SIR: James Fishkin’s 2000-word survey of the current state of ‘democratic theory’ (LRB, 17 June) is a tour de force, but in at least one important respect it is seriously flawed by some national insularity. It is certainly the case that ‘in the 20th century… consensus on God-given rights has evaporated in a climate of secular scepticism and religious pluralism,’ and this proposition holds true not only for the USA but for many other democracies. But it is decidedly not the case that, as a result, ‘we currently lack any adequate criteria for the appropriate limits on majority rule within democratic theory’ – unless ‘we’ is limited to students of the USA’s domestic arrangements to the exclusion of all else.
Precisely because of the decline in the credibility of ‘natural rights’, and of the correlative expansion in the space available for ‘legitimate’ tyranny – ex-emplified in its most extreme form by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia – the elaboration of new standards of ‘human’ rights has been conducted on the international plane since 1945. As a result, there is now in place a substantial structure of treaties, binding in positive international law on a large number of the world’s nations, which set coherent and precise limits to what governments – including those democratically constituted by the popular will of a majority – may do to the individuals under their jurisdiction. Between them, these treaties cover a wide spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; some are global in their extent, and others regional; and some even go to the previously unprecedented length of establishing international courts with the power to hand down binding judgments against national governments at the suit of their own citizens. Many of the 21 nations of non-Communist Europe, for example, have been compelled to repeal or modify their own legislation, validly enacted by their own democratic legislature, because the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg has subsequently held that it entailed an unjustifiable violation of one of the rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
These new standards did not of course spring from a vacuum. Indeed, one of their more influential antecedents was the American Bill of Rights, and the USA played an important part in their elaboration at the United Nations and the Organisation of American States. Yet the USA is alone among the larger democracies in today’s world in not yet having ratified a single one of the major treaties in this field. Among the 35 participating States of the Helsinki Final Act, for instance, only Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and the Holy See are in like case. Professor Fishkin will know better than I why that should be so: Americans are apt to ascribe it to their Senate’s notorious phobia about ratifying ‘foreign’ treaties. Whatever the reason, the USA’s non-adherence decisively weakens the force of its criticisms of oppression, persecution and deprivation elsewhere in the world.
But if students of democratic theory in that great country are searching for a modern consensus on the limits to majority tyranny to replace that shared by their founding fathers, they need look no further than the UN building in New York, the office of the OAU in Washington, and perhaps even some of their own university libraries – but in the section on international law rather than political science (US).
SIR: There is doubtless a reasoned case to be made out against the Falklands war, but I am becoming increasingly alarmed by the way that its opponents feel that any argument, however disreputable, is good enough, and by the resulting stridency of their language, which becomes a kind of inverted mirror image of the notorious Sun headlines. In the LRB of 17 June Tam Dalyell talks about a possible ‘holocaust’. Even at the time of writing (before the British victory) the word was hysterical, and its use, in its lack of proportion, an insult to those many Jews who lost relatives in the concentration camps. One recalls that the bombing of the Sir Galahad with some fifty deaths was compared in Parliament to the Gallipoli disaster in which 40,000 Allied troops were killed or missing. In the next issue Malise Ruthven was tempted to call the Thatcher Government ‘a junta’, on the grounds that it ‘increasingly resembled its Argentine counterpart in shrillness and implacability’(is fascism just a matter of tone?). I am not aware that Tony Benn or the editor of the LRB has yet faced the prospect of torture, and wonder what the families of the ‘disappeared ones’ would think of the analogy. I accept the right of the LRB to take a persistently anti-Falklands stance which I do not share, but can it at least be espoused with intelligence and a sense of moral balance? Above all, such crude and careless propagandist language should be eschewed at all times. It devalues civilised discourse, and leaves us without the proper linguistic resource when the real evil arises.
