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Letters

Vol. 4 No. 15 · 19 August 1982

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Mysteries

SIR: I have read with much interest Mr Simon Schaffer’s review (LRB, 1 July) of the book I wrote with Carl Sargent on Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal. I find it difficult to judge whether Mr Schaffer liked the book or didn’t, because most of his review seems to deal with the alleged motivation of my doing a great variety of different things, of which writing this book is only a very minor one. I am, however, intrigued by his words that ‘Eysenck dispenses’ a ‘kind of “scientific racism", as it has been called’. I wonder what Mr Schaffer can be thinking of? The only definite statement I make in my book on Race, Intelligence and Education is that there are no biological methods of proving that observed (phenotypic) differences in intelligence between races are due to genetic causes. For the rest, I simply reviewed the evidence, and suggested caution in coming to any definitive conclusions. Is this ‘scientific racism’, or has Mr Schaffer not read what I had to say on the topic, but has relied, as so many do, on extremely inaccurate newspaper reports?

Schaffer also comments on an ‘egregious application of techniques of statistical correlation in his work on IQ and race’: this is curious because I have never done any work on IQ and race! Perhaps Mr Schaffer could clear up what work he had in mind. All I have ever done in this field is to review work done by psychologists concerned with these matters, try to summarise their findings, and point out the difficulties and dangers involved in interpreting these in certain ways. What all this has to do with a book on the paranormal is still mysterious to me, but I thought I should not let the occasion pass to protest against Mr Schaffer’s inaccurate references to my position in the ‘racist’ debate.

H.J. Eysenck
Institute of Psychiatry, London SE5

Hannah Arendt

SIR: Norman Stone writes (LRB, 1 July) that Hannah Arendt made a great name for herself in the Fifties and is ‘regarded as a classic in America and Germany’. Why he then proceeds to write several thousand words on the details of her thought and career is beyond me, because Mr Stone doesn’t seem to believe her work is serious, let alone classical. While it is reasonable to suggest that Arendt’s association with Heidegger might have influenced her work, it is despicable to reduce Arendt to nothing more than the product of Heidegger’s influence by terming her career ‘one long showing-off to Heidegger’. I was stunned to find a sexist statement of such magnitude in the London Review of Books and wonder why there was no discerning editor to ask Mr Stone if he would have attributed the work of any male political philosopher primarily to the desire to impress a female.

Donna Schiffman
London SE10

Faculty at War

SIR: Apoplexy or dishonesty? Tom Paulin, in a disgraceful, so-called ‘review’ of Re-Reading English (LRB, 17 June), claims ridiculously that the contributors, of which I am one, ‘are collectively of the opinion that English is a dying subject.’ They ‘reject printed texts’, ‘share a deep hatred of art’, are ‘united’ in a ‘desire to abolish both texts and authors … wish to abolish value-judgments … are frustrated sociologists who believe sonnets and beer mats ought to be treated on an equal footing.’ The other contributors to Re-Reading English are well able to defend themselves, and probably will do so. I wish only to call your readers’ attention to the essay on ‘Historicist Criticism’ by David Craig and myself, in which we make a case for an approach to literature in no way characterised by Paulin’s travesty. To the contrary, we argue repeatedly that ‘the more historically accurate a piece of imaginative writing is, the better it is likely to be. And the better it is aesthetically, the more historically accurate it is likely to be.’

Dubious though these propositions may appear to Mr Paulin – and I am not concerned to defend them now – it should be evident, even to him, that they imply no rejection of the text, no hatred of art, no desire to abolish authors. (Obviously: a writer’s first-hand witness, artistically reworked – Paulin, please note – is considered indispensable historical knowledge.) What is more, if your reviewer had bothered even to skim through our contribution, admittedly situated towards the end of the book, he might have noticed that much of it is a detailed historicist comparison of two poems (texts) dealing with World War One, the rest a consideration of the way what we term ‘bread-and-butter media’ (newsletters, sermons, Civil Service prose, biography and autobiography, etc) fused with existing social conditions after the English Revolution to produce the modern novel. Not a beer mat in sight, I’m afraid.

Finally, as for his laughable suggestion that we wish to do away with value-judgments: ‘The nub of historicist criticism,’ we plainly say, and go on to exemplify, ‘is the conviction that some works of art are demonstrably superior to others.’ It’s hard to imagine how much more clearly that could have been stated or, given the limitations of space, how much more fully we might have illustrated it.

The hapless Paulin will complain that I’m trying to confuse him with facts. He’s right.

Michael Egan
Department of English, University of Massachusetts

SIR: Once conspiracy-theory has been invoked, it has its ways of trapping whoever appeals to it. In his (extraordinary) attempt to brand the contributors to Re-Reading English as ‘belonging to an underground movement’, Tom Paulin was prepared to claim ‘there is in every generation a conspiracy of taste among a number of gifted reviewers,’ and then to assert that the institutions of higher education join in to disseminate these journalists’ judgments through the populace. From the same stock of horror-scripts, Nicholas Spice (LRB, 17 June) uses the infectious-disease-attacks-world mutant, to keep the theory blooming: ‘Clearly, Mr Paulin suffers from a mild strain of the virus which rages in the writing of Peter Widdowson et al.’ Meanwhile David Lodge is in the classic uncertainty where scare-stories begin, seeing collusion possible in common coincidence; and – in confounding editors and umpires – suggesting we are already in a closed system (‘cricket’). Simply by stating their (plural, and quite diverse) aims for English Studies, the contributors to Re-Reading English stay, cheeringly, outside such vicious circularities.

