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Vol. 5 No. 11 · 16 June 1983

Search by issue:

Leavis and Norris

SIR: Christopher Norris (LRB, 21 April) writes of ‘Leavis’s view in his essay“The Othello Music" ’, but of course that title belongs to one by Wilson Knight. In his ‘Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero’ Leavis uses Knight’s views for his own very different purposes. Such mistakes are easy enough to make, but they are easier if your familiarity with your subject-matter is not as great as it should be. This seems to be the case with Norris, who thinks that Leavis ‘spoke for the expressive-realist tradition at its most dogmatic’. It is hard to conceive on what ‘expressive-realist’ basis Leavis could have approved of either Peacock or T.F. Powys. But his readings of Lawrence and Eliot show his concerns to have been very different from Norris’s account of them.

He says of Leavis that ‘the notorious exclusiveness of The Great Tradition is one aspect of his failure to conceive that there might be a literature which actually exploited conventions, which made the very most of its own problematical nature, and yet deserved serious attention.’ If Leavis did fail to conceive all that, it wasn’t because he was tied to the ‘expressive-realist’ doctrine Norris has in mind. (whatever that might be), but because he did not share Norris’s view of what deserves serious attention. It is interesting that at this point in his argument Norris has recourse to particular examples rather than the ‘theory’ on whose behalf he argues. Even deconstructionists can be deconstructed.

Norris’s characterisation of Leavis is as a Picard to his Barthes, someone to stand for all those fuddy-duddy ideas of genius and individual responsibility for the text – in short, of le vraisemblable – to which structuralism and post-structuralism is opposed. But it is a false characterisation. If Leavis’s name has to be used to spice the not very fascinating writing of up-to-the-minute theorists, could you please see that they use it with more care?

Martin Dodsworth
Royal Holloway College, University of London

Peace for Galilee

SIR: I would like to thank Ms Kappeler (Letters, 19 May) for her partial praise of my review of Jacobo Timerman’s The Longest War and for the insight she demonstrates in her observation that I am ‘essentially engaged in an intra-Jewish discourse’. This is a valid point, but hardly as damning as I suspect she intends. True enough, I am Jewish by birth and Israeli by choice. This helps to set the terms for my discussion of the current problems facing Israel, the Palestinians et al. I am an interested party whose life is on the line, rather than an interested party sitting far away in some academic tower whose ‘political analysis of the whole Middle East’ with an ‘international perspective’ and a ‘review of both sides of the problem’ provides cover for a bias different from mine but no more valid for all that. One can also miss the trees for the forest.

Ms Kappeler faults me for the ‘obligatory reference’ to a kibbutz child killed by the PLO. She later goes on to incant the by now familial litany of Palestinian suffering, including the disproved canard about ‘hundreds of thousands of dispersed homeless’ refugees who cannot return to the ‘rubble of their camps’. Why should I be jaded to the murder of my own people – and is Ms Kappeler, proud owner of an ‘international perspective’, jaded to the atrocities committed by the one side, and sensitive only to those committed against the other?

The fact that Ms Kappeler describes the ‘non-military’ aspect of the PLO mini (welfare) state in no way contradicts my point that no Israeli government, no matter how forthcoming on the Palestinian issue, would have looked with equanimity on the presence of PLO artillery in the southern region of Lebanon. I went to some lengths in the review to try to establish that had the Labour Party been in power, it is unlikely that last summer’s war would have occurred, as Mota Gur made clear during a recent visit to England. But the PLO ‘military option’, however much Ms Kappeler desires to banish it to ‘the edge of international politics and diplomacy’, was real and in place in Southern Lebanon. She is confusing the ‘military’ with the ‘political’ options – a mistake comon both to the Palestinian and to the (current) Israeli leaderships.