Chairman, Classical and Medieval Studies, School of European Studies, University of Sussex
Charles Martindale’s letter abuses us for writing abusively about the Falklands campaign, and talks darkly of torture (Letters, 5 August). He appears to have the academic’s liking for high-toned sneers, and for the professional cant which warns of a debasement of the language. Let us look, then, at his own language. He talks scornfully of Tam Dalyell’s use of the word ‘holocaust’. The word means massacre, sacrifice, and this is what Tam Dalyell used it to mean. There is a recent sense, largely a creation of the media, whereby the word refers, with a capital, to the Nazis’ destruction of the German Jews, and Charles Martindale here, without warrant, assigns the media sense of the word to Dalyell, thereby enabling himself to suggest that Dalyell has insulted the relatives of those Jews. There is no doubt much to be said both for and against Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands policy: we took the view that hundreds of people would be killed and maimed if there was to be a swift retaliatory action, and a foreclosure of negotiations, and that the reasons that were given did not justify this. Only the most serious issues of territory, property, nationality and prestige could possibly justify such loss of life. We need to remember that politicians have often been good at persuading people that sacrifices are worth it: some were, but huge numbers were killed between 1914 and 1918 in a war less ‘reasonable’ than the Falklands campaign – a war which, according to A. J. P. Taylor on a later page of this journal, ‘had no purpose, except to defeat the other side’. The London Review also claimed that the early commitment of the task force was full of risk, and subsequent information has done nothing whatever to discredit that claim. Many of those who are pleased and proud, or merely relieved, that a victory was obtained must be prepared to grant (together with at least one Service chief) that the Fleet sailed close to disaster – that the campaign very nearly produced, at Britain’s expense, what even Charles Martindale would have considered a holocaust.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I don’t wish to provide any further warrant for the metaphor in its title, but Tom Paulin’s review, ‘Faculty at War’ (LRB, 17 June), calls for opposition.
The principal affront is offered in the final paragraph, where Iain McGilchrist’s book, Against Criticism, is curtly traduced: but the failure of judgment which is there so stark is the result of a more general failure of responsibility.
To attend earnestly to matters of principle wherever these are put polemically at stake is a responsibility which, duly honoured, yields obvious benefits. By urging us to examine arguments in relation to principles independent of them – to ask, ‘Is it true, and if so, why?’ – it helps us to distinguish between the specious and the cogent. By making the practice of such scrutiny habitual, it conduces, in our reading, writing and our thinking generally, to a salutary rigour. This should in turn conduce to an impartiality in presenting a case, such that, if our conclusions should be wrong, they will be accompanied by enough ungarbled evidence to allow the detection and correction of the error.
It is unlikely that these reflections will strike Mr Paulin as very novel, and yet the critical virtues of which they speak – discrimination, rigour and impartiality – are not exemplified in his review. It would perhaps be legitimate to vent one’s exasperation at the encroaching ‘wilderness of combative attitudes’, had everything possible been done to clear the ground and quell the combat. Paulin does not earn the right. The mere distribution of space in his review is enough to take, though not all that takes, it from him.
Against Criticism is a bold, subtle, lucid and penetrating book. It tactfully endeavours to determine and be governed by the principles on which literary criticism may most profitably be conducted. McGilchrist’s writing has the character of his convictions: continually self-aware, it eschews the fashionable proclivity to self-preoccupation; insisting that ‘there are proper bounds to rationality,’ it gives intuition proper licence, without giving feeling, any more than cerebration, an improper because undisciplined sway. And while McGilchrist has that maturity which, in Eliot’s words, ‘protects [him] from excessive possession by any one literary personality’, he acknowledges faults and inconsistencies in his favoured writers (Johnson, Sterne and Wordsworth), as a prelude, not to apology, but to a just and liberating recognition that a writer’s strengths are often intimately bound to his weaknesses. In short, McGilchrist’s book exemplifies those virtues of discrimination, rigour and impartiality which Paulin’s review does not, and imparts to each of them, dissolving their isolation, its own distinctive, integrative character.
