SIR: Neal Ascherson says of Ken Livingstone’s political position in his review of John Carvel’s Citizen Ken (LRB, 7 June) that ‘in most ways, he is more of a classical anarchist than a Marxist.’ It is hard to think of any way in which he is a classical or any other kind of anarchist. It is true that at one time in the 1960s he subscribed to Solidarity – although, contrary to what Carvel says, this is not an ‘anarchist group’ but a socialist paper. But in his political career he has been an active member of the Labour Party since 1968, an active member of local councils since 1971, and an active associate of Marxists since 1972, and for the whole of this time he has been a leading advocate and practitioner of what could be called municipal populism – councils doing things for the people on the basis of elections and taxes. Classical (and contemporary) anarchists oppose all this, and propose instead that the people should do things for themselves on the basis of direct action and mutual aid. If Ken Livingstone is to be put down, let it be on the basis of what he is and not on the basis of what he is most certainly not.
SIR: The animal rights philosophers, Mary Midgley argues (LRB, 7 June), have broken free from the ivory towers of English-speaking moral philosophy. But of course they have not. If things have changed, it has been from one ivory tower to another. Evidence of this is the ignoring by animal rights philosophers of non-philosophic issues.
First, they take a narrow view of human suffering. There are at least two kinds of suffering produced by injury: one species common to the experience of humans and animals and one species specific to us as humans. There is the suffering produced by physical injury. And there is the suffering which derives from the intentional nature of the injury. Two identical physical pains can be experienced very differently. Consider an individual who has a series of painful fillings unaware that they are being done for sadistic pleasure by a bogus dentist. After this experience of physical pain the individual becomes aware he has been tricked – that the person he thought was a dentist was in fact a sadist. His pain, I think we would agree, takes on a different dimension. It has become a violation.
Pain has evolved to make sure our behaviour respects the well-being of the self. It prevents us from burning our fingers in flames. If we strain a joint, it makes sure we allow it to heal. While physical pain relates to injury to the body, the pain of intentions relates to injury to the self as a social or personal entity. The recovery from such injury involves, in part, society’s response to that injury. Whereas physical injuries require rest for their rehabilitation, this injury requires a recognition that the individual has been wronged and a response by society to that wrong. In primitive societies, that recognition and response normally take the form of some kind of retribution. In modern and civilised societies, they take the form of ethics.
But what of the existence of moral status for humans who lack the sentient capacity to be affected by intentions – such as children, the mentally ill, the senile? This brings me to my second non-philosophic issue relevant to ethics. The question of who is entitled to moral status cannot be separated from the realities of political life. Suppose we decided, on ethical grounds, to deny rights to the mentally ill or the senile. Someone would have to make the decision that an individual’s mental retardation or senility was such that they no longer need be treated as having rights. Such a person would have a position which would unavoidably entail political power. The categories of who is mentally retarded, ill or senile are fuzzy and subject to different interpretations. The medical profession until recently classified homosexuality as a minor mental illness. At present, by a classificatory sleight of hand, psychiatric hospitals in the Soviet Union are being used to imprison political dissidents. In the unphilosophic world of human affairs, we may be giving moral status to individuals simply because the administrative procedures to exclude them which would not lead to an abuse of power, or the risk of misclassification, do not exist. There can be reasons other than ethical entitlement for giving people rights. Philosophers have ignored the practical problems of exclusion.
SIR: Donald Davie seems to be right when he says that ‘Ovid seems to have been bored by politics’ (LRB, 21 June). Seemingly, though (aren’t things complicated?), this didn’t prevent him from getting involved in politics. As Peter Green says, he ‘held several different legal and administrative positions’, and was embroiled in the hectic public life of Rome. His banishment to the Black Sea makes this more than tragically clear. I suggest Donald Davie turn away from the Metamorphoses to the Amores, the Art of Love and Cures for Love to see how Ovid, cleverly hiding behind lovers’ masks, Feste-like, delivers political truths.
On the dangers of slander (visited, of course, upon himself) – ‘Calumny ever pursues the great, even as the winds hurl themselves on high places’ (Cures for Love). On factions and strategy – ‘The mightiest rivers lose their force when split up into several streams’ (op. cit.). On policy – ‘A thousand ills require a thousand cures’ (op. cit.). On war – ‘Isn’t the best defence always a good attack? (the Amores – has Reagan read Ovid?). And peace – ‘Fair peace is becoming to men; fierce anger belongs to the beasts’ (The Art of Love). On corruption – ‘Presents, believe me, seduce both men and gods’ (op. cit.). On competition – ‘A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace’ (op. cit. – a portrait, say, of Senator Mondale?). On justice – ‘Even the gods are moved by the voice of entreaty’ (op. cit.). Et al.
Mandelstam, I think, saw these truths in Ovid, and used them in Tristia. Virgil’s themes are ostensibly public but his effects are often private. Ovid’s themes (like Villon’s, say) are ostensibly private, but his effects are often public (as perhaps Augustus knew?). Perhaps Tom Paulin and Donald Davie can learn something from Ovid – ‘Judgment of beauty can err, what with the wine and the dark’ – as Ovid himself, if alive today, would learn something from feminism.
SIR: Judith Shklar, in her otherwise impeccable observations on family-centred sentimentality (LRB, 17 May), takes issue with Marmontel for writing in his Memoirs that ‘neither he nor his wife “desired any other sight or society in the world" when they were with their young child.’ Admittedly, as a very intellectual lady, Professor Shklar is probably geared to loftier pursuits, but as one who shamelessly confesses to having experienced, from time to time, a similar sentiment – not least when perusing the occasional inanity in LRB – I wonder why she chooses to call this preference ‘mawkish’, which according to my OED means, primarily, ‘inclined to sickness’. Am I really?
Princeton, New Jersey
SIR: Having pushed through so many rubber-stamping operations at the Arts Council, Charles Osborne (LRB, 7 June) should know how useful a stamp reading ‘BULLSHIT’ might be. But why, instead of slapping it over articles which exposed his encouragement of the halving of the budget for literature, does he not re-examine his ‘foolish but it’s fun’ modes of dispensing and withholding public funds? Osborne claims ‘we are not prepared to be told … what music to listen to’ or ‘poems to enjoy’, yet dumps ‘the pop rubbish the teenagers buy’ out of court, telling ‘us’ what music not to listen to. In his summary rejection of countless ACGB applications (often without telling his so-called Advisory Panels) he’s similarly told many of us who might have produced and read the dumped publications, or organised and listened to the rubbished readings, what poems not to enjoy.
He claims such publishers as Carcanet ‘will find new writers of quality more difficult to identify without … PN Review’ or ‘the London Magazine … which could not exist without subsidy’. But these are by now, courtesy of yonks of grant-aid, sufficiently well established to survive – if they really wanted to – without further hand-outs. Most of their contributors are pillars of the establishment, and even these authors (certainly the less well-known) were more often first introduced by genuinely ‘little’ presses and mags, most of which have received no subsidy, but nevertheless continued to exist. For 1983/4 the London Magazine got £39,000 via the Literature Dept, and PN Review £16,850. PNR has been an ACGB client since 1974, the London Magazine since 1966, the year Osborne – then a regular LM writer – joined the Council. Given this annual fix, such state-registered junkie imprints don’t need readers or sales. Whereas Interzone, which got £3000 last year, New Departures, which was refused the £2000 I applied for, the Association of Little Presses, and others with relatively humble sights on public monies, would be utterly defunct, not just endangered species, did they not actually bring their new writers to a public which chooses to pay.
Considering the nature of the greedy sharks that gobble his magazine allowance, Osborne’s notions of what is pro bono publico were bound to be called into question. Considering how predictably the contributors and areas of interest represented in the publications most flamboyantly supported – by the largely unwitting public – duplicate one another, the raison d’être of their unfailing reappearances cannot but be their apparently pre-ordained grant renewals. Osborne must know PN Review is the house magzine to Carcanet (£52,000 from tax in 83/4): the alleged ‘writers of quality’ he says Carcanet wouldn’t identify without PNR are largely the selfsame names the press had been rolling before the magazine. Donald Davie has volunteered in an editorial to PNR (40 issues in ten years) that he sometimes thinks ‘no one reads us except those who either write for us or plan to’ – us and them indeed. Yet it’s this avowedly and mutually self-appointed, self-regarding and self-propagating élite on whose behalf, by whose lights, ‘our’ Literature Director presumes the ‘public need … to continue to subsidise’. Despite his allegedly ‘highest priority … to increase the audience’ (Guardian, 24 November 1983), only four of the 11 magazines sharing last year’s total of £164,150 have even occasionally published anyone non-Caucasian, working-class or under thirty; New Deps (16 issues in 25 years) and its consistently rejected peers have done so with each issue we’ve somehow managed.
It’s typically irrational and prejudiced of Osborne to have stayed away from the Albert Hall reading at Easter, yet smugly to cast his judgment on what was done by whom: ‘Ginsburg, Corso, Ferlinghetti and our own … survivors of the Sixties’ Beat generation, all read … sloppy, mindless ersatz poetry.’ For your readers’ information Ferlinghetti wasn’t there, and none of the British poets who were are definable as survivors of the Beat generation, which was the Fifties. Liz Lochhead, Tom Pickard and the Liverpool poets were going strong in their respective styles and dialects before they’d heard (of heard of) the Beats, whilst Basil Bunting, Bob Cobbing, Roy Fisher and Adrian Mitchell (though invariably open and internationalist) are unimpeachably their own men as poets.
It’s hypocritical, self-persuasive and patronising of the Director to boast his abhorrence ‘of deciding which of my fellow poets should be supported’, and then to insult makers of the above-mentioned’s calibre as ‘poets’ in quote-marks only – ‘amiable enough non-talents who have never even understood that poetry is made of words’. Anyone who knows contemporary oral verse in English knows that Bunting, Corso, Fisher, Ginsberg, Patten and Pickard are among the most fastidious word-musicians alive. One deduces from his ‘less-means-better’ touchstone that it’s Osborne’s fearless conviction that he is ‘a real poet’ which has made him publish an output of verse incomparably more banal in quality, as well as laughably more sparse in volume, than any of these. But surely even he can’t pretend that his administration of the Compton Fund and of the Poetry Book Society, as well as the nation’s Literature, has been other than enormously supportive to the poets and publications favoured?
It’s not that many poets and writers are ‘clamouring for more money’ (shades of Alice re the Mad Hatter’s tea), nor for the Director’s resignation (‘No man was writ down but by himself’). We’re looking way beyond these prerequisites: back-stabbing, like face-saving, is a distraction from what does need saving – the body and soul of the living word in Britain today and tomorrow. Osborne’s Little Englandism, as flaunted in his LRB Diary, has served to protect and promote a narrow uniformity of transactions by and for the ruling classes, mentality, race, age-group and gender, and to keep down almost every aspiration to the original, the heterodox, the adventuresome, the radical, experimental and imaginative. As Breytenbach said at the ICA/Index conference, censorship ‘keeps people apart; it promotes ignorance; but primarily it works to preserve the monopoly of power.’
New Departures, Bisley, Stroud, Gloucestershire
SIR: I have been commissioned to write the life of the late James Agate, drama critic, essayist, Hackney horse fancier, etc, and would be grateful indeed to hear from anyone with personal memories of him or his circle.
100 Ridgmount Gardens, Torrington Place, London WC1E 7AZ