SIR: I know of no contemporary writer who has been living off the same old tale as long as Guillermo Cabrera Infante. It was in June 1981 that I read his ‘Bites from the Bearded Crocodile’ (LRB, 4 June 1981), with one of those apocalyptic headlines on the cover, ‘What Happened in Cuba’, and the solitary, taciturn face without a crowd staring out from it. I had recently arrived in England from Havana and was amazed that someone who for over fifteen years had been out of his native country, Cuba – my country – should attempt the remembrance of things for him long passed. I was especially amazed since Guillermito, as he was known in his early satiric days, was one of those writers who never did know what happened. His Cuba was the seedy night-life of Havana PM and an incongruous cultural élite unable to grasp the real meaning of change. It was clear to me then that the celebrated English edition of his Three Trapped Tigers was the pretext for him to capitalise on that ‘British ignorance of Cuba’ he cites so much, to elaborate his own, highly personalised and highly biased account. The outpouring of hate in his ‘Bites’ brought little new. It was largely a rehash of gnawing thoughts on culture – or for him the lack of it – in Cuba today.
CAIN was the nom de plume of CAbrera INfante back in his film critic, Havana PM days. He was one of a generation of writers and artists whose dilemma was that of the wider neo-colonial Cuba of their times. The weakness of the national bourgeoisie and bourgeois culture, on the one hand, and the great material and cultural deprivation of Cuba’s workers and peasants, on the other, contrived to produce a cultural hybrid. These were writers and artists who scorned our neo-colonial structures and yet were highly influenced by international bourgeois thought, both aesthetically and morally. The divorce between them and their society fostered a critical attitude, a nonconformism, an intellectual rebelliousness that had few roots in the wider society. Finding little outlet in the precarious and coercive media and publishing world of the time, the rebels – with or without cause – found refuge in the café talk, cynicism and satire of the intellectual déclassé, spurned and nauseated by society.
In 1959, our intellectual déclassés swelled in number as those who had emigrated in the Fifties to Paris, New York, London, Barcelona and Milan began to return from their voluntary exile. For them, the Revolution was to be the realisation of their life-dream. Their fervour found expression in books, articles, reportage, songs, hymns, film, dance … The bubble had to burst, and it did so around a weekly literary review called Lunes de Revolucion, one of whose editors was Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and a film called PM, made by Guillermo’s brother Saba. A short independent production, it became the cause célèbre of the Lunes group in opposition to the incipient revolutionary film institute, the ICAIC. Guillermo’s ‘Bites’ on this were so partial that he didn’t tell all, nor was all that he told true. A film about a night’s orgy in Havana dockland, it was attacked, after its television screening, as both denigratory and inopportune. It portrayed the black population in roles associated with the state of oppression from which they were in process of liberation. It did so, moreover, in a slavish imitation of free-cinema style. Coming a month and a half after the mercenaries’ invasion at the Bay of Pigs, when the Revolution had been under mortal threat, it jarred particularly with the post-victory euphoria of a people. What was perhaps only a mildly offensive film was seen as irresponsible both to the Revolution and to the cultural tasks of those privileged to have the costly medium of cinema at their disposal. ICAIC’s decision was to delay wider cinema distribution.
To write or not to write, an oversimplified freedom-of-expression debate, was the alibi of CAIN and his lot in the review they mourn so much. Now, in November 1982, intrepid readers of the London Review of Books are again treated to a deliriously self-indulgent, cynical/lyrical exercise in the form of ‘Infante’s Inferno’, wherein the author – trapped in his own fourth circle – returns to the royal company of the Divine Comedy (LRB, 18 November). His voice rises yet again in the chorus (au nom de Dieu et mon Droit) of cultural Cold War veterans. A curious review article this, in which literary criticism of Padilla’s Legacies is much foreshadowed by renewed political diatribe, as if CAIN were finding reconciliation with Abel. God creates them and the Devil unites them, as my old gran used to say.
Padilla, of course, was the poet who once upon a time enacted a verbal hara-kiri, in public. There were many then who thought he had betrayed the age-old poetic profession and eschewed the friendship the poet holds so much in esteem. In his statement to writer friends in the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, Padilla said, among other things: ‘I defended Guillermo Cabrera Infante. And who was that Guillermo Cabrera Infante – the man we all know? Guillermo Cabrera Infante was always a misfit, not only with regard to the Revolution, but a social misfit par excellence, a man of the humblest extraction, a poor man, a man who, I don’t know why, has been bitter since adolescence …’ Now, in a different time and space, they whisper secrets to each other over the phone. But, loyal to his enemies and traitor to his friends, each knows the foot that causes the other to stumble.