The book is not, of course, entirely free from faults. Given McGilchrist’s principle of the intrinsicality of weakness and strength, it would be surprising if it were. Thus the incidental judgments on Coleridge and Eliot seem to me misjudgments, and the gratuitous flippancies on pages 24 and 176, rare lapses of an otherwise exemplary discretion. The most considerable fault, however, is McGilchrist’s apparent failure to recognise that many of his finer insights are corroborated by the practices of our best contemporary critics, and that his ‘approach’, therefore, is not ‘on an altogether different axis’ from theirs, but aligns him with the tradition that, descending from Eliot through Leavis and Empson, is now chiefly represented by Donald Davie and Christopher Ricks.
Clearly, these are shy faults; they barely deflect, let alone disrupt, one’s attention to the predominating strengths of McGilchrist’s argument. But from Paulin’s peremptory remarks, arraigning McGilchrist’s attitudes as ‘vacuous and unintelligent’, and McGilchrist himself as ‘fatally dull’, a purveyor of ‘harmless Sitwellian waffle’ and an upholder of a reprehensibly ‘élitist’ culture, one would hardly guess that Against Criticism deserved any, least of all admiring, attention. One would hardly guess – were it not that the tactics designed to discredit McGilchrist tend to discredit themselves.
Paulin cannot see the faults for the fatal, imputed flaws. There is no need to guess at the insinuation when Paulin says of McGilchrist that ‘he appears to be highly cultured’: the ‘culture’, we are invited to infer, is, like the appearance, bogus. And perhaps, having inferred this, we should go on to suspect that in saying that ‘Mr McGilchrist is a fellow of All Souls,’ Paulin’s intention is more than purely informative. Oblique manoeuvres apart, however, what should we make of the flouting of McGilchrist’s prose as ‘harmless Sitwellian waffle’? Nothing very precise, I imagine: the words, like ‘puritan’, ‘moralistic’ and ‘conspiracy’, used elsewhere, are supposed to induce, while themselves escaping, censure. The way the phrase secures its insiduous effect is worth pondering. The design to render impotent by calling ‘harmless’ is transparent and not very harmful. But the precise significance of the remainder of the phrase is harder to pin down. Since Paulin represents McGilchrist’s prose merely by a wrested sentence and a half, we are given scant opportunity to appraise the justice of describing it as ‘waffle’. And since the Sitwells are no longer widely current (can we even be certain which one of them is meant?) such immediate impact as ‘Sitwellian’ has will be after the fashion of an intensifying prefix: waffle is bad, the Sitwells wrote badly, so ‘Sitwellian waffle’ is egregiously bad. The use, however, of a somewhat vacant epithet to intimate a meaning unwarrantably vague does not inspire trust, and it tends to turn the condemnation of McGilchrist as ‘vacuous’ in upon the user. Another question clamours: why should we exempt Paulin, who thus disparages prose that I (and C. J. Rawson for another) think demonstrably good, from the class of critics who, misguidedly he says, dismiss ‘good critical prose … as “bellelettrism" ’?
The surest pledge of good faith in a critic – and by ‘good faith’ I mean the intention to be, and capacity for being, faithful to the finest detail of one’s perceptions – is scrupulosity in using and judging words. Such scrupulosity is the natural outcome of a proper attention to principle. For the critic who is intent on establishing the truth will naturally have a scrupulous regard for the means by which true conceptions can be truly represented. Inaccuracy, for such a person, is a kind of betrayal.
Mr Paulin’s account of Against Criticism is certainly inaccurate, and it is so because it does not scrupulously weigh its own and Iain McGilchrist’s words. Paulin, consequently, fails to perceive that McGilchrist’s words are almost always carefully weighed. When McGilchrist affirms that ‘the only genuine critical theory is that of no-theory,’ he is not, as Paulin seems to suppose, trumping up a pretext for ‘meandering’: he is repudiating ‘method’. Method, having here the sense of an inflexible routine of analysis, has to be repudiated by a conscientious critic. It imposes on the unpredictable fluency of the work of art a rigid frame by which the art and our perceptions of its workings are thwarted and belied. Eliot was quick to appreciate this, and in ‘The Perfect Critic’, an essay to be noted for its patient assessing of another critic’s words, he declares, famously, that ‘there is no method except to be very intelligent.’ Intelligence, in this connection, is largely a matter of perceiving the disabling restrictions of method. Accordingly it became a favourite term of Leavis’s, who, Donald Davie remarked, some fifteen years ago, ‘at all times guarded against the codifying of [his] approach into something that could properly be called a method’.
