Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982

Search by issue:

Western Strategy

SIR: One would have more respect for Mr A. J. P. Taylor’s opinions if he had more respect for facts. In his ‘Diary’ in your issue for 4-17 March he writes that ‘Professor Howard tells us in the columns of the Times that the peace of the world will be imperilled if we relinquish nuclear weapons.’ When on earth did I do this? My only contribution to the Times for well over a year was a letter on 3 November last, in which I wrote that ‘the Western strategy of relying on the first use of nuclear weapons to defend ourselves is not only morally dubious but politically and militarily incredible’; and went on to urge an improvement in our conventional forces so as to diminish, if not eliminate, our dependence on nuclear weapons. Lord Carver, I am glad to say, also ‘preaches the same doctrine’, but it is certainly not that which Mr Taylor attributes either to him or to me.

I had the pleasure of listening to Mr Taylor’s Romanes Lecture and hearing his highly original interpretation of the causes of the two world wars. This, if true, will require a complete rewriting of the history of Europe in the 20th century, including his own contributions: but I would prefer not to comment in more detail until I have seen the full text.

Michael Howard

Benson’s Pleasure

SIR: Noel Annan writes learnedly and very entertainingly (LRB, 4 March) about the dawn of homosexuality, Platonic and otherwise, in the ancient universities of England at the end of the 19th century. But the sun also rose in other parts of the world, and he might have been a little more expansive in discussing the climate of opinion in which the bachelor don flourished. How far were their practices, or attitudes, indigenous? What about the Euranians?

James Darke
London SW10

Noël Annan writes: It wasn’t odd that homosexuality became a cult at the end of the 19th century in England. Proust’s Paris, Freud’s Vienna, Wilhelm II’s Berlin, where the Kaiser’s friend, von Eulenberg, was forced out of public life, were the contemporaries of Wilde’s London. But what was odd about homosexuality in England was the emergence of a cult which stood almost wholly apart from the cosmopolitan fraternity. Its adherents took pride in sublimating their desires and in preaching rather than practising. The cult was institutionalised in the upper classes to a degree unknown in any other country. From the age of eight, English boys of those classes were, as I explained, incarcerated for two-thirds of the year in almost entirely male establishments until they left the seminaries of Oxford and Cambridge colleges at the age of 21. The school holidays hardly gave them time to understand what girls were like: so that young Englishmen abroad were all too well known for their gaucherie. Unlike the generations which followed them, the Victorians were unashamed of passionate friendship between young men. Contemporaries of the Tractarians noted the passion which Hurrell Froude inspired, or the devotion St John felt for Newman, or the capers which Frederick Faber cut with the boy who became Lord Chancellor and the Earl of Selborne. One of the founders of muscular Christianity, Charles King-sley, revelled in finding, as he put it, a successor to ‘the old tales of David and Jonathan…Shakespeare and his nameless friend’. The greatest of all public school novels does not blench at describing how strong is the affection between Tom Brown and little Arthur; and Hughes’s frankness may have encouraged Farrar to be even more explicit in Eric. Even after the scandals of the Eighties involving first Lord Henry, and then Lord Arthur, Somerset, and Wilde’s more celebrated downfall in the Nineties, it was perfectly possible for upright, and uptight, men to be amazed at innuendos or denunciations of passionate male friendships. No one doubted that the most famous friendship of all, immortalised in In Memoriam, was Platonic.

‘Platonic’ is the keyword. The boys of the upper classes studied for nine-tenths of their time the Biblical tales and the myths of Greece and Rome. Could the two be reconciled? In a sense, men had been trying to do this ever since Boethius, and the Victorian schoolmaster and don carried on the struggle. It is not an accident that Jowett is best remembered as a scholar for his translations of Plato’s Dialogues. But for every attempt to join the two together in holy matrimony there was another sage zealously putting them asunder. There was Arnold contrasting Hebraism with Hellenism; there were J. A. Symonds and Lowes Dickinson, whose Greek View of Life had reached its 18th edition by the Second World War. The third chapter of that book contained a sub-section on ‘Appreciation of Physical Qualities’, and argued that the Greek ideal of friendship envisaged the older man educating the younger through friendship. Such friendship was an incentive to the noble life. Above all, there was Pater’s essay on Winckelmann defining a delectable hedonism in which the Greek passion for beauty directly challenged Protestant puritanism. Ruskin tilled the soil; Pater sowed the seed; and Wilde reaped the whirlwind.

Odder still was the openness of the cult of paedophilia depicted by the Uranian poets. Timothy D’Arch Smith, through most ingenious research, established how Wilde got from John Gambril Nicholson the play upon words for that singular work of genius, The Importance of Being Ernest. He also constructed a long chain of relationships between paedophiles such as Kains Jackson, Charles Sayle, H. G. Dakyns, Howard Sturgis and Horatio Brown. The poetry of these paedophiles is atrocious. They managed to be at once gloomy and facetious. They lament how fleeting boyhood is and how frustrated therefore their passion. They declare they are celebrating a higher order of love. They often use legend and myth from the Classics and the Bible, such as the martyrdom of boys, to evade criticism yet titillate the initiated, rather as some Baroque painters depicted the naked St Sebastian in ecstasy, impaled by arrows. But grotesquely comical as the verse of the Rev. E. E. Bradford or J. L. Barford (‘Philebus’) might be, what they wrote in these pre-Freudian days was regarded as scarcely worthy of comment. (In some ways the Victorians were less prudish than we are: today anyone who followed the normal Victorian practice of swimming naked in a river would be liable to arrest for indecent exposure.) No reviewer seemed startled. ‘Of the love of man for man and occasionally of man for boy, Mr Bradford is a steadfast, and occasionally an eloquent, advocate.’ Or more succinct: ‘Cheery and wholesome’ – the Times. If such overt yearnings were thought not to be scandalous, it was natural that the bachelor don’s fancies were regarded as a pleasing and welcome interest in the young. You did not have to belong to the fraternity to accept loving friendship between old and young as normal.

Quality Distinctions

SIR: The exchange between Richard Webster and Edmund Leach (Letters, 18 February and Letters, 4 March) is further evidence of the continuing and useless conflict between the ‘human’ as found in literature and the scientific-technical. It is an argument that seems peculiar to British life – the Leavis-Snow ‘two cultures’ debate being only the most notable recent instance. The two positions are entrenched and apparently unbridgeable. However, there is an area of activity and thought that could provide some common ground: this is in the practice of design. As a publisher of books on design, I hesitate to say this, knowing the enclosed and intellectually impoverished character of the British design world, but it is in designing that the technical gets imbued with values, even those of the high-serious kind that Richard Webster elaborates. The designer is exactly that person who can break out of the dichotomy presented by Edmund Leach: the false choice of either ‘engineer’ or ‘art critic’. In designing, play with machinery or with a computer program takes on a human and social purpose – something absent from the vacant ‘fiddling’ of Sir Edmund’s description.

If one had to support these claims for design, one could mention specific achievements and products – or, more confidently (in the context of a literary-intellectual publication), one could point to the tradition of design thinker-practitioners that includes Patrick Geddes, W. R. Lethaby, Walter Gropius, Lewis Mumford (this last the clearest exponent of a human-technical vision). Currently-producing contributors to this tradition would include Tomas Maldonado and Norman Potter: quite different from each other, but both substantial and necessary figures. The fact that very few readers of the London Review will have heard of these last two names (or even those of the first group) can be taken as evidence of the virtual non-awareness of design in British culture: lost in the gaps between fine art, literature, science, technology; at best, a poor and embarrassing relation to architecture.

Further recent evidence of this lack of awareness has been the sense of as-if-for-the-first-time naive enthusiasm evident in the reception of the ‘Art and Industry’ exhibition that inaugurated the Boiler-house project at the Victoria and Albert Museum – almost fifty years after Herbert Read’s book of this title was first published. (Was Read’s interest in design passed over, as a further sign of superficial polymathy?)

The problem is an educational one, no doubt – and there are signs that design is starting to be tackled seriously in the secondary schools. One supposes that the last places to get the message will be the universities, and the London literary establishment.

Robin Kinross
Hyphen Press, 73 Blenheim Gardens, Reading

SIR: Replying to imaginary letters is sometimes easier than replying to real ones. The fact that Edmund Leach (Letters, 4 March) has taken so much trouble to reply to an imaginary one presumably indicates either that he has no answer for the letter which I actually wrote or that he does not understand the point I was making in it. I will try to put the point more clearly.

My letter was not concerned, as is Leach’s reply, with the relative economic usefulness of art critics and engineers. Nor was it concerned to condemn Edmund Leach for the entirely legitimate pleasure he may derive from fiddling with machinery. It was concerned, in part, at least, with Leach’s habit of mystifying social reality by using mechanical and mathematical models in his attempts to understand it. Readers who are easily beguiled might well conclude from the studied irrelevance of Leach’s reply that he has never indulged in this habit. In view of this, it seems necessary to underline the fact that he has and that he has done so on and off throughout his intellectual career. As long ago as 1959, in Rethinking Anthropology, Leach was urging his colleagues to think of ‘the organisational ideas that are present in any society as constituting a mathematical pattern’. Sounding remarkably like Jacques Lacan, who sought to use the structure of complex knots as a basis for a new geometry of the psyche, Leach went on to maintain that ‘considered mathematically society is not an assemblage of things but an assemblage of variables. A good analogy would be with the branch of mathematics known as topology which may crudely be described as the geometry of elastic rubber sheeting.’ Since 1959, it may well be that Leach has quietly allowed some of his wilder ideas to lapse. But the rod which, Moses-like, he once held out to his colleagues, was unmistakably the rod of mechanical reductionism. It was with that same rod, as I saw it, that Leach was seeking to chastise Martin’s book. If, as his letter obliquely suggests, Leach was in fact not doing this but was actually stretching the body of Martin’s book on a rack of cruel technocentric monetarism, then I can only apologise for my mistake.

Leach now says he holds it to be axiomatic that ‘one of the prime purposes of education is to teach the individual how to enjoy himself/herself.’ Coming from one of such a puritanical and utilitarian cast of mind, this sounds rather odd. It soon becomes apparent, however, that what he really means is that children should be taught how it is that they may draw pleasure from submitting willingly, pacifically and even eagerly to government by the cruel junta of the rational and the quantifiable, and that this should be done ‘even if in the last resort it means the abandonment of the study of the arts altogether’. What Leach seems not to have noticed, and what I was trying to point out, is that we have already started to abandon the study of the arts and that we have done so not openly but covertly by our commitment to reductive mechanical models and by our adoption, in structuralism, of a philosophy of reactionary repression which masquerades as a philosophy of liberation, a philosophy which provides a means of invisibly suppressing the subversive vitality of literature and replacing it by a pseudo-technical metaphysic.

Not all literary critics are intent on becoming what Leach aparently thinks university academics should be – the paid agents of a technocentric economy. But many evidently are. It was for this reason that I sought in my letter to defend, not so much the discipline of literary criticism, as literature itself. Contrary to Leach’s suggestion, the appreciation of literature is not something which depends on luxurious patronage. It depends only on a little ordinary humanity and the wealth of the human imagination.

Richard Webster

Edmund Leach writes: Since I inadvertently initiated this bizarre correspondence, perhaps I may close it down by invoking my favourite 18th-century author in support of Robin Kinross. Vico maintained (contra Descartes and the majority of contemporary natural scientists) that only God can be expected to understand the natural world because God made it. On the other hand, Men can reasonably expect to be able to understand human society because Men made it. As the model for this argument, Vico claimed that only the carpenter who made it can truly understand the nature of a chair. We now know from Darwin and his successors that even God’s inventive originality is not inexhaustible and that living organisms are, by and large, topological transformations of other living organisms. This is true also of all human societies and of all man-made machines except that it is much more obvious. It is not ‘reductionist’ to argue in this way; it is just common sense.

Edmund Leach

A Polish Notebook

SIR: David Lodge should know better than anyone that simple statements about Catholics are generally misleading, yet there is one in his ‘Polish Notebook’ (LRB, 4 February). He reports that ‘practising Polish Catholics resort to abortion as a means of birth control on a large scale,’ and comments that, ‘whereas British Catholics active in the anti-abortion campaign see themselves as trying to persuade secular society to renounce abortion, in Poland it is a moral issue for Catholics themselves.’ In fact, abortion is a moral issue for Catholics themselves not just in Poland but in Britain and many other countries. Despite the traditional condemnation of the Church and the official disapproval of both clerical and lay leaders, surveys of British public opinion show that a majority of Catholics favour a liberal abortion law, and surveys of British women who have legal abortions show that the proportion of Catholics is larger than in the general population, while a high proportion of the foreign women who have legal abortions here come from Catholic countries. So it seems that a large number of Catholics on both sides of the Iron Curtain resort to contraception when they can and to abortion when they must. How far can you go, indeed!

Nicolas Walter
Rationalist Press Association, London Nl

Elizabeth Bowen

SIR: In the course of my piece about Elizabeth Bowen (LRB, 4 March), I am printed as writing: ‘For her essential nature is not, as has been so often asserted, that of the social critic, but of the visionary.’ I will go a long way to assert that she was not primarily a social-realist, but it would be going too far to suggest that she was a ‘visionary’. What I wrote was that her essential nature was that of ‘the visionary idealist’. The last word got lost somewhere between my typewriter and your printer. I chose my words with some little care, aware that the word ‘visionary’ carries a suggestion of the unpractical, or the purely ideal, as does the word ‘idealist’ whether in its common use or its philosophical.

I think the idea that Elizabeth Bowen was primarily a social critic started with the great popular success of The Heat of the Day, towards which many people who still remember the London of the Blitz feel a deep loyalty. It does indeed evoke that London brilliantly, but, as I tried to suggest in my essay, in no work of art should the background take the place of the foreground – here the story of an English woman’s love for a man who turns out to be a spy. In dealing, or rather in not dealing, with the psychology of this relationship she was out of her depth, although I would not be so harsh as the late Philip Toynbee, who said in an otherwise most admiring and affectionate obituary that in that novel she ‘fell flat on her face’.

Sean O’Faolain

Appeal for Polish Workers

SIR: Five years ago an Appeal was launched to help the Polish workers persecuted by the authorities after the June 1976 demonstrations in several Polish cities. The Appeal, signed by a group of intellectuals, met with a generous response which made it possible to provide many victims and their families with financial and legal assistance. Today the wave of arrests and persecutions in Poland is many times greater and so is the need for material assistance. As trustees of the Appeal for Polish Workers fund, we call again on individuals and organisations to help Polish trade-unionists, to help Solidarity. Donations should be sent to: Appeal for Polish Workers, Irving Trust Company, 36-38 Cornhill, London EC3, Account No: 037648-400.

Wlodzimierz Brus
London W5


SIR: Christopher Ricks feebly touts Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers by claiming (LRB, 21 January) that it is ‘as economical as a shudder’, or £5.95. The dollar exchange rate of 1.8725 (New York Times, 28 January) brings the book to…$11.141375, i.e. less than a shudder. One seldom gets only one at a time, at that.

Prudence Crowther
New York

Deciding Derrida

SIR: It may interest readers of the review of Dissemination by Professor David Hoy (LRB, 18 February) to know that another work of Derrida mentioned in his review, Positions, first published in France in 1972, is available in an English translation published by the Athlone Press in 1981.

Brian Southam
Managing Director, Athlone Press, London WC1

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