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Letters

Vol. 4 No. 19 · 21 October 1982

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New Arden ‘Hamlet’

SIR: Professor Robson’s complaint in your last issue puzzles me. The ‘plain fact’ is that no textual evidence supports Bradley’s claim that when the King is at prayer he has already planned to have Hamlet murdered. Nonetheless, Weitz thinks that Bradley’s comment ‘blows up’ Wilson Knight’s reading; Robson agrees, quoting Bradley to show that an ‘accurate’ description may have important critical consequences. The relevant references are these: Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (2nd ed. 1924), page 171; Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (paperback ed. 1972), pages 31 and 231; Robson, Critical Essays (1966), page 36. If Professor Robson were not a modest man as well as a distinguished critic, he might have reproached me for a different sin – of omission, not misrepresentation. For I should have referred to his 1975 essay, since it argues, more persuasively than Greg, that ‘there is no sign that the King was publicly exposed, and much to indicate that he was not.’ Claudius would have every reason to behave as he does in terminating the Mousetrap, even if he were entirely innocent. Mr Kitchin, in the same issue of the paper, does not see why this is a difficulty. If he allows that it exists, other problems appear. If he would deny that the difficulty exists, he must explain when and how Claudius betrays unequivocal guilt to Hamlet. I am intrigued by his remarks about ‘protocol’, and wonder which comparable ‘occasions’ would establish what response was expected of a well-bred monarch whose queen was mocked as a lying, incestuous whore and whose own life was threatened in public.

Mr Proudfoot, another objector, makes no distinction between ‘opinions’ and arguments. Rightly or wrongly, I argued at considerable length that the Arden Hamlet is deficient in several respects; Mr Proudfoot is above such endeavours. I felt compelled to write a harsh review, not least because Professor Jenkins’s treatment of other critics and unwanted complications is so peremptorily dismissive; it is easy to see why Mr Proudfoot wasn’t troubled by that display of bad critical manners and logic.

Graham Bradshaw
University of St Andrews

‘New Pelican Guide’

SIR: In a review of the New Pelican Guide (LRB, 2 September), I suggested that W.W. Robson’s essay on Milton’s reputation was still using the critical approach pioneered by Eliot and Leavis in the 1930s. Professor Robson writes to complain (Letters, 7 October) that in fact he does not arrive at a direct discussion of the views of Eliot and Leavis until the 17th of his 20 pages. No: but on the third page he writes of ‘the 20th-century questioning of his [Milton’s] status, one day to be known as the Milton controversy’ – and he is shortly to link ‘the Milton controversy’ above all with Eliot. Six pages later he measures Samuel Johnson’s Miltonic insights by the standards of the Thirties and Forties: ‘a good deal of what Eliot, Leavis or Waldock were to say is already anticipated in Johnson’s remarks about Milton’s faults.’ The trouble with this raising of ancient ghosts is that nowadays Milton’s influence is debated in very different terms. ‘The Milton controversy’ in relation to Wordsworth or Shelley now has to do with the nature of one poet’s influence on another, and the oppressive burden of the past on the poet. There is no need to agree with W. J. Bate or Harold Bloom, but a survey of Milton’s reputation which leaves them out certainly runs the risk of being thought dated.

My point was of course a much broader one, that the Pelican Guide is a contradiction in terms. To deal with a broad sweep of literature against its historical context requires a different set of assumptions from Leavis’s ahistorical ones, and in this sense the oddities, inadequacies and discontinuities of the Guide are instructive. Professor Robson seems a splendid example of what the series is rich in – a fine evaluative critic who doesn’t perform well under these conditions.

Marilyn Butler
St Hugh’s College, Oxford

Unbelievable

SIR: In his review of Dissentient Voice (LRB, 16 September), Christopher Ricks quotes at length Donald Davie’s attack on E. P. Thompson’s assimilation of the terminology of ‘Dissenting Protestantism’ or ‘Old Dissent’ with the ideology of atheist humanism, but he doesn’t comment on the factual status of Davie’s statement: ‘There truly is a point at which Believer and Unbeliever part company; there truly is not, as Thompson and many thousands suppose, a continuous band of sentiment and opinion all the way from Belief to Unbelief.’ The fact is that Davie is wrong about this fact. Perhaps there really should be, but there truly is not, a point at which Belief and Unbelief part company; perhaps there really should not be, but there truly is, a continuous spectrum all the way from extreme Belief to extreme Unbelief. This may irritate a tough and tidy-minded Believer like Davie as much as it irritates a tough and tidy-minded Unbeliever like me, but there is no doubt about what people actually think out there in the real world, whether you rely on public-opinion surveys or on private conversations. It might be more accurate to say that there are two spectra, of Belief and of Unbelief, which overlap so far and so much in the middle that there is a sort of no man’s land where moderate Belief and moderate Unbelief, of radical Christians and religious Humanists, are virtually indistinguishable, where the death-of-god Believer and the spirit-of-the-universe Unbeliever actually outflank one another, and where what they have apart is less important than what they have together. Thompson and many thousands are right about this fact, and it is one of the great sources of strength of radical thought in this country.