As far as Valladares is concerned, it is strange that Amnesty International should have accorded him ‘prisoner of conscience’ status. Who’s kidding whom? As far as I know, Valladares was not writing at the time of his crime. He was tried and sentenced in 1961 to 30 years’ imprisonment (later reduced to 25) as one of a group of 17, largely ex-Batista police (including Valladares himself). The charges were possession of gelignite, bombs and ammunition, conspiracy, manufacture of arms and explosives, hiding fugitives from justice and ties with the CIA: not literary heresy. It was only later that his one book of poems, From My Wheelchair, emerged abroad. Second-rate poetry to say the least, it received promotion in the West that can only be attributed to a wider campaign to discredit Cuba both culturally and judicially. Where were the arguments for torture when, after 21 years in Cuban jails – eminently more humane than Britain’s if the case of the recently released Jimmy Boyle is anything to go by – Valladares walked on and off the plane to Paris, making a mockery of Amnesty’s gift and the title of his book?
The problem is that Valladares, Padilla and Cabrera Infante have a ready-made audience. Their ‘human condition’ has been glamorised, marketed, and endowed with certain privileges that at times pander more to vanity than to the bank account but often (if truth be known) pander to both. The Infante Guillermo Cabrera seems to thrive on his ‘dissidence’ and talks of other Cuban ‘dissidents’ as if it were a specialty of Cuban cuisine.
For the few writers and artists who have left our country, many have stayed and many more have emerged, to place Cuba on the cultural map of the world in a way it had not been before. From Guillermo’s ‘ignorant peasants, uncouth town-dwellers and ungracious provincials’ who were the Revolution’s becados or ‘grantees’ has come a new generation of artistic talent and diversity, greater than he – more caudillo perhaps than Mosley – could ever suspect.
Such is Mr Cabrera’s unidimensional thought – ‘Cuba is a Communist country and a Communist country is a world of deceit and lies’ – that he would perhaps do well to remember the desperate shouts of Green Beret-trained Cuban mercenaries surrendering at the Bay of Pigs in 1961: ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, I was tricked.’ Nobody killed them, and if they were tricked it was more a case of them deceiving themselves. They were, in the final analysis, digging graves, not for their bodies, but for their phantasmagorical beliefs.
To quote from a particularly apt verse written by Cuba’s 19th-century writer and independence leader, José Marti:
We were a masquerade
in breeches from England,
jacket from the United States
and Spanish matador’s hat.
We were a vision
with breast of an athlete,
hands of a fop,
and brow of an infant.
Can our Infant really be so ignorant of a people who in making their revolution have embarked on the – albeit tortuous – path that strives toward a genuinely Cuban mass culture?
But then, to go back to the beginning, Guillermo Cabrera Infante is not only a much-embittered and out-of-touch man now: he never did know what happened in Cuba. There, a real revolution is taking place, and that means on the cultural plane as well. Literary and film workshops, dance, theatre and music groups have sprung up all over the island. Spanning people from all walks of life, young and old alike, the art that is being produced is not all good, but a lot is, and is not divorced from the popular origins of the Revolution. Very much from within, it has little of the undue romanticism or scepticism of the ‘outsider’.
Not everyone aspires to be a great writer or artist, but everyone does stand to profit from a cultural experience. There will always be those individualistic individuals who cannot accept this and who shoot off through space like meteorites dazed and fragmented by the electrical discharges of our time. The world is such that a revolution is no Sunday outing. It is a cataclysm that brings heart-rending upheavals, but which above all opens up dazzling possibilities of making a better world – including the world of cultural expatriate satellites in which Infants in breeches spin.
I do not believe in individual salvation. I understand, as many of our people do, those who dedicate their lives to collective betterment. Seen like this, Cuba’s writers and artists who stand with the people can say of our Revolution what Marti also said so long ago: ‘Our salvation lies together, or together we are damned.’
Pedro Perez Sarduy
SIR: As the long and revealing correspondence, sparked off in your pages by Tom Paulin’s review (LRB, 17 June) of Re-Reading English, which I edited, seems on the point of exhausting itself (if not others), I wondered if I might make a retrospective reply. I am grateful to the LRB for reviewing the book at all. The THES, so far, has ignored it – which is odd given that the book is about the place and function of one of the largest and most popular subjects in higher education; and the TLS has, I gather, finally found it an unequivocally hostile reviewer so that it will be well and truly smashed there. (Perhaps they are already making ‘Faculty at War, II’?) I am also grateful for the space given to the letter-debate – which has lifted a few stones.
