some difficulty seen off Dorothea – ‘Dorothea renewed the subject of the estate as they drove along, but Mr Brooke, not being taken unawares, got the talk under his own control’ – he is overwhelmed by Dagley. Indeed, the novel as a whole has much to say about the connections between mastery of language and mastery of experience. We remember how Dorothea wanted to learn Latin and Greek because ‘those provinces of masculine knowledge seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly.’ It can only explore such questions by itself occupying an ultimate standing-ground, from which the truths of Dorothea and Casaubon and Brooke and Dagley may be seen more truly.

David Trotter
London WC1

Gerhardie

SIR: Frank Kermode (LRB, 2 April) recommends ‘everyone interested in good novels’ to read William Gerhardie, but calls for an even stronger base than Futility and God’s Fifth Column on which to rebuild Gerhardie’s reputation. He will be pleased to hear that Penguin plan to publish the first paperback edition of Of Mortal Love later this year. As for the matter of misprints, another effort to defeat this sabotaging agent is (printers permitting) to be made with the American edition of God’s Fifth Column.

Michael Holroyd
London W10

Propaganda, Doctrine and Ideology

SIR: In a letter in the last issue of the LRB Peter Cramer claims to have discovered an ‘inconsistency’ in my article ‘Revolution in Poland’ (Letters, 16 April). The alleged inconsistency centres on the fact that I criticise Kolakowski for his argument that Marxism-Leninism is an inconvenience to the Polish Party which cannot be removed because it provides the basis of legitimacy of the regime. ‘What is the value of a doctrine as a basis of legitimacy,’ I asked, ‘if no one believes in it?’ According to Cramer, I myself had answered this question when I previously asserted that doctrine does not have to be believed in order to be effective. I find this ‘insight’ of Cramer’s rather mystifying.

A doctrine may be effective as a means of social domination even if no one believes in it. On this we apparently agree. However, a doctrine has value as a basis of legitimacy if and only if it induces a belief that the existing social order is morally justified.

The final sentence of Cramer’s letter (‘belief in Soviet and Eastern bloc propaganda … often amounts to belief in the political power it expresses, not in the independent truth of the information’) appears to refer to Kolakowski’s observation that, hidden in the current usage of Marxist terminology in Eastern Europe, there is an implicit propaganda of terror which is quite distinct from the official doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Yet this allusive propaganda, while it may be politically effective, also does nothing to legitimise the regime. Furthermore, the formal use of Marxist terminology would merely be an encumbrance if all that were required were a language capable of inculcating terror. It is exactly at this point in their analyses that Kolakowski and others are unable to explain the extraordinary tenacity of Marxism-Lenism as an ideology of domination.

Michael Szkolny
Paris

Defence of Shelley

SIR: Claire Tomalin suggests I cannot have read her book on Mary Wollstonecraft (Letters, 2 April). In fact I reviewed it, praising its research, alongside Richard Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit (Tribune, 13 September 1974). I am sure she is sincere in thinking she deals with the political ideas ‘with entire seriousness’, but she is unsympathetic to Mary’s Vindication of the Rights of Man, describing it as a ‘rag-bag’ without any attempt to ‘reason with Burke at the level he required’. Apart from this brief praise she makes no study of Burke’s reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (its reference to ‘the swinish multitude’ alone provoked a political storm), or of Paine’s contrary ideas set out in Rights of Man, the other reply to Burke, all of which I discuss at length in my 1973 biography of Paine. On Mary’s ‘joke’ when setting out for France she remarks that ‘it covered her anxieties about her continuing state as a spinster.’ There is no evidence Mary had such anxieties. This seems to me very far from E.P. Thompson’s estimate of Mary as ‘a major intellectual’ (New Society, 19 September 1974), a view echoed by Michael Foot, quoting Hazlitt and Coleridge in support, and which I share.

With regard to Shelley’s affair with Claire Clairmont, Mrs Tomalin’s acceptance of this seemed clear to me from her review of Mary Shelley’s letters (LRB, 19 February): if her recent book on Shelley, which she wrongly assumes I have read, is more sceptical, I am glad. The story was first spread by the servant, Elise. However, Mrs Tomalin now claims I requested evidence that ‘Shelley was the father of Claire Clairmont’s child’! I never suggested the Naples baby, Elena, was Claire’s: it is she who now states it was. On what proof, one wonders? Even Mr Holmes examined and rejected this, and plumped for the tale-bearing Elise.

Audrey Williamson
London SW1

‘Australian Book Review’

SIR: John McLaren’s Australian Book Review (Letters, 19 March) serves its valuable purpose by doing just what its title suggests: its most recent issue gave short reviews and short notices of over a hundred books recently published in Australia. Quadrant publishes not only reviews of books published not only in Australia, but also poetry and short stories; its articles cover a very wide range of subjects. It’s the greater range that Quadrant sees as its distinction. But let’s not fight over the word ‘literary’. What a literary man might like to do is subscribe to both of us.

Lee Shrubb
Executive Editor, Quadrant, Sydney

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