It is not obvious that the Palestinians must have their own state: that is one possible solution among several. Most Israeli moderates favour the Jordanian-West Bank confederation scenario for reasons that are not ‘racist’. Unfortunately, given the history of violence, irredentist extremism, and inability to compromise, Israelis want to square their own security requirements with Palestinian national rights. The latter do not exist in a vacuum, however much some people would like to pretent that ‘the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood’ is an absolute value and the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Most Israeli moderates, fearful that an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank will be militarised and irredentist, do not concur. But this is hardly ‘racism’. This Palestinian right is not the issue that the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood remains. The Zionist majority accepted Palestinian rights in 1947: Palestinians rejected Jewish rights. That remains the core, though hardly the only issue. Israeli statehood does not revolve around a charter which denies Palestinian rights: the PLO charter denies Jewish rights absolutely. Those Jewish irredentist extremists who gained power in 1977 because part of the Israeli public could not believe in the need to pursue peace initiatives with an unresponsive Arab world continue to depend on Arab extremists for their bread and butter ‘there is no one to talk to’ approach. Finally, there is no major PLO internal opposition quite as compromise-minded as the Labour Movement, Peace Now, et al., in Israel.

Ms Kappeler asserts that, ‘in line with international diplomacy’, I blame the Arabs for refusing to recognise Israel. I do not know if that is supposed to make me a CIA agent, but I can assure you that any similarities between my own views and those of ‘international diplomacy’ are purely coincidental. I do continue to insist that it is an Arab peace initiative, à la Sadat, which is required, though I would also like to see an Israeli government capable of inviting and responding to such an initiative. Ms Kappeler’s calm assurance that ‘the Arabs indeed are considering peace initiatives’ does not square with Karen Elliot House’s description in the Wall Street Journal of how the PLO blocked Jordan’s entry into the negotiations – surely the only way to get the peace process moving. ‘If [the] opportunity is lost,’ Hussein told Walid Khalidi of Harvard and the PLO, ‘Arafat must take the historic responsibility for what happens to the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza.’ I agree that there is a tendency in the Arab world towards negotiation, reconciliation and peace – but it should be encouraged with intelligent and forthright criticism rather than killed off with sentimental, patronising kindness. The Arabs are unlikely to continue to progress in the right direction if the international community allows them to think they can have ‘peace’ on the cheap. Thus the blame for the diplomatic impasse cannot be laid exclusively at Begin’s door.

As to the ‘unequal power balance’ – her term for the military superiority of the IDF – I would like to point out that the IDF not only shares co-responsibility (with the PLO) for the statistics of Palestinian suffering listed in her letter, but is also the single most important factor in the emerging Arab consensus that ‘Israel is here to stay.’ Israeli military force is being illegitimately projected in Lebanon, and Ms Kappeler is right that the Begin Government initiated a march on one Arab capital and issued an implied threat against another. But that same force, correctly used, is precisely what is needed to establish the equilibrium necessary to a peace process. Ms Kappeler is in error when she writes that the Israeli Government ‘faithfully swore it had no intention of keeping’ the territories it now proposes to annex. That undertaking was given by Labour governments. To bring it up as Ms kappeler does is rather like faulting Mrs Thatcher for failing to live up to Mr Foot’s pledge to ban nuclear weapons.

In speaking of apportioning blame, I was speaking of the PLO, but not ‘of the Palestinians’. As Jacobo Timerman said of the PLO and its Western apologists, ‘its strategy of terror did not advance the Palestinian cause,’ and ‘the professors’ in the West ‘who went along with them … institutionalised the political ignorance of the Palestinians, raising the PLO to the category of a national liberation movement despite its international chaos, its lack of coherent programme, its terrorist practices, its stupid brutality, and its negation of history … Why did they go along with the PLO’s political babble?’ Blame must be apportioned to the PLO, which Ms Kappeler seems intent on confusing with the Palestinians.

It is also a serious mistake to write off the Kahan Commission report as ‘the self-allocation of a little bit of the blame’. The report was narrowly defined as an attempt to pinpoint Israeli responsibility for the massacres by Phalangists of Palestinian refugees. In this narrow sense, the report was quite eloquent. Perhaps a larger debate on the conception and conduct of the entire war is required: but that is hardly a reason to dismiss the report so crudely. (Unhappy as I was that the Government, backed by its Attorney-General, chose to leave Arik Sharon in the Cabinet, I am infinitely grateful that he is no longer Minister of Defence, especially in these weeks of tense confrontation with Syria. I do not seek ‘a generous re-distribution of’ blame for the Sabra and Shatila massacres. I do see the PLO as largely, though not exclusively responsible for the general climate in the Middle East. If the PLO is an expression of past Palestinian suffering, it is also a cause of their present helplessness.

As to Ms Kappeler’s inability to believe that there remains in Israel a widespread fear of Arab intentions, I can only say she is in serious error. Whether or not the Soviet Union really conceives of its Eastern European clients as ‘protection’ against the ‘threat of Western invasion’, I cannot know. But that Israelis derive from their experience over the past few decades, amplified by the Holocaust and by the historical mode I described in my review, a need to take threats seriously – of this there can be no doubt. Threats against Israel’s very existence, rhetorical and actualised, are not a figment of our collective imagination. They also pre-date the capture of the ‘territories’ in 1967. And the PLO’s claim runs deeper than 1967, and relates to the UN Partition of 1947, to the UN Partition of 1947 and to the first principles of Jewish rights. Though polls confirm the readiness of a majority of Israelis, evidently including Begin supporters, to accept territorial compromise for the sake of peace, one would have to be deaf and blind to fail to perceive their anxiety about surrendering strategic territorial depth in exchange for a ‘peace’ that is fragile. That they are ready nevertheless to gamble, as with Sinai, is a testimony to this ‘democratic, principled, philosophical people’, to use Ms Kappeler’s words.

If Ms Kappeler wants to argue that Arabs, too, have cause to fear the Begin Government, I accept her point. But this does not deny my thesis that it is the Arabs who must make the decisive move now. I would also welcome an Israeli initiative. We are dealing with an extremely complicated process and not with classroom dogma.

David Twersky
Kibbutz Gezer, Israel

SIR: David Twersky’s backhanded apologia for Israel’s actions in Lebanon (LRB, 21 April) should not pass unremarked. He writes: ‘if your child gets shot in a border kibbutz, the difference between a terrorist “nuisance" and a dangerous threat might appear a bit specious.’ But in the next paragraph he acknowledges that it was Israel which broke a ten-month-old cease-fire in invading Lebanon. Mr Twersky castigates Jacobo Timerman for his ‘elastic approach to the facts’. An example he cites is Timerman’s reference to Sidon as a ‘destroyed’ city – Twersky claims ‘60 per cent’ of Sidon ‘survives’. This is the same David Twersky who wrote the article ‘With the Israeli Army in Lebanon’ (Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No 4). There he said: ‘As for Sidon … I can honestly say that the city is in better shape than most parts of the Bronx, where I come from.’ Clearly Mr Twersky has a one-sided view of factual elasticity.

Bjorne Nilsen
Marietta, Ohio

Unfair to Scotland

SIR: Seamus Deane in his review of Sean MacReamoinn’s The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (LRB, 21 April) seems altogether reluctant to admit Scottish writers into his pantheon of Gaelic literature: ‘It is perhaps best to remember … that this literature is not confined to Ireland. Scotland also has a Gaelic literature.’ Oh, really? How charming! (For a Scotsman, that hesitant ‘perhaps’ falls somewhat strangely, and rather disquietingly, on the ear.) I suggest Professor Deane reads not only the work of Sorley MacLean in its entirety, but also that of, say, Iain Crichton Smith, George Campbell, Hay and Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh, to name but four major contemporary Scottish poets writing in Gaelic. Professor Deane also appears to be under the misapprehension that Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in Gaelic: ‘In Scotland, since Hugh MacDiarmid … there has been a renaissance of poetry in the old language.’ Gaelic for MacLean, yes, but ‘the old language’ for MacDiarmid was Standard Scots, the language of Dunbar, not Ossian.

Professor Deane seems also not to have heard of Scottish autonomy (nationalism, if you like), stating that two of Sorley MacLean’s poems (‘At Yeats’s Grave’ and ‘The National Museum of Ireland’) ‘provide yet one more variation on the inter-relationships of literature and politics in English and Gaelic cultures in these islands’. English? Never! The poems in question are concerned with those aspects of Gaelic culture shared by both Scottish and Irish speakers of the language. Again, one word, ‘English’ this time, falls strangely, and somewhat disturbingly, on Scottish ears. Has he forgotten that it was English justice James Connolly received, as once before him William Wallace?

William Milne
London SW18

Seamus Deane showed a sympathetic interest in Scottish Gaelic poetry in the article which inflames William Milne. Or is he joking?

Editor, ‘London Review’

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