Tom Paulin’s original review was not, of course, a review at all: rather, it was an exhibition of his own deepest hopes and fears. Tom is a nice man, probably SDP (by which I only mean Severely Deficient in Politics), and a poet in a world where poetry doesn’t count for much. He’s got to protect his own patch, because if that failed he might have to ask himself the ‘overwhelming question’: what is he actually doing? His patch is, I think, identified by a significant phrase in the review where he writes of there being ‘in every generation … a number of gifted reviewers’. Tom wants to be one of those. (‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Tom?’ ‘Well, Dad, I’d quite like to be a gifted reviewer and poet.’) It is this ‘man-of-lettersism’ which lies behind his hostility, diversely, to Leavisian ‘English’, to David Lodge, and to my colleagues who are questioning the naturalised subject of ‘English’ and its canon. What he really objects to is anyone who takes the business seriously. Hence his shocked suggestion that we are attempting to destroy our own profession: it is his perception that if the profession were to be properly serious, then ‘men of letters’ would be marginal to it. Poor Tom’s a-cold! This accounts, too, for his quite unforgivable characterisation of contemporary students as a ‘blank generation’. My feeling is that they too are serious, and find an amateurist enthusiasm (it used to be called ‘Appreciation’) no longer strong enough meat. They, too, are asking questions about their society and culture, and they’re hard questions to answer. Why are there no jobs? Why cut higher education? Why read literature? A ritual wheeling-out of ‘Art’ (of which, by the by, I really don’t have a ‘deep hatred’ – I reserve that for those who use the term unproblematically to sustain an élite), and then enthusing about it, simply isn’t an answer, and the students are too sharp to be fooled by it.
If Tom Paulin feels that this is a parody of his version of ‘English’ I apologise, and merely note that I was forced to guess at what it might be because the truly determinate absence (sorry, that’s ‘gobbledeygook’) in Tom’s piece is any stated notion of what he thinks ‘English’ is, or of what he is himself about.
In fact, another hint of it – of what we might call the ‘insouciant’ school of English – is offered in Paulin’s poem Oxford v. Cambridge v. Birmingham’ in a later LRB (LRB, 2 September). (In passing, the poem admonishes ‘the puritan/or the man who fucks texts’. A whole new dimension opens up here for the sex-aid industry!)
Now that the academics are switching
into self-destruct and gibberwick
I’ve fallen in love again
with a rich old library
and those darkblue bindings;
I’m bending the knee now
to letter and copy-text,
the fine print of the spirit.
We can only hope that – unlike Leonard Bast in Forster’s Howards End – a shelf-ful of ‘Culture’ doesn’t fall on his head.
However, I should acknowledge one kind thing Tom’s review said about us (although it wasn’t meant that way). He called us a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. That seems to me a compliment. But who, in the present social and political situation, would want to be a member of an ‘established intelligentsia’? On second thoughts, however, perhaps that was a silly question: many of our colleagues must have voted for her in 1979, and no doubt will again.
The worms that came out from under the stones in the letters that followed this review share its basic assumptions, even when they appear hostile to aspects of it. What they confirm is the view of the contributors to Re-Reading English that traditional notions of English (and of higher education more generally) are at a crisis point. Scholasticism, snobbery and élitism result in a failure to relate to – indeed a deep disdain for – the material world which sustains such postures in seemingly independent luxury. Education cuts, politics, student experience and culture, television and communications technology, etc – these things are not to do with Books. At such a point, there has to be a critique, an opposition and an alternative. These, Re-Reading English – and ‘New Accents’ as a whole – offer. It’s no surprise to me that the book and the series are denigrated; if they weren’t – by the likes of Spice, Barry, Bristow and Josipovici – there would be something very seriously wrong with them. The positive gain is that the symptoms of crisis are exposed in their letters, are publicly stated, and therefore can no longer be discounted as the wishful thinking of a ‘dissident intelligentsia’. We can now directly experience the ingrained class-snobbery of an established ‘English’ in Nicholas Spice’s easy assumption of ‘the frustration, anger and narow-mindedness of an essentially petit-bourgeois mentality’ (LRB, 15 July). How Spice has reached this ontological understanding is revealed a sentence later, in his unquestioning use of the Arnoldian term ‘philistine’: he knows it because Arnold told him so. We can also experience the élitism and self-protectiveness of the cult academic in Joseph Bristow’s fear that his students – by way of the ‘reductive’ and ‘simplistic’ ‘New Accents’ volumes – might know as much as he does and argue back (Vol. 4, No 14). His tyro’s fascination with ‘the genuinely tough theoretical arguments’ suggests how little he wants others to find them not so difficult after all, or to question their worth. Equally, his sonorous rhetoric – ‘in these times of recession when economic pressures are weighing heavily on the academy’ – implies exactly how he is able to propose the censorship of students’ reading (‘Students must be fairly warned against “New Accents" ’). (Sir Keith) Joseph Bristow should go far; he is clearly a ‘centre of excellence’ in himself already. We can experience, too, the political naivety (or disingenuousness?) of traditional ‘English’ in Peter Barry’s concern that proposals in Re-Reading English ‘violate the citizen’s basic right to receive an education which isn’t propaganda’ (Vol. 4, No 15). If he really thinks that education is, or has ever been, politically neutral, then he shouldn’t be teaching in higher education (or perhaps that is why he is?). Lastly, we can experience a more up-market version of the Bristovian paradigm in Gabriel Josipovici’s unhappy little letter (Vol. 4, No 16). Again we have the pseudo-political gesture: ‘the Government, as we all know is doing its best to destroy the universities as centres of serious scholarship and learning.’ (‘Sir Keith, what about cutting Gabriel J.?’ ‘Heavens, no, he’s that cosmopolitan Man of Letters who believes, as he said recently in the LRB, that “academics are now well enough paid" not to have to do anything but “write books they really feel they want and need to write". He’s also terrified of cheap and accessible books for students because they might demystify the “mysteries" of his trade. He’s one of us, leave him alone to form a centre of excellence, write whatever comes into his head and teach a few rich kids. That’s higher education at its best.’) Josipovici’s concern is with his own patch, too: ‘New Accents’ threatens it, threatens it with exposure to rigorous questioning as to its place, function, point and validity.
