Vol. 3 No. 10 · 4 June 1981

Search by issue:

In theory

SIR: In a fine piece of cut-and-thrust polemic, Professor Ricks has deftly exposed some of the humbug and extravagance of certain recent literary theorising (LRB, 16 April). It is unfortunate, though, that in the process he is led to disparage all theory about literature, and philosophy to boot.

Of course ‘theory’ is a bogy word and an easy target, particularly when contrasted with ‘practice’; practice connotes the active and practical, while theory suggests something remote and impractical. But for all that, unreflective practice can look unserious, even philistine. It should not be forgotten that the foundations for the critical practice approved by Profesor Ricks are grounded in a long and distinguished tradition of theorising, not least at Professor Ricks’s own university, over the last sixty years. Professor Ricks prefers to see this tradition as concerned with principles rather than theory. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s meant just to sidestep unwanted connotations. But when he equates principles with proverbs and goes on to allow that ‘proverbs admit contradictions’ he is surely doing less than justice to a whole corpus of serious and reasoned theoretical work.

Poor theory should be met with good theory, not with no theory. There is no need for those who are sceptical of theorists like Hartman and Fish to retreat to proverbs. Nor, I think, should the term ‘literary theory’ be conceded to one particular school of theory.

Peter Lamarque
University of Stirling

Reviews of reviews of reviews

SIR: Hell is reviews of reviewers of Martin Amis’s novel, Other People. I began to feel as if I’d wandered through several of Alice’s looking-glasses when I read your last issue (LRB, 7 May) – ‘An Outline of Outlines’, ‘Reviewers reviewed’ – and no, it wasn’t the 1 April issue.

Claude Rawson reviewed ‘just under two dozen reviews and interviews of Other People’. Since Mr Rawson was inclined to think that the book had been given rather a lot of coverage anyway, why did he feel it was necessary to add his own, marathon review to cover it even more? So what are we to look forward to in your next issue? ‘A review of the review of the reviews of … ’? But even that has already been done in Mr Rawson’s review, which reviewed ‘two reviews of reviews by “Quentin Oates" ’. Perhaps we can expect ‘An outline of an outline of outlines of a review of a review of the reviews of …’ If this goes on, will anyone ever write a real novel again? Or will they all concentrate their facing mirrors on reflecting each other reflecting each other reflecting …

Well, the biter bit the biter bit the biter … I don’t think I’ll bother to read Other People now.

Diana Griffiths

Sacred Cow

SIR: Why, I wonder, does Mr Sutherland not come out into the open and say what he thinks of Martin Amis’s novel, Other People, instead of hiding behind bushes of ‘ostranenie’, ‘virtuosic’ and guardedly non-committal remarks about ‘unexpected development’ and a ‘very mysterious’ mystery story (LRB, 19 March)? He has no qualms about evaluating the work of the other four authors he reviews. Indeed, he states quite categorically that he is about to evaluate Miss Smith’s particular achievement, after having prejudiced the reader against her by referring to a ‘back-coverful of pre-publication puff’. (No objection to the puff on the inside back flap of the Amis book or to the back-coverful of photograph of the author, so very carefully posed?)

Passages of Smith are referred to as ‘emetic’ and one such is quoted. Here is an Amis passage, of a kind of which there is a superfluity, though none is either referred to or quoted:

Oh, Mike, you fucking cocksucker. Well I got news for you, man, cos I’m fuckin out. Cos I don’t fuckin need it, man … You know what he makes me do? … Makes me go to fucking Sketchley’s to pick up his safari suits! The little scumbag’s safari suits! He treats me like shit

Not emetic, merely boring and rather passé.

Gerald Edwards’s work is evaluated as follows: ‘it is hard to see how this work could have merited print, had it not …’ Bernard Cornwell’s is, apparently, part of a ‘fictional sausage string’, which, we later hear, is ‘too solidly and obviously researched’, Of Mr Deighton the hope is expressed that the author’s ‘writing energy and creative disgruntlement’ will produce better things than the book reviewed, a ‘routine’, ‘nerveless’ ‘come-down’.

Here Mr Sutherland shows no shyness at all about expressing (damaging) value-judgments. Why, then, not one about Mr Amis’s novel? Surely this cannot be because Mr Amis’s face makes a front-coverful of post-publication puff on this issue of the LRB? Mr Amis is far too young, of the wrong sex – and couldn’t possibly wish – to be treated as a sacred cow.

James Brockway
The Hague

Malcolm and the Masses

SIR: May I be allowed a late reply to Clive James’s review of Ian Hunter’s life of Malcolm Muggeridge (LRB, 5 February)? After briefly skating through Malcolm Muggeridge’s early life, which James perhaps rightly sees as ordinary enough, and in which the themes of socialism and religion first make their appearance, he pauses to attack the biographer for daring to cast doubt on Keynesian economics – a dismissal which James affects to find a bit daunting. Well, it is certainly not more daunting than witnessing the supercilious nonsense talked by James and Gore Vidal in their television chat about the credit and debit side of Christian civilisation.