Nicolas Walter
Rationalist Press Association, London N1

Fear and Loathing in Tirana

SIR: Jon Halliday writes in his review of Enver Hoxha’s works (LRB, 2 September) that the Albanian leader ‘sees himself as the guardian of orthodoxy, fighting “revisionist" foes from Belgrade to Pyongyang’. Now, although he may assume this role in his writings and speeches, he has in fact proved to be in actual practice an outright political and ideological opportunist. As a member of the Soviet bloc between 1948 and 1961, Hoxha was a highly enthusiastic propagandist for all Russian policies and causes. He was expelled from the bloc after rejecting Khrushchev’s advice that he should improve relations with Yugoslavia and remove some of the more pernicious features of his regime. Hoxha then proceeded to refute everything he had ever said about the Soviet Union. This he did in the name of his own Marxist infallibility. He subsequently embraced with the same fervour Mao Tse-tung’s ideas and policies. But when Mao’s successors discovered that the Albanian Communist leader was opposed to their policy of improving relations with the West and Yugoslavia, they stopped all economic aid to Albania and brought the strange alliance to an end. Once again, Hoxha proceeded to refute all the splendid things he had said for about twenty years about China and its great leader. Hoxha’s quarrel with both the Soviet Union and China was caused by his deep concern for his own security and that of his regime rather than by any ideological differences with either of them. In his desire to conceal this unpleasant fact from his own people and the rest of the world, he has been spinning over many years a very elaborate web of sheer ideological fantasy and political absurdity. In doing so, he has bored his countrymen to disbelief, in addition to battering them for nearly forty years.

Anton Logoreci
London SW15

Blanchot

SIR: How difficult it is to assume the magisterial tone of LRB contributors! Rereading John Sturrock on Blanchot (LRB, 19 August), it becomes all the more difficult to interpose the ‘Yes, but …’ that I felt on first reading the piece. And yet to read Blanchot – even the latest, L’Ecriture du Désastre – never seems to me the joyless experience that Sturrock describes. ‘Perhaps we are at fault for ignoring the philosophical questions about writing so dear to Blanchot’s heart, and for distrusting as we do critics who generalise without paying their dues to the texts they are supposedly writing about’ is too glib a way of sliding over, rendering quaint, an enormously suggestive and quietly powerful writer.

It is this last word – ‘writer’ – which Sturrock has evident difficulty with. Having doubts as to Blanchot’s credentials as ‘critic’, he allows him finally to be ‘a spoiled Poet’ (there is room there for a – Derridean? – analysis of the capital). Must we ignore Blanchot because he does not fit ‘our’ categories? I would agree in part with Gabriel Josipovici’s letter (Letters, 2 September) that introductions are no substitute: ‘our’ loss then, not Blanchot’s, if Sturrock succeeds in dissuading English readers from ‘the first chance [they] have had to experience Maurice Blanchot’.

On the subject of Josipovici’s letter, it needs to be said that many who are serious in their interest have neither the time nor the money nor the review copies nor the university libraries to aspire to ‘serious scholarship and learning’. For such people, ‘New Accents’ and the like provide a useful rung, if not ladder, to awareness of contemporary debates. It goes without saying that ladders may be dispensed with once they have served their purpose. While Josipovici’s views on such series prevail, it is hard not to feel that what is at stake in recent quarrels over, for example, Re-Reading English is not ‘Culture’ or ‘Humanity’ but the fishing rights to a particularly prestigious stream.

Mark Callan
Chepstow

Infinitesimals

SIR: As Professor Dummett remarks in passing (LRB, 19 August), Berkeley’s criticism of the calculus was long overlooked. Still, Leibniz did concede in a famous note that an infinitesimal quantity was incoherent, as Berkeley claimed. The full title of Berkeley’s The Analyst; or, a Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician. Wherein It is examined whether the Object, Principles, and Inferences of the modern Analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more evidently deduced, than Religious Mysteries and Points of Faith reveals one target.

We are told in the text also: ‘But he who can digest a second or third fluxion, a second or third difference, need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in divinity.’ The general philosophical point is that the theory of infinitesimals was linked by Berkeley’s contemporaries with absolute space and motion, whereas Berkeley stated that he knew only relative space and relative motion. These questions are discused in my Complementary Notions: A Critical Study of Berkeley’s Theory of Concepts, 1972.

Désirée Park
Concordia University, Montreal

Answers

SIR: On returning from summer holiday I was intrigued to read Professor Norman Hampson’s judicious review of two books on the French Revolution by François Funet and Patrice Higonnet (LRB, 5 August). If Professor Hampson has the cash and the courage to read my recent Victims, Authority and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d’Orléans, Custine, Bailly and Malasherbes (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), I think he might find several of his objections answered in a systematic framework. The answer to Funet is that his ‘structuralism’ cannot finally submerge ‘intentionalism’ in our understanding of the French Revolution. The answer to Higonnet is that the main Revolutionary epithet of despite is not ‘noble’ but ‘aristocrat’, with all that the difference implies. My recent book, I think, deals squarely with these problems, while assuredly not attempting to return our interpretation to ‘classical’ neo-Jacobinism or the authority of its patriotic votaries.

George Armstrong Kelly
Johns Hopkins University

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