In repudiating method, McGilchrist is far from taking leave of his principles. What Paulin calls ‘meandering’ is a corollary of the principled reflection that ‘rationality is rectilinear’ – and to rationality there are proper bounds. Had Paulin himself been more attentive to principle (I say this without animosity) he might have profited from McGilchrist’s book and have given a just account of it. Only by seizing each opportunity for discussing them intelligently can we hope to deprive our internecine quarrels of their full, beguiling glamour.
St John’s College, Oxford
SIR: Tom Paulin’s truculent review of Peter Widdowson’s Re-Reading English, one of the latest additions to Methuen’s seemingly endless ‘New Accents’ series, was useful in showing Widdowson’s startling disservice to such a fine poetic mind as Paulin’s. Re-Reading English is an ill-considered collection of essays whose conclusion cannot do anything but reduce and make simplistic the genuinely tough theoretical arguments which lay over and beyond the ken of most of its contributors. Which is a pity, because concepts such as ‘différance’ emerge irreproachably as ‘gobbledygook’. Had Methuen thought more carefully about their trendy list, then readers of LRB would be spared Paulin’s misinformed eccentricities and descriptive mistakes, which are hardly worth going over.
The ‘New Accents’ series is bound to do serious damage to ‘a blank generation of students’ in these times of recession when economic pressures are weighing heavily on the academy, ensuring that one doesn’t read works by theorists but by their (all-too-often second-rate) essayists. Methuen are publishing what comprises a ‘Coles Notes’ to contemporary critical theory and contemporary ‘cultural studies’, flooding the market with attractively-priced primers suggesting that a bit of Derrida, a touch of Lacan and a pinch of Althusser will give a sufficiently politically-aware conceptual framework with which to attack the text. If only it were that simple. Students must be fairly warned against ‘New Accents’. Though most, I would imagine, would need no such caution against the deficiencies of Paulin’s rant.
SIR: An essay on poetry I contributed to Re-Reading English was singled out for abuse by your reviewer. Since the comments on it consisted of name-calling (‘Stalinist’, ‘hapless’) instead of argument or reasoned criticism, no reply is possible.
One observation is in order. Paranoia is the effect of profound insecurity. The liberal values of the dominant classes must be far gone if they no longer make any claim to rationality and objectivity.
SIR: David Lodge complains (Letters, 15 July) that in writing about Denis Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets some months ago I ‘introduced a gratuitous sneer at [his] expense into a review of someone else’s book expressing views quite distinct from [his] own’. I was actually quoting from Lodge’s discussion of the same book by Donoghue, which might make my mention of him seem less gratuitous than he suggests. As to Donoghue’s book ‘expressing views quite distinct from’ Lodge’s own, what Lodge said about Donoghue’s main critical position was: ‘I am basically of the same opinion, and for basically the same reasons.’
Department of English, University of Warwick
SIR: In Donald Davie’s review of the anthology of the 1980 Arvon Poetry Competition (LRB, 1 July), he credits David MacSweeney with two poems, though the anthology actually contains three by that poet. Nobody else has more than two. Readers who saw Donald Davie’s vigorously-worded difference of opinion with the competition judges might wonder how many more such extreme differences of opinion this anthology could sustain. The book is not easy to find in shops, but it can be ordered direct from Kilnhurst Publishing Company, Kilnhurst, Kilnhurst Road, Todmorden, Lancs, £2 plus £1 postage and packing.
Nigel Walker’s Punishment, Danger and Stigma, reviewed by Michael Ignatieff in the LRB of 15 July, is published by Blackwell in paperback at £5.25.
Editors, ‘London Review’