Whatever opinion, if any, James holds about Christianity, we learn here that he admires Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and it soon becomes apparent that he is himself something of a social Darwinist. It is the impersonal forces of nature that have shaped our world. ‘We probably do best to follow Darwin’s example and look for harmony outside ourselves … but the universe cares little for us as a species and nothing for us as individuals. That much is entirely up to us. Some people will always find this an inspiring thought. Others it will reduce to despair. Muggeridge is plainly among the latter.’

The political legacy of this heroic individualism has been worked out in the 20th century. Characteristically, St Paul’s admonition that the flesh lusteth against the spirit means nothing to James: ‘There is no point in being shocked that God gave healthy male human beings ten times more lust than they can use. He did the same to healthy male fiddler crabs. He’s a deity, not a dietitian.’ A determinism which is, however, subject to swift modification when the subject of abortion arises: ‘Nor has he ever been able to grasp that the alternative to legal abortion is not Christian chastity or even the edifying responsibility of bringing up an illegitimate child. The alternative to legal abortion is illegal abortion.’ So James decisively concludes. Yet, with eminent medical men fully prepared to accept the blame for arranging the death of Mongol children, need he continue to feel qualms about a return to ‘back-street abortionists’?

An intellectual line of descent from this 19th-century social philosophy would most likely have placed James alongside the Webbs, Shaw and Wells had he lived in the decades before the Second World War. Unlike them, however, he finds the concept of the masses unacceptable and settles instead for ‘free institutions’. Consequently, if we wish to account for Hitler’s rise to power via the free institutions of Weimar, we need only have recourse to James’s equation ‘that some things go wrong of their own accord, and often as a direct consequence of other things going right.’ Elsewhere James’s comments on the political climate of the Thirties scarcely suggest that he has made a deeper study of these events than (as he alleges) Professor Hunter. His comment that ‘the Left intelligentsia was unable to take the centre with it’ appears at variance with the seemingly endless unmaskings of past and present members of the Establishment as Russian spies. Equally perplexing is the attempt to discredit Muggeridge’s insight in reporting the atrocities of the Soviet regime when James goes on to imply some sort of equivalence between the setting up of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the founding of the Welfare State. ‘But in the long run he undid his share of the good work by expanding his contempt for the Soviet Union into an indiscriminate attack on any form of social betterment whatever.’ The politics of Europe in the present century has been mass politics, the politics of the collective will. James becomes preoccupied with seeking to avoid the consequences of his own philosophy. ‘Stalin’s example was not enough to teach him [Muggeridge] that there is no such thing as the masses.’ Or, somewhat later on: ‘But there is no such thing as the herd. There are only people …’ Alas, repeated assertion does not make it so. I doubt if there are many Europeans who would derive much benefit from these platitudes. Probably most would think Lenin’s postulate ‘Who whom?’ a much more valid comment on their recent history.

A French strand is also apparent in James’s thought: he imagines like Voltaire that if the Deity didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent Him, which it seems Muggeridge did. James continues: ‘self-indulgence and severity towards others are the same vice. The epigram is La Bruyère’s. It could conceivably have been Kingsmill’s. It could never have been Muggeridge’s.’ But, then, The Thirties could never have been James’s – a book which he has clearly never read. Had he done so, he would never have fallen into the error of thinking that Muggeridge lacks an historical sense, as James so clearly does. Instead, he finds his explanations in the notion of progress – a lazy man’s substitute if ever there was one. The article on the monarchy, mentioned by James but probably not read by him, made its impact by a careful historical analysis of the British monarchy since the 18th century, underlining the erosion of its power-base, its raison d’être. In the event, this makes his talk of slit noses an irrelevance.

Probably the most extraordinary part of James’s review concerns his comparison of Mother Teresa and Jonas Salk: ‘Mother Teresa cares for those who suffer, which fits Muggeridge’s idea of God’s plan for the world. He would find it hard to express the same admiration for, say, Jonas Salk.’ It must be pretty obvious to James that a person’s moral and spiritual standing bears some relation to the actual physical circumstances of their daily life – when, for instance, one contrasts the squalor of Calcutta’s teeming slums with the remote calm of some Californian Institute of Virology.

Clive Towse

SIR: According to Clive James, Malcolm Muggeridge has contemplated his navel endlessly without drawing much enlightenment from it. One day, in contemplating his own navel, Clive James may discover the real reason for his hostility towards Muggeridge, and the enlightenment he will acquire will at last set him free from the sophisticated secularism he clings to. And he will then understand that Muggeridge is infuriating simply because he is a master at penetrating the defences of that sophisticated secularism.

Nicholas Brown
London W1

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences