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Letters

Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983

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Gift of Tongues

SIR: In his review of recent writers on bilingualism (LRB, 7 July) John Edwards rejects the argument, advanced by educators in this country, and most recently by Jane Miller, that ‘it is time to make use of language diversity.’ There is not much evidence in the review, however, that the specific intentions in this argument have been grasped by him. His comment on Miller’s proposal that ‘this accords to language matters a self-conscious and artificial attention which resembles not at all the almost organic course of language’ is misconceived: for it converts into a lockstep solution Miller’s much more flexible emphasis. In general, Edwards appears to approach a case developed in the British setting from a perspective which is too much influenced by North American debates about the melting-pot and a narrowly-formulated version of bilingual education. Miller’s book is misrepresented as a consequence.

Edwards begins his review by evoking, in the argument about diversity, rival polemicists and their rhetoric. The crucial questions, however, are relatively straightforward. Suppose that there is in an East London school a 13-year-old girl who speaks, in addition to English, three major languages from the Indian sub-continent. Suppose that she also speaks, reads and writes Arabic. Suppose that in addition to all this she also has some knowledge of an East African language, Swahili. What is it that we want our education system to be able to do for such a child? What is it that we want such a child to be able to contribute to our national culture? What is it that we want teachers, administrators and makers of policy to understand about her experience? Questions such as these, which are relevant not just to one but to thousands of children and adults in Britain, entail no single administrative formula. Even to ask them, however, implies a breadth of cultural concern which sees more in these matters than just a ‘problem’ or an issue which is only of relevance to minority groups.

In his personal preference for a middle ground between contentious arguments, Edwards returns repeatedly to ‘the curious tendency of minorities themselves to be more assimilationist than “spokesmen" would have us believe’. But this tendency is not so curious. Edwards’s observation ‘that the act of emigration itself shows a willingness to make shifts in life-style (including communicative language)’ misses the point that the culture of the host society is not merely mainstream or majority but dominant from the point of view of minorities. But this dominant culture is changed by the mere fact of the arrival of different communities. Thus the decline of what Edwards calls the ‘public markers’ of group identity does not settle the questions which need to be considered: for the culture is now diverse, not homogeneous. The concern of minorities to become fully a part of society is in no way negated by the attempt to gear the education system to the diversity of culture which it serves and promotes.

Two considerations, especially are emphasised by Miller. Firstly, there is a potential within bilingual communities which is both linguistic and cultural, and which surely might be considered as a national resource rather than an individual oddness bordering on deficiency. Secondly, behind the phenomenon of bilingualism there lies a significant and important experience – significant for the special shading given to universal questions of identity, cultural allegiance and cultural dividedness, and a site where major preoccupations in 20th-century literature have emerged.

Miller, unnoticed by Edwards, seeks especially to steer discussion in this second direction. She sketches parallels, therefore, between the choices made by bilingual writers in this century about the language in which they will write and those made by children at present negotiating cultural difference. She points to the common gaps between what can be spoken of in the language of home and among one’s own people and what outside; and to the cultural (not merely the linguistic) dimensions involved in taking over another’s language for one’s own purposes. Her argument makes its way on the fronts both of literature and education. But a central purpose is to alert us to a level of understanding which is often missed within the narrow ways in which issues about bilingualism are formulated. Schools, Miller suggests, need to take on not just the task of teaching English, nor even just the further task of making provision for the teaching of mother tongues. The experience of bilingualism needs to be engaged.

Again, Edwards limits the question of schooling, and attributes to Miller a much more narrowly political argument for the role of school than is actually put. Miller does not suggest that ‘real political and social advance can be obtained’ merely ‘through school programmes of language and culture’. There is little doubt, however, that there are many things which might be done in and through school which might help; and it is indeed possible to point to innovative practice already in being.

Edwards fears, among advocates of multicultural education, outside manipulation of the culture of minorities and interference with identity maintenance. It is a reasonable concern and one which it is right to retain. But it is one thing to manipulate and interfere, and another to seek to understand an experience which is now part of our culture and from which all can learn. The gaps and allegiances negotiated within the bilingual experience are only a more explicit form of a universal cultural dividedness and may, as Miller shows, illuminate questions of identity and language more widely. The issue is not the middle ground available between extreme positions but the ground to be shared within a culture and an education formulated on more adequate understandings.

Tony Burgess
Institute of Education, University of London, WC1

At Tranquilina’s Knee

SIR: Mr Cabrera Infante is right to inform us of Garcia Marquez’s insidious articles (LRB, 2 June), the more so given the large circulation and high prestige of the Spanish newspaper in which he publishes them. On the very day I read the LRB article a Spaniard credulously told me the story of the Gurkhas, a wild tribe from Asia who apply warpaint before charging off to their head-cutting exploits. However, Mr Cabrera Infante’s article is not a review of the book in question, The Fragrance of Guava, and does a disservice to those who might be interested in it. For even if it were packed with outright lies and dissimulations (which it isn’t) the nature of literary fame is such that we should still have to attend to them. A writer’s evasions and opinions, however muddle-headed, are of interest to anyone who reads his or her work. The understandable vitriol which Cabrera Infante pours on Garcia Marquez is noticeably, however, not devoted to the material presented in this book (except fleetingly) but rather to the aforementioned articles in El Pais. Someone should point out that The Fragrance of Guava is not full of ranting attacks on the British (who don’t come into it at all), nor even of lofty condemnations of capitalism. Most of it is taken up with mild recollections of his family, his attitudes towards his books, his early writing career, the effects of financial success and so forth. And while Cabrera Infante might decry it people do like to know, for example, that Garcia Marquez was the son of a telegraph operator, that he does not wear gold on his person, that he believes Chronicle of an Announced Death to be his best work although The Autumn of the Patriarch is the one by which his literary reputation will stand or fall. These things may prove to be false, but we may become interested in them precisely because of that. The reviewer could also have suggested something of the quality of the book’s production by telling us of the wooden translation of what is easy conversational prose, of the transposition of two of the captions to the photographs, of the people represented in another being described in the wrong order. And finally, I hope that it is a typesetter’s desire to save space rather than Cabrera Infante’s getting fed up and capitulating to British ignorance which leads to the frequent abbreviation of Garcia Marquez to plain Marquez. Or are we now licensed to speak of Mr Infante? Infante Cabreado?

David Callahan
London N6

SIR: Has Cabrera Infante lost his head? Down here where the Times isn’t read but the LRB is, the offending article was generally regarded as ironic. Tranquilo, hombre!

Paul Milican
Madrid

Peace for Galilee

SIR: David Twersky is wrong in suspecting (Letters, 16 June) that my intention was ‘damning’ when I called his review part of an intra-Jewish discourse. My point was that most of what we read in the Western press on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is written as part of an intra-Jewish discourse, and that the ‘Palestinian problem’ (as it is called in that discourse) gets virtually no articulation except in that mode. The intra-Jewish discourse has practically become a received discourse. It was this received discourse that I addressed, rather than Twersky’s facts. None of us will get down to all the facts, but it matters what is selected and what is left out. It is not that I am ‘jaded to the atrocities committed by one side, and sensitive only to those committed by the other’. I am sensitive to the fact that the child who gets shot in a border kibbutz is part of the narrative, while the 40 per cent of Tyre and Sidon killed and destroyed is getting suppressed in a preferred emphasis on the 60 per cent which survives. Mine is an argument about historical and ideological discourse, and the responsibility of those participating in it, however far away they are sitting. I am sensitive to the fact that the Palestinian story needs to be told almost from the beginning because that story enjoys no received status. That it is necessary to distinguish first of all Palestinian from PLO from terrorist and from Arab (Mr Twersky misremembers himself: in ‘apportioning blame’ he was precisely not speaking of the PLO, but of ‘the Arabs’). The difference between the received and the non-received status of the respective stories is that Twersky’s side of it is a ‘discussion of the current problems’, while the other side is an incantation of ‘the now familiar litany of Palestinian suffering’.

I do not think that Mr Twersky is a CIA agent. My point is that statements like ‘the PLO charter denies Jewish rights absolutely’ belong to the discourse of international diplomacy, while Twersky juxtaposes them to his and others’ voices of Israeli dissent. ‘There is no major PLO internal opposition quite as compromise-minded as the Labour Movement, Peace Now, et al., in Israel.’ There is no comparability between ‘in Israel’ and ‘within the PLO’. If the Palestinians had a state of their own, perhaps they would also have the chance of establishing an opposition to or within the PLO or their own government. This is what I mean by ‘unequal power balance’: not just, as Twersky surmises, the military superiority of the IDF, but the relationship between the nation Israel and the Palestinians with no status other than that of a ‘problem’.

Twersky expects that the IDF, if correctly used, will bring about the ‘equilibrium necessary for the peace process’. As used, it certainly has not brought equilibrium to the region, as he himself admits. One would hope that discussion and political analysis will bring about an equilibrium of understanding that is even more vital for the peace process than the military superiority of one side. But Twersky seems to underestimate the power and influence of such discussion on the climate of opinion, and its influence on events such as the election of governments and the sanction of, or protest against, the launching of wars. One need not be Palestinian, Arab, Israeli or Jewish to be an interested party with regard to the wars of the world, and not only because these may become the spark for another world war. The ‘classroom’, the ‘academic tower’ or an intellectual paper such as the London Review of Books are not as removed from the arena of war as Twersky seems to think. The telling and retelling of the histories of wars have helped to stop them (US-Vietnam) and have a crucial role to play in the prevention of future wars as well as in preparing the peace process – which, incidentally, is not synonymous with the Reagan peace plan, even if this has become received usage. But it will hardly become a real peace process so long as one side dictates to the other ‘the right direction’ in which to move, from a position of military supremacy and discursive dominance.

Susanne Kappeler
Cambridge

A Technical Philosopher

SIR: Why is Hilary Putnam so sure that The Varieties of Reference is fundamentally mistaken in its approach to the question of how language hooks onto the world (LRB, 19 May)? The ‘picture that lies behind’ Gareth Evans’s book is roundly condemned by Putnam in the next-to-last paragraph of his review. In this paragraph we learn that the charge is ‘reductionism’ (an allusion, presumably, to the fact that Evans’s work treats of the linguistic in terms of the psychological) and that Putnam regards ‘Wittgenstein and Quine before me’ as having seen the error of this way. But Putnam does nothing more to make it clear just what he thinks is wrong, and with what, in Evans’s approach.

Evans’s basic assumptions (hard to discern in Putnam’s review) are, first, that language latches onto the world through the thoughts people have in understanding each other’s speech, and, second, that a person cannot think about a particular object without being able to identify it. The claim that people have ‘object-involving’ identificatory capacities (such a capacity being one which is specifiable only by someone who accepts the existence of an object to which it is directed) is a further claim that Evans attempts to establish in the course of his book: see, for example, his ingenious discussion of the kind of capacity he believes is associated with the word ‘I’. Evans does not in this book extend his discussion to general terms as such, but he could in all consistency have said that some general words are associated with kinds of identificatory capacities that are ‘quality-involving’ in a sense parallel to ‘object-involving’.

Putnam’s penultimate paragraph implies the existence of an objection to Evans’s approach relative to which the question of object-involving or indeed quality-involving capacities is a mere matter of detail. We are left to presume that Putnam’s objection is that no capacity which contributes to thought can be described without alluding, not merely to other concepts, but to the thinker’s participation in a linguistic community. Hence, no concept whatsoever can be described adequately in what would be a ‘non-question-begging way’ relative to the task of giving an account of linguistic reference in any of its forms.

Is there any general consideration which shows that such a sweeping conclusion should be accepted? Putnam’s own work on the ‘division of linguistic labour’ (whereby a person’s identificatory procedures pass, via the word, to other people, and only then to the world) does not show that the buck never has to stop. Nor does Putnam’s work on ostensive definition show that words latch onto individuals, or onto samples of stuff, off their own bat. Putnam’s pontifications are a poor substitute for the reasoned argument he should have provided here.

Julie Jack
Somerville College, Oxford

Hilary Putnam will reply in the next issue to the letters of objection which have been directed at his review.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Just Wars

SIR: A.J.P. Taylor’s remarks about the Second World War in his Diary (LRB, 16 June) seem to me to call for comment. No war, he writes, has been fought for such noble motives. Few wars, one might add, ended in such an ignominious peace. Few people would doubt that the Second World War was necessary and justified, though, in words used by Brian Bond in the same issue, it was ‘uniquely barbarous’. What troubles many people is Mr Taylor’s breathtaking complacency about the postwar settlement in Eastern and Central Europe. Eight nations and nearly a hundred million people lost the right of self-determination for which the war was ostensibly fought, and which they had been promised, sacrificed to Roosevelt’s fantasies and the real or supposed needs of Soviet security. Call the result inevitable if you like: it was hardly good.

After the war, Taylor writes, he opposed the Cold War, and has gone on doing so ever since. Well, yes, but what was (and is) the alternative? Should the West have abandoned West Berlin and South Korea? Would such surrenders have brought peace? Surely the events of the last forty years have shown that the Cold War, though far from good, was as necessary and justified as the Second World War out of which it grew. To adopt a Little Englander stance to this challenge (while supporting an interventionist policy in 1939) is an example of the irresponsibility to which Taylor is unhappily prone.

A.J. Ryder
London NW8

Unfair to Reich

SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Wilhelm Reich and A.S. Neill (LRB, 15 April 1982) was pure spite. I knew and loved both Reich and Neill. The period of their correspondence included Reich’s last years when he was losing his sanity and believing all kinds of trash and nonsense. By quoting from some of his letters during those years it was easy to convey a picture of him not only as mad but as a totally superficial thinker. The fact is that the book also covered the years when Reich made what many people, including myself, regard as momentous and wholly original discoveries about the ways in which repressions become physiologically anchored in the body. Extracts from letters dealing with this topic, or with Reich’s and Neill’s views about the love rights of adolescents, would have conveyed a radically different picture of the man. I could not help feeling that Brophy was working off some kind of grudge – that she had been undergoing a more orthodox analysis and vaguely suspected that Reichian therapy would have had far better results. Be this as it may, I very much regret that you published such a biased and misleading review.

Paul Edwards
Department of Philosophy, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

S.J. Perelman

SIR: For a collection of the letters of S.J. Perelman to be published by Viking Press, I would be grateful to hear from anyone between 12 July and 16 August at No 84, 55 Ebury St, London SW1, or at all other times at 19 Christopher Street, New York 10014.

Prudence Crowther
New York

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