What, of course, gets left out of all this ‘debate’ are the issues themselves. Margaret Atack has made the most important point: the discussion about literary theory – and ‘New Accents" supposed dilution of its academic essence – distracts us from the political and institutional perspectives on education and on ‘English’ (Vol. 4, No 18). A number of points arise here – directed more to those who have supported us in these columns than to the paranoid few. First of all, there should be a much fuller exploration of what we have in mind to replace a moribund ‘English’. Is it ‘Cultural Studies’ or ‘Media and Communication Studies’, as people keep darkly hinting? Is it an ‘alternative’ canon? Is it the existing canon, differently ‘read’ and taught? What is meant by a ‘socialist pedagogy’? What is a ‘materialist criticism’? These questions demand discussion. Second, we must recognise that in the present circumstances divergence and change are at best remote and at worst indicators to government of where the cuts should fall (so that the ‘centres of excellence’ can continue to mould next year’s élites). Third, in part because of this, we should acknowledge that education (and English) is politics: the activities of the UGC and NAB ironically assist here, by bringing into sharp relief just how determinate is the relation of this bit of superstructure to economic base. Who goes, and why, is politics. Student grants, and who gets them, is politics. Two-year courses in the public sector, three-year courses in the universities, is politics. ‘Teaching’ in the one, and ‘research’ in the other, is politics. Student places is politics. Mobilising against an ideologically-motivated reduction of higher education provision in Britain is politics. Forget Tom Paulin: we ought all to be a ‘dissident intelligentsia’ now.
Thames Polytechnic, London SE18
SIR: A.D. Nuttall’s tardy account of Christine Brooke-Rose’s A Rhetoric of the Unreal (LRB, 18 November) consolidates your recent practice of inadequate reviewing of ‘new’ criticism. Professor Nuttall does not properly describe the book and summarises quite lopsidedly. When he takes issue with it, it is clear that this is because he has failed to understand much of it. He claims that The Turn of the Screw is ‘unambiguously supernatural’, because ‘the governess, never having seen the living Quint, gives a correct description of him’, in ‘ “another talk", as James tells us near the beginning of Chapter Eight’. James, of course, does nothing of the sort. Only the governess does. (Furthermore, she admits that, far from endorsing her version, Mrs Grose ‘wishes, of course – small blame to her! – to sink the whole subject’.)
To Professor Nuttall even such elementary distinctions may represent no more than a tiresome ‘playing with narrative techniques’ – but in that case could not a reviewer with at least the patience to make them be appointed?
Trinity College, Cambridge
Professor Nuttall had not written for us before: we take pride in having hit on someone so exquisitely attuned to our pursuit of mediocrity. It would seem that D.H. Sexton can hardly fail to do well at Cambridge. For a more insinuating style of academic reproof, he might care to look at the last words of the letter that follows.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: Though your reviewer’s interpretations of Hamlet (LRB, 2 September), reiterating errors refuted beforehand, haven’t a leg to stand on, that hardly matters: disagreement, however wrongheaded, is the critic’s right. But one expects it to be expressed as one member of the commonwealth of letters to another: then for the future he establishes upon his adversary what Bernard Shaw called ‘the claim of an old opponent: always a strong claim in a free country’. A splenetic abandonment of good manners, on the contrary, confirms his place among those ‘Of whom to be dispraised is no small praise’. I suppose, though, that acrimony ‘reads well’, and so is lively journalism.
SIR: I am now writing a life of Ernest Hemingway for Harper and Row. I would be grateful for copies of unpublished letters and for recollections by those who knew him.
46 McClellan St, Amherst, Massachusetts, 01002, USA