Patrick Lyons
Department of English, University of Glasgow

SIR: Jonathan Dollimore’s somewhat pompous letter (Letters, 15 July) about Tom Paulin’s review of Re-Reading English offered a gratuitous analysis of Britain at the present time but said hardly anything specific about the book. I feel some sympathy with the contributors’ political views but I think the book is insidious. The editor proposes in his introduction that English studies become a site for ‘a materialist polities’ and most of the contributors declare that their priority is to create ‘a socialist pedagogy’. This violates the citizen’s basic right to receive an education which isn’t propaganda, and it is quite disingenuous of Dollimore to claim that the contributors advocate ‘more democracy in education’, for unless it is made clear in the prospectus of their institutions that the English department sees itself as the site for a materialist politics then what is advocated is the exact opposite of democracy. None of us would take seriously a book which demanded that English studies become the vehicle of Christian theology: why should we be expected to be any kinder to Re-Reading English, which demands something precisely analogous?

Jonathan Dollimore complains (predictably) that the contributors to books like this are mocked by reviewers. The fact is that most of the contributors to this one write very badly or very boringly or both. They obviously don’t care what their sentences sound like, and if Dollimore cannot see the problem, then he has yet to catch up with General Booth, whose partisanship did not blind him to the fact that the devil had all the best tunes. Materialist criticism cannot expect to be taken seriously until it has advocates who are better writers and better thinkers than these. In the meantime it suffers the dismal fate of communicating only with those already addicted to its message. The essay by David Craig and Michael Egan shows that embodying a political commitment in literary criticism doesn’t have to involve intellectual degradation.

Peter Barry
La Sainte Union of Higher Education, Southampton

Tom Paulin writes: In their sometimes amiable remarks, in the last two issues and in this, on my review (Letters, 5 August) of Re-Reading English and Against Criticism, your correspondents unfortunately fail to consider what is at stake: the future of English as an academic subject. In my view, the subject can only be rescued by, for example, abolishing courses that draw on the kind of critical texts with which Methuen is currently flooding the market. English needs to become a rigorous and much drier discipline, like history: otherwise it will disintegrate into a flabby and monstrous non-subject. Perhaps it’s too late – I note that Birmingham University has awarded a PhD for a study of Crossroads and that this has recently been published by Methuen (the author is hostile to élitist television critics who insist on making value-judgments about Crossroads). English Studies appears to be able to absorb any and every ‘cultural artefact’ and few critics or academics seem concerned about this voracious and institutionalised nihilism. In fact, I recently attended a seminar given by Colin McCabe at which one teacher admiringly remarked that ‘we now live in a post literate society.’ McCabe approved of this statement but also managed to align himself with the authors of the Black Papers on education who, he said, ‘got things right’. The consensus in his seminar seemed to be that post literacy ought to be encouraged by slotting video-cassettes into an English syllabus. When I asked McCabe what weight he would give to the literary tradition on such a course he replied: ‘I would give it considerable weight.’ Perhaps the best idea might be to bury all this nonsense and stand English down for a generation or two?

Ebsence

SIR: It was with some interest that I read Gabriel Josipovici’s appreciation of the work of Georges Perec (Letters, 15 July): unfortunate, however, that the novel La Disparition, intriguing as it sounds, should have been quoted as containing the phrase ‘…mais il ne saissait qu’un imbroglio confus …’ Can a novel whose construction relies upon an absence of the letter ‘e’ really contain in its introductory phrase the letter ‘e’?

Shaun Whiteside
Kings College, Cambridge

SIR: Mr Josipovici is wrong in thinking that th most ubiquitous lttr of th alphabt is missing from La Disparition of M. Gorgs Prc, in whos nam th said lttr occurs no fwr than four tims. In th scond sntnc of M. Prc’s book, asquotd by him, w wr surprisd to find: ‘Il prit un roman, il lut, mais il ne saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus …’

Clos, Mr Josipovici, and possibly M. Prc too, but no cigar.

Patrick Brown
London W1

Stroking

SIR: The shininess of Victor Noir’s crotch may or may not have been recorded in print before (LRB, 15 July), but it is certainly well-known to Parisians. It is superstitiously believed that a woman who strokes Noir there will have luck for the coming year. The stroking is also thought to encourage sexual potency. During de Gaulle’s time in office, a Minister’s wife was discovered straddling the tomb.

Nigel Lewis
London W12

English translations of Hildesheimer’s Marbot and Mozart, reviewed by J.P. Stern in the LRB of 5 August, will be published by Dent in